Art Doc of the Week | Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender

It’s a great irony of his career that the song which best encapsulates Freddie Mercury, who wrote any number of amazing and often autobiographical song lyrics, might be his cover of “The Great Pretender,” the 1955 classic originally recorded by iconic American doo-wop group The Platters. 

Oh, yes I’m the great pretender

Pretending that I’m doing well

My need is such I pretend too much

I’m lonely but no one can tell

Oh, yes I’m the great pretender

Adrift in a world of my own

I’ve played the game but to my real shame

You’ve left me to grieve all alone

By the time Mercury covered the song in 1987, he’d already cemented his status as one of rock’s few true rebels – not only because of his “queerness” (sexual attraction to men) but for his artistic queerness: his refusal (if not inability) to commit to one kind of music, one avenue of cultural influence, or even one form of artistic expression. In the award-winning 2012 documentary Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender, directed by Rhys Thomas, a former manager says of Mercury, “I don’t think the music industry ever knew what to make of [him.] He was always pushing boundaries. Changing tack. Keep them guessing. And keep the public interested.”

One of the most striking of the film’s depiction of Mercury’s music and his creative process is the way it shows how unforced his chameleon-like questing was. That’s not to say he wasn’t market-savvy, incredibly business savvy, and always consciously seeking out new means of stimulation (artistic and personal), but with him it seemed rooted more in the insatiable nature and curiosity of true artists, and not just someone on the prowl for new content, new ways of – in contemporary parlance – simply fortifying his brand. Whether it’s his collaboration with a ballet company, his love of disco and Donna Summer, his affinity for old-fashioned musicals, the ill-fated recording sessions with Michael Jackson, or his passion for and groundbreaking collaboration with opera diva Montserrat Caballé, Mercury followed a muse that was rapacious in its appetite for beauty and diversity. Bowie may be his only true rival in that regard.

Illustrated and fleshed out via photos, assorted interview clips, music video clips, and especially potent concert performance footage, the viewer is shown Mercury’s life, art, and the ways the two fed each one another. We see art school student Mercury, at the time still going by his birth name Farrokh Bulsara (born in Zanzibar), make his way to the world of music, eventually meeting up with the members of what would become the legendary group Queen: Brian May, Roger Taylor, John Deacon. The band’s sound and style are impossible to pigeonhole because they were so varied – from straight up rock to piano ballads, to jagged soul-inflected grooves to rock operas that are without peer. And Mercury was the consummate front man – magnetic, sexy, able to rock stadiums full of people and make it seem effortless.

In the midst of the music, there was Mercury, playing the bitchy, commanding, impervious diva for the press, even as his eyes gave away a wicked sense of humor (that ranged from crude innuendo to sparkling wit) and more than a bit of sadness. When friends and family speak of his generosity, innate loneliness, or shyness, it’s easy to deduce that, for as iconoclastic as he was, Mercury was also the prototypical artist whose larger-than-life persona both protected and trapped him as it made him a fortune.

Also interesting from the vantage point of the 20th century is just how camp he was in manner and inflection. The film doesn’t shy away from conversations about his sexuality, the way he immersed himself in the decadent, hedonistic gay underground of New York of the early 1980s, but it also briefly discusses the resentment some queer folks had over his refusal to just come right out – resentment that extended to his only releasing a statement that he was HIV-positive 24 hours before he died of AIDS. Still, as openly gay British comedian Matt Lucas points out, queer kids knew and recognized Mercury without an explicit nod from him, and they were ecstatic that such a talent was telegraphing points of identification in his work. More than one person cautions that it’s hugely unfair to judge Mercury through today’s lens, given that the mainstream was so much more brutally homophobic in the ’70s and ‘80s than they are now. The compassion extended him by the friends, associates and band members who speak of him to the camera nudges the viewer toward compassion as well. 

Yes I’m the great pretender

Just laughin’ and gay like a clown

I seem to be what I’m not, you see

I’m wearing my heart like a crown