In case you were missing them, we’ve got a new streaming documentary to tell a buzzy story from pop culture past that’s also endorsed by the central subjects and estates and fundamentally uncritical of any of the information they offer – but this time it’s about WHAM!, so we can’t complain too much. The band featured George Michael and some exceptional hairdos, but apart from that, you might wonder what motive other than nostalgia there’d be to investigate the history of a garishly poppy British duo.
Thankfully, none other than Elton John sums up the evergreen appeal of the band in archive footage from the 1985 Ivor Novello Awards, Britain’s foremost composition and songwriting awards, where Michael would scoop up his first trophy. As Elton tells us, what a culture dismisses as disposable, “teenybopper” fluff actually ends up aging better than the trendier music of the time doing the dismissing. Once we shrug off our cynicism and embrace pop that compromises none of its bouncy sentimentality, we can appreciate the craft that went into it, as well as how it directly, authentically speaks to a youth whose perspective has always been undermined.
The political value of WHAM!’s discography may be slighter than many other musicians of the time, but it does have a rich cultural context, one that director Chris Smith (American Movie, Fyre) is clearly capable of dissecting but that WHAM! still feels unable to mine. Is it enough that we get to hear from Andrew Ridgely, the other half of a band dominated by George Michael’s star power? Or that there are reels of restored film showing every corner of their highly publicized lives, or that we’re reminded that, good lord, WHAM! had a hell of a good string of bangers? Absolutely it’s enough, meaning Smith’s film is a suitably breezy, affecting, and attractive watch.
The film consists of archive footage, photographs, and other media tracing the pre-teenage friendship of George Michael (real name Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou) and Ridgely and the unbelievable way they ascended to stardom – unbelievable because these two goofy North London pretty boys basically fell into being teenage heartthrobs with no experience bar a year-long high school band and one (1) music industry connection.
Their first few songs channeled a clear disillusionment at poor socio-economic opportunities offered to early 80s youth, one that was swiftly jettisoned when Michael and Ridgely’s circumstances shifted from unemployment status to teenybopper icons. It’s not that WHAM! is uninterested in probing deeper meanings behind these decisions; it’s that it’s literally unable to – the light, airy form of the documentary will not structurally permit forays into more complex lines of questioning.
Overlaying the footage are lengthy voiceovers from Michael and Ridgely: while Ridgely was interviewed by Smith throughout production, Michael’s words are compiled from interviews he gave over his career before his tragic passing in 2016. Because of this, part of WHAM! will always feel like a eulogy, with one friend commenting on the words spoken by another while he was alive. Often, Ridgely seems to be directly responding to, and sometimes correcting, the memories and observations of Michael, playfully undermining his superstar friend’s mythmaking but also revealing, at times, his own defensiveness – especially as it became clear that his musical partner is destined for fame and talent far outmatching his own.
But the conversation between Michael and Ridgely can only ever be one-sided, and it often ends up feeling choppy in how it recounts WHAM! history. As the voiceover switches between subjects, it feels like Smith is cutting increasingly small snippets of audio footage, compiling them in a patchwork that, instead of sounding like two people talking, just reveals how separate the two subjects are. It’s obviously unfair to expect Smith to use Michael’s voice in a way that sounds like he’s answering new questions, but it adds to an issue that gets worse as WHAM! unfolds – this documentary seems less like a fresh perspective and more like a repackaged product.
In terms of the doc’s focus, a choice was made to stick religiously to WHAM!’s five-year lifetime, but while this means we get a full picture of both band members, it can’t help but feel like a sliver of the whole story. WHAM! ends when WHAM! ended, with no room to reflect on George Michael’s death, his public coming out, or Ridgely’s unsuccessful entertainment career efforts (actually, maybe best to leave that out). Without any thoughtful resolution, WHAM! doesn’t just feel incomplete; the puff-piece nature of the film is emboldened. Maybe everything incisive to say about George Michael has been said elsewhere; maybe there’s not that much incisive to say about WHAM! anyway. Netflix’s latest music doc is a nice tour through a hyper-specific period in commercial British pop, but efforts to turn it into anything more profound sound like a careless whisper.
WHAM! premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, July 5, 2023.