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

Shameless pop groups with devout teens tend to be trivialized, at least in the media. They are dismissed as shrewd, calculated and superficial. But there’s a story in “Wham!”, Netflix’s new documentary about the quintessential 1980s pop duo, that bears witness to just how lucky and daring a performer George Michael was even in his teenage idol days.

It’s 1983. Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, releasing their debut album, “Fantastic” (which had a few hits, but none of them were great), created Wham! like a light and efficient pop machine, with its two young stars strutting on stage in sexy sportswear. The time has come to record “Careless Whisper”, a song they’ve had in their back pocket for several years (we hear the very early demo version of it they recorded in 1981 in Ridgeley’s living room on a TEAC 4 Portastudio tracks). Michael became powerful enough to meet Jerry Wexler, the legendary producer of Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. He travels to Muscle Shoals Sound Studio to record the track, with Wexler producing. What more could a budding 20-year-old pop star ask for?

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But we hear the Wexler-produced version, and despite a certain craftsmanship elegance, it’s oddly cut and dried. George Michael didn’t like the sound of the song (turns out, neither did Wexler). So he decided to redo the track and produce it himself. By the time Michael cast Steve Gregory to play what became the song’s signature saxophone solo, he had already tried out the riff with 10 different saxophonists. It’s how well he knew what he was looking for. “Careless Whisper”, of course, is a beautiful song, but what makes it indelible is the swing, the cadence, the invisible push under the melancholy. That’s what the Wexler version was too stuffy to bring to life, and that’s what George Michael, as a recording artist, breathed into it.

“Wham! directed by documentary ace Chris Smith (‘Fyre’, ‘Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond’), presents itself as a light and lively album of an irresistible pop moment (the film literally uses the 30 volumes album from the career of Wham!, compiled by Andrew Ridgeley’s mother as an organization diary). If all you want from the film is some sort of nostalgic cheer pill, fizzy fun in the chewing-gum glory of its subject matter, you’ll find the film totally scratches the itch. But “Wam!” is also a compelling musical documentary that tells two stories at once.

The first is the catchy, effervescent saga of Wham!, from their first stumble (when they released their first single, ‘Wham Rap’, in 1981, it didn’t even hit the top 100 in England) until how they were saved, on November 28, 1982, by ‘Top of the Pops’, the iconic British TV show which invited them to perform at the last minute, because another band had dropped out. We see this appearance: George Michael, shirtless under a brown leather vest, singing “Young Guns (Go for It!)”, which is not a particularly good song. Yet the look! The dance! Ecstatic exuberance! That was all it took. The single exploded up the charts.

Yet the other story the film tells concerns George Michael’s rise as a solo artist. And why this story is so central to the Wham! is that Michael, we can see in hindsight, forged that identity from the start.

He took control of the recordings. He took control of the songwriting (Ridgeley, who had a lot to do with creating the band’s image and spirit, knew that Michael excelled in that department and had no problem letting him run with). And he took control to invest their teenybop aura with something that was, in the contagion of his sound, ineffably richer. The truth is that where “Faith,” the defining solo album Michael released in 1987, was hailed by the world as George Michael’s launch as a “mature” pop star, the songs of “Faith” n were not materially different from the best Wham! Songs. The lyrics (especially on “Father Figure”) were a bit more serious. But if you listen closely, you can hear that George Michael was already, at the height of Wham!, a mature pop star. He just didn’t get carried away that way.

The development of George Michael’s look and personality is telling, because part of the history 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 go from a slightly clumsy, blobby teenager to the dream ship he’s transformed into. The documentary’s soundtrack is punctuated by old interviews of Michael and Ridgeley, who narrate the film. At one point, we hear Michael say that it surprised him that he could become “the kind of pin-up Andrew so obviously was.” It sounds like false modesty, but I totally believe it, because it’s backed up by what we see.

The two met in 1975, when they were 11 and 12 years old. 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 staring gaze. of misfortune in the face of the moon. They planned their pop onslaught from an early age, but in their late teens, Michael, now clad in a leather jacket, still had a bit of a raw, big-boned teenage geek side to him. He wasn’t as handsome as he would be a few years later. While Ridgeley was all cute and svelte.

Again, from the Beatles with their mops to Little Richard and his pompadour to Bowie and his glam alien rooster facade, the 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 black mop, but there are certain individuals who, when they go blonde, transform their souls. Norma Jean Baker had personality, wit and sexy beauty to spare – but could you begin to imagine Marilyn Monroe if she wasn’t blonde? In a funny way, George Michael was the same. When he got those frosty highlights and his hair grew longer, it completed him. He was now a golden god. (He also had the rare face that looked more stylish with a beard.)

Around the same time he was producing “Careless Whisper,” Michael wrote and produced “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” an epiphany of a song when you consider the way he sneaks up on you. In the tribute to George Michael that I wrote when he died, I traced my own journey with this song – how in the 80s it always struck me as too crispy and a bit tasteless, but when I started hearing it on movie soundtracks, realized that for all you could laugh at, the song had a frisky incandescence that just wouldn’t stop. He kicked. And it all depended on how George Michael produced it.

The big Wham! the songs have a kinesthetic quality that connects to you like a hidden spice. We see Michael shaking his booty on stage, in his CHOOSE LIFE shirt, on “Wake Me Up…”, and he’s a different George Michael, now completely liberated. When does uninhibited pop become something more than “superficial”? When it’s this bubbling with its own happiness. The spirit of Wham! was something obvious but ineffable. You hear it in “I’m Your Man,” a song that in other hands might have just been catchy and disposable. But when you listen to Wham! do it, something about it – the propulsion, the bounce, those plonk chords, the flight of Michael’s vocals – creates a powerful chemical reaction.

The film shows how Michael was tormented by the desire to hide his sexuality. Bang! was already in motion when he dated Andrew Ridgeley, and as the group grew, the disconnect between Michael’s public image and his private reality became, for him, a chasm of emotional instability. He flirted with a certain dimension of himself in the lyrics of “Freedom”. Yet it remained a form of code.

And it tied into his primitive ambivalence about fame. Being famous overwhelmed him, but he’s candid about the all-consuming need his “ego” had for him to be nothing less than a number one pop star. It becomes more dramatic during the 1984 recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” The purpose of the song was to be a big hit and raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia, but Michael admits all he could think about was his obsession with the prospect that “Last Christmas” (which was on the point out) becomes Wham! The year’s fourth number one single – and how that grand plan would likely be undone by “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (It was. “Last Christmas” was set to drop to No. 2.)

There’s no resentment to speak of in “Wham!” The Andrew Ridgeley we see is entirely in favor of George Michael going on his own. Maybe it’s because Ridgeley, despite going through a party-goer phase that was splashed all over the tabloids (which dubbed him “Randy Andy”), was smart and non-egocentric enough to realize that Wham !, as a group, was 90 years old. percent George Michael and 10 percent him. No pop star in history was ever meant to go off alone more than George Michael. In that sense, there was nothing tragic or even sad about the breakup of Wham! The tragedy is that Michael collapsed after releasing “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. JE.” He created his biggest song, “Freedom! ’90,” then faded into a conflicting haze of ego and self-doubt. But this is another story. The one who “Wham!” tells the ribs on an almost undiluted current of joy.

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