Guest Post by Matthew Horton
It’s a big month in the George Michael Expanded Universe, as not only has my 33 1/3 book on Faith been released in the US (it’s coming your way on 8 September, Europe), but 22 June also sees the global theatrical release of George Michael: Freedom Uncut, the George Michael documentary feature that – according to the official press material – ‘serves as his final work’. ‘Final work’ revisited, that is, because it first appeared in 2017.
Back then, it was just called George Michael: Freedom because things had, presumably, been cut. What those bits amount to is faintly obscure, with fanfare for this new release tending to avoid the inconvenient possibility you might have seen all of this before, but there have been references to a 4K restoration of the ‘Freedom 90’ video and additional footage around its fabulous stars, 1990’s top five lip-syncing supermodels (‘I’ll be very honest – I was a Culture Club fan,’ purrs Naomi Campbell, their nominal leader, threatening to spoil the party when it’s barely got going). The reinstated cuts amount to an extra 13 minutes; the real selling point is this is an opportunity to watch on the big screen, with some cooked-up exclusivity thrown in for good measure.
Whatever the motivation, Freedom Uncut will work just fine for Wham! and George Michael fans. The archive footage is out of the top drawer, from promo videos, home videos and live performances to warm and insightful interview excerpts with the man himself, and much of it’s placed in context by a voiceover from the singer, recorded in his final months. He sounds alarmingly husky, which gives the film an ominous patina that’s otherwise ignored completely. Freedom Uncut is about George Michael’s life, not his death.
It’s also about talking heads that range from the sublime to the Ricky Gervais. The money’s in contributions from old friend Elton John, one-time collaborator Mary J Blige and all-time hero Stevie Wonder, who each have the heft and experience to make points about Michael and make them matter. When Blige says of the singer, ‘He had soul. Period,’ you’ve got to take notice. When Gervais says, ‘I can’t get the little white shorts out of my head,’ it’s probably time to move on. His slightly lightweight thoughts are matched by those of TV presenter and actor James Corden (‘He’s just part of the fabric’) and artist Tracey Emin (‘He’s hilariously funny’). But I guess fans are important too.
What’s striking about the guest appearances are the sequences where they’re caressing pristine vinyl copies of Michael’s second album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, placing them carefully on high-end turntables and nodding sagely to ‘Praying for Time’ and its ever-relevant message. ‘It could’ve been cut from the same cloth as “Imagine”,’ marvels Liam Gallagher, falling back on familiar frames of reference. You could get lost in the music here too, or you could realise that the film was originally slated to accompany that sparkling Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 reissue and find the over-emphasis rather jarring, and telling.
It’s a question of balance and Freedom Uncut is lopsided, with purely historical takes on Wham! and Faith (but don’t worry, there’s an entire book about that), a centrepiece celebration of the admittedly wonderful Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 with a pause for a bit of legal action, then a deftly handled examination of the emotions that went into Older before a breakneck rush for the finish. Michael’s final studio album, 2004’s Patience, barely gets a mention.
It would be irritating if it wasn’t such a fitting analogy for Michael’s career. In the final analysis the world will remember the tentpoles – Wham!, Faith, hiding away for Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, taking Sony to court, pouring his grief over the death of partner Anselmo Feleppa into Older, getting arrested in a Beverly Hills loo, spending a decade smoking weed and crashing his car. All but the joints and crashes are recounted here, and the arrest is skipped past quickly. Of course, Michael himself made light of that, owning it as fast as he could. He found some release in his dropped guard, lightening up, getting braver, sillier, perhaps losing artistic weight along the way. You couldn’t blame him – a decade that saw him lose the love of his life and his mother, and waste so much time on an ultimately pointless court case, was more than any man should bear – but it doesn’t help the narrative.
Essentially, Freedom Uncut presents a stark contrast between a fitfully productive 20th century and a perfunctory 21st. In symbiosis, the film and the man – whatever the joys of the Wham! catalogue and three momentous solo albums – could have been so much more. Everything could have been different if he’d only been ready. In 1987 George Michael was aiming for the world; by the end of 1988 it was at his feet; as 1990 dawned he could barely look at it. That’s a whole story in itself.
Matthew Horton is a music journalist and editor. He lives in Kent, UK, spends most of his time in a small brick office at the bottom of his garden, and has written a 33 1/3 book about George Michael’s 25-million-selling 1987 album Faith which is available now in the US and from 8 September in Europe.