With interviews from friends and family of Queen and Freddie, and using behind-the-scenes footage, concert footage and isolated vocal snippets from studio recordings, we were able to construct an intimate picture of Freddie’s later years. and the group’s response. when he died: an epic concert celebrating his life and raising awareness about AIDS.
After being diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, Freddie Mercury all but disappeared from public view. But he continued to write and record as long as he was physically able. Thus, his music from this period takes on additional resonance and becomes the emotional and narrative heart of our film.
In 1990, Queen recorded the song The Show Must Go On by guitarist Brian May. Although they never discussed the meaning of the lyrics at the time, Brian wrote the song about Freddie: a depressed clown who paints his smile and refuses to shy away from the spotlight. Brian used this track, particularly Freddie’s isolated vocal stems, to illustrate the impact his deteriorating health had on his voice. Carried by a few glasses of vodka, Freddie delivered a performance that defied his fragility. Essentially, it’s the Freddie brand – powerful; opera; pushing his vocal range to the limit. And yet there is a change in timbre from his earlier work, a new fragility that, given the context, is powerful and moving. Here is a man whose body is plagued by a disease that he knows is likely to kill him. But he refuses to be defined or obscured by his condition. “He never complained, ever” Brian explained. “I will and I will do my best!” Freddie said.
The following year, Queen recorded a video for Days of Our Lives, a song written by drummer Roger Taylor. Shot six months before his death, this would be Freddie’s last shoot. Roger described how many of the crew were visibly shocked by Freddie’s condition and appearance. He could barely stand. Even sitting down was a struggle as he had constant pain in his legs. There’s something heartbreaking about watching the final edited video alongside behind-the-scenes documentary footage that Queen has allowed us to use. Freddie’s face is gaunt, almost skeletal. And yet, despite the pain, there is an irrefutable joy in her performance; the mischievous gleam in his eyes; provocative attitude.
After Freddie Mercury’s death in November 1991, some sections of the media peddled a derogatory line: Freddie was gay, his lifestyle was reprehensible and so, simply put, he deserved what he got. Today, that seems horribly inhuman. But anyone personally affected by AIDS during the first decade of the pandemic would recognize this attitude towards a disease that has been dubbed the “gay plague” as commonplace.
Devastated by Freddie’s death, Queen – Brian, Roger and John Deacon, along with their manager Jim Beach – set out to change that narrative. They did it the only way they knew how: return to Wembley Stadium with a cast of glittering stars for a concert to celebrate their friend’s life and raise AIDS awareness. David Bowie, Guns N’ Roses, George Michael and Elton John were among the rock & roll giants on the list. Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor added a pinch of Hollywood. The AIDS crisis was at the center of this rock & roll extravaganza.
It is dangerous to exaggerate the power of popular music to change the world. In the fight against AIDS, thousands of activists and organizations have worked tirelessly with scarce funds and little recognition to fight for funding, improve care and win the battle for hearts and minds. But popular culture has a unique reach. Over 70,000 people attended the Freddie Mercury Concert for AIDS Awareness. The event was broadcast to a global television audience of over one billion people. It represented a moment of judgment, forcing the AIDS pandemic into the cultural mainstream and ensuring that Freddie’s legacy went far beyond his music.
Freddie Mercury: The Final Act – 9 p.m., Sunday November 27, BBC TWO. Also available on BBC iPlayer.