Pop Propaganda

The ‘Wham!’ documentary is a wholesome fantasy of music stardom

Going into Netflix’s Wham!, I knew the basics of the former pop duo, and was keen to learn more of their brief but bright history. While the documentary is a truly endearing chronicle of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley’s friendship and fame, it’s so relentlessly positive, it ends up feeling like pop propaganda.

From the moment they became middle school friends, George and Andrew were a team. They loved to perform, and grew hyper focused on stardom. After a failed foray into ska with some friends, the fellas discovered their own distinct and synthy sound. Wham! formed in 1981, and by 1982, they convinced their neighbor, who happened to be the head of Innerversion Records, to listen to their demo. When he finally did, he took the teens to a diner and immediately signed them to his label. Thus, Wham! was underway.

Their magical origin story is the stuff of dreams. A couple of nobodies from working-class families charmed their way through the doors of the music industry, and actually made it big.

The homegrown nature of the duo’s fame is particularly highlighted by the use of the detailed scrapbooks Andrew Ridgeley’s mom kept as an unofficial chronicle of the band. It’s an adorable storytelling gimmick, and coupled with archival footage, it truly drops the viewer back to that time, where the hair was so big, the shorts were so short, and the screams were so very loud. In this sense, Wham! is a highly successful documentary.

On the other hand, because Andrew Ridgeley’s enthusiastic assistance is so readily on display here, Wham! caters to his fond memories, and fails to search for substance. For instance, the documentary reveals that when George disclosed his homosexuality to Andrew and backup singer Shirlie Holliman early on, the three decided it was best to keep it hidden, less for the sake of fame, and more to protect George’s father. While tidy assessments like this may convey a complicated situation with accuracy, it doesn’t necessarily offer up the truth.

Along those same lines, Andrew was often portrayed as the secondary member of the band, and old interviews show he was a master of goofy deflection and ardent supporter of his bestie’s ever-increasing eminence. The narrative pointedly makes it clear that while the guys were a couple of lucky bastards who made it to the top, both of them fully deserved to be there. Sure, George wrote the lyrics, but Andrew made the music happen, while also working as a full-time cheerleader for his pal. These guys were a team, but Andrew was simply the less hungry of the two. Sure, but, it’s been 40 years. Can’t we hear more about how that actually felt?

While Wham! (the band) set records with their album sales, and made history as the first Western group to ever perform in China, they didn’t exist in a vacuum, yet other British bands who dominated the airwaves at the same time get nary a mention. Likewise, the surviving members never reunite for the cameras, or grace us with contemporary interviews. ‘Wham!’ shuns the big picture and dark depths in favor of a very insular, but disarmingly sweet fairy tale. It ends up being a totally wholesome, uplifting tale of a couple of guys who had every big shot good-time band on the run, and invites viewers to live in their fantasy.

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Paula Shaffer

Paula Shaffer has worked on shows for a variety of networks including ABC, Hulu, A&E, HGTV, and WeTV. Her family zom-com script, Chompers, was a selected work of the Stowe Story Labs Feature Campus in 2021, and a 2022 semi-finalist in the Emerging Screenwriters contest, which led to placement on the Coverfly Red List.

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