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Wham! Documentary: Sometimes The Clothes Do Not Make the Man

The first time Rolling Stone profiled Wham!, the shiniest, prettiest UK pop duo of their day, in 1985, the boys bristled when the reporter asked a common question: What exactly did Andrew Ridgeley do? George Michael said, “He just plays the guitar and has a good time.” Since Wham! records had practically no guitar, fans had to assume that Andrew was having a VERY good time. But Ridgeley was more diplomatic. He said, “My role is everything people don’t see, because they’re not in pop bands.”

That’s what the new Netflix documentary Wham! is about: two English schoolboys who get famous together, in a pop group based on their mysterious friendship. George wrote the tunes, sang them, produced them, scored hits like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” Andrew? Played the guitar. Had a good time. As far as fans knew, he was a musical virtuoso when it came time to sing the words “ah-ha aah” and “oh-ho ooh” in “Everything She Wants,” with the occasional “la la la-la-la.” 

But Andrew had a crucial job, the “everything people don’t see” part. He was the emotional support for his high-strung mate, which meant keeping his biggest secret. As George says in the doc, “The turning point with Wham! was me as I suddenly thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m a massive star and I’m gay.’ The depression was about that. It was about the way I boxed myself in. You know, be careful what you wish for.”

The doc makes Wham! seem more boring, more wholesome, dumber and less funny than they actually were. It’s a bit of a stretch to call it a music doc, since there’s zero curiosity here about their actual tunes. Their second-best song, “I’m Your Man,” gets held back until the final credits, which is crazy. (Their best? You even have to ask? “The Edge of Heaven.”) It’s mostly about their silly clothes—and their strangely touching friendship.

The best history of Wham! is still George’s “Freedom ’90,” where he’s extremely bitter about the whole experience—in the video, he sets fire to his leather jacket from the “Bad Boys” video. George slams the music industry, his label, his handlers, the boys at MTV. But the one person he has nothing negative to say about is Andrew. The only time in the song when you can hear him smile is when he sings, “Heaven knows we had some fun, boy / What a kick, just a buddy and me.”

The doc works best when it focuses on that bond. As manager Simon Napier-Bell says, “Andrew WAS Wham.” What he means is that George built his whole persona (onstage and off) around his charismatic, extroverted, uncomplicated friend. As Napier-Bell puts it, Wham! was “the real Andrew and the fake one.”

But that’s how the fake one got so serious about music—it was the only way he had to fabricate himself into the Andrew he wanted to be. Ever since George was 12, a dorky “weird-looking” boy in a new school, Andrew—five months older—was exactly who he aspired to become. Hero-worshiping Andrew is what turned a clumsy, shy, self-loathing immigrant kid named Georgios Panayiotou into the pop star “George Michael,” the ideal of England’s dreaming. Andrew still calls him by his boyhood name “Yog.” 

Their first single, “Wham Rap,” began with George declaring, “Hey everybody, take a look at me / I’ve got street credibility!” They styled themselves as protest singers, complaining about the unemployment of the Thatcher era. There’s a great moment where a TV presenter tells the audience, “Let’s check out some social-comment rapping with a dance record from Wham!” 

They ditched the protest angle faster than you can say “jitterbug.” They invaded the U.S.A. with “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and “Careless Whisper,” which Andrew co-wrote in their school days. Wham! stayed massively popular for the rest of their career, which was less than two years. They split in 1986 because George refused to do business with apartheid-era South Africa. (Cool story, right? Never mentioned.)

George came out to his straight friend in Ibiza, in 1982 on the set of the “Club Tropicana” video. As a closeted pop star in a brutally homophobic era, George felt tormented in the spotlight. You could hear the agony of the Eighties closet in a hit like “Everything She Wants,” where George pleads, “I don’t know what the hell you want from me!” When he told Rolling Stone that Andrew’s job was to “have a good time,” he meant having the fun for both of them, the fun George was faking. In other words, he needed Andrew to take these lies and make them true somehow.

The documentary has no interest in their music, or why people liked them, or what made them different from any other English pop group. They rose out of the early-Eighties U.K. new wave boom—one of the most legendary pop explosions in history. Yet as far as the doc is concerned, Wham! were the only act around. Duran Duran don’t exist. Culture Club don’t exist. Neither do Haircut 100 or ABC or Frankie Goes to Hollywood. And neither do The Smiths, even though George’s best TV appearance of the era was arguing with Morrissey about music, in May 1984, on the BBC chat show Eight Days a Week. George was a huge Joy Division fan; Morrissey wasn’t. 

Wham! follows the template of the excellent Spandau Ballet doc, Soul Boys of the Western World, where instead of on-camera interviews, the band members read the narrative voice-overs, which sound slightly scripted. In this case, the surviving member is Ridgeley, though there’s also posthumous audio commentary from George’s interviews. (The provenance is not always clear, and more video would have been a good idea.) Andrew is too polite to mention his solo album, 1990’s Son of Albert, and if he’s willing to forget, so should we all.


The main thing Andrew brings might be charm—but his charm goes a long way. He’s got to be one of the least bitter ex-pop stars you’ll ever see. If he has any grievances, he keeps them to himself—he got lucky and he knows it. He doesn’t complain he’s underrated or underpaid. The only time he admits to any “friction,” it’s when George makes the momentous decision to cut him out of the songwriting, which Andrew describes as “slightly difficult,” though he’s the first to admit he wasn’t anywhere near his mate’s league. He always knew better than to cheat a friend, to waste the chance that he’d been given. Their last hang was just three months before George’s death—for a Scrabble game.

Indeed, one of the weirdest things about Wham! is that they parted with no acrimony at all—neither of them ever felt any reason to get bitchy about the other. There aren’t an awful lot of pop acts that size who split without any bruised egos. But Andrew never sold out George, then or now. He never breathed a careless whisper against him,  and never betrayed his friend’s not-especially-well-kept secret right up until George finally came out in 1998. Whatever Andrew did or didn’t contribute as a bandmate, he’s everything you could want in an EX-bandmate. It’s a tribute to them both. The movie convinces you that George got even luckier than Andrew did.

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