Nostalgic Netflix Doc Wham! Revisits a Band’s Short but Glorious Pop Reign

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Nostalgic Netflix Doc Wham! Revisits a Band’s Short but Glorious Pop Reign

Step into the Wayback Machine, if you will, to the early ‘80s. If you were a tween or teen girl during those years, there was a lot of neon on everything…by choice. Swatch watches, friendship bracelets, and blue eyeshadow were everyday decisions. If you liked music and haunted the aisles of your local Sam Goody, Tower Records or Wherehouse Music, there’s a pretty good chance that you were swept into the raging estrogen tide known as Wham-mania. 

Dear reader, I am one of those tweens. I admit to being a victim to the Brit charms of Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou (AKA George Michael) and Andrew Ridgeley who together were the band known as Wham!. Their smiling faces graced my bedroom walls, I bought their Fantastic album on tape as an import (the costs!) and literally wore out the spine of a glossy Wham! collector’s magazine (print!) that I read over and over and over. Did I even memorize some of the copy inside? …Perhaps. Gratefully, the madness lasted a brief four years—from 1982 to 1986—which coincides with the entire lifespan of Wham! as a band. However, if you lived it in real time, that era remains a heady, gauzy place where we could pin our teen fantasies on those two hot guys from England, as we cooed over their their odd penchant for athleisure wear, confusing “Choose Life” shirts and Christmas song we still play to this day. It was easy to ignore what was percolating under the proverbial boot of their actual lives until George Michael went solo, came out and became an even bigger superstar.

If that time means anything to you, then Netflix’s documentary Wham! by director Chris Smith (Fyre, Tiger King) is like a time capsule for your soul. A tight yet thorough timeline of Wham!’s creation, meteoric ascension and then abrupt ending, Wham! uses the archival recordings of Michael and more recent recorded musings of Ridgeley to tell their story from their perspectives. Supported with home videos, television programs, concert footage and, blessedly, Mrs. Ridgeley’s 50 scrapbooks filled with clippings, photos and materials that document every major moment in the band’s history. All of it makes for an intimate exploration of their childhood friendship that remained tight all the way through their global glory selling 30 million records worldwide.

For those who prefer their docs to include on-camera subjects, Wham! follows the path of recent docs that rely heavily on audio interviews. But Smith’s choice to only feature the voices of Michael and Ridgeley as narrators isn’t disappointing even though it’s a rigid, single lane of perspective. It works because the director has Michael (who passed away at age 53 in 2016) on tape speaking in detail about his deeply important friendship with Ridgeley, his personal transition from shy kid to bold performer and his frank assessments of his choice to hide his sexuality from the public and media. That material and Smith’s technique means he can wisely use Ridgeley’s current interviews to gently dovetail and counterpoint those Michael interviews to expand on memories or provide some clarifications. In that way, the audio is framed like a conversation where the two friends could be in the same room reminiscing, which adds a lot of emotional depth to the bedazzled existence of their band life. 

Starting with the day they met in primary school at ages 11 and 12 and continuing until their very last Wham! concert in June 1986 at Wembley Stadium in England, Wham! leaves no stone unturned when it comes to their careers. It’s an engrossing and eye-opening look at what motivated these two ambitious young men outside of the media’s glossy treatment of the band. And even the dorkiest fans (me!) will learn new things about them as people, and about their trajectory. 

What the doc is lacking—outside of detailing Michael’s tricky relationship with his traditional Greek father—is context about their lives outside of the band. Ridgeley confirms his position as the rebel and rabble-rouser in his family, who quit school and chased his dream of being in a band from age 16. But aside from the mention of him briefly dating back-up singer/dancer Shirlie Holliman, Ridgeley’s non-band life remains a glaring mystery to the very end of the doc. Even when he became the tabloid bad boy for carousing heavily—dubbed “Randy Andy” by the press—he never shares what was motivating his behavior at the time. And that’s a shame, because Michael does get candid about how being closeted affected him, and how those feelings snowballed into his need to leave Wham! in order to be an authentic artist. The lack of parity from Ridgeley unintentionally supports the macro perception of him as being lesser in the band. 

The doc also misses the opportunity to level those perceptions at the very end, where title cards sum up their lives post-Wham! by only referring to Michael’s huge career and the recent vindication of the U.K. #1 charting of “Last Christmas” in 2020. There’s nothing about how Ridgeley reacted to Michael’s shocking death, or how their families may have marked his loss, even in text, to add some emotional perspective to the piece. There’s not even a mention of Ridgeley’s autobiography, which would have felt more consequential than what is presented. Note to filmmakers: Never make an audience feel like they need to immediately run to a Wiki to get satisfaction and closure on a topic.

In one of the most impactful observations provided by Ridgeley towards the end, he says that Wham! itself is akin to a time capsule. They never moved into middle age and we never got to see them exist except as two young men in their ascent, captured in their prime. No reunions. No ugly fallings out. And that is such a rare thing for a band with their level of success. If you’re a music fan in general, that alone makes Wham! a worthwhile viewing; the rarity of a band caught in proverbial amber to look at with fresh eyes and hindsight now that George is no longer with us. And if you were one of those teen superfans, it’s a glorious trip back in time. 

Director: Chris Smith
Release Date: July 5, 2023 (Netflix)

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen

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