‘WHAM!’ recalls the work and fame of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley in "Wham!"
George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley in “Wham!”

The ’80s pop duo WHAM!, comprised of the (then) closeted George Michael and his straight best friend Andrew Ridgeley, offered fun, exuberant pop music to fans around the globe. The pair originally wrote and performed more socially conscious songs with their early rap tunes, but it would be their legacy to have a string of infectious upbeat No. 1 hits. The lively, high energy spirit of WHAM! comes across throughout director Chris Smith’s joyful documentary, “WHAM!,” which benefits immensely from the hours of personal interviews, photographs, video clips, dozens of scrapbooks Ridgeley’s mother created(!), and archival footage of Michael and Ridgeley that are nimbly stitched together.

The film traces the band’s phenomenal and short-lived career from its inception until its bittersweet breakup in 1986. Smith starts at the beginning, when the duo first met at age 12. Michael (originally named Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou; Ridgeley refers to him as Georgi) was the new kid in school. Andrew quickly befriended him, and they bonded like brothers over music and more. Andrew was the outgoing one, while Michael was painfully insecure. Those qualities lasted throughout much of their career — although one might not expect that given how Michael was the band’s frontman, who performed, wrote, and produced many of the band’s songs. Ridgeley remained largely in the background, and from his account in the documentary, he seemed comfortable with that role. (It is easy and necessary to take his comments at face value.)

But what is emphasized in the film is how Ridgeley was so incredibly supportive of Michael. This goes beyond just helping Michael achieve success that he measured by validation in the pop charts — but also when Michael came out to Ridgeley. In response to Michael’s homosexuality, Ridgeley acknowledged, “It had no bearing on us.” (Remember: this was the early 1980s, when being an openly gay pop star was likely career-killing.)

“WHAM!” dwells more on the duo’s position as teen idols than on Michael’s sexuality — which may be a good thing — although the film does reveal that Michael lost his nerve to come out to his father after telling Ridgeley he was gay. The guys were wholesome and attractive youths, generating legions of female teenage fans who made Michael the uncomfortable center of attention. Meanwhile “Randy Andy” made tabloid headlines for his off-stage shenanigans with women. Clips of the guys being grilled about female fans and girlfriends in interviews are awkward, in part because Michael was closeted.

The success that WHAM! experienced so quickly took them by surprise, they claim, but the fame, when it came, was addicting — especially for the self-doubting Michael. The band initially had trouble connecting with a label as their music achieved a “disappointing response” when they released a song that failed to crack the music chart’s top 100. Discouraged, they tried again with a single that reached No. 42 on the charts, but still was not generating the exposure they craved. Then an opportunity to perform on “Top of the Pops” changed everything.

“WHAM!” delivers some goosebumps as the band has its initial success, which they sustained for years, selling out tours and even making a trip to China. (They were the first Western pop group to perform there.) While this historic event is covered in the doc, the importance of it feels a bit trivial. More valuable are the performance clips, which can seem quaint or amateur, but they were “original” back in the day. And if nothing else, they showcase the singers’ undeniable charisma.

The copious archival footage will surely please fans who will enjoy seeing everything from WHAM!’s early home movies to concert footage, music videos, and candid moments backstage. The extended interviews also reveal the duo’s attitudes and ambitions. Watching the teens mature into the men they became is very appealing — and not just because the guys are performing in shorts or nearly shirtless on stage. (Those scenes do provide a kind of guilty pleasure in part because they are simultaneously progressive for the time and cringey.) But all these moments offer viewers an opportunity to understand the mindset of these young men at the time. They were having fun, and simultaneously mainstream superstars and groundbreaking (e.g., the China tour) as their popularity soared.

Smith’s film serves up pure nostalgia as it provides some insights, such as how the two performers earned little to no money despite having a triumphant tour and massive hit records. There is also some trivia, such as how a note Michael left Ridgeley generated the title of their hit song, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”

The appeal of WHAM! was that they captured the zeitgeist of the youth at the time. It was their image as much as their catchy music that endeared them to their adoring fan base. And it was selling that physical persona that took its toll on both performers. Michael wanted to be known for his songwriting, not his looks. As their fame grew, Ridgeley felt he was coasting along, and indicates he was fine letting Michael have his moments in the sun.

“WHAM!” does show how Michael was using the band to pave the way for solo success — something Ridgeley says he never felt threatened by. As he wrote, produced, and performed songs including “Careless Whisper” and “Last Christmas,” Michael had ambitions that went beyond WHAM!’s success. Moreover, Michael’s participation in Live Aid, where he sang a duet with Elton John, (Ridgeley sang background), followed by the 1984 Band Aid single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” proves him to be a voice that had an amazing future.

One almost wishes that Smith would follow up “WHAM!” with a doc on Michael’s solo career, because he makes the band’s story sing, and there still seems to be so much more to tell.

“Wham!” | Directed by Chris Smith | Available on Netflix