Damien Love’s TV highlights including George Michael: Freedom
Monday George Michael: Freedom 9pm, Channel 4
FORTY-EIGHT hours before his death on Christmas Day 2016, George Michael was working, putting finishing touches to the documentary that, since completed by his codirector, friend and manager David Austin, is now being broadcast as the posthumous self-portrait, Freedom. It’s a good film, candid, always interesting, and often powerfully moving. But it’s tempting to speculate that, had Michael lived to finish it himself, it might have been even better.
In interviews about the project, Austin has stressed that, aside from a new introduction (delivered by Michael’s elusive neighbour, Kate Moss) and a new ending (a re-recording by Chris Martin of the poignant posthumous duet on “A Different Corner” he first performed at this year’s Brit Awards), the film we see is Michael’s cut, just as he left it, last Christmas. But the man we glimpse in the documentary comes across as so smart, selfdeprecating and largely free from bullshit you have to wonder if he might have cut a little more, had he the chance. As a parade of varyingly valuable star contributors sing his praises, there come a few wincingly overblown claims that could have
been snipped – among the more preposterous, Ricky Gervais’s vague contention that Michael was the first ever boy-band style pop sensation to mature into a “serious” singer-songwriter. (Among the other contributors, Liam Gallagher is befuddling even for him, but there’s great stuff from Stevie Wonder, who cracks the film’s best gag: “You mean George is white?”)
The point is, the documentary doesn’t need the hyperbole. The music speaks for itself, anyway, but when Michael does speak about it, in the specially recorded interview that serves as his narration, the things he says are intriguing and insightful enough, without any extraneous buffing.
There are four stories told in Freedom, winding together into the larger story of a key period in the singer’s life. The heart of it is a look back at Michael’s 1990 album, Listen Without Prejudice. (Not coincidentally, the film is appearing simultaneously with a new deluxe edition of the record.)
But to tell that record’s story necessitates first sketching what came before, Michael’s meteoric rise, from the teenage breakout in Wham, through to his worldconquering debut solo album of 1987, Faith. It’s particularly shocking now to remember, or realise, that when that LP made him the planet’s biggest-selling artist, he was still only 24.
That success was the pay-off for the ferocious ambition he’d nursed since the “soul on the dole” days in Wham, but it took heavy toll on his mental health. Listen Without Prejudice was Michael’s reaction to, and retreat from, those burnout pressures. Famously, he chose neither to appear on the record’s sleeve, or in videos for its singles.
His unwillingness to promote the album leads into the next section, an account of his bruising legal battle with his dismayed record label, Sony, as they lost patience, and he tried to challenge his contract, a war Michael fought hard, and lost badly.
All of this is interesting, but what lifts the film to a different level is the fourth narrative: Michael’s simple, sometimes painfully raw account of his time with the man who became his first great love, Anselmo Feleppa, and of losing him to HIV, their entire relationship playing out when Michael had yet to publicly come out as gay. It’s difficult to imagine anyone – even if you’ve never admitted to liking a single George Michael record – could come away from this film without some respect for the man. For fans, meanwhile, it will be a sad slice of heaven.