Wham! documentary – SDE review

Newly released Netflix film

Wham! is the name of a new documentary, now showing on Netflix, that tells the story of Wham! in the words of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley.

The film was made with the cooperation and participation of Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael Entertainment, which allows it access to unseen home footage and personal photos from the band’s archives, and enjoy the gift of a wonderful structure, as it follows the meteoric rise of Wham! through the lens of the scrapbooks kept religiously by Andrew’s mum at the time. The film also does something that no box set or music release has ever done and allows fans to hear some of those closely guarded early demos, including ‘Careless Whisper’.

Back in the day, Andrew was always viewed with suspicion by the press and generally regarded as something of a freeloader who had lucked out by being George’s friend and ended up as a successful pop star, but in later years the true story emerged of Andrew being the ‘leader’ early on, with his extrovert personality (“disruptive” according to his school report) helping to make things happen. Andrew took George under his wing when he arrived as the ‘new boy’ at his school and helped turn his “slightly porky” shy, curly-haired friend into a pop star.

Being in a band together was Ridgeley’s idea and when first group The Executive “imploded”, that left the pair on their own to try and move things forward. Andrew co-wrote most of the early hits including ‘Wham Rap!’, ‘Club Tropicana’ and even ‘Careless Whisper’; he designed stage outfits and generally created the momentum (or “thrust”, in his words) that led to all the early success. His greatest contribution – sacrifice, even – was to know when to step back and let the blossoming songwriting and production talents of George take centre stage. It was “uncomfortable” and “a little difficult” as Andrew acknowledges in the film.

It really is great to hear Ridgeley’s voice – literally, his side of the story – which had largely been left unheard until the publication of his 2019 autobiography Wham!, George and Me. To some extent, Andrew reclaims Wham! as an entity in its own right and not ‘part one’ of The George Michael Story. He comes across as a reliable narrator and a foil to the insecurity and contradictions of his partner, which George himself acknowledges in his own narration (culled from some remarkably candid interview audio).

The tone of the documentary is set by a 90-second preface which shows early video footage of Andrew and George larking around at their old school in Bushey, Hertfordshire, with Andrew even persuading the headmaster to take part! The question, posed by George, before we cut to opening credits, is “How can these two idiots become so bloody massive?”

How can these two idiots become so bloody massive?

George Michael in the Wham! documentary

The Wham! film doesn’t try to avoid the familiar tropes – signing a bad record contract; parental issues (“you couldn’t sing to save your life” George’s dad declares); and the first time on Top of the Pops etc. – but these are all covered in such an entertaining manner and there’s so much great footage, that it’s all a joy. 

The filmmaking and editing (Chris Smith and Gregor Lyon respectively) are from the top drawer and there’s a truly brilliant sequence just over half-way through the 90-minute running time where Michael and Ridgeley describe, with the help of a superb montage of archive of photos (and video), how Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou finally transforms himself into ‘George Michael’. Cue hairs on the back of the neck as the crescendo builds to the restored video of ‘Careless Whisper’ where a 21-year old George Michael comes of age, looking every inch a superstar.

The second half of Wham! deals with the astonishing success of the group and also the issue of George’s sexuality. He’d come out as gay to Andrew while they were filming the ‘Club Tropicana’ video in 1983 but had decided to keep this a secret, in part, because he didn’t want to tell his dad, but also due to concerns around how it might impact the band’s ambitions (“you’re not going to make life difficult for yourself, are you?” George reflects in his narration). But as Wham! became more successful, especially in the States, George feels more and more “boxed in” and the awkwardness of the situation is illustrated by an excruciating interview on US TV with talk of “girls and groupies” which George really struggles with.

The sequence on ‘Last Christmas’ is revealing with George telling Paula Yates (at the Band Aid recording) that the ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ would be “a major threat to our fourth number one”. He even gives her a world premiere by singing a little of it (it’s funny to think of a time when this perennial festive favourite didn’t exist!). Of course, that charity single did indeed deny George his fourth UK chart-topper of 1984 and that “bastard insecure little thing” as he describes it, meant it did rankle. “I was happy being in a band” Andrew says, “George needed more”.

Wham! offers some amazing footage, including a colour version of the ‘Everything She Wants’ video (the released version being in black and white), coverage of the 1985 Whamamerica! tour and The Final gig at Wembley. You wonder why none of this stuff has ever been commercially released and then you remember that George Michael really wasn’t particularly interested in revisiting Wham! in his all too short lifetime.

Andrew rationalises George’s need to end Wham! and start a solo career with a nonchalant “I was happy for my friend… Wham! was never going to be middle-aged” but then adds, somewhat heartbreakingly, “we all wake up in the middle of our dreams; suddenly it’s not there”. There’s a poignancy at the end as Andrew faces an uncertain future and George faces, what is in his mind, a certain one: even more success.

George declares his “sanity” is at stake as a reason for ending Wham! and then puts himself in a more insane situation by heading to the USA to try to compete with the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson, while still remaining in the closet and not having his friend by his side (“I had no idea how much I was going to miss that support”). History tells us that none of this made George any happier. “I didn’t know what being George Michael truly meant” Andrew says, and it seems likely, neither did George. 

Wham! is a beautiful documentary; a brilliant film that brings clarity and insight to the inner workings of Wham! and surely puts to an end any thoughts of Andrew Ridgeley being anything other than an essential component in the group. It’s moving at the end, but you can blink away the tears as an exuberant ‘I’m Your Man’ plays out over the credits and reminds us that Wham! were primarily purveyors of joyful, life-affirming pop music.

Wham! is streaming now exclusively on Netfix. The Singles: Echoes From The Edge Of Heaven is out now.

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