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
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
"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.