Before he died on Dec. 25, 2016, George Michael was unknowingly prepping what would become his final act: the 90-minute documentary George Michael: Freedom, which airs Oct. 21 on Showtime.
“George was editing the film on the 23rd of December,” recalls David Austin, Michael’s manager and the project’s co-director. “We’d just had Nile [Rodgers] over in London at the house. And then that was it, really. Christmas arrived.”
Michael, who succumbed to heart and liver-related issues at 53, was one of the most renowned pop artists as both a member of Wham! and later as a solo artist, selling an estimated 13.3 million copies on his own, according to Nielsen Music. The film, which now serves as the British star’s last testimony, focuses on the period leading up to Michael’s ambitious 1990 solo album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, and his subsequent legal clash with Sony to be released from his recording contract.
Stevie Wonder, Mary J. Blige, Elton John and all five supermodels from the groundbreaking “Freedom! ’90” music video, including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, recall personal memories of the singer, while comedian friends James Corden and Ricky Gervais offer playful commentary.
The original idea behind the doc, says Austin, was to help promote the rerelease of the classic album (out Oct. 20), aided by the discovery in the Sony archives of 75,000 feet of 35mm footage shot by director David Fincher for the “Freedom! ’90” video. But as the project grew in scope, “it just started snowballing,” continues Austin, “and became a much bigger picture as George decided to fill in a lot of gaps.”
He remembers finding a “tiny ice-cooler bag in a cupboard” that contained a forgotten stash of camcorder cassettes filled with home movies of Michael’s Brazilian partner Anselmo Feleppa, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1993. Austin says he “trod very carefully” when it came to their very private relationship, “because I didn’t know how much [of the material] George would want to commit to the film.” It’s fitting that he did, as the story becomes the doc’s emotional heart.
For Freedom, Michael, who rarely did interviews, sat for a two-and-a-half hour conversation with BBC radio host Kirsty Young; his startling, poignant candor narrates throughout. Near the film’s end, a different interviewer asks the singer to essentially write his own epitaph. “I’d like to be remembered as one of those last kind of big pop stars, in a sense that there was a certain glamour to it,” says Michael. “But really, it’s just the songs, and I hope that people think of me as someone who had some kind of integrity.” The singer smiles shyly and adds: “Very unlikely.”