George Michael was a fascinating mass of contradictions as well as an uncommonly gifted singer-songwriter and the defining British pop star of his generation. So, perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that this feature-length documentary billed as his “final work” is both heavily curated and in places, strikingly candid. In interviews culled from various points in his career, Michael talks frankly about his imposter syndrome, depression and debilitating fear of the HIV/AIDS epidemic: a shadow that loomed large over every sexually active gay man in the ’80s and ’90s. But when we see a figure who looks from behind like George Michael tapping away at a typewriter in the singer’s Hampstead house, it turns out to be an actor playing him. To quote one of his greatest hits, sometimes the clothes do not make the man.
It’s important to note that George Michael Freedom Uncut isn’t really a new documentary, simply a longer version of a film that premiered on Channel 4 in October 2017, around 10 months after the singer died aged 53. This director’s cut – apparently, the version Michael himself approved shortly before his passing – reinstates maybe 25 minutes of footage chopped from the TV broadcast due to timeslot constraints. In all honesty, it doesn’t feel markedly different from the Channel 4 edit, but there’s a poignant new section at the end where Michael talks about overcoming the inferiority complex he developed by comparing himself to fellow ’80s superstars Madonna and Prince.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that it was originally conceived as a film to promote the reissue of Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, Michael’s “difficult” (and frankly incredible) second album. This means we get a dazzling succession of musical superstars – Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Mary J. Blige, Nile Rodgers, Liam Gallagher – singing the record’s praises while playing its most famous tracks. John admits he’s still pissed off he wasn’t asked to play piano on ‘Freedom! ’90’; Gallagher compares ‘Praying For Time’ to the work of John Lennon, and reveals that “our kid” – i.e., Noel – went through a Wham! phase. Who knew?
Contributions of varying quality from James Corden, Ricky Gervais and Tracey Emin feel more random, especially when you realise there’s no place here for Michael’s Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley. Actually, the Wham! years are barreled through in about five minutes, but the documentary is much stronger at exploring Michael’s personal and professional tumult in the ’90s. Home video footage of Michael and Anselmo Feleppa, his first love who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1993, segues sensitively into Michael talking about his devastating, grief-stricken 1996 album ‘Older’.
Despite its flaws, George Michael Freedom Uncut ultimately succeeds because the man himself remains so compelling. You’ll come away thinking he did himself a mighty disservice when he sang that his sound was the “one good thing that I’ve got”. Fiercely ambitious but frequently self-sabotaging, deeply private yet hilariously indiscreet, Michael was a fascinating mass of contradictions it’s impossible not to root for, even five years after his death.
- Director: George Michael, David Austin
- Featuring: Liam Gallagher, Mark Ronson, Mary J. Blige
- Release date: June 22 (in cinemas worldwide for one night only)