D. Morrison/Getty Images
Pop duo Wham! Radio and television in the 1980s were dominated by feel-good, fun-loving hits that provided an antidote to the bleak landscape of the Cold War.
Now, a new Netflix documentary titled “Wham!” It looks at how George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley formed a friendship as teenagers and went on to create one of the most distinctive sounds of the post-disco era.
Director Chris Smith’s film is a personal story that often relies on footage and audio recorded by the duo themselves. Ridgeley’s mother also kept scrapbooks of their upbringing, which began when they became inseparable in high school.
Chris Smith said, “The whole movie was about this temporary nature of youth. It’s something that’s so beautiful, but it can’t be sustained.”
The documentary combines existing footage and audio of Michael (who died in 2016) with current interviews with Ridgeley.
Smith told NPR’s Rob Schmitz, “George’s interviews had to be archived, but all of Andrew’s interviews, we sat in the studio for several days talking about that time period.” “But going back and forth between the two feels so effortless and it’s a testament to how alive that time remains in Andrew’s mind.”
The documentary, which Smith compared to an archeological venture, revealed an early recording of one of their biggest hits, “Careless Whisper”.
Smith said, “What really struck us when we were making it was how complete the look and sound of Wham! was from the beginning.”
Michael was still a teenager when he wrote “Young Guns”.
The song led to their breakout moment, with the two rapping about being young and free on a BBC music show top of the Pops In 1982. Wow! This went on till 1986. Michael and Ridgeley parted amicably when she was only 23.
Songwriting by Michael Wham! was developing outside the limits of was known for and Ridgeley understood this, Smith said. Michael became a successful solo artist and owned the airwaves and MTV until the 90s.
Smith said, “I think it’s a story that’s difficult to understand because it’s so rare for people to be on top.”
These highlights of the interview with Chris Smith have been edited for clarity.
The first version of the song “Careless Whisper” was not well received.
It was one of the first three demos he recorded on a four-track recorder at his home. And I think the thing that really surprised us when we were making it was how perfectly the look and sound of Wham! It was from the beginning. You know, I would have assumed when I got these demo tapes that they would be kind of rough versions. And, once he got access to more experienced producers he found his voice. But it was really early on, and George’s talent in particular, you can see in his rendition of “Careless Whisper” on the demo.
George Michael struggles to speak openly about his sexuality
At that time, the approaches were different, you know? And AIDS was very widespread at that time, and there was a lot of concern about it. And so I think when we listen back to the interview tape, you know, it really came out, they didn’t – George didn’t want his father to know it. And they were like, “You can’t tell your dad.” It wasn’t like trying to save his career or, you know, anything on that level. But it really was as simple as not telling your dad.
To Michael’s dismay, “Last Christmas” did not reach No. 1 on the charts, and was beaten by “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, which he had worked on as part of Band Aid.
I think one of the things that we find so enlightening and reassuring when we read his (George Michael’s) interviews is that he always had this kind of absolute, direct frankness and a kind of honesty in his interviews. The way he communicated his thoughts was very human. He was very proud and happy and felt great to be a part of Band Aid. But also, you know, I think there was a part of them that really wanted these four No. 1s in one year. And they knew they had it with “Last Christmas” until he was recording Band Aid and realized it was probably going to be hard for them to beat.
breaking down on the crest of your success
Well, I mean, I think it’s a story that’s hard to understand because it’s so rare for people to be on top. But I think there were several things involved.
I guess George was struggling to live in the realm of Wham! was, you know? And I think Andrew, being so close and being such a good friend, understood that to some degree.
And often, these stories end on a negative note. And it was something that – for me, the whole movie was about this temporary nature of youth, you know? It is something that is very beautiful, but it cannot be sustained. It has to end. And to — to be at the core of it and understand it and accept it, there’s such a compassionate quality to it that I don’t think you see that often.
The audio version of this story was produced by Katy Cline and Milton Guevara. The digital version was edited by Lisa Lambert.