July 4, 2023
JC Alvarez READ TIME: 3 MIN.
Before the advent of '90s boy bands, or even the onslaught of K-Pop, the '80s was one of the most fertile grounds for new and emerging talent. Among the most significant pop idols from the era was an upstart pair from the UK.
George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley were determined to make it big, and inevitably they would carve their indelible mark on the fabric of popular music. The new Netflix documentary "WHAM!" explores their unabashed origins as childhood friends, hitting the dance club scene as teens and shopping their demos.
Told in their own words, and including archival footage and photographs, the doc traces their journey from anonymity to a worldwide phenomenon. Directed by Chris Smith ("FYRE") and produced by Simon Halfon and John Battsek, the documentary takes an enlightening trivial format, exploring the early days of WHAM! as a scrapbook. Ridgeley's mother apparently kept volumes of clippings capturing their rise to superstardom. The pair grew up together and were always very close friends. Their love of popular music led them to start a band called The Executives, but George and Andrew proved that they were far more ambitious than their mates and quickly outgrew them.
Very aware of the turbulence of the times – in the '80s the UK was wrought with social upheaval – George and Andrew channeled their energies into their music. They delivered on "Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)," a danceable pop track that put the spotlight on the dashingly sexy pair, with the subversively controversial lyrics helping to fuel the fire of their fandom. They started to make waves and their image started to come together. Marketing their pin-up appeal was easy, but George was growing uncomfortable with the attention.
Between the two, George Michael was far more determined to be recognized for his songwriting and less impressed that their hip-shaking and hot shorts were helping to sell out venues. Even as they embarked on their first tour to promote their debut album, "Fantastic," George was struggling with his identity and immediately confided in Andrew that he was gay. The news didn't affect Andrew in the least; he only wanted George to be happy, and was happy to be climbing the pop charts with his best friend. As the documentary reveals, it wasn't all riches for WHAM!, who were making very little profit from their music or merchandizing, and that #1 single was still elusive, to say the least.
One the more exciting revelations here is how the pair landed on producing one of their biggest hits. Deciding it was time to pull out the "big guns," George went to the States to collaborate with the legendary Jerry Wexler (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles), but when George brought the result back to the UK to share it with Andrew, neither of them liked it. Andrew felt the heat of the track had been taken out, and the pair saw no other alternative but the (re)produce the track themselves.
Signing with a new label, they were convinced they would have to produce their second album themselves, and George was more than happy to oblige. Their next single would prove a turning point for the band, as "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go" landed them at the top of the charts and their second album – appropriately enough, titled "Make It Big" – appeared.
The rest, as they say, is history!: WHAM!-mania would soon take over, and George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley would be adored by fans everywhere. They penetrated the iron curtain of political boundaries and were the very first Western pop band to ever perform in China, while continuing to produce hit music.
The documentary celebrates WHAM! and its exceptional contribution to pop music. It's a story of deep love, admiration, and friendship of two men who both had an admiration for the music, and the exuberance of pop and performing, with a resonating respect for one another. It will delight the most diehard fan, and, in its optimism, provides an unfiltered look into ambition and hard work at a time when celebrity wasn't so easily guaranteed. WHAM! made it big, enjoyed what they did, and when it came time to turn a different corner, we all arrived at the edge of heaven.
"WHAM!" premieres on Netflix on July 5th, 2023.
Native New Yorker JC Alvarez is a pop-culture enthusiast and the nightlife chronicler of the club scene and its celebrity denizens from coast-to-coast. He is the on-air host of the nationally syndicated radio show "Out Loud & Live!" and is also on the panel of the local-access talk show "Talking About".