Director Chris Smith made a name for himself with 1999’s American Movie, a documentary that followed two aspiring Midwestern filmmakers whose passion for the medium was rivaled only by their sheer ineptitude. Yet for all the accusations of such, Smith never actively exploited his subjects, ultimately delivering a reverential portrait of art as a healing force of nature, where good intentions and intense fondness collide with reality to create something wholly singular and completely unforgettable, with labels such as “good” and “bad” losing all meaning in the process. It’s not altogether surprising, then, to see Smith tackle the storied history of British pop band Wham! with his latest feature, the appropriately titled WHAM! The band was born from the minds of two eager teenagers whose passion for music was rivaled only by their sheer ineptitude when it came to creating it themselves — or so music critics and historians would like you to believe. Public perception and self-awareness — or lack thereof — are major sticking points when it comes to Smith’s thematic interests, and WHAM! is a suitable embodiment of these particular sentiments.
The story goes: In 1979, Andrew Ridgeley was a high schooler living life to its fullest, prioritizing music and fun above studies and responsibility. Enter Georgios Panayiotou, a new student who Ridgeley offers to take under his wing. What follows is a friendship for the ages, as the two young lads funnel their love of music into a makeshift band that would soon become known as Wham! A six-minute demo recorded in Ridgeley’s kitchen leads to the duo being signed by a local label, where they manage to produce a few tunes that unfortunately hover near the lower end of the music charts. Realizing that their particular brand of music — socially conscious rapping (yes, you read that correctly) — isn’t working, they decide to embrace the pop movement, fully aware that their young ages and good looks cast them as catnip for the female fans fueling the genre’s popularity.
Smith opts to tell the story of Wham! solely through archival video and audio footage, weaving the two together so as to both look and sound like a scrapbook come to life — a fact made quite literal when it’s revealed that Andrew’s mother conveniently made numerous scrapbooks chronicling Wham!’s stardom and epic rise up the charts. Panayiotou would soon take on a stage name — George Michael — and the skyrocket began, with the duo delivering numerous worldwide smash hits, including chart-busters “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Freedom.” But not everything was as perfect as Wham!’s color-coordinated costuming. Michael came out to Ridgeley as gay in 1982, but the two decided it would be best if he kept it a secret from both his parents and the public. As Michael explains in voiceover, he was a young kid who didn’t know any better, and it seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Unfortunately, this secret would ultimately come to serve as Michael’s own prison, a painful irony as Michael always saw music as his salvation, the thing that afforded him a path to express his true self. Michael soon took over full music-writing duties from Ridgeley, who was happy to simply focus on the band’s wardrobe, with Michael ultimately taking on producing duties, as well.
The story of Wham! is a rather brief one, as the band only lasted five short years, with Michael going on to become a successful solo artist only a year later. Smith isn’t interested in manipulating any sort of seedy histrionics fueled by jealousy and rage, seemingly because the duo’s parting was both mutual and amicable, with Ridgeley desperate to retire from the public eye, the very one that Michael used as a gauge for his worth. This leaves WHAM! to operate as a more placid affair than viewers might expect — a portrait of two guys fondly looking back at the awesome they shared when they were young. A few offenses are recounted here, primarily the words of critics who never took the band seriously, even as Elton John publicly praised Michael as one of the greatest songwriters of all time. In 2023, it might be instinct to roll one’s eyes when hearing such a statement, but the film’s soundtrack serves as a pleasant reminder of just how many bangers the group produced, as well as the gay subtext that Michael managed to sneak into the majority of them.
Smith’s measured approach doesn’t mean there aren’t still a few bits of juicy gossip included: one of the best nuggets here is the story of how Michael purposely wrote and produced the song “Last Christmas” in 1984 so that Wham! could have one final number one hit for the year, before Band-Aid came along and stole his thunder by releasing “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” a week prior, the cherry on top being that Michael sang a verse in that very song, one whose proceeds were being donated entirely to the African Relief Fund. But as entertaining as these littered anecdotes, and WHAM! as a whole, can be, the film also scans as fairly one-note in execution due to Smith’s formal monotony. You can only view so many era-appropriate videotaped interviews and take in so much stock footage before the eyes begin to glaze over. Still, WHAM! is an uncommonly joyous film, a genuinely heartfelt tribute to and history lesson of a band that never garnered enough respect. Smith’s reverent investment in his subjects is surprisingly fresh for this kind of film, and if enough viewers see the film hit their Netflix landing page, Wham! tunes should take up significant space on Spotify playlists for the near future. It’s tough to think of a more ringing endorsement for a film of such celebration.
You can currently stream WHAM! on Netflix.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 27