The Queen frontman was true to his word. “When he’d sung all he could sing, he withdrew, and he got ready to die,” Dobson says in the BBC’s new documentary, Freddie Mercury: The Final Act. Almost 30 years ago to the day, Mercury died from complications of Aids, having refused further medication. He retired to his home in Kensington, where he lived the rest of his days surrounded by close friends.
The BBC’s programme is a moving and lovingly composed portrayal of one of the world’s greatest showmen, but also of the way his bandmates, admirers and fellow musicians fought to defend his legacy. This at a time when the subject of Aids was still blighted by fear, stigma and homophobia.
We begin in 1986, the high point of Queen’s fame, but also the last year they were to perform with Mercury. From there, producers skilfully weave together the singer’s own story with the Aids epidemic. Of course, it is frighteningly easy to draw parallels with the pandemic we are currently experiencing: the initial reports of this unknown virus, government attempts to brush it off as nothing serious, its arrival in the UK, and the grim realisation that it was here to stay. Then you have the spread of misinformation by the press; the attempts to pin the blame on a particular community.
It’s a shame that May chose this week to rail against the Brit Awards’ decision to ditch gender-based categories, in an interview with The Sun. Queen were one of the most inclusive bands around, but it’s as though May is doing what many fans did at the time: overlooking what they didn’t want to see. His contributions to the documentary, conversely, are as insightful and sensitive as you could hope for. He was, and still is, fierce in his determination to protect Mercury.
“The Sun were particularly awful about it,” he remarks of how the tabloids turned on Mercury after the initial grief at his death. Clippings flash up on the screen, calling the late artist “a pervert of the worst kind”; someone who, it was stated outright, had got what he deserved. “At that point, we thought, ‘We’re not gonna let Freddie be perceived in history as a victim or as someone who threw himself in front of a train,’” May says. “We thought we should bring everything out into the open – Freddie’s not the only person being vilified before and after his death by [those] who thought that Aids was some kind of revenge against gay people.”
This was the catalyst for the historic tribute concert to Mercury at Wembley stadium in April 1992. Some of the most testosterone-fuelled, overtly heterosexual metal and rock bands – Metallica, Guns’n’Roses, Def Leppard – performed alongside George Michael, Elton John and David Bowie. There’s a hysterical clip of an incoherent Duff McKagan being interviewed shortly before his band, Guns’n’Roses, were due to go on.
“This was Guns’n’Roses in 1992 – they were completely off their face,” Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliot recalls. “I remember seeing Duff, bless him, sat on the stairs. He couldn’t even speak, and this was an hour before they went on. I remember thinking ‘I can’t wait to see this,’ but when he went on he was amazing!”
When it came to Elton John’s performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, there was tension in the air. Axl Rose, who a few years before had been dropped from an Aids benefit show over homophobic remarks, was due to duet with him, but hadn’t shown up to rehearsals. But it all worked out in the end. Rose stormed the stage in a burst of pyrotechnics, and, by the end of it, had his arm around John for the closing bars.
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Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell observes that it’s hard to quantify how much of an impact the concert had. But The Final Act does a superb job of presenting the momentousness of the event, and why Queen felt compelled to make it happen. It does well to skirt around revisiting what we already know about Mercury, and instead shines a light on what is still, sadly, a subject on which many are ignorant. (The BBC is, hopefully, conscious of how it previously rejected the chance to explore the theme of Aids and HIV when it turned down Russell T Davies’ critically adored series It’s a Sin.)
Touchingly, Mercury’s sister Kashmira Bulsara is given the final word. She sings along to “A Winter’s Tale”, the last song he wrote before he died. She closes her eyes as she hears his voice. “Although his body was failing him,” she says, “his voice was so strong.” What a legacy.