Originally made for Channel 4 in the UK, this documentary has been returned to its original version, as authorised by George Michael himself shortly before he died. Directed by George Michael, along with David Austin, this longer version of the film played at Raindance Film Festival. In George Michael: Freedom – Director’s Cut, Michael offers an intimate, honest look at his life, ending just before the iconic singer’s shocking death at just 53 in December 2016.
Even though it never mentions his death (aside from a closing caption), it’s intriguing to see how the film uses “fame and tragedy” as a touchstone, exploring how George Michael struggled with the intense pressures of success. He was boldly determined to live his life on his own terms, which often brought him into conflict with both authorities and his record label bosses. And as he narrates the film, it’s moving to hear him say that he feels that he was able to make his mark on the industry and be remembered as a great songwriter.
The focus of this documentary is the period in the late 1980s when George Michael decided to take control of his career. Using extensive footage, interviews with big-name friends and lots of music, it opens with him at the very pinnacle of success during these years, embarking on a stratospheric solo career after the buoyant triumph of Wham! But he talks about how he felt undeserving of sharing the charts with icons like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince, even at the same time as he was singing duets with Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston and Elton John. And it was this insecurity that drove him, after receiving backlash to his more soulful R&B-influenced solo songs, to title his next album Listen Without Prejudice.
He also hated living in the spotlight, keeping his private life secret, including his relationship with boyfriends. He speaks openly about how it felt to be closeted from his fans and his own family. And the film’s most powerful section centres on his performance with Queen at the 1992 memorial concert for Freddie Mercury in Wembley Stadium, with his recently diagnosed HIV-positive partner Anselmo Feleppa watching in the wings. Feleppa died of Aids-related causes a year later, and George Michael always dedicated performances of Jesus to a Child to the man he called the love of his life. His beloved mother died around this time as well, leading him to numb himself with drug use.
In assembling this documentary, George Michael is careful to present his life warts and all, candidly discussing both joy and pain and how both fuelled his art. Each of his hits expresses his deep feelings, which is partly why they are so iconic: they touch a nerve. He says that his goal was always to write songs for future generations to sing. But even more inspiring is the way he protected himself throughout his career, refusing to be pushed around by record executives and flipping the tables on those who forced him to come out of the closet. And with this film, he reveals sides of himself we rarely got to see: his wicked sense of humour, his caring philanthropy and his powerful connections with the people closest to him.