DVD Review: Freddie Mercury - Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender

DVD Review: Freddie Mercury - Freddy Mercury: The Great Pretender
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Freddie Mercury - The Great Pretender 2012
At death’s door, Freddie Mercury decided to reveal in a press release that he, indeed, had full-blown AIDs and that he wasn’t long for this world. The news wasn’t surprising. In public appearances around that time, Mercury appeared gaunt, as if he was simply wasting away to nothing. The rumor mill had been spinning out of control for a while, with many speculating that Mercury was in the throes of the deadly disease, and when the end came, the vultures descended to viciously pick his bones clean. Mercilessly, the British tabloids savaged Mercury and his personal life, taking him to task for his reckless promiscuity and his libertine lifestyle. Judgment day had arrived for this modern-day Oscar Wilde, only it was the armchair moralists and the gossipmongers rendering their verdicts, not Mercury’s maker.
Coming to his defense, Queen’s Brian May and Roger Taylor went on TV to attempt to restore his good name and talk about the Freddie Mercury they knew, the quiet, more reserved aesthete who was completely at odds with the over-sexed madman in press portrayals. And there was more – much more, as it turned out – to Mercury than meets the eye, as the new documentary film “Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender” makes so abundantly clear. Mostly concerned with the extreme highs and lows – both professional and personal – that Mercury experienced between the recording of his first solo album, the disastrous Mr. Bad Guy, and his tragic ending, “Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender,” out via Eagle Entertainment, weaves together electrifying live footage – the Live Aid stuff, with Mercury exhorting the massive crowd to sing with him, is captivating – with candid, behind-the-scenes images of the singer and impactful interview snippets from the likes of May and Taylor, as well as friends and associates such as television personality Paul Gambaccini and Queen manager Jim Beach, to manufacture a colorful narrative fabric that Mercury would wear like a royal cape.
Edited and produced by Rhys Thomas, a diehard Queen fanatic, the documentary artfully explores how Mercury immersed himself in New York City’s wild gay club life and became fascinated with disco and Donna Summer, this along with his deep and abiding love and appreciation of opera and the ballet, which resulted in his sublime 1979 performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” with the Royal Ballet. Going further, through Mercury’s own truthful admission, Thomas reveals the extent to which Mercury felt disengaged and distanced from his Queen band mates, due to their different outside interests, and the bullheadedness Mercury exhibited in steering Hot Space into more dance-oriented territory, which heated the friction between Mercury and May to an almost unbearable temperature.
And while all this controversy and drama certainly makes for good viewing, Thomas is also careful to attend to the smaller, more mundane aspects of Mercury's life, laying bare the vulnerabilities that made him uncertain in interpersonal relationships. Loyal to a fault, as his divisive relationship with former manager Paul Prenter illustrates – in the film, Taylor dismissively says of Prenter, “The less said about him the better” – Mercury was a cat lover, who could be shy and retiring offstage and willingly lament the fact that he didn’t have many close friends, as he did in a poignant talk about his star-crossed relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin in the movie, Mercury wasn’t the arrogant superman his dazzling onstage persona would suggest. He did have his endearing qualities, though, as his giddy adoration of opera singer Montserrat Caballe – whose friendship with Mercury is treated with such tenderness and pure joy in the film – so aptly demonstrates. It was Mercury’s determination to work with her that brought the two vocalists together for one of the most spectacular collaborations in music history, as their clarion calls sent the massive international hit single “Barcelona” soaring to the heavens. Outside of Queen, it was Mercury’s greatest triumph; more than that, it washed away the bad taste left in his mouth from Mr. Bad Guy, the result of a bloated contract with Mercury as a solo artist that caused excruciating financial pain to his record label.
Driving right through that intersection where art and life collide, “Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender” pulls no punches, and yet it is a warm, wistful eulogy to an artist who never stopped creating, even as AIDS ravaged his body. Startlingly honest and forthright about Mercury’s failings and his grand ambitions, the film introduces the world to Mercury’s flawed humanity, and through Thomas’s multi-faceted portrait, the once-blurry and undefined picture of Mercury, the man, comes sharply into focus. Near the end, as is outlined in Thomas’s heartfelt liner notes to the DVD, Beach once asked Mercury what he wanted done with his legacy and all that he’d left behind. Mercury responded, in typical devil-may-care fashion, by saying, “You can do whatever you like with my image, my music, remix it, re-release it, whatever – just never make me boring.” Mission accomplished.

-            Peter Lindblad

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