September 28, 2023

Chris Smith’s Netflix doc is an irresistible pop nostalgia trip, but it’s also a serious portrait of George Michael’s ambition

Unabashed pop groups with enthusiastic teenage followers are often downplayed, at least in the media. They are dismissed as slick and calculated and superficial. But there’s a story in “Wham!”, the new Netflix documentary about the quintessential ’80s pop duo, that bears witness to what an accidental and daring artist George Michael was even in his teen idol days.

The year is 1983. Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, coming off their first album, “Fantastic” (which had a few hits, though none of them great), have Wham! like an effective lightweight pop machine, with its two young stars leaping across the stage in sexy sportswear. The time has come to record “Careless Whisper”, a song they’ve had in their back pockets for several years (we hear the super early demo version of it they recorded in Ridgeley’s living room in 1981 on a TEAC 4-track Portastudio). Michael has become enough of a powerhouse to join Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. He goes to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio to record the song, with Wexler producing. What more could a 20-year-old budding pop star want?

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But we hear the version Wexler produced, and despite a certain artisanal elegance, it’s oddly cut and dried. George Michael didn’t like how the song sounded (wexler turned out not to either). So he decided to redo the track and produce it himself. By the time Michael chose Steve Gregory to play what would become the song’s iconic saxophone solo, he had already tried out the riff with 10 different saxophonists. He knew that well what he was looking for. “Careless Whisper” is of course a beautiful song, but what makes it indelible is the swing, the lilt, the invisible wave beneath the melancholy. That’s what the Wexler version was too quirky to give life to, and that’s what George Michael, as an artist, blew into it.

Directed by top documentary filmmaker Chris Smith (“Fyre,” “Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond”), “Wham!” presents itself as a light and vibrant scrapbook of an irresistibly pop moment (the film literally uses Wham’s 30-piece scrapbook !’s career compiled by Andrew Ridgeley’s mother as an organizing diary). If all you want from the film is some kind of nostalgic peppil, a fizzy delight in the subject’s bubblegum glory, you’ll find the film all scratches than itches. But “Wham!” is also a fascinating music documentary that tells two stories at once.

The first is the infectious, effervescent saga of Wham!, from their first stumble (when they released their first single, ‘Wham Rap’ in 1981, it didn’t even make the top 100 in the UK) to the way they came out on November 28, 1982. were saved by ‘Top of the Pops’, the iconic British TV show that invited them to perform at the last minute after another band dropped out. We see that apparition: George Michael, bare-chested under a brown leather vest, singing “Young Guns (Go for It!)”, which isn’t a particularly good song. Still the look! The dance! The ecstatic exuberance! That was all that was needed. The single flew into the charts.

But the other story the film tells is about George Michael’s emergence as a solo artist. And the reason why that story is so central to the saga of Wham! is that Michael, as we can see in hindsight, forged that identity from the start.

He took care of the recordings. He took over the songwriting (Ridgeley, who had a lot to do with creating the group’s image and spirit, knew Michael excelled in that department and had no problem letting him work with it). And he took control to invest their teenybop aura in something that, in the contagiousness of sound, was unspeakably richer. The truth is that while ‘Faith’, Michael’s defining solo album released in 1987, was hailed by the world as launching George Michael as a ‘mature’ pop star, the songs on ‘Faith’ were not noticeably different from the best Wham! songs. The lyrics (particularly on “Father Figure”) were a little more serious. But if you listen closely, you can hear that George Michael was already an adult pop star in the heyday of Wham! He just didn’t package himself that way.

The development of the George Michael look and persona is telling because part of the story of pop music is that so many great artists also had the karmic DNA to hit the beauty jackpot, and in Michael’s case, during the Wham! years, we literally see him develop from a slightly clumsy and blobby teenager into the dream boat he made himself. The soundtrack of the documentary is interspersed with old interviews with Michael and Ridgeley, who record the film. At one point, we hear Michael say that he was amazed that he could become “the kind of pin-up that Andrew was so obvious.” That sounds like false modesty, but I believe him completely, because it is confirmed by what we see.

The two met in 1975, when they were 11 and 12. Michael, then known by his Greek name, Georgios Panayiotou, joined Ridgeley’s class at Bushey Meads School in Hertfordshire, where he was a total geek, with glasses and curls and a stare. of woe with a moon face. They planned their pop assault from an early age, but by the time they were in their late teens, Michael, now in a leather jacket, still had a slightly raw, big-boned adolescent nerd. He wasn’t nearly as handsome as he was a few years later. While Ridgeley was all slim cuteness.

On the other hand, from the Beatles with their mop tops to Little Richard and his pompadour to Bowie and his glamorous alien rooster facade, pop stars are not just born that way. They have to invent their images, and in George Michael’s case, what he did with his hair was paramount. It started out as a dark mop, but there are certain individuals who, when they turn blonde, transform their souls. Norma Jean Baker had personality and humor and sexy beauty to spare – but could you imagine Marilyn Monroe if she wasn’t blonde? In a funny way, George Michael was the same. When he got those matte highlights and grew his hair longer, it completed him. He was now a golden god. (He also had the rare face that looked slimmer with a beard.)

Around the same time he produced “Careless Whisper,” Michael wrote and produced “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” a song revelation when you consider it’s a guilty way of sneaking up on you. In the tribute to George Michael I wrote when he died, I followed my own journey with that song — how it always struck me as overly chipper and a bit tacky in the ’80s, but when I started hearing it on movie soundtracks I realized that despite everything you could make fun of it, the song had a playful glow that just wouldn’t let up. It kicked. And that was all about the way George Michael produced it.

The big Wham! songs have a kinesthetic quality that connects to you like a hidden herb. We see Michael shaking his booty on stage, in his CHOOSE LIFE shirt, to shout “Wake Me Up…”, and it’s another George Michael, now completely freed. When does unabashed pop become anything more than “shallow”? When it’s so bubbling with its own bliss. The ghost of Wham! was something obvious and yet unspeakable. You can hear it in ‘I’m Your Man’, a song that could have been just catchy and throwaway in other hands. But if you listen to Wham! do something about it – the propulsion, the bouncing, those splashing chords, the soaring of Michael’s vocals – creates a powerful chemical reaction.

The film captures how much Michael was tormented by the urge to hide his sexualit
y. Wham! had already been launched when he came out to Andrew Ridgeley, and as the group grew, the gulf between Michael’s public image and his private reality became for him a chasm of emotional instability. He flirted with expressing a certain dimension of himself in the lyrics of “Freedom.” Yet it remained a form of code.

And that was related to his primal ambivalence about fame. Being famous overwhelmed him, but he’s candid about the consuming need his “ego” had to be nothing short of a number one pop star. This becomes most dramatic during the 1984 recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The whole point of the song was to be a big hit and raise money for the famine in Ethiopia, but Michael admits all he could think about was his obsession with the prospect of “Last Christmas” ( which was about to be released). Wham!’s fourth number one single of the year – and how that grand plan was likely to be ruined by “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (That was it. “Last Christmas” had to top it out at #2.)

There’s no grudge to speak of in “Wham!” The Andrew Ridgeley we see is completely behind George Michael going off on his own. Perhaps that’s because Ridgeley, while going through a party-boy phase seen all over the tabloids (who dubbed him “Randy Andy”), was intelligent and unselfish enough to realize that Wham!, as a group , 90 laundry. percent George Michael and 10 percent him. No pop star in history was ever meant to run off alone than George Michael. In that sense, there was nothing tragic or even sad about the breakup of Wham! The tragedy was that Michael fell apart after the release of “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. I.” He created his best song, “Freedom! ’90’, then faded into a contradictory haze of ego and self-doubt. But that is an other story. The one who says “Wham!” tells shores along on an almost undiluted stream of joy.

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