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A new documentary on the band Wham! shows the 'temporal nature of youth'

English singer-songwriters George Michael (1963 - 2016) and Andrew Ridgeley of pop duo Wham! at the Ivor Novello Awards, UK, 14th March 1985.
D. Morrison
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Getty Images
English singer-songwriters George Michael (1963 - 2016) and Andrew Ridgeley of pop duo Wham! at the Ivor Novello Awards, UK, 14th March 1985.

The pop duo Wham! dominated radio and television in the 1980s with feel-good, fun-loving hits that provided an antidote to the bleak outlook of the Cold War.

Now, a new Netflix documentary titled "Wham!" looks at how George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley formed a teenage friendship and went on to create one of the most distinct sounds of the post-Disco era.

The film by director Chris Smith is a personal take that often relies on footage and audio the two recorded themselves. Ridgeley's mother kept scrapbooks of their rise, as well, starting with when they became inseparable in high school.

"The whole movie was about this temporal nature of youth. It's something that is so beautiful, but it can't be sustained," said Chris Smith.

The documentary interweaves existing footage and audio of Michael (who died in 2016) with current interviews of Ridgeley.

"George's interviews had to be archival, but all of Andrew's, we sat down for days and days just sort of talking through that time period in the studio," Smith told NPR's Rob Schmitz. "But the back and forth between the two feels so effortless and it's such a testament to how vivid that time has stayed within Andrew's mind."

The documentary, which Smith likened to an archeological venture, unearthed an early recording of one of their biggest hits, "Careless Whisper."

"The thing that shocked us when we were making it was how fully formed the vision and sound of Wham! was, even from the inception," Smith said.

Michael was still a teenager when he wrote "Young Guns."

That song led to their breakout moment, with the two rapping about being young and free on the BBC Music show Top of the Pops in 1982. Wham! lasted until 1986. Michael and Ridgeley amicably parted ways when they were just 23.

Michael's songwriting was evolving outside the confines of what Wham! was known for and Ridgeley understood this, Smith said. Michael became a successful solo artist, continuing to own the air waves and MTV throughout the 90s.

"I think it's a story that's hard to understand because it's very rare for people to leave at the top," Smith said.

These highlights from the interview with Chris Smith have been edited for clarity.

On the first version of the song "Careless Whisper" not being well-received

It was one of the first three demos that they recorded on a four-track recorder at their home. And the thing that I think shocked us when we were making it was how fully formed the vision and the sound of Wham! was even from the inception. You know, I would have assumed in getting these demo tapes, that they would have just been kind of crude versions. And, that once they had access to more experienced producers that they found their sound. But it was really there at the very beginning, and especially George's talent, you can see in the vocals on "Careless Whisper" on the demo.

On George Michael struggling with being open about his sexuality

At that time, the attitudes were different, you know? And AIDS was very rampant at that time, and there was a lot of concern around that. And so I think when we listen back to the interview tapes, you know, it really came down to, they didn't - George didn't want his dad to find out. And they were like, "you can't tell your dad." It was less about, like, trying to protect their careers or, you know, anything on that level. But it really was something as simple as just not wanting to tell your dad.

On Michael's disappointment "Last Christmas" didn't reach Number 1 in the charts, losing out to "Do They Know It's Christmas," which he worked on as part of Band Aid

I think one of the things we found so enlightening and sort of reassuring in going through his (George Michael's) interviews is that there was always this sort of absolute, direct frankness and sort of honesty in his interviews. It was very human, the way that he communicated his thoughts. He was very proud and happy and felt great to be a part of Band Aid. But at the same time, you know, I think that there was part of them that really wanted these four Number 1s in one year. And they knew they had it with "Last Christmas" until he was recording Band Aid and realized that that was probably going to be hard for them to beat.

On breaking up at the height of their success

Well, I mean, I think it's a story that's hard to understand because it's very rare for people to leave at the top. But I think that there were many things at play.

I think George was struggling to sort of stay within the confines of what Wham! was, you know? And I think Andrew, being so close and being such a good friend, had sort of understood that.

And so often, these stories end in a negative place. And it was something that - to me, the whole movie was about this temporal nature of youth, you know? It's something that is so beautiful, but it can't be sustained. It has to come to an end. And for - to be at the heart of it and to understand that and to accept it, there's such a gracious quality to that that I don't think you see that often.

The audio version of this story was produced by Kaity Kline and Milton Guevara. The digital version was edited by Lisa Lambert. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Reena Advani is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and NPR's news podcast Up First.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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