Ge­orge Michael pours out his heart in a doc­u­men­tary that wrapped two days be­fore his death, writes Neil McCormick

The West Australian - - AGENDA -

It is re­mem­bered as per­haps his great­est per­for­mance. In trade­mark sun­glasses and ear­ring, wear­ing a boxy or­ange jacket, Ge­orge Michael stormed the stage of Wem­b­ley Sta­dium in April 1992, backed by the sur­viv­ing mem­bers of Queen, and tore out an ab­so­lutely show-stop­ping ver­sion of Some­body To Love in front of 80,000 fans.

The con­cert was a trib­ute to Fred­die Mer­cury, who had died of an AIDS-re­lated con­di­tion the year be­fore. But Michael was singing to one spe­cial per­son in the crowd — his ter­mi­nally ill boyfriend, Brazil­ian Anselmo Feleppa.

“I just wanted to die in­side, I was so over­whelmed by the sad­ness,” he says, bro­kenly, in the voice-over to his pow­er­ful new doc­u­men­tary Free­dom, which he fin­ished two days be­fore his sud­den death on Christ­mas Day last year. “It’s not an ac­ci­dent that the per­for­mance prob­a­bly most well known in my ca­reer was sung to my lover who was dy­ing.”

The film, billed as Ge­orge Michael’s “fi­nal work”, traces his jour­ney from teenage in­no­cent in Wham! to iso­lated and un­happy solo star. A por­trait emerges of some­one torn between am­bi­tion and in­se­cu­rity, a clos­eted gay man en­gulfed by fame and des­per­ate for real hu­man con­tact. “I can’t re­ally ex­plain how over­whelm­ing that kind of hys­te­ria can be if there is only one per­son to ab­sorb it,” Michael ad­mits. He sug­gests few peo­ple could han­dle that at­ten­tion with­out find­ing it “fright­en­ing enough to self-de­struct”.

The film frankly de­picts Michael’s tu­mult in the ’90s, “the dark­est, most fright­en­ing time of my life”. He lost Feleppa in 1993, then his mother to cancer in 1997, all the while still con­ceal­ing his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity from the pub­lic — and his own fam­ily. It was, he says: “Just con­stant fear — of death or the next be­reave­ment.”

Ac­cord­ing to David Austin, the film’s co-di­rec­tor, it was the dis­cov­ery of a cache of lost home footage that pushed the film in such an in­ti­mate di­rec­tion. Shorts of Michael laugh­ing, hug­ging and ca­vort­ing with Feleppa, his first se­ri­ous boyfriend, be­come the heart of the story. “The first time you ac­tu­ally be­lieve some­body loves you, that’s a won­der­ful mo­ment in your life,” Michael says.

Yet within a very short time of the cou­ple meet­ing at the Rock In Rio fes­ti­val in Jan­uary 1991, Feleppa was show­ing signs of the ill­ness that would end his life. Michael talks about a ter­ri­ble Christ­mas in Lon­don in 1991, wait­ing in agony for the re­sults of Feleppa’s blood test while his own fam­ily were not even aware he was in a same-sex re­la­tion­ship. “I sat at the Christ­mas ta­ble not know­ing whether the man I was in love with was ter­mi­nally ill and, there­fore, not know­ing whether I was po­ten­tially ter­mi­nally ill.”

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously in con­flict with the Amer­i­can branch of Sony Mu­sic over pro­mo­tion for his sec­ond solo al­bum, in 1992 Michael em­barked on a dis­as­trous le­gal at­tempt to break his con­tract. “I will never know if I would have ended up in court if Anselmo had not be­come ill,” Michael ad­mits. “I was ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fied of los­ing him and the prospect of watch­ing him die of AIDS. I did ev­ery­thing I could to get rid of all this anger and fear. But the best place for it was court No. 1, re­ally.” In the film, he ex­presses rare re­morse about the 1994 case, which did long-term dam­age to his ca­reer, es­pe­cially in Amer­ica. “I lost on ev­ery­thing, on ev­ery count.”

The film’s nar­ra­tive arc is traced through Michael’s solo al­bums. Faith (1987) was his pitch for global star­dom, an at­tempt at a char­ac­ter “to stand up next to Madonna, Michael Jack­son and Prince”. That char­ac­ter, though, was a long way from Michael him­self — “a real home­body” who would “much rather be tak­ing my dog for a walk”. Lis­ten With­out Prej­u­dice Vol 1 (1990) was his be­wil­dered re­treat from the in­tru­sions of fame. “I had to jump off the merry-go-round, catch my breath and let my heart rule my head,” he says.

But Michael con­sid­ers his “great­est mo­ment” to be Older, his 1996 come­back af­ter the death of his lover, for whom he couldn’t grieve in pub­lic. He makes the point that “for any­one who had any clue about any kind of sym­bol­ism, I was com­ing out. There’s not one track that’s not about Anselmo, about the risk of AIDS”.

Then just when Michael was get­ting back on his artis­tic feet, his mother died of cancer in 1997 at the age of 50. “I was spir­i­tu­ally crushed and felt so bloody picked on by the gods,” he says. For sev­eral years, he ad­mits he com­pletely lost his con­nec­tion to mu­sic, “which was like los­ing God, for me. It re­ally was the dark­est time”.

De­spite its fo­cus on tragedy, Free­dom is not a maudlin af­fair. It has flair and pace. “That is Ge­orge’s cut that you see. I didn’t want to mess with the film af­ter Ge­orge had fin­ished work­ing on it,” says Austin who, as well as co-di­rect­ing the film, was Michael’s man­ager and life­long friend.

“Ge­orge’s ca­reer is speck­led with sack­ing di­rec­tors and edi­tors and tak­ing it on him­self. He had a great eye for it. As soon as he stepped in, it turned a dif­fer­ent cor­ner. I would never have gone so far as to use his pri­vate footage. It was some­thing he wanted to do. It came from his heart.”

The doc­u­men­tary is packed with Michael’s celebrity ad­mir­ers, in­clud­ing in­ter­views with El­ton John, Ste­vie Won­der, Nile

Rodgers, Mark Ron­son, Mary J. Blige, Tony Ben­nett and the su­per­mod­els from Michael’s Free­dom! ’90 video. The most sur­pris­ing ap­pear­ance, though, is from for­mer Oa­sis front­man Liam Gal­lagher, a man not known for prais­ing any artists be­sides Oa­sis and The Bea­tles but who here com­pares Michael to “a mod­ern-day Elvis”.

Michael dis­cov­ered Gal­lagher was a fan dur­ing a party to cel­e­brate the 2012 Olympics clos­ing cer­e­mony. “Liam kept com­ing up to Ge­orge and go­ing, ‘You know what? You’ve got

You mean Ge­orge is white, are you se­ri­ous? Ste­vie Won­der

f ...... John Len­non in you, man’,” Austin re­calls.

There is plenty of hu­mour amid the ha­giog­ra­phy though. “You mean Ge­orge is white, are you se­ri­ous?” jokes Ste­vie Won­der. “Oh my God! He is blind, right?” Over slinky shots from the video for Free­dom! ’90, su­per­model Christy Turling­ton makes a con­fes­sion: “I’m crawl­ing on the ground and you just see my eyes and peo­ple think that’s so sexy and mys­te­ri­ous. It was just re­ally I didn’t know the words.” Naomi Camp­bell ad­mits her ini­tial re­luc­tance to ap­pear be­cause as a teenager, she was a Cul­ture Club fan. “We used to throw eggs at the Wham! fans.” Gal­lagher ad­mits he doesn’t re­call how he first got into Lis­ten With­out Prej­u­dice. “I don’t know if I bought it, stole it or if it just, like, got de­liv­ered.”

The big­gest rev­e­la­tion came off-screen at the film’s first show­ing where Austin re­vealed that “there is new mu­sic” to come — Free­dom may not be Michael’s “fi­nal work”

af­ter all. “There are two tracks in par­tic­u­lar that are just ex­tra­or­di­nary pieces of mu­sic,” Austin says. Sadly, any new al­bum will not in­clude the duet with Adele that Michael had hoped to record. “He loved Adele. He would sing along with Adele, prac­tise and warm up us­ing her records.”

It is sober­ing to con­sider that of the pan­theon of ’80s su­per­stars Michael orig­i­nally as­pired to join, only Madonna is still with us — Michael Jack­son and Prince have died, like Michael, in their 50s. Austin in­sists that de­spite the problems de­picted in the film, the trou­bled star did find peace in later years. “He was a very happy, con­tented man.”

One of the few changes Austin made to the doc­u­men­tary af­ter his friend’s sud­den death was to add a clip from an old MTV in­ter­view in which Michael is asked how he would like to be re­mem­bered. “You mean what would I like writ­ten on my grave?” he asks. “Great song­writer. And I hope that peo­ple think of me as some­one who had some kind of in­tegrity. I hope I’m re­mem­bered for that in a way. Very un­likely (he laugh). I think it’s all been a waste of time.”

Ge­orge Michael sings with Ste­vie Won­der at the 4th an­nual VH1 Hon­ors in Cal­i­for­nia.

Pic­ture: AP

Pic­ture: Mick Hut­son/Red­ferns

Ge­orge Michael per­forms at Wem­b­ley Sta­dium in 1992.

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