Freedom: George Michael gets his final right to reply – and it’s a thing of beauty

There is no mention of the post-Wham! fallout but this documentary is as close to Michael as you could possibly get on screen

 

No one can remember the first time they heard George Michael. The famous faces that feature in the documentary Freedom, from Mary J Blige and Mark Ronson to Liam Gallagher, all utter variations on the same theme: “It was like he was always there.”

George Michael was a constant in our pop lives. The voice in our heads delivering the crushing blow of Careless Whisper that echoed mournfully around the school disco hall; the deliciously cheap thrills of Club Tropicana soundtracking a lifetime of being put in a headlock on important occasions like holidays, weddings and birthdays; Last Christmas piped around the supermarket when you’re panic-buying trays of sausage rolls. Liam Gallagher succinctly sums it up when describing Listen Without Prejudice as: “One of those albums that just end up in your house.”

Michael was in the ether: his voice was the comforting, familiar tone that sounded like home. He was a commiserating presence in times of solitary contemplation or an uplifting, unifying force of celebration. And now, unbelievably, he is gone.

Freedom is the documentary that George Michael intended to release exploring the story of his extraordinary career, but he never got the chance to complete it. It’s now a piece narrated by Michael and interspersed with interviews from colleagues, famous fans and friends, such as Naomi Campbell, who lives up to her reputation by admitting that she was a Culture Club girl who used to egg Wham! fans.

His was a mind-boggling, head-spinning career. The sort that feels like the last of its kind as youth culture rapidly transmogrifies. From being a toothy popcrush shoving shuttlecocks down his pants for japes to a devastatingly soulful singer-songwriter. He was an outspoken advocate for artistic rights and an all-round fearless, unapologetic force in the face of repeated tabloid trashings. Freedom is George Michael’s final right to reply and god damn it, he deserves one.

Unlike Asif Kapadia’s Amy, the chilling look at the effects of soaring celebrity stitched together without Winehouse’s thoughts, with Freedom, we get to hear Michael’s insights about the phases of his career. There are the ebullient, joyful days of Wham!, with the singer laughing: “I thought, how can the country be in love with these two idiots – we were taking the piss half the time”, as the screen fills with black and white images of arenas crammed with screaming fans and the duo winking into each other’s faces in disbelief.

Tellingly, there is no mention of the post-Wham! fallout or any input from his partner in pop Andrew Ridgeley. The documentary skims over this time to concentrate on the Faith years and beyond.

If Faith broke George Michael in America it also broke him as a human. The impossible demands of touring as a solo artist without the backbone of the band dynamic to relieve the pressure, coupled with increasing insecurity and isolation saw the singer “live in sunglasses” and retreat into himself.

Spinning around on stage, filled with a raw vivacity, looking every inch the alluring icon, he speaks in the voiceover about how desperately lonely and unhappy he was at that very moment, that he didn’t believe he could continue, how the rigours of the industry had eroded him at just 24 years old, even with his all-consuming ambition.

He decided to demand something that so few young artists today are afforded: time. He ground his skyrocketing career to a halt to save his mental health and his creativity and importantly to experience living. The documentary is in part a love letter to Michael’s first formative relationship with Anselmo Feleppa. Bolstered by the confidence that happiness can bring, he created his most enduring work, the Listen Without Prejudice album, and his defining statement as an artist: Freedom ’90.

The latter song is everything that was George Michael. Dramatic, perceptive, stubborn, frank, funny and sexy as hell: it is his manifesto. It’s a plea from an artist who has reached breaking point, a two-finger salute, a raging kiss off, a triumphant hymn to individualism. In a pop world where image was everything and where almost everyone from Madonna to Michael Jackson were blinking down from skyscraper-sized billboards and queueing up to shill for soft-drink manufacturers, Michael, in a radical move, removed himself from the equation completely. He denied the use of his image to promote the album or singles in any way.

Instead, he gave the MTV generation exactly what they and his record company wanted: the sex they so desired to sell. He crammed the Freedom ’90 video with the world’s top supermodels in various states of undress lip-synching along and smoldering up the screen. It was calculated, creative, controversial and crafty and became the classic little black dress of music videos.

The song almost acted as a prophetic rallying cry as his relationship with Sony crumbled and he attempted to release himself from his restrictive record deal. Seeing various blank-faced record execs squirm while attempting to justify their punishing contracts is an unexpected highlight of the film.

Courageous crusading aside, the most affecting moments of the documentary are the exploration of the singer’s vulnerability.

The songs he created that were suffused with soul-drenching emotion; the overwhelming heartache of A Different Corner; the blinding grief of Jesus to a Child; people responded to George because he was a transmitter for our own feelings. He had been there too.

As he describes the personal devastation that lead him to the unforgettable performance of Queen’s Somebody to Love at Freddie Mercury’s tribute concert, he became the physical embodiment of Carrie Fisher’s quote of turning a broken heart into art. Freedom, a constant theme in George Michael’s work, something he craved and cherished, this liberation that he gave his audience through his music, is his enduring spirit and his everlasting legacy.

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