Wham! (2023)

Guilty feet have got no rhythm

For the first thirty-plus years of my life, I had no patience for George Michael or Wham. I long had them mentally categorized as the most exhausting form “bland ’80s pop.” Then I started reading more about George Michael in Tom Breihan’s outstanding The Number Ones column, and my perspective shifted. It gave me a much deeper appreciation for Michael as both an artist and a person. His music still isn’t always to my taste, but I came to love some tracks I’d either missed or unfairly written off. I hear a more personal voice in his music than I used to. And you only have to watch a few videos of him performing to appreciate his otherworldly talent as a vocalist.

This Netflix documentary about the Wham duo and the start of Michael’s solo career is composed mostly of archival footage — interviews (mostly post-Wham, but only by a few years) and concert clips. The only narration is the interviewees, which is usually my preference for this kind of doc.

Wham! paints a really vivid picture of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley and how they tapped into the right ideas at the right moment to ride a huge British teen zeitgeist. Much of their image and music is what the mass entertainment world would eventually recognize as early strands of gay culture — frivolous fun bordering on camp; strutting with unashamed sexiness; effeminate fashion and vocalizing reclaimed as a confident new brand of masculinity — though certainly teen girls were centrally responsible for moving the airplay and sales needles.

What really stands out in the documentary is that George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley were normal, likable kids. And they were hugely talented. Their success was largely self-made rather than manufactured, even when it didn’t sound like it (they wrote and produced many of their own tracks). They were still teenagers when their first songs charted.

Most touchingly, the two appear to have remained close and fond of each other even as the band split. Michael’s star began to shine brighter, his songwriting entering a glorious imperial era in service of his own image, but Ridgeley cheered him along instead of growing resentful. Ridgeley guarded Michael’s secret and supported him when Michael came out to him first as bisexual, then as gay.

The film stops chronologically after the band breaks up, meaning we miss many of the most interesting peaks and twists in Michael’s career as well as his tragic early death. But I really enjoyed learning more about the Wham years, and I dug director Chris Smith’s assembly of the material in a warm, watchable doc.

Bonus points for reminding me to rewatch Sexy Sax Man, still one of the greatest YouTube videos, for the hundredth time.

Is It Good?

Good (5/8)

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