Although there’s a great deal about the short lifespan on the pop duo Wham! in the recent George Michael documentary Freedom Uncut, I admittedly know very little about the 1980s combo of Michael and childhood pal Andrew Ridgeley. Think about this for a second: Wham! were still teenagers in 1982, when they started recording the songs that would end up on their debut album, Fantastic. By June of 1986, they were playing their farewell concert in front of a sold-out Wembley Stadium. They set out to conquer the world, and that’s exactly what they did, thanks in large part to Michael’s evolution as a singer, a songwriter, and a performer. But what the documentary Wham! opened my eyes to was how much of a creative force Ridgeley was in the early days, and how smart he was to never try to hold back Michael’s rapid ascent or appear envious that his friend was clearly headed for the stratosphere as one of the great vocalists and songwriters of his generation.
From director Chris Smith (Tiger King, Sr., Fyre, The Yes Men, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond), Wham! wisely allows Michael and Ridgeley to simply walk us through their story. They submitted to so many interviews in their lifetime that their path is well traced, and with unprecedented access to a wealth of never-before-scene footage, candid and unseen interviews and images, the film follows Michael and Ridgeley starting with their friendship in school, where Michael was the shy, sensitive kid, and Ridgeley was outgoing and spent a great drawing Michael out of his shell—first as a person and then as a singer. We move through the recording of a few rough demos to the reaction to their first few singles, which some people considered issue-oriented rap (I confess to finding their first record truly awful). Still, it got them noticed in the UK, and then came a parade of rapid-fire hits: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Everything She Wants,” “Freedom,” “I’m Your Man,” and of course “Last Christmas.”
There’s a fascinating section of the doc about the creation of “Careless Whisper,” which was one of the original demo songs that both Michael and Ridgeley wrote together. But when it was released a couple years later, it was considered a Michael solo song. Ridgeley was somewhat confused by the choice to do things that way, but he never said no because they had always known it would be a monster hit. The film also deals with the treatment of the band in the press (especially in the UK), where they were always painting Ridgeley as a party animal and tailcoat rider, while Michael was given something of a pass.
Much like Freedom Uncut, Wham! traces Michael’s turbulent journey as a gay man who was also a global sex symbol to millions of women and frequently leaned into that persona to keep the band’s trajectory skyward. Even Michael coming out to Ridgeley comes later in their journey than I would have guessed, and it’s a really beautiful story that sealed their friendship forever. One of their career highlights was the band being invited to be the first western pop act to play in China, and my only complaint about the film in general is that it’s too short. I would have loved to hear more about what went into sealing the deal on the event and what their time was like there. The film devotes a fair amount of time to that singular happening, but it still feels rushed, as do other parts of their story, including the amicable breakup of the act in 1986.
The highlights we get of the Wembley show make me truly wish that they would remaster that footage and put out a feature-length concert film in theaters. The glimpses we get are big, bold, epic, and they sound fantastic, but the picture quality is a little grainy. There are actually a few choice moments in Wham!’s journey I wish the film had taken time to dig into a bit more, but what’s here is still revealing, sometimes remarkable, and far more than just fan service. And it certainly gives Ridgeley his due as far as his musical and confidence-boosting contributions are concerned.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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