The director’s cut of this moving documentary is well worth catching on the big screen.
The concept of the visual album is not a new one, with the likes of Beyoncé and Janelle Monáe both contributing to the genre in recent of years. But George Michael: Freedom is perhaps the first visual album in the ‘Best Of’ category. Billed as a documentary, it’s more like a compilation of greatest hits with spoken sleeve notes and archive footage from Michael’s three-decade career. Spanning his rise to fame with Wham! in the 1980s through to his untimely death in 2016, the film comprises concert material, news reports, interviews and home movie footage.
However, if you’re looking for a warts-and-all exposé in the vein of Asif Kapadia’s Amy, you won’t find it here. Co-directed by David Austin and Michael himself, the film keeps the music front and centre. There is no new footage of the star aside from some brief glimpses of him in profile at a typewriter, and for the most part his narration focuses on the personal and political events that shaped his musical career.
The Kate Moss introduction is a little over-baked, and at times the more vacuous celebrity endorsements feel like they get in the way of Michael’s story and voice. It’s clear that even in making a film about himself, he preferred to let other people do the talking and retain his privacy. While there’s a great sequence in which he discusses his ‘strange’ approach to making music – clearly the most comfortable territory for him – it was a little frustrating not to learn more about this process.
There are refreshing admissions about his early ambitions for fame, though, and he doesn’t shy away from discussing issues including race, AIDS, grief, and his ill-fated Sony court case. Even if you ‘know’ the George Michael story, it’s still a powerful experience to listen to his music again in this highly politicised and personal context. And it’s important to remember how significant an album like Older was in response to the government and media-imposed crises that impacted gay men in the 80s and 90s.
It’s also testament to the power of popular music that it can inspire, comfort and bring joy to so many people. Hit after hit makes for a hair-raising viewing experience, while hearing Michael’s rendition of Stevie Wonder’s ‘They Won’t Go When I Go’ may well make you shed a tear. Each time you think the film must be nearing its conclusion because you’ve heard every single, another one comes along to provide yet more evidence of his remarkable range and talent.
Funny, sad and ultimately moving, this is a fitting tribute to an exceptional talent. First broadcast on Channel 4 in 2017, with 30 minutes of additional footage and the possibility of theatrical release, it’s well worth seeing George Michael: Freedom – The Director’s Cut on the big screen just for the sheer joy of having his music envelop you in a cinema space. This is a film that will let you appreciate the pop star in a new way – but only if you’re willing to listen.
Published 26 Jun 2018
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