Wham's story as told by the duo, Andrew Ridgely and the late George Michael
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEDOM")
WHAM!: (Singing) Do, do, do.
ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:
The British duo Wham! became, for many, the soundtrack of the early 1980s with their fun-loving pop hits, a feel-good antidote to a world that, at the time, seemed to be growing darker from the Cold War. And now the story of Andrew Ridgeley and George Michael - school friends who became global pop stars - is being told in their own words in a new Netflix documentary simply called "Wham!" It's directed by Chris Smith.
CHRIS SMITH: George's interviews had to be archival, but all of Andrew's, we sat down for days and days, just sort of talking through that time period in a studio. And that's where, you know, his material came from. But the back and forth between the two feels so effortless, and it's such a testament to sort of the - how vivid that time has stayed within Andrew's mind.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHAM!")
ANDREW RIDGELEY: We'd go and doorstep record companies.
GEORGE MICHAEL: Two 18-year-old boys - how cocky is that? We'd just stand there and insist that we had booked an appointment.
RIDGELEY: We had a very disappointing response.
MICHAEL: The guy chucked the tape back over the table and said, you know, nice voice, but go away and write some hit songs.
SMITH: These projects often end up becoming archaeology projects in the sense that you're trying to find things from all these disparate elements. You know, fortunately, we started with George Michael's estate, and Andrew Ridgeley and his family had collected material. So we started there, but there was so much that we had to find. And stuff was even coming in weeks before we finished.
SCHMITZ: In the documentary, George and Andrew reflect on the early days of Wham! Much of what is shown comes from their own footage and audio that they recorded themselves in their teenage years. We learn that their song "Careless Whisper" was not well-received in its first iteration.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARELESS WHISPER")
WHAM!: (Singing) And I'm never going to dance again. Guilty feet have got no rhythm. Though it's easy to pretend, I know I'm not a fool.
SMITH: It was one of the first three demos that they recorded on a four-track recorder at their home. And the thing that I think shocked us when we were making it was how fully formed the vision and the sound of Wham! was even from the inception. You know, I would have assumed in getting these demo tapes, that they would have just been kind of crude versions and that once they sort of, you know, had access to more experienced producers, that they found their sound. But it was really there at the very beginning, and especially George's talent, you can see in the vocals on "Careless Whisper" on the demo.
SCHMITZ: You know, in the film, we hear how George Michael struggled with being open about his sexuality. Michael did come out to Andrew Ridgeley and those around the band early on, but he never did that to fans until after the band broke up. As far as you can tell, what was his thought process at that time about this?
SMITH: At that time, the attitudes were different, you know? And AIDS was very rampant at that time, and there was a lot of concern around that. And so I think when we listen back to the interview tapes, you know, it really came down to, they didn't - George didn't want his dad to find out. And they were like, you can't tell your dad. It was less about, like, trying to protect their careers or, you know, anything on that level. But it really was something as simple as just not wanting to tell your dad.
SCHMITZ: Another dilemma that Wham! had to manage was about a Christmas song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST CHRISTMAS")
WHAM!: (Singing) Last Christmas I gave you my heart.
SCHMITZ: Wham's 1984 hit "Last Christmas" was about to come out, and George Michael had a feeling it was going to be the band's fourth No. 1 hit song that year. But then he was invited to join dozens of the era's biggest stars to sing "Do They Know It's Christmas?" as part of Band Aid, whose proceeds went to alleviate the famine in Ethiopia.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO THEY KNOW IT'S CHRISTMAS?")
BAND AID: (Singing) Do they know it's Christmas time at all?
SCHMITZ: "Do They Know It's Christmas?" ended up as that year's No. 1 Christmas song, followed by Wham's "Last Christmas" at No. 2.
SMITH: I think one of the things we found so enlightening and sort of reassuring in doing - going through his interviews is that there was always this sort of absolute, direct frankness and sort of honesty in his interviews.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "WHAM!")
MICHAEL: It was still a strange feeling to drive home 'cause, you know, with the best in the world, trying to be the greatest altruist in the world and having given every penny that "Last Christmas" has ever made to African relief funds. And that bastard, insecure little thing that wanted his four No. 1s that year - you know? - is irrational and comes from a place of fear.
SMITH: You know, I think a lot of people would have been - maybe sort of told that story differently. It was very human, the way that he communicated his thoughts. He was very proud and happy and felt great to be a part of Band Aid. But at the same time, you know, I think that there was part of them that really wanted these four No. 1s in one year. And they knew they had it with "Last Christmas" until he was recording Band Aid and realized that that was probably going to be hard for them to beat.
SCHMITZ: Yeah. And he seems very open about being conflicted about that.
SMITH: Yeah. You know, the heart of the movie of these two guys and sort of the way that they communicate and talk about that experience, it was - you know, the crazy thing about Wham! is, you know, it lasted four years. It was '82 to '86. And I remember - there's footage where they're talking - you know, it felt like they were getting too old, but they left the band when they were 23 - you know? - which is so hard to believe. But when you see it and you see the grind and sort of the trajectory that they were on, you can kind of understand it.
SCHMITZ: Ridgeley says of Wham's breakup in the film, Wham! is never going to be middle-aged or anything other than Wham! You know, I love that. He seems to understand that an era was closing, and he wanted to preserve the band's image as this youthful, fun pop band. What does that say about the relationship between these two best friends, that, you know, this success didn't really ruin them?
SMITH: Well, I mean, I think it's a story that's hard to understand because it's very rare for people to leave at the top. But I think that there were many things at play. I think George was struggling to sort of stay within the confines of what Wham! was, you know? And I think Andrew, being so close and being such a good friend, had sort of understood that. And so often, these stories end in a negative place. And it was something that - to me, the whole movie was about this temporal nature of youth, you know? It's something that is so beautiful, but it can't be sustained. It has to come to an end. And for - to be at the heart of it and to understand that and to accept it, there's such a gracious quality to that that I don't think you see that often.
SCHMITZ: Chris Smith is the director of the Netflix documentary "Wham!" Chris, thank you.
SMITH: Oh, thanks. Thanks for having us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAKE ME UP BEFORE YOU GO-GO")
WHAM!: (Singing) Wake me up before you go-go. go Don't leave me hanging on like a yo-yo. Wake me up. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.