George Michael: Freedom – singer stays out of sight in TV biography

Michael was co-director of Channel 4 film about his life – yet he remains off-screen and speaks only in archive interviews in this mysterious documentary

The tension underlying Channel 4’s documentary George Michael: Freedom is exposed by tenses. “George is very, very brave,” says Sir Elton John. “George is really sexy,” Tracey Emin giggles.

The present tense acknowledges that George Michael was alive at the time of filming his autobiographical portrait – even to the extent of being co-director with his former manager David Austin.

But now, there is a brief preface in which Kate Moss, collaborator on key Michael pop videos, pirouettes moodily on a black leather swivel chair before recalling that “on Christmas Day, 2016, we heard, with shock and disbelief, that our friend, George Michael, had passed away. Only days before, he had been putting the finishing touches to the film you are about to see.”

Eerily, though, in a piece that he planned to be around to watch, Michael exists only in the past. Threaded through the documentary are shots – captioned “George Michael’s house, Highgate 2016” – of a middle-aged man with cropped grey hair, typing at a table, while a voice that is clearly Michael’s. Although viewers are never told if it is or isn’t the singer, a tiny entry in the final credits reads: “Simon Rutter as George Michael.”

And, although Michael appears to be narrating, these first-person contributions are usually revealed to be clips of him speaking to MTV, CNN or Channel 4 in old interviews. The closing credits acknowledge the use of Kirsty Young’s 2007 Desert Island Discs conversations. What Michael says is intelligent, powerful and revealing. On his initial reluctance to come out: “It’s very hard to be proud of your sexuality, if it hasn’t brought you any joy.” About a spell of songwriter’s block induced by grief and stress: “Losing music was like losing God for me.” It’s frustrating, though, not to know the provenance of the quotes, or whether any of the words were recorded specifically for this film.

Given the circumstances, we might have assumed that these strategies were a solution to Michael’s tragic sudden unavailability. But Moss’s introduction suggests that the documentary was almost finished when Michael died, which makes it weirdly intriguing that he apparently chose to be so absent: visualised by an actor and vocalised through archive interviews.

Advance media coverage has focused on the omission of Fadi Fawaz, Michael’s partner when he died, but, if this was a snub, then Fawaz is in good company. Viewers unaware that Michael was the project’s co-director might think that it had been made by someone unable to access the family and friends section of his contacts file. A surprising percentage of the analysis comes from Ricky Gervais and James Corden, whose direct involvement in Michael’s life amounted to his appearances in an episode of Extras and a version of Carpool Karaoke recorded for Comic Relief.

George Michael onstage in a shot from the documentary.
George Michael onstage in a shot from the documentary. Photograph: Channel 4

Among the musical contributors, the best are Sir Elton, a survivor of rock celebrity madness who is always insightful on those who coped less well, and Stevie Wonder, an admirer and collaborator, who, in the sequence on Michael’s success as a soul singer, cracks the obvious but sporting joke: “You mean George is white? Oh my God!” Less usefully, Tony Bennett observes of his duet with the singer, oxymoronically: “He walked in very prepared – and was so spontaneous!” There’s also more than enough of Liam Gallagher, who observes, of Wham!, “they was fucking everywhere, wasn’t they?”, and gets in the inevitable Noel-goading: “Our kid had a bit of a Wham! moment, know what I mean?”

However, Andrew Ridgeley, who had a rather bigger Wham! moment, never appears. Nor do any relatives or intimates; the only two even mentioned are Michael’s mother and his lover, Anselmo Feleppa, in sections dealing with the extent to which he was destabilised by their deaths.

A sense of the opportunity missed is given by the most personally revealing sequence, which lifts the documentary to a different level. Slick editing of concert recordings, home videos, and interview clips tells the story of how Feleppa’s diagnosis with Aids informed Michael’s performance of “Someone to Love” at the Freddie Mercury memorial gig – “It was sung to my lover, who was dying” – and then how his death inspired the song Jesus to a Child.Another friction in the film comes from the company producing it. As the singer unsuccessfully sued Sony in 1992 – an attempt to free himself from a long-term contract that he regarded as artistic “slavery” – the opening credit “Sony Music Entertainment Presents” feels rather like seeing that a documentary on Brexit has been funded by the European Union.

Logically, though, only Sony could have made this film because it owns so much of the material – rehearsal and recording studio footage is sharply used – and, surprisingly, the account of Michael’s attempts to escape from the grip of the film’s producers is one of the longest and strongest sections.

A film that wasn’t co-directed by Michael and produced by Sony would have included much more about drugs, drink, arrests and death, but those biographical losses are more than offset by the material that would only have been available to a documentary that, not only in those Highgate sequences, gives a new meaning to the concept of an “in-house” project.

If George Michael: Freedom could, for its moments of infuriating elusiveness, have been subtitled “The Man Who Wasn’t There”, then that, you feel, genuinely may have been what George Michael would have wanted.

George Michael: Freedom is on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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