“The music community took the piss. I mean, how can they look like that and make music like this? How can the country be in love with these two idiots?” – said the late international British popstar George Michael as he assessed the response of UK music critics and naysayers to one of pop music’s most potent phenomena in the early 1980s in the new Netflix documentary titled “Wham!” – also the name of the pop duo that propelled George and his best friend Andrew Ridgeley to dizzying levels of global popularity. This assessment is also wildly at odds with the widespread love and goodwill this duo shares over 40 years since their formation and over 35 years since their dissolution. It is unclear as to how much of this remnant adoration is rooted in nostalgia and how much of this stems from a reverence for the seminal grooming experience that Wham was for George Michael to become the potent force in music that he blossomed into thus leaving a stellar musical legacy whose sonic luster does not seem to get eroded by the passage of time. The documentary chronicles the meteoric rise of one of pop music’s most successful duos as their journey began with a shared love for music that quickly morphed into sky-high aspirations to become the biggest popstars on the planet.

Since the early 2000s, and after his demise, George Michael has become the subject of several documentaries that focus on his rise to stardom, his fall from grace in America (compounded by his trials and tribulations that stemmed from an unceremonious outing as a gay man in a public restroom at Will Rogers Park in Beverly Hills), and his prized place in the annals of pop music. With the exception of “A Different Story”, none of these documentaries truly reveal anything new and surprising about George Michael. As a result, I approached “Wham! The Documentary” with a non-trivial level of skepticism. While the documentary is not flawless in any sense of the word, it largely delivers and not long into the movie, any pre-conceived skepticism that I was harboring dissipated rather quickly.

Date-stamped images from the meticulously assembled scrapbook by Andrew Ridgeley’s mother to document the progression and milestones of Wham serve as a useful tool to propel the movie’s narrative forward. The story is largely told via voice-over segments by both George and Andrew overlayed over priceless and rare footage that conveys a vivid picture of the environment in which these two boys in their late teens persevered towards something infinitely larger than the reality that shaped their childhoods. In fact, approximately seven minutes into the documentary, it becomes obvious to the viewer that the movie is going to offer a treasure trove of stunning surprises – the first being a very rough demo of the timeless hit classic “Careless Whisper” – one of two songs (the other being “Club Tropicana”) that the duo pitched as their part of their demo tape to secure a predatory recording contract (wherein they were at the receiving end of the unfairness). Here is a snippet of the original lyrics:

As I fall once more,
I smell the varnish
Of this dancefloor”
To the heart and mind

While it goes without saying that the storytelling is perfectly executed (and this is despite the eeriness and tinge of sadness that most George Michael fans will undoubtedly feel as they listen to his voice-over segments), the three biggest triumphs of “Wham the documentary” are as follows:

A detailed exploration and re-evaluation of Andrew Ridgeley’s contributions to the success of Wham:

Contrary to what people say, that Andrew had no part in Wham, it was totally the opposite. Wham was Andrew” says Simon Napier-Bell (the duo’s manager) in the section of the movie devoted to the recording of the milestone Wham album titled “Make it Big” at Chateau Miraval in the south of France. Right from the idea of the name Wham, Andrew was the sole architect of the duo’s image, style and visual aesthetic – all of which became critical elements of what got people talking about the pop group’s music while George largely lived in Andrew’s shadow. While Wham did start off as a songwriting democracy, it was becoming clear fairly quickly that the pace of evolution of George’s songwriting proficiency far eclipsed that of Andrew’s – and from a creative perspective, Andrew was quickly relegated solely to the recording process. This was a dynamic Andrew struggled with but also came to terms with quickly. Furthermore, Andrew being a generous source of tabloid fodder took the attention off George and made the press less likely to pry into his life as he started to struggle with his own sexuality. Andrew’s rockstar lifestyle, in a sense, became a protective shield for George and prevented any derailment of the Wham train – which was well on its way to larger-than-life success.

The unfortunate and disproportionately high impact of image, celebrity factor, and narratives on the success of a pop star:

It is quite telling that while the contents of the demo tape that Wham submitted to secure their recording contract were quite representative of their creative zenith, they opted to introduce themselves to the music-buying public with “flavor of the moment” songs such as “Wham Rap”, “Young Guns”, and “Bad Boys” – songs that became part of the fitting soundtrack to the rebellious escapism of the British youth culture of the early 80s – undoubtedly a response to the high inflation and unemployment that characterized that period of the UK’s history. It is unclear that Wham would have had the success they did without the early wins that came from latching on to youth movements as opposed to making great music that endured from the very beginning. While songs such as “Nothing looks the same in the light” (a sonic manifestation of George’s first glimpse into the reality of his sexuality) and “Club Tropicana” hold up quite well all these years later, it is only with their sophomore album “Make it big”, that Wham truly started to deliver the goods on the musical front.

Despite the success of songs such as “Wake me up before you go-go”, “Everything She Wants”, and “Careless Whisper” in the US, it appeared that it wasn’t until Wham became the first Western pop group to perform in China that the doors were flung wide open for them to conquer America via a stadium tour. It is worth mentioning that until then, they had not even performed at stadiums in their own country. This is a second example of when latching on to a narrative became a critical pre-requisite to the monster success that ensued for the group (especially in the US).

This is a somewhat unfortunate trend in pop music. The success of a piece of recorded music should rest entirely on its musical merit. All the rest should only be icing on the cake – and yet, it appears that a combination of image AND artistry is required for that highly coveted combination of incredible commercial success in the short term and the credibility of an enduring musical legacy in the long term. What is unsettling is the extent to which the former takes precedence over the latter in terms of the sequence in which a body of work is introduced to the music-buying public.

Despite their age, the boys George and Andrew seemed to have had a fairly good grasp of this reality and recalibrated the sequence of their overtures to the world accordingly. Yet, a decade after Wham split, George seems to have forgotten this and instead of re-emerging after a long hiatus in the mid-90s with his infectious up-tempo hit single “Fast Love”, he opted to introduce himself to the next generation of fans with the melancholic “Jesus to a child”. While this did not prove to be problematic for him in most of the world, it did accelerate his exit from the American musical mainstream and give him the dreaded “yesteryear’s star” label in America.

An exploration of “sacrifices” or “calculated concessions” of both members:

Being relegated solely to the recording process when it comes to the creation of music was undoubtedly a bitter pill for Andrew to swallow and at odds with the initial vision that he had of himself as being an integral part of a songwriting unit. Yet, taking the back seat to let George do his thing was something he felt privileged to be a part of – despite the fact that the press seemed to latch on to that fairly quickly and made a ritual out of flinging this reality in his face during interviews till the very end of Wham’s story.

With George, the contours of sacrifice and calculated concessions looked quite different. The initial success of the “Make it big” album made the writing very clear on the wall. The prospects of global stardom for George Michael (as a solo entity) were a certainty and he knew that going public with his homosexuality had the potential to dramatically undermine those prospects. Keeping this significant aspect of himself under wraps was his sacrifice. It is unclear which way his career would have gone had he revealed his secret to the world during his ascent to stardom.

In addition to the documentary’s triumphs highlighted above, there are some precious moments in the documentary. My personal favorite was a scene left out from the music video of the timeless classic “Last Christmas” – which showed an awkward kiss between George Michael and his ex-flame (portrayed as Andrew’s love interest in the music video) when they first meet at the beginning of the music video. A part of me wishes they had left this in the final cut of the music video. Featuring relatively recent clips of George’s father Jack was undoubtedly a brilliant move too.

Like any documentary movie does, this one had its share of missed opportunities. First, despite a focus on the hit single “Last Christmas”, the third and final Wham album “Music from the Edge Of Heaven” was not even given any lip service. The fact that it did not reach the commercial highs of its predecessor and that it did not impact Wham’s star power one bit is noteworthy – and yet is not addressed. The documentary jumps straight ahead to the final Wham concert at Wembley stadium and sets the stage for the story of George Michael’s life as a solo superstar. Second, there was no mention about George Michael’s songwriting output at the time that did NOT fit the Wham image – and hence had to be tabled for future use later in his career. Rumors indicate that the cocktail lounge classic “Kissing a fool” was written by George while he was still in Wham but it did not see the light of day until 1988 as part of his debut hit solo album “Faith”. It would have been a great way to demonstrate exactly how George and Andrew were starting to diverge in terms of their songwriting visions. Last, but not least, the final voice-over by Andrew Ridgely as he reflects on the end of Wham should NOT have been a mere voice-over. It should have been a close-up of a recent video recording of Andrew speaking about the end of Wham. A true visual and facial emotional moment was conspicuous by its absence. With him being the alive half of Wham, the failure to capitalize on his mortality for his final section in the movie was truly a lost opportunity.

This review is by no means a summary of this fantastic documentary. There is plenty I have not touched upon – and that is intentional. I am hoping this review whets the appetite of those that are still on the fence as to whether or not to devote time to this movie. For ardent fans of George Michael, this movie is likely to bring both tears and smiles to their faces. For those that struggle to view anything from the Wham years, because of the sadness that it evokes, this documentary could very well help them make peace with the premature demise of the “boy beyond his years” – the legendary George Michael. It goes without saying that “Wham! – the documentary” is a must-watch and could very well force yet another long overdue re-evaluation of George Michael’s place in pop music history.

Here (below) is the trailer for this documentary:

STAR RATING: 5 out of 5 stars


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