As a life-long fan of Queen (best group ever), I like to think I’m pretty up to speed on the archival footage that has dotted many of the documentaries we’ve seen before.
Most of them recycle the same scenes and pass themselves off as new. So it was with some curiosity that I watched Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender, which has its Australian TV debut on ABC2 this Sunday.
I’m pleased to report most of it I hadn’t seen before, including a rare, extravagant 1979 appearance of Freddie with the Royal Ballet.
Focussing primarily on his later years, this spends a great deal of time on Mercury’s drive to succeed beyond the band he shared with Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon. His life became a ticking clock, in trying to ignite new directions before his time was up. Mercury died in 1991 at the age of 45.
May and Taylor both appear in interviews here, helping to tell the story of this man who was musical lighting in a bottle. John Deacon remains ever elusive, only seen in clips and archival footage of the band in their element.
Others interviewed include manager John Reid (the same John Reid who judged X Factor Australia for TEN), manager Jim Beach, producer Reinhold Mack, opera star Montserrat Caballé and even Matt Lucas as a diehard fan.
One of Mercury’s first attempts to break out from beneath the Queen banner was his solo album Mr. Bad Guy. Here we learn he won a huge advance from a US record company, so big that it created ripples within the band. But the album didn’t sell.
Who knew he met -and recorded- with 25 year old Michael Jackson for the album? You’ll hear them duet in this special.
His next venture was the ambitious Barcelona project with Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé. Mercury was obsessed by her powerful vocals, and there are great memories recalled by her of the two meeting. His writing and performances grew closer to grand opera and musicals -but could pop ever meet opera as a commercial success, especially when Mr. Bad Guy had failed?
Then there are the excesses of his personal life, from living in the US and being influenced by Donna Summer (if you know the Hot Space album, this explains a lot). There are memories of wild days in the gay scene, and his hedonistic 39th birthday bash in Munich and the personal assistant who became the group’s own Yoko Ono.
The Great Pretender also documents his disdain for interviews, his romantic singularity for so many years and questions about his reluctance to acknowledge his HIV status until days before his death. Although it includes the Made in Heaven album, assembled after his passing, strangely this skips his Tribute concert, which attracted a cavalcade of pop stars and did much for AIDS awareness in the UK.
The Great Pretender takes its name from one of the few covers Mercury ever recorded, but is also sums up his sense of theatricality and his chameleon-like persona.
Through it all is the shining spirit, and the exquisite vocals of this majestic pop star.
There will never be another Freddie….
Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender airs 8:30pm Sunday on ABC2.