George Michael’s “Freedom” a poignant portrait of an artist

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Christmas 2017 marked the first anniversary of George Michael’s death. Fans who remember him from the first time Wham! appeared on Music Television with “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” will appreciate the look at his life and career offered by “George Michael: Freedom.” The film is available on YouTube and  airs on Showtime.

The beginning of Wham!

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley met as grade school students in England. Along with some classmates, they formed a ska-based band called The Executive! The band didn’t last long, and in 1981, Michael and Ridgeley formed Wham! These are the kinds of facts available to viewers of “George Michael: Freedom.”

While Wham! clearly existed prior to “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” that seemed to be the song that introduced most Americans to the band. There were unforgettable elements of the video that seared Wham’s place in music video history. One element is the neon colors that seemingly highlighted everything. At times in the video when the screen went black, the neon pieces appeared to dance. The other element was Michael’s hair – – the layered blond, longish locks moved with him as he danced and sang. The entire package was perfect for the music video age. Also, the duo appeared to be real friends. Their chemistry was another selling point for the video.

Wham!’s history didn’t stop with the massive success of “Wake Me Up…” Throughout the band’s five-year history, there were other hits. Most notably, “Everything She Wants,” “I’m Your Man,” “Freedom,” and “Careless Whisper” inspired millions to become avowed Wham! fans.

Understanding the overwhelming pressures of fame and the broad appeal is integral to appreciating the reality of Michael’s world as presented in the documentary.

“George Michael: Freedom”

The documentary is star-studded. Celebrities offer their personal experiences with hearing or seeing Wham! for the first time. In a humorous turn, Ricky Gervais recalls fearing he was too old to be a Wham! fan, but he liked the band. Naomi Campbell had the opposite approach. It was less about Wham! and more about the fans. The supermodel noted that she used to throw eggs at Wham! fans. Mary J. Blige had an interesting insight about how of all the UK bands in heavy rotation on MTV, Wham! seemed to have the most appeal among black American audiences.

About those early days in Wham! Michael himself demystifies his look that spurred fashion copycats and inspired attraction. His earrings were curtain rings, and he wore sunglasses because he didn’t want to make eye contact.

George Michael solo

While Wham! had more than its fair share of fans, it was George Michael solo who really seemed to reach a wide-range of audiences. His duet work with some of the biggest names in r&b, including Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, and Whitney Houston.

Michael’s success with r&b was such that he won American Music Awards, Billboard Awards, and a Grammy for Pop Male Vocalist and Favorite Male Vocalist in 1989. He won for the work on his album and single “Faith,” and for the single, “Father Figure.”  The accolades prompted backlash from performers like Public Enemy and Gladys Knight. Unless they watched the original news coverage of the performers’ outrage, most fans are likely to have forgotten the incident. Its inclusion adds dimension to the documentary.

There seems to be no shortage of performers who are in awe of Michael’s voice, and who seem to miss him as a person. This makes the grief that people who knew Michael real to those who might have mourned the loss of a public figure, but that grief is different.

While the words of other people are significant, the words of the subject himself are poignant. “George Michael: Freedom” is full of interesting, funny and heartbreaking moments. At one point, Michael remarked that he “… hoped to be remembered as a person of integrity.”

Even people who weren’t necessarily fans of Michael, but were interested in the music of the era, will find the film brimming with unexpected insights.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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