Created by the same team behind the excellent BBC documentary, Queen: Days of Our Lives, producer-director Rhys Thomas’ Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender is an eye-opening portrait of one of the most enigmatic rock stars of all time. While the history of Queen is now more than adequately covered in various histories, The Great Pretender demonstrates there’s much to the biography and work of Freddie Mercury we didn’t know.
Of course, to explore the days of his life, Mercury’s time with Queen can’t be completely ignored in any documentary. In this case, his relationship with the band is discussed in interviews with the reliable Brian May, Roger Taylor, and many archival interviews with Mercury himself. But the primary focus of the Great Pretender is Mercury’s solo projects, and these stories showcase the breadth and depth of Mercury’s musical interests.
It begins with Mercury’s aborted attempt to collaborate with Michael Jackson. But the British rocker learned it’s hard to work when his partner wants to bring a llama into the studio. Choosing to go his own way, Mercury worked with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra to produce the ill-fated Mr. Bad Guy, a record that was financially lucrative but a dismal commercial and critical failure. In the same vein, in 1979 Freddie performed “Bohemian Rhapsody” with the Royal Ballet. Footage of this performance is among the treasures on the Great Pretender. Such projects were obviously far afield from what Mercury could do with Queen and were artistically if not commercially rewarding.
Clearly, the most fruitful collaboration of Mercury’s solo work was with Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé, an opera star Mercury deemed the finest voice in the world. Considerable time in The Great Pretender is appropriately devoted to Mercury’s time with Caballé as they worked on his ambitious Barcelona project which was a groundbreaking fusion of opera and rock forms. In fact, the documentary’s timing coincides with the release of the Barcelona: Special Edition, which is Freddie and Montserrat’s 1987 album re-recorded with a 80-piece orchestra. Produced 25 years after the original release of Barcelona, the extras on The Great Pretender signal this documentary is almost a promotional film for this concept intended to fulfill one of Mercury’s last wishes.
Along with generous interview passages from Mercury, May, and Taylor, The Great Pretender offers insights from Queen manager Jim Beach, composers David Arnold and Mike Moran, Tim Rice (who wrote lyrics for two songs on Barcelona), and comedian Matt Lucas. We get an all too short snippet from Mercury and Rod Stewart singing their 1984 demo for “Take Another Piece of My Heart,” an equally short and tantalizing bit of the unreleased Michael Jackson/Freddie Mercury collaboration “There Must Be More To Life
Than This,” the story behind Mercury’s cover of “The Great Pretender,” and early concert and interview footage from the ‘70s. Among the many outttakes of Queen videos, Rhys found 10 cans of Freddie’s 39th Black and White birthday party originally filmed for the video for “Living On My Own,” which included crossdressing footage banned by Queen’s record company.
In short, Freddy Mercury: The Great Pretender is a superlative music documentary chock-full of delights that, in the main, don’t retread familiar ground. True, most Queen fans already know about Mercury’s hedonistic days in Munich, his secretive decline after being diagnosed with AIDS, and the betrayal of one of his closest friends. But for this story to be told, there had to be some overlap with already well-established material. Still, the bulk of this documentary reveals sides to Mercury that haven’t been explored in this way or to this depth before, at least in terms of a high definition disc. For Queen and Mercury fans, this one is essential. And it’s likely to spark new interest in Mercury music ignored or unknown for decades.