By Richard Roper
In one of those ubiquitous, look-at-our-cool-tech- features car commercials that will charm the socks off you until it drives you crazy, a father plays a form of peekaboo with his daughter by repeatedly playing the first few notes of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” by Wham!, with the little girl giggling every time she hears that “Jitterbug … jitterbug” beginning.
By the time the spot is over, you might not remember the exact feature on the car they’re pitching, but you’ll likely have “Wake Me Up Be- fore You Go-Go” stuck in your head for the immediate future. That might be happening right now as well.
Such is the enduring power of the English pop duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, who might not have left the heaviest and most impactful footprint on the pop culture landscape during their brief but blazing five-year run in the 1980s – but it’s a foot- print that resonates to this day. Come on, who doesn’t
love “Careless Whisper” and “Everything She Wants”? Who doesn’t want to hear “Last Christmas” every Christmas?
In the breezy and engaging documentary “Wham!” on Netflix, the acclaimed director Chris Smith (“American Movie,” “Fyre,” “Tiger King”) strikes just the right notes, if you will, by telling the story of Wham! respectfully and with- out irony. There’s no overreaching attempt to paint the band as anything more than they were, no roster of professors and music experts and somber social commentators weighing in.
Relying on extensive audio of interviews with Ridgeley and Michael, director Smith essentially places the lads in the position of narrating their own story, which is augmented by a dazzling array of home movies and videos, TV appearances, concert footage and be- hind-the-scenes material. The end result is a feel-good documentary about a feel-good band who were never destined for a decades-long run but had one hell of a good time dancing at the top of the pop charts for a few crazy years.
If you’re a longtime Wham! aficionado, there’s probably little here that you didn’t al- ready know; if you have only a passing knowledge of the
band and its music, this is the only documentary about them you’ll ever need to see.
“Wham!” for the most part follows a simple chronological path, starting with George and Andrew in voice-over, separate interviews recalling how they met in North London. Andrew was 12 when George was an 11-year-old newcomer to An- drew’s school.
Andrew: “There was a new boy with … these big win- dow-frame glasses …”
George: “I was very awk- ward, slightly porky, very strange-looking bloke, and quite shy.”
Andrew: “Our teacher introduced him as Georgios Panayiotou [and said], ‘Who’s going to look after the new boy?’”
George: “Andrew put up his hand. I genuinely believed there was something predestined about it.”
Sweet and genuine – just like the friendship that quickly developed between the two boys, who shared a passion for pop music and were record- ing crude demos by the time they were in their late teens. For those of us who remember the cotton-candy confections such as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” it comes as a bit of surprise to learn the duo’s early efforts were relatively cutting-edge mixes of rap, disco and pop, with social commentary reflecting the troubled times in the England of the early 1980s. On “Wham! Rap (Social Mix),” they sang:
Hey everybody take a look at me
I’ve got street credibility … Wham! Bam!
I am a man!
Job or no job, you can’t tell
me that I’m not …
Okay, so they weren’t U2 or the Beatles. Soon, however, Wham! was embracing a lighter, bouncier, pure pop sound and look, with thousands of adolescent and teenage girls screaming madly as the boys paraded around stage in their colorful and quite silly outfits and played the hits.
We learn how Michael came out to Andrew, who kept the secret for his dear friend until George publicly announced he was gay in 1998, long after the band had broken up. We follow the duo’s ascendancy to superstardom in Great Britain and later in the United States – and witness their global impact when they made an historic 10 day visit to China in 1985.
By the time Michael appeared solo in the video for
“Careless Whisper” in 1984, it was already clear that George was on a path to join the likes of Madonna and Michael Jack- son as a worldwide pop super- star, while Andrew was … not. When Elton John introduced George to sing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” at Live Aid in 1985, George and An- drew took the stage, arm in arm. George then took center stage, while Andrew joined the back- ground singers.
This is a documentary about Wham! and Wham! only, so it ends with the duo performing a farewell concert in front of 72,000 at London’s Wembley Stadium on June 28, 1986, along with a few more audio snippets from George and Andrew about their legacy. We know that George went on to massive success as a solo artist, selling more than 120 million records, before his death at just 53 in 2016. Andrew has been out of the spot- light for much of the last many decades – but for a handful of years in the 1980s, nobody burned brighter than Wham!