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Wham! (2023)

We have it on very good authority that when our fearless leader was a young girl growing up in the burbs of Toronto, she convinced her parents to allow her to plaster one entire wall of her bedroom with fanzine images and her own pencil portraits of her two favorite music groups. It was the 1980s, she was 12 years old, and the word tween had not yet been invented. Both musical groups she deemed worthy of such an honour were from across the pond. The British musical invasion which began with The Beatles continued for many decades and arguably has never ended. But what is often overlooked is that these Brits did not just storm America, but Canada, and further afield like Australia. So, whose visages were worthy to grace her bedroom wall? While some of the space went to Duran Duran whose catchy pop anthems like The Reflex (flex flex flex flex flex), went to #1 on the American Billboard charts in 1984, the majority of the wall shrine was built for two men – George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley of Wham.

Wham holds a special place in the history of 80s pop music and thanks to the new Netflix documentary, Wham!, we can now gain a fuller understanding of the origin story, development, international acclaim, and chart-topping dominance of this funky, soulful, fun-loving, and jubilant duo. The addictive energy and joy of the talented pair stemmed from a simple fact, they met as schoolboys in 1975 and became true friends at the tender ages of 11 (George) and 12 (Andrew). The sweet back story? When George arrived at his new North London school as, in his own words, “an awkward, shy boy,” it was Andrew who answered their form teacher’s request for a fellow student to “take care of” the new arrival who he promptly nicknamed Yog. The rest, as they say, is pop music history! What becomes clear in the film is how their identities as Brits who were outside of mainstream whiteness – Andrew’s father was Egyptian and George’s, Greek – also served to bond the young boys. By the way, George’s real name was Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou.

Even those who think they know a lot about Wham will surely learn something new from the film. The 92-minute documentary is narrated by voiceovers from both George and Andrew. But while the film is full of images of them in their youth conceptualizing music, filming music videos, travelling, performing in live concerts, and hamming it up with friends and family, the more mature and disembodied voices of the pair as narrators lends a sense of gravitas and nostalgia as the two look back at their careers; Ridgeley from today and Michael, who passed away on Christmas day 2016, from a period when his solo career had been cemented. The film is full of intimate details of their maturing and dedicated friendship, their emotional experiences along the tumultuous journey of “making it,” and their reaction to the balancing act of maintaining sanity in the midst of international super stardom. Many gems come courtesy of Andrew’s devoted mother who tracked the duo’s musical aspirations and the rise of Wham from their boyhood days with meticulously kept scrapbooks which mark every significant milestone. For instance, scrapbook #1 tracked the pop sensation from March 1982 to February 1983.

An interesting revelation is that the duo Wham began in 1979 as a band of five boys called The Executive who made, wait for it, ska music! But when the dedication of the other members faded, George and Andrew who had always written music together, carried on “joined at the hip”.  Thus, by 1981, there were two. The new name, Wham, came from a rap Andrew spontaneously did while the pair were out clubbing in London’s West End. Then, with £20 and a makeshift broom-mic, the dreamers made their first demo tape in the front room of Andrew’s mother’s house. The result? The beginnings of the rap-disco-pop anthem Wham Rap, the sultry poolside hit Club Tropicana, and the enduring love song Careless Whisper! After suffering a succession of rather brutal rejections, it was Andrew who cleverly deposited their demo through the mailbox of the home of the mother of record executive Mark Dean. Dean who described his determination to avoid the pesky 18-year-olds, had by then, already experienced considerable success by launching the careers of Soft Cell and ABC.

The result of their persistence was their first record deal signed in March 1982. With their first single Wham Rap! (Enjoy what you do) dropping as a 45 (remember records?), credited to Panos (the short form of Panayiotou) and Ridgeley, as George put it, “there is a very urgent need for a stage name”. But their predicted hit didn’t crack the top 100. Next came Young Guns which hit #42. Not cracking the top 40 was devastating for George and self-doubt started to creep in. Then came the miracle phone call of November 1982 from a British TV music institution, and the only prime time chart show at the time, Top of the Pops. The offer? Would Wham appear on the program at short notice because another guest had cancelled? For context, Top of the Pops had featured the likes of The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Queen, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Elton John, to name a few. Their answer was of course yes! As documented in another scrapbook, Thursday, November 4th, 1982 was the date that would transform their lives forever. Alongside Shirlie Holliman (Andrew’s girlfriend of many years) and Dee C. Lee, the backing singers, the pair performed Young Guns. Although in George’s words their choreography was “naff,” and in Andrew’s “amateurish,” they also understood how original and different they were from the other UK pop acts. The rest as they say, is history. Young Guns reach #3 on the charts by November 30 and the re-released Wham Rap went to #8.

But with stardom came the pressure to conform. This pressure resulted in Bad Boys, a song which they both dismissed as formulaic. But the strength of their partnership and self-belief was soon revealed in their determination to chart their own path. Instead of continuing to decry the injustices of the displacement of youth in 80s Britain, the pair began to embrace the possibilities of hedonism and beauty with songs like Club Tropicana. Filmed in Ibiza, the video shoot and short post-shoot vacation became the backdrop for George’s life-changing declaration. Calling Andrew to his room, he revealed that he was gay. As Andrew recalled, George’s sexuality had no bearing on their relationship and their music. As any true friend, he just wanted George to be happy. The beauty of George’s (self)revelation was commemorated in his moving ballad, Nothing looks the same in the Light (1984), about his emotional and physical attraction for a man that had shaken him from a self-denial maintained through a myth of bisexuality. But although George had come out to his friends, it would be years before he would do so with his family. The film also charts another significant challenge, the friction that occurred when George’s desire to assert his song writing above Andrew’s made Andrew uncomfortable.

Another sign of the duo’s stony determination and triumphant self-belief? When George returned from Alabama after recording a version of Careless Whisper with the uber-famous producer Jerry Wexler, he and Andrew rejected the average-sounding, characterless version, instead sending George back to the studio to produce the track himself. After auditioning ten saxophone players to get to Steve Gregory, the unforgettable intro of the now classic love song was sealed. It was Andrew’s selflessness that allowed George to release the song as a solo single. As George recalled, “We always understood that there would be a point where there would be a crossover between Wham and the start of my solo career.”

The film also shares how the pair drew on their everyday lives as inspiration to create their memorable hits. Andrew’s note to his dad, “Wake me up up before you go,” soon became, the hit song Wake me up before you go go. This retro pop sensation was aided by the neon-coloured clothing and black on white “Choose Life” T-shirts that had nothing to do with abortion debates. The feel-good bee pop, bouncy hit went to #1 and suddenly George was a singer-song writer-producer!

On the heels of their string of successful singles, their debut album Fantastic, climbed to #1 and stayed on the charts for 2 and a half years. Other highlights? The UK tour, the first US promotional tour, and the international stadium tour with dates across Europe, Asia, New Zealand, and Australia. Then more hits including the smash Last Christmas (1984), penned by George, that stuck – much to his chagrin – at #2 on the chart, one below the smash Band Aid hit Do they know it’s Christmas? on which George also performed. Then came a huge break through with a brilliant piece of PR wizardry. Documented in scrapbook #25 (1985), as the first modern pop group to be invited to China, Wham would invade America by first playing communist China! With the eventual American stadium tour came successive American #1 hits. The huge, packed stadiums were one thing, but as Andrew revealed, George craved the #1 hits as validation of his song writing ability. Seeing their names at the top of the charts was personal affirmation of his abilities.

While all this was going on, the film reveals that they were of course, as young, twenty-something men, grappling with the newfound wealth and access that their fame allowed. That meant access – to places, things, and people. And for Andrew who admitted matter-of-factly that “I was rather more poorly behaved than George,” that fame also meant access to women.

For people in their fifties and sixties especially, this film is also a thrilling ride down memory lane and a nostalgic reminder of the soundtrack of their childhood and adolescence. Hearing how favourite songs were conceived and seeing them performed in music videos and to sold out stadiums will certainly conjure fond memories for many, but also respect for the complexity of Wham’s seemingly simple music. For instance, Everything she Wants (1984) – the upbeat, grooving, abundantly danceable hit from the album Make it Big (1984) – was the ultimate anti-love song. In it, George sings about feeling trapped in a loveless relationship with a gold-digging girlfriend who is plotting to impregnate herself to extract money from him. It is anti-conformity and anti-capitalist. In it he sings, “how could you settle for a boy like me, when all I could see was the end of the week, all the things we sign and the things we buy, ain’t gonna keep us together, it’s just a matter of time”. Breaking the pop mold, Everything she wants was a falling out of love song, or perhaps, a never was in love song! George sings with a mix of heartbreak and exasperation, “my situation, never changes, walking in and out of that door, like as stranger, but with wages, I give you all you say you want more.”

What the film makes clear is that it was George and Andrew’s friendship, which never faded, that became the foundation for their stunning collaborations and global success, providing stability and trust through the lean years and difficult times. In their own words, Wham was a product of their playful brotherhood, a human and unpredictable mess, based on their shared desires to always have a good time. And it was the authenticity of their friendship, energy, and joy that allowed so many around the world to fall in love with their music and with both of them.