‘Wham!’ review: They made it big, then broke up
By Wesley Morris
The new documentary about George Michael, Andrew Ridgeley and the music they made as Wham! — it’s just called “Wham!” — found me in a moment of need for a nostalgic, fantastical elixir, something short, sweet and tangential to my feeling of national blues. For one thing, Wham!, the duo, made soul music that popped. And the movie dances past all of the thorny moral and ethical questions of white people making Black stuff. Those questions don’t exist at all in this movie. That’s the fantasy. And I’m here for it. But also: Wham! didn’t have any thorns.
Here were two white boys from England of solid Greek Cypriot (George) and Egyptian (Andrew) stock, born during Motown’s ascent in the early 1960s and, in adolescence, bonded as disco was handing the party baton to new wave and rap. They synthesized it all (plus a little Barry Manilow and Freddie Mercury, and some Billy Joel) into a genre whose only other alchemists, really, were Hall & Oates. In every one of the duo’s roughly two dozen songs — including “Everything She Wants,” “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “I’m Your Man,” jams all — there’s influence but, in the movie’s conjuring, no anxiety. Race doesn’t quite exist here.
The film doesn’t bother with journalism or criticism or music history. Just a lot of pictures and archival interviews, performance footage, outtakes and music videos. It’s essentially adapted, by director Chris Smith and some very busy editors, from scrapbooks that Ridgeley’s mother kept, celebrating everything from the duo’s first attempt to storm the airwaves in 1981 to its acrimony-free breakup in 1986. That’s where things end, a year before the release of Michael’s megahit album “Faith,” and decades before his death in 2016 at 53. There’s no mention made either of Ridgeley’s misapprehended, out-of-print solo album from 1990, “Son of Albert.”
There aren’t even any talking heads. The disembodied voices of Michael and Ridgeley guide the whole thing — rumination and memory as narration. (Most of Michael’s comes from a BBC Radio interview.) They explain how they met as schoolkids in the mid-1970s and took over a mini-block of 1980s culture. You get to hear Ridgeley still warmly call Michael by his nickname, Yog, for he was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, and see their looks pinball from leather bar to Richard Simmons.
Nothing here’s overthought or pumped up. To invoke the words of a different beacon of catchiness, “Wham!” is a teenage dream. You could drink it from a coconut. You’re permitted to embrace Michael’s dexterous approach to Black music and Ridgeley’s affable interpretation of Michael’s blueprint as the way — a way — things could be. Easy, frictionless. You hear Michael rhyme on “Wham! Rap” just about as bodaciously as Grandmaster Flash or with some of Kurtis Blow’s humor, and no cold sweats follow. The homework had clearly been done. So instead you say: He just … had It.
I mean, the early 1980s were awash in young white Brits making hits, at least partially, out of slicked-up Motown: ABC, Bananarama, Duran Duran, Eurythmics, Soft Cell. I’d say that sound came most naturally to Michael; it seemed most elastic to him. He really could make the most of a “do do do” or a “yeah yeah.” He had a knack for tattoo melodies and chord progressions so juicy that you want to bite into every section of almost every song.
Michael learned early on how to shade his singing. He could get it to coo and wail and susurrate; Ridgeley played a feisty, insinuating, shirt-unbuttoning guitar, an element I can now hear (and thanks to this film, appreciate). They made three albums in as many years, then stopped when the costs of fame became too much for Ridgeley but were barely meeting Michael’s expectations for himself. Wham!, for Michael, was the ground floor. To hear both men tell it, he was the stronger songwriter, and he really knew how to produce a record.
My favorite story in the documentary involves a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, that Michael took to record “Careless Whisper” with the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section under the supervision of producer Jerry Wexler, another legend. Michael didn’t like what they did with the song. The movie lets you hear some of it, and the trademark warmth is what seems to be missing. There’s something almost metronomic about it. (If there were a moment for somebody to come in and do some explaining, this would be it. What exactly displeased George and eventually Andrew?) But I love this story because it stars these different generations of white soul musicians with divergent tastes in Black music. Maybe Wexler and the boys didn’t hear “Careless Whisper” the way Michael did. But he had the confidence (and the nerve) to take it home and redo it until it became the screen of silk and smoke we know today.
“I’m never gonna dance again, the way I danced with you.” What a work of melodrama! Where’d it come from? Who did Michael do wrong? “Wham!” alludes to personal struggles — Michael with his sexuality; Ridgeley with partying. Michael recounts coming out to Ridgeley early on but to almost no one else. Success becomes his identity. In the film, that identity’s lowest moment happens at the end of 1984, when “Last Christmas,” on its way to being Wham!’s fourth U.K. chart-topper in the calendar year, is kept from the spot by “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” the all-star charity-for-Africa record, which Wham! is on. Michael is bummed that he keeps himself stuck at No. 2.
Michael chose to let ambition define him. But there is a kind of desperation in the average Wham! song, a crisis about either being trapped in lovelessness or excluded from love — a crisis audible, even to my young ears, as a wail from the closet. (The bouncy, blow-dried music videos were always a different story: What closet?) Meanwhile, the movie about the men who made these songs is all bright side. A little desp rarely sounded so good.
A pair of more candid, if more conventional, documentaries exist about the darkness and light of Michael’s life. This one? It’s a prequel, one that personifies the Wham! Experience: over before you know it.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Watch on Netflix.