Freddie Mercury: The Final Act on the BBC

In 1985 Queen were on top of the world, stealing the show at Live Aid and then playing to over a million people on their record-breaking Kind of Magic tour. But at the peak of their power Freddie Mercury told the band that he couldn’t carry on performing live. Six years later he died from complications due to AIDS. He was 45.

With interviews from Queen and Freddie’s friends and family, and using behind-the-scenes footage, camera rushes from concert footage and isolated vocal stems from studio recordings, we were able to build an intimate picture of Freddie’s final years, and of the band’s response to his death: 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 for as long as he was physically able. And so, his music from this period takes on an extra resonance and became the emotional and narrative heart of our film.

In 1990, Queen recorded guitarist Brian May’s song The Show Must Go On. Although they never discussed the lyrics’ meaning at the time, Brian wrote the song about Freddie: a down-at-heart clown who paints his smile on and refuses to shirk the spotlight. Brian used this track, in particular Freddie’s isolated vocal stems, to illustrate the impact that his deteriorating health had on his voice. Buoyed by a couple of shots of vodka, Freddie delivered a performance that defies his frailty. In essence it’s trade-mark Freddie – powerful; operatic; pushing his vocal range to the limit. And yet there’s a perceptible shift in timbre from his earlier work, a new fragility that, given the context, is powerful and moving. Here is a man whose body is being wasted by a disease which he knows is likely to kill him. But he refuses to be defined or dimmed by his condition. ‘He never complained, never’ explained Brian. ‘I will f***ing do it and I will give it my best shot!’ Freddie declared.

The following year Queen recorded a video for Days of Our Lives, a song written by drummer Roger Taylor. Filmed six months before his death, this would be Freddie’s last film shoot. Roger described how many of the crew were visibly shocked by Freddie’s condition and appearance. He could barely stand. Even sitting was a struggle as he had constant pain in his legs. There is something harrowing about watching the final edited video alongside behind-the-scenes documentary footage that Queen allowed us to use. Freddie’s face is gaunt, almost skeletal. And yet, despite the suffering, there’s an irrefutable joy about his performance; the mischievous glint in his eye; the defiant demeanour.

After Freddie Mercury’s death in November 1991 certain sections of the media peddled a disparaging line: Freddie was gay, his lifestyle was objectionable and so, put simply, he deserved what he got. Today, that seems horrendously inhumane. But anybody personally impacted by AIDS in the first decade of the pandemic would recognize that attitude towards a disease labelled 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 this narrative. They did so in the only way they knew how: returning to Wembley Stadium along with a glittering cast of stars for a concert to celebrate the life of their friend and to raise awareness about AIDS. David Bowie, Guns N’ Roses, George Michael, and Elton John were among the rock & roll giants on the roster. Liza Minnelli and Elizabeth Taylor added a sprinkle of Hollywood. The AIDS crisis was front and centre of this rock & roll extravaganza.

It’s dangerous to overstate the power of popular music to change the world. In the fight against AIDS, thousands of activists and organisations toiled tirelessly with scarce funds and scant 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 attended the Freddie Mercury Concert for AIDS Awareness. The event played to a worldwide TV audience of over a billion. It represented a moment of reckoning, forcing the AIDS pandemic into the cultural mainstream and ensuring that Freddie’s legacy reached way beyond his music.

Freddie Mercury: The Final Act – 9pm, Sunday 27th November, BBC TWO. Also available on BBC iPlayer.

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