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Dan Webster reviews "Wham!"


In a recent article in The Guardian, the writer Alexis Petridis discusses the memoir written by Miki Berenyi—once a member of the British alt-rock band Lush. His point is that Berenyi’s book, titled Fingers Crossed: How Music Saved Me from Success, is representative of a current publishing trend.

“It’s a fiercely honest, unsparing and very funny book,” Petridis wrote, “but, with the greatest of respect, the fact that a publisher approached the former frontwoman of Lush in the first place tells you a lot about the current appetite for rock and pop memoirs.”

No argument. In recent years, we’ve seen written reminiscences by the likes of Dave Grohl, Eddie Van Halen, Stevie Van Zandt and John Mellencamp. And the same could be said of rock and pop documentary films. Just a short list of Netflix documentaries, for example, detail the careers of such artists as Bob Dylan, Beyoncé, the jazz musician Lee Morgan, Ron and Russel Mael (aka the Sparks brothers), Justin Timberlake, Sam Cooke… and so on.

Petridis cites various reasons for the recent glut of such studies in print, at least—one being that publishers have been quick to pick up on a trend popular with a certain sector of the reading public. As for what those particular readers are seeking, he wrote, “[T]here remains a cohort of music fans—most of them, you suspect, old enough to remember an era when the music press mattered—still keen to read the kind of long-form music writing and analysis it provided.”

Again, the same could be said of the documentaries. But, of course, the added benefit of film is that, in most cases, they can also feature the music itself—much of it rendered through archival footage.

That’s certainly the case with Wham!, the Netflix documentary directed by Chris Smith, which tells the story of the 1980s pop duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. Teaming up in 1981, the pair of school friends over the next five years became one of the most popular bands of that era, with hit songs such as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Careless Whisper.” By the time they broke up, they’d toured the world—including a groundbreaking visit to China—and in the process sold a reported 30 million records worldwide.

Smith’s documentary, augmented by a mass of footage from the time—and narrated both by Ridgeley and by passages taken from recorded interviews with the late Michael, who died in 2016 at the relatively tender age of 53—captures all of the excitement of those early years. Not to mention, arguably, the spirit of the music popular at that time, much of it which played ad nauseum on the first gestation of the cable channel MTV.

Michael was born Georgios Kyriacos Panayioatou, the son of a Greek-Cypriot immigrant. He and Ridgeley met as teenagers. And while Ridgeley was your typical obstreperous kid, Michael—whom Ridgeley called by the nickname “Yog”—was introverted and nothing like the seemingly carefree performer he would evolve into. The two bonded and soon, at the insistence of Ridgeley, began making music.

By 1986, however, Michael—who had long before taken over the writing duties of the group and chafed at the limitations that being part of Wham! required—started anew as a solo act. And he was an immediate hit: his debut solo album, titled simply Faith, spawned four singles that reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, remained the No. 1 Billboard album for 12 weeks and ended up raking up $25 million in sales.

Yet what Smith’s film Wham! only hints at—Michael’s insecure nature, his worries about how his sexual orientation as a gay man would affect his career—weighed on him. And while he and Ridgeley loved to party, Smith doesn’t dwell on Michael’s later substance abuse, nor does he even mention his legal troubles, including his 1998 arrest for public lewdness.

But then, none of that is the point of Wham! the documentary. Like a lot of ‘80s pop music itself, the film stays mostly upbeat—just as Michael and Ridgeley did whenever they took the stage all those years ago. In that way, it fuels the fantasy that the music itself generated. And in doing so, it manages to hide the personal torment of someone like George Michael behind a mask of big smiles and bouncy songs.

For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.


Movies 101 host Dan Webster is a senior film critic for Spokane Public Radio and a blogger for

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