‘WHAM!’ Documents the Meteoric Rise of One of Pop Music’s Most Iconic Groups

‘WHAM!’ Documents the Meteoric Rise of One of Pop Music’s Most Iconic Groups
Wham! Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael in Wham! Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Directed by Chris Smith, “WHAM!” documents the meteoric rise of one of pop music’s most iconic groups: the duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, who topped the charts in the 1980s with their buoyant performances. During the Thatcher years, WHAM! helped galvanize a whole generation into contemplating its fate via such unforgettable songs as “Club Tropicana,” “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go,” “Freedom,” “I’m Your Man,” and “Last Christmas.”

Reminiscent of what their predecessors had done during the so-called British Invasion of the 1960s, Michael and Ridgeley carried their message to millions of adoring fans around the world. Their American tours were legendary, and the duo became the very first western pop act to play in China. WHAM!’s farewell concert, at Wembley in London, was another smash performance, as shown in the final, climactic scenes of this documentary.

Smith’s film had its origins in 2019, just after Ridgeley had published his memoir WHAM! George & Me. A Hollywood studio approached him for the book rights for a potential biopic. Ridgeley gave his blessing, believing very much that his story could be inspirational to a new generation of fans. “WHAM! represents the vitality of youth and life,” he declared. “But I was surprised by the number of youngsters that I met on the book tour who had either come to the music through their parents or by themselves. Teenagers, and then much younger kids. And especially with the younger kids, you can see that sheer joy and excitement that the music conveyed.”

Wham! George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley in Wham! Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

The documentary follows in excruciating detail the lives of both George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, who had been childhood friends. Describing its trajectory, Emmy-winning producer John Battsek said, “This was an entirely upbeat story about two kids who were great friends at school, who lived this incredible four-year period. They kind of lived the dream that many school kids have, I’m sure – it’s either you want to play football for your favorite team, or you want to be in a band with your best friend. And so the fact that we were going to be able to tell an entirely positive story that was as much about friendship as it was about anything, I thought was really appealing. Obviously, the magic ingredient was all that great music.”

Ridgeley agreed with this observation, adding “WHAM! was really about us as friends and our vision for our mutual perspective on music and writing songs initially. But what underpinned WHAM! – and made it attractive and appealing over and above the music – was the nature of our friendship.”

As the filmmakers approached their task, they opted to eschew what they called “a more traditional ‘talking heads’-style” documentary in favor of one that used archival clips complemented by audio interviews of both performers. Unfortunately, that creative decision gives the film a rambling, disjointed look. Is it really necessary to include scores of scrapbook items in chronological order, including grainy home movies, shots of tabloid newspaper pages, and other ephemera, all presented as dizzying flashbacks?

A talking head or two (or three or four) might have helped give some interpretive weight to the material. As a result of the unfortunate “cinema-verité” approach, we end up with a film that at times appears rather superficial and jejune, especially when it comes to unpacking some of the core issues in the story, such as the impact of George Michael’s sexual orientation on his friendship with Andrew, or the realities of disaffected youth culture in Thatcher’s England.

Those who love WHAM’s music, however, will not be disappointed by this freewheeling film, which includes plenty of music to delight the ear, including rare VHS footage of its 1983 “Club Fantastic” tour that was fortuitously discovered just in time to be included. A more substantive treatment, though, is devoutly to be wished.

Wham! Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael in Wham! Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023

Grade : B-

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Here’s the trailer of the film.

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