George Michael: Freedom aired last night on Channel 4. The documentary, made and voiced by the singer himself, was close to completion before his sad, untimely death last Christmas.
The tone was uncritical, the story was the version George wanted told, and what was left out is, in some ways, as intriguing as what was included. But the interviews were recorded before George’s death. And this means everything.
The idea that George will have heard how highly rated he was by Stevie Wonder, Mary J Blige, Elton John, Mark Ronson, Nile Rodgers and Liam Gallagher – who seemed chuffed to have come up with the phrase: “Modern-day Elvis” to sum up the singer – is heartwarming. All too often we wait until it’s too late to sing the praises of people we admire.
He spoke, in the film, of wanting to be remembered as a great singer and songwriter. Here’s hoping the words of his peers and heroes and friends meant he died knowing the high regard in which he was held. Here are five things we learned from watching George Michael: Freedom…
1. His voice still blows minds
However many times we have heard him sing, to take a moment to really focus on his voice is to open our minds to be blown all over again. Tony Bennett, Mary J Blige, Liam Gallagher, Stevie Wonder, Elton John and Mark Ronson don’t just sing any singer’s praises. “Soulful, warm, sultry and urgent,” according to Blige. But Elton John nails it: “When he does up tempo it is full of joy, when he does sorrow – which is the true mark of a great singer – you can hear the pain.” Amen, Elton.
2. George kept his kindness under wraps
The kindness, honesty and openness comes through in the film. Freedom shows us the public face and some of the private pain, but omits his many acts of kindness. The Big Issue was one of the recipients of his generosity, when he chose to speak to us back in 1996 after maintaining a media silence for six years. After his death, it was also revealed that he regularly volunteered at a homeless shelter – again, George chose to keep this out of the public eye.
His one-man British Invasion, with five US No.1 singles in 1987-88 alone, was the biggest since The Beatles.
3. George Michael was underestimated at every step
His voice was overshadowed by his image and outfits during the Wham! era. Despite huge worldwide sales, the songwriting on Faith, Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1 and Older was not treated as seriously as might otherwise have been because of his previous exploits in Wham!. And his one-man British Invasion, which peaked with five US No.1 singles in 1987-88 alone, was the biggest since The Beatles.
4. George came out on the album Older – people just didn’t notice
“For anyone who had any kind of clue about symbolism, I was coming out,” he said in the film, of an album steeped in sorrow over the death of his great love, Anselmo Feleppa. One of the most moving passages in the film is when he explains his reasons for not coming out earlier: “It’s very hard to be proud of your sexuality if it hasn’t brought you any joy,” he says, of the time before he found someone to love.
5. There was more to come from George
For many of us, George Michael was a famous figure throughout our lives. A constant pop cultural presence. The interviews conducted when George was still alive hit us in the heart because the idea of him no longer being around has not yet sunk in. So many great pop cultural superstars make triumphant returns after years out of the limelight. George Michael showed throughout his career a need to retreat from public view until he had something to say. There was, surely, more to come from this reluctant, reclusive superstar.