Where in the world is Andrew Ridgeley? Forever one half of Wham!, one of the best-selling pop duos of all time, he is, of course, all over Wham! (★★★☆☆).
The new Netflix documentary directed by Chris Smith charts the phenomenal ’80s success of self-described “pair of idiots” Ridgeley and his best friend Georgios Panayiotou, who launched themselves from obscurity to legend in the blink of a cultural instant.
Yorg, as he’s affectionately called by Ridgeley in the film’s voiceover interviews, emerged from the band’s four-year run — shockingly brief, considering the impact of hits like “Freedom” and “Careless Whisper” — as even more successful solo artist George Michael.
The group’s lead singer, songwriter, and eventually producer, Michael commands center stage in the film’s finely honed assemblage of performance and archival footage, previously unreleased interviews, and never-before-seen home video.
Gone too soon, on Christmas 2016 at the age of 53, Michael appears endearingly fresh-faced as a teenager describing in an early TV interview how he and Ridgeley met as kids in school, when the future pop idol was still a pudgy, bespectacled son of a Greek-Cypriot immigrant, too shy to express himself. Andrew was his first friend, the goofy extrovert who helped quiet Yorg find his voice, in every sense.
Michael marvels how different his life might have been (as well as the course of pop music history) had he sat next to any other kid in class that day. In audio interviews, years later, he credits their creative partnership as the catalyst for his often painful evolution on the world stage into the gay man and artist he’d become.
Revealing that Michael came out to Ridgeley, as more gay than bisexual, soon after the band first hit the charts in 1982, the movie poignantly captures both of the best buds’ experience keeping closeted George’s sexuality secret.
As with HBO’s excellent Tina Turner documentary Tina, clips of 40-year-old interviews demonstrate how times have changed for heavy-handed celebrity interviewers. An Entertainment Tonight reporter prying clumsily for gossip about Michael’s sexuality barrels ahead despite her subject’s clear discomfort. Ridgeley, seated by Michael’s side — and by all accounts, straight — senses the tension and jumps in, to try to rescue his friend.
Occasionally front-and-center in the film, Ridgeley usually can be found somewhere off to the side. As anyone who witnessed the band’s phenomenal hit-making career can attest, that seemed to be his position in Wham!, too.
The movie — which makes shrewd use of Ridgeley’s and Michael’s personal archives of material, including volumes of Wham! scrapbooks compiled contemporaneously by Ridgeley’s mom — clarifies what was each member’s contribution to the group. The detailed inventory even extends to their backup dancers Pepsi & Shirlie, the former of whom replaced Dee C. Lee.
Ridgeley and Michael stand in accordance on why George singlehandedly took over songwriting duties (he wrote hits), who came up with Wham!’s distinctive day-glo styling (Ridgeley), and on the finer points of how “Careless Whisper” was constructed from a Ridgeley hook and Michael’s lyrics and production. Finding the exact right musician for the sax solo was another key. Oh, the Eighties!
The filmmakers don’t so much bring that fabulous decade to life as they simply put Wham!’s lightning-fast rise to global fame in an intimate, but very narrow context. It’s so narrow that we never actually see present-day Ridgeley (we just hear him), or learn anything about his life after he and Michael amicably parted ways with Wham!’s single farewell performance, June 28, 1986 at Wembley Stadium (unreeled here, of course).
We don’t hear from Pepsi or Shirlie, or Wham!’s artist peers, other than a nice, but not fresh clip of Elton John gushing over Michael. Viewers won’t gather any where-are-they-now details about any of the film’s major players, except Michael.
As ever, heard yet unseen, Ridgeley doesn’t sound bitter about being overshadowed, nor at all peeved that people still ask if he’s jealous of his ex-partner’s amazing success. But what of his own musical ambitions? Freed from the constraints of the band, did he ever return to the socially conscious funk they started with in the ’80s?
While the film allows Michael a far more complicated range of character, referring to bouts of depression and to his insatiable ego, Ridgeley is presented as merely the happy-go-lucky, adorably cocky kid who sacrificed his hand in steering the band so that they both could live out their dreams.
As a sweet bonus to his legacy, he also helped coax a superstar into being, then selflessly stood aside to let that friend go off and scale even greater heights. Ridgeley’s good humor and smiling disposition fill the film, which offers not a clue as to where he is now, other than where he’s always been, somewhere off to the side, as proud as ever of his bestie Yorg.
Wham! is available for streaming on Netflix. Visit www.netflix.com.
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