Queen was a pretty cool blend of studio band and slam-glam touring band. One could say that the quartet had the musical ambitions and harmonics of the Beatles and the sexy front man of the Rolling Stones. This would be both to exaggerate the band’s achievement (they weren’t near the Beatles, though they were great pretenders) and to sell Freddie short. Mercury was a meta-Jagger in his gaudy frocks, his pansexual performance art, the luscious mouth and diagonal overbite made for fellating the concert-stadium mike. The band’s chief songwriter for Queen, Freddie was also its face, heart, lungs and loins — his generation’s true dancing Queen. “He had everything, in extremis,” said Lyricist Tim Rice (“Evita,” “The Lion King”). Dave Clark, whose quintet briefly rivaled the Beatles in popularity nearly 40 years ago, called Freddie “the 80s Edith Piaf.”
The singer’s life and artifice are naturals for documentary treatment, and he got it in the feature-length, Grammy-nominated “Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story” by Rudi Dolezal and Hannes Rossacher, who also directed some of the band’s videos and an earlier documentary, “The Queen Phenomenon.” The brisk, comprehensive and ultimately affecting “Untold Story” has loads of telling archive footage, some questionably recreated scenes of the singer’s youth and a dozen or so telling interviews (from which the quotes here come). Born Farouk Bulsara, in 1946, to a Parsi family on the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar — his father was an accountant with the British High Court there — he was sent at age 8 to St. Peter’s English Boarding School, in Panchgani, in western India. There Farouk formed his first band, the Hectics.
At London’s Ealing School of Art, where he showed burgeoning talent as an illustrator and graphic designer, he met May, Taylor and John Deacon, then in a group called Smile. They became Queen, and Freddie their lead vocalist. In an early Queen song, “My Fairy King,” Freddie had written the lines: “Mother Mercury, Mercury/ Look what they’ve done to me.” He told his mates that, since he’d written about his mother, he was from now on Freddie Mercury. It allowed a shy boy to turn his latent artistry into blatant theatricality. “The young Bulsara person was still there,” Taylor says, “but for the public he was gonna be this different character—this god.”
At 15, he had written a Harold Coffin aphorism into a schoolmate’s book: “Modern paintings are like women. You’ll never enjoy them if you try to understand them.” Freddie loved women; perhaps he understood them. His closest friend, former shopgirl Mary Austin, was for a time his wife. In the 80s he was close to the Met soprano Montserrat Caballé; they spent one whole night together, singing, and later recorded the “Barcelona” album of duets. (His fans, she says, would ask, “Who is the woman that screams so much with Freddie?”) But he was also a gay man — couldn’t everyone see this? — with a need to dissemble, to flaunt his effeminate eccentricity even as he publicly denied, until two days before his death, his gayness.
As Queen’s popularity grew, so did Freddie’s instinct for extravagance, on stage and off. “There was the odd wild moment,” a smiling Rice said of Freddie’s at-homes, “which I would, I think, have to consult my lawyer before talking about in great detail.” Relocating to Munich in the 80s, he threw the odd wild party, like the notorious one for his 39th birthday. “You had to come dressed as your favorite person,” says Peter Starker, a friend of Freddie’s. “And he just came dressed as himself, obviously.” The band’s sound engineer, Trip Khalaf, recalls “a dwarf covered in liver. He laid there on a platter…and when anybody dug this dull knife into him…the whole plate of liver would quiver. So it was like a moving paté pastiche!” Khalaf is not easily shocked. “I’m used to seeing my grandmother crawl up my leg with a knife in her teeth.” Still, he describes the bacchanal as “pretty much Wretched Excess. That was the worst thing I’ve ever been to. I’ll probably go to hell because of that.”
Beelzebub had a devil put aside for Freddie too: AIDS, which he probably contracted when he spent time in New York in the early 80s. Mercury spent his last decade with Jim Hutton, whom he called “my husband.” He loved Hutton as “someone to come home to.” Like the speaker at the end of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Freddie had spent all his venom, all his passion. “I’ve stopped having sex,” he told a reporter, “and started growing tulips.” Toward the end, his costume designer Diana Moseley visited him; they played Scrabble, and as she was leaving he said, “Thank you for spending the afternoon with an old man.” At his death, on November 24, 1991, he was 45.