The great pretender?

October 7, 2007


As the singer for Queen, one of the most successful British bands of the '70s and '80s, Freddie Mercury was one of the most distinctive and instantly recognizable personalities rock has ever produced -- a flamboyant icon millions of fans around the world thought they knew, despite his many chameleon-like glam-rock guises.

In sharp contrast, very few people knew Farrokh Bulsara, the kind, shy but intensely ambitious child born on the African island of Zanzibar and raised by parents who were Parsis, hailing from the Indian province of Gujarat and practicing the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. Mercury and Bulsara were nevertheless one and the same, and this is part of the fascinating story told in director Rudi Dolezal's documentary, "Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story."

"There were obviously always two people, and what I was fascinated with was how Freddie could be working a stadium like Wembley -- being the macho man, the big performer and probably even the best singer of what I would call the stadium-rock bands -- and then he'd come off the stage and be this shy guy who would not be forcing his persona on anybody and who at home would be the perfect host," Dolezal says. "He was a completely different person, and that was one of the things that I thought would be challenging to at least partly portray in this film -- to show the side of Freddie that only a few people ever had the chance of seeing."

As a young filmmaker based in Vienna, Dolezal first met Mercury in the '70s when he covered a press conference Queen held in Munich to announce a European tour. "I sent them the piece I did for German television, and this earned me a phone call one day from Queen's manager saying, 'We are in desperate need of a video clip, and we only have one day to do it!' " Dolezal jumped at the chance -- "At that time, turning to an Austrian director for a rock 'n' roll video was as if South Korea would win the soccer championships!" -- and it led to a collaboration that lasted for two decades, and which produced some of the band's best videos.

Among those clips: "The Show Must Go On" and "These Are the Days of Our Lives," clips that helped establish Dolezal as a visionary and highly stylized director who would go on to work with the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bon Jovi and the German band Can, among others. (Now based in Miami, his current projects include a documentary on gospel great Mahalia Jackson.) But Queen always held a special place in Dolezal's heart, in part because he formed a lasting friendship with Mercury.

Mercury died in November 1991, a little more than 24 hours after announcing to the world that he was suffering from AIDS. At that point, Dolezal decided to make a film about his friend -- the man he came to behind the image of the larger-than-life rock star. "It was a very painful experience to watch Freddie die, and when it finally happened, I had two things in my soul: One was that there is a part of Freddie Mercury that only a handful of people know, and the other was that I could try to put my craft into a little bit of AIDS awareness. So I went to Queen manager Tim Beach with the concept for a film that shows the unknown side of Freddie."

After five years of work, "Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story" was completed and first released in 2000, though the film was largely overlooked by U.S. audiences at the time. It began to win some overdue recognition last April when Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert screened the original version as part of his 10th annual film festival in Champaign, and on Oct. 6, what Dolezal calls "the ultimate director's cut" was shown as part of the 43rd Chicago International Film Festival. (Dolezal served as a judge, and the film was not in competition.) This newly expanded version is now set to be released on DVD in February.

"The main difference is that I have included a lot [more footage] of Freddie playing songs," Dolezal says. "Initially, I had a very strict concept of just doing the untold story -- going to Zanzibar and India and talking about his days in London when he was in art college and coming out to [his former girlfriend turned lifelong companion] Mary Austin. ... But seven years have passed [since the film was first released], and I thought it was necessary now to include more of the performer, with music performed by Queen and by Freddie solo. I have the feeling that this makes the documentary parts become even stronger, because now you have the complete picture."

Despite his obvious affection for Mercury, Dolezal's film doesn't gloss over some of the thornier issues in the star's life, including the legendary over-indulgence in sex and drugs at his bacchanal-like parties, or the criticism he posthumously received from some activists for not being more outspoken about his sexuality or gay rights and for waiting so long to disclose that he had AIDS. In the end, Dolezal was swayed by the comments of many of the people he interviewed -- including the singer's family members, closest friends and fellow musicians -- who held that while Freddie Mercury may have been completely at home in the spotlight, Farrokh Bulsara desired and deserved a personal life.

"If you were in the so-called inner circle, which I was privileged to be for 20 years, there was no doubt that Freddie was gay," Dolezal says. "But he did not see himself as an activist, and you just have to accept that certain people in the limelight choose their own role. The same thing with him saying he had AIDS: We all know he only did it one day before he died, but who of us is to judge when someone says to the world that they are HIV-positive?

"My attitude toward this is that if you're gay, it's your call when or when not you're going to tell the world. Number two, don't forget that we're talking about a time in the '70s and '80s where the British yellow press was very, very powerful, and Freddie was definitely concerned that if he had come out earlier, it would have harmed Queen. He was a team player; you might think he'd be the prima donna, but no: He was always the peacemaker. Finally, there's something that's portrayed in the film: He comes from a Parsi religious family, and in that religion, homosexuality is not allowed -- it's a sin. His mother gave her very first interview at 82 in the film, and Freddie didn't want to harm his own family, so he kept it to himself."

"Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story" goes a long way toward explaining the reasoning behind how the singer lived and illuminating a life story that would have been fascinating even if Bulsara had never become a rock star. But it also adds new dimensions to the music that star created, deepening any fan's appreciation and underscoring as well as any rock biography ever has how the music serves as popular culture's ultimate forum for reinvention. Among other things, you'll never hear Mercury's indelible cover of "The Great Pretender" the same way again.