George Michael: Freedom calls on so many talking-head rock-doc tropes, it’s as though it’s following an instruction manual. Earnest interview footage of its subject that seeks to deepen and humanize the common public perception of him? Check. Fawning interviews from his famous friends, collaborators, and admirers? Check. (Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, Elton John, and most improbably, Liam Gallagher all say very nice things about Michael.) Musical montage upon montage reminding you of just how great he was, and justifying your decision to turn this doc on in the first place? Check check check. A concluding statement from its subject on how he’d like to be remembered made poignant by the fact that he’s no longer with us? Duuuuh.
I understand and even appreciate every conventional element incorporated in this documentary, which airs Saturday on Showtime. It will not reshape what you think of cinema, even of the self-aggrandizing doc-lite sort, but it’s an undeniably pleasant viewing experience. As with Asif Kapadia’s 2015 Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, the movie’s real use is giving viewers an excuse to spend an uninterrupted and extended period of time with someone who was once great and is now dead. It’s nice to hear so much of Michael’s voice, perpetually humid with drama but never swollen to a torrent of schmaltz. If you care at all about George Michael, Freedom is worth your 90 minutes.
But watching it unfold, what’s perplexing is the decision to gloss over George Michael’s 1998 arrest in a Beverly Hills public bathroom. Nabbed for “engaging in a lewd act,” this event changed Michael’s public profile forever. It told the world, definitively, that he was gay—up until then he’d only hinted at it. He claims in the doc that his gay-coded musical and stylistic aesthetic during his 1996 Older era was his way of informing the world of his sexuality, but this was, in his own words, dependent on “symbolism.” That record was also dedicated to his first love, Anselmo Feleppa, who caught the pop star’s eye when he played Rock in Rio in 1991, and died of AIDS in 1993.
A huge portion of Freedom is devoted to Michael’s relationship with Feleppa, and that section is appropriately agonizing. Michael’s sexuality is, in fact, examined quite closely—Ricky Gervais, another testifying celeb, rather hilariously hits the nail on the head: “I think he’s challenged the stereotype of the gay man, as well, and what was acceptable. Even when people were out in the ’60s and ’70s, they were a safe, sexless gay man whereas George went ‘I’ve got a cock.’ That frightened some people.”
Freedom, too, acknowledges that Michael had a cock, just not what he did with it. It’s a glaring omission. The video for Michael’s “Outside,” in which he cheekily donned a police uniform, plays in Freedom, and Gervais calls Michael his “favorite singing convict.” The movie pointedly dances around the arrest that anyone who knows anything about George Michael is aware of. What’s puzzling is that Michael, once exposed, never played coy like his movie does. Though it was the bathroom jerk-off in front of slash with an undercover police that pried him from the closet, he took it in stride and often with humor. “I feel stupid and I feel reckless and weak for having allowed my sexuality to be exposed this way, but I don’t feel any shame whatsoever,” he told CNN.
“I was stupid, it was a stupid thing to do. But I’ve never been able to turn down a free meal,” he said on MTV.
In 2006, after another public-sex arrest, Michael told the BBC:
A very large part of the male population, gay or straight, totally understands the idea of anonymous and no-strings sex.
The fact that I choose to do that on a warm night in the best cruising ground in London - which happens to be about half a mile from my home - I don’t think would be that shocking to that many gay people.
Until such time as the straight world is not attacking people for cruising, I’d say the gay world could actually keep that to themselves, just for a little bit longer.
We may never quite know the motivation of this omission—Michael is dead and my request for comment from Showtime has gone unanswered. So via this quote, I’ll hypothesize. Maybe the obsequious Freedom, which Michael directed alongside his frequent musical collaborator David Austin, represents this desire to keep the finer aspects of gay life clandestine. (In an interview, Austin called the released version of Freedom, which Michael was working on at the time of his December 25, 2016 death, “more or less George’s cut.”) Maybe it’s not about the shame that can hide behind the assurance of its absence in these matters, but about reinforcing principles. Michael, after all, loved control. We hear him say early in Freedom, “The central belief that my musical journey would be of my own making has been the thing that’s informed almost every decision I’ve ever made in terms of my career.” Only two years before his arrest, upon the release of his symbolic “coming out” album Older, Michael said, “I don’t believe in people making public statements about their sexuality.” He got ahead of it when he had to, but I believe that it was so he could control that narrative as he had been doing well up to that point.
Freedom’s primary focus is the period in Michael’s career after Faith, a phenomenal global success, when Michael felt suffocated by fame and had grown tired of contorting himself to maintain it (“I’m aware of the need for persona and my actual persona I’m not ready to give,” he says in Freedom). He ripped it all up—literally burned the jacket he wore in the “Faith” video, literally sang the lines in “Freedom ’90,” “There’s something deep inside of me / There’s someone else I’ve got to be”—and started again with a downcast album, 1990's Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, that he barely promoted. He did little press for it and refused to appear in its videos. When his record label, Sony, reciprocated by refusing to promote it and by attempting to pressure him back into the glossy pop act he once was, he unsuccessfully sued to get out of his contract. The company ended up selling his contract to David Geffen’s DreamWorks and Michael moved over there to release Older, the album he refers to as his “greatest moment” in Freedom.
Michael got what he wanted for a while—Older was his highest-selling album in the U.K., spawning a record-breaking six Top 3 singles. It remains unsung in the scope of Michael’s legacy and it’s heartening to see it celebrated in Freedom (I think it’s a way more dynamic record than Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1—please listen to “Move On” now if you haven’t in a while). Control over his life seemed to slide in and out of Michael’s hands, though you wouldn’t really know how clumsy it was just by watching this doc—his 2006 arrest isn’t hinted at, his struggles with drugs and miscellaneous messiness go undiscussed. Freedom is a tidied up portrait of the man’s work and legacy. It’s a kind of polite, obituary approach to the rock doc, which makes it eerie given that Michael was working on it at the time of his death (its short intro features Kate Moss describing it as “his final work”). If this documentary is as heavily controlled and not nearly as gritty as it could be, well, at least then it’s an inadvertently honest depiction of Michael’s approach to his public image. It’s a document of his process. Freedom is power, power is control.