by Christopher A. Daniel
Once upon a time in pop music, artists challenged themselves in an effort to evolve. In the process, not only were audiences and the charts blessed with memorable music, but legends were made along the way.
The flamboyant and charismatic Freddie Mercury personifies what it means to be both an iconoclast and a musical genius. The documentary, The Great Pretender, chronicles the singer, songwriter and musician’s effort to extend his identity outside of the iconic British rock outfit, Queen. The 107 minute feature is told via archived quick-witted interviews (often with a few pulls of cigarettes), music videos, unreleased recordings and testimonials from Queen band members, collaborators and related personnel.
Director Rhys Thomas — famous for his Emmy-nominated BBC documentary, Queen: Days of Our Lives — knows how to make follow up films. There is a brief retrospective into the band’s classics, but the film, beginning with 1985’s Mr. Bad Guy, unravels the inspiration behind Mercury’s solo recordings. Mercury — who created musical compositions using Broadway, vaudeville, rock, pop, opera, classical, funk, gospel, soul and baroque aesthetics – loved black music. His emotional voice and lyricism evoked love and a subversive self-deprecating sense of humor. The film reveals his admiration for guitar god Jimi Hendrix and “Queen of Disco” Donna Summer, which led to the inspiration behind albums such as Hot Space (1982). In particular, the narrative shares the often untold collaborative relationship and friendship between the rock icon and the late “King of Pop” Michael Jackson. Their demo recording for “There Must Be More to Life Than This” is featured along with the eccentric rock ‘n’ roller’s declaration of missing the landmark Thriller sessions and halting their recording sessions due to Jackson’s llama!
As with many great artists, the gaudy entertainer had his share of personal struggles, and Thomas reveals some of the forces that threatened to hinder Mercury’s career. Promiscuity leading to being a victim of a then emerging AIDS epidemic, excess and indulgences into drugs and gay culture, insecurity and reclusive behavior off stage were some of Mercury’s challenges. Yet and still, Mercury loved performing and could not have cared less about what his critics had to say. The man who had much adoration for funk also loved Luciano Pavarotti. The performer performed with the Royal Ballet , Britain’s largest ballet company, and opera soprano Dame Montserrat Caballe, who Mercury proclaims has “the most beautiful voice he’d ever heard.” He loved the singer so much, he went on to record the album, Barcelona, with her in 1988, which challenged the conventions of music in a way that had never been considered. The entertainer had never even recorded a cover record up until his 1987 rendition of The Platters’ 1956 hit, “The Great Pretender.”
Mercury, who sadly succumbed to AIDS in 1991, one day after revealing his illness to the world, often said his songs were “disposable.” However, The Great Pretender (coincidentally celebrating Mercury’s 66th birthday) reveals that the inspiration to musicians and performers across all spectrums of music couldn’t have been more wrong. He was in no way, shape or form a pretender; he is a musical legend that should be celebrated and appreciated for his willingness to stay ahead of the musical curve.
Christopher A. Daniel is a pop cultural critic and contributor to The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.