Wham documentary is 'a story of friendship': Director Chris Smith reveals how he made the Netflix film

29 June 2023, 13:04

George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley
George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley. Picture: Netflix

By Tom Eames

Wham! were undoubtedly one of the greatest pop groups of all time.

Built on a long-lasting friendship between schoolmates George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, the duo stormed the charts around the world.

In just a few years, Wham! became a pop force, and George was soon one of the biggest popstars ever seen.

While George's story is well-known, the story of Wham! as a duo has yet to be seen in a high-profile film until now.

Chris Smith - the man behind hit documentaries such as Tiger King, Fyre and Jim & Andy - has now made a film all about the history of George and Andrew's friendship, success and breakup, in Wham!

Smooth Radio caught up with Chris to hear about how he took on the project, and how he went about making the film, which is a must-see for all pop music fans.

WHAM! – Netflix documentary full trailer

How did this project come about and how did it all start?

"It started with one of our producers, Simon [Halfon], was at lunch with Andrew [Ridgeley], and proposed the idea of doing a documentary on Wham. And Andrew said, 'sure'.

"Andrew, I think, at that point had written the book, and I don't think it had come out yet, but he was definitely open to the idea. And I think probably just like, from going back to that space to write the book, saw that this could be a great documentary."

What was your general impression of how George Michael was viewed in the US before you took this on?

"By the time Wham finished, George was beloved worldwide. I think for me, I remember them sort of blowing up with 'Wake Me Up Before You Go Go', and that became the impression for people in America.

"But I knew so little about the actual band and sort of the journey that they had taken over those four years. So to me, it was really exciting to go back and unearth and put together all the archival material."

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How do you go about doing that when you get given all the archived material, how long does it take you?

"There's an archive producer and then there's an editor. The three of us, Gregor [Lyon], our amazing editor, just would take material and what we first do is string everything out to understand what's there and what the story could be.

"And then from that, you start to try to really shape and create something that feels reflective of the experience that George and Andrew went on.

In the film, you only really hear from George and Andrew. There's no talking heads or people talking about them now. Was that always your vision when you found out all this material?

"No, I think going into any project, I'm always open-minded as to what it could be. I didn't know if we would do on-camera interviews. I know that Andrew was really excited about interviewing a ton of different people that were there at that time.

"It was only through the editing process that it became clear that there was an opportunity. The heart of the story was about this friendship between these two kids that resulted in them becoming one of the biggest bands in the world and why that had to end when it did.

"And there was something to me that I felt so connected to that experience that I felt the strongest way to sort of for the audience to experience that was through the retelling by the two of them. Because I think that you understand their friendship more that way."

Andrew and George
Andrew and George. Picture: Netflix

How lucky did you feel when you realized just how much audio there was of George's as well, talking about Wham? Because it sounded like they were almost having a conversation with each other at times.

"The fact that the volume of interviews with George that covered that time period existed was you don't know going into these things what you're going to find.

"But it was incredible to see that it was so comprehensive. And then obviously, all the interview with Andrew was done contemporary today.

"Over the last couple of years, by hearing things that George said, we were able to sort of ask Andrew and sort of get them to play off of each other in a way that made it feel very alive."

And talking about the archive footage, I'm assuming a lot of it is previously unseen, especially the footage and the photos. How was it that you got access to them? And how much of a challenge was it to use them all and pick which ones you wanted?

"The biggest surprise during the process was realizing that Andrew's mother had these scrapbooks. Those ended up, I think there were 50 in total and were this incredible document that sort of charted the rise and the ultimate conclusion of Wham.

Director Chris Smith
Director Chris Smith. Picture: Getty

"To have those as a guide that we were able to come back to time and time and time again as a narrative device was such an incredible break. And then in terms of the actual archive, the process, it wasn't like we collected everything and then we cut the movie.

"It was ongoing throughout the entire process. And we had heard that there was this fabled footage that existed from the Club Fantastic tour. And I don't think we found that until like a couple of weeks before we finished. It was something that somebody knew someone who knew someone who had a copy of VHS tape on their shelf.

"It's much more happenstance than I think people would assume. I think that people would assume that this all exists in one centralized location in George's estate. Andrew had a lot of it, but there were a lot of things that were just sort of floating out there that we were fortunately able to find and pull in.

George and Andrew in their Wham years
George and Andrew in their Wham years. Picture: Netflix

I think a lot of fans would love to see those scrapbooks in some kind of museum, just look and dive through it.

"I think there's been talk of how could they be presented, because I think that would be great."

How close did you get to work with Andrew and what was he like to work with in this process?

"We ended up doing a number of days of recording in Andrew's studio, and he was just so, as he appears in the movie, just incredibly well-spoken and polite.

"And I think that he really cared about trying to give me all the information material that I could need to do his story justice. I think that that was very important to him.

"And so he was very gracious with his time. And anything we needed throughout the process or things that we were looking for, he was always there to help you.

You get a real sense of how George emerged out of his shell, both personally and creatively during Wham, and that Andrew realized he had to take a step back a little bit and eventually let him go. But George also needed Andrew in the first place for it to have happened. So were you pleased with how you were able to tell that side of the story?

"Yeah, I think it's very clear and George is very articulate about Andrew's contributions to not only Wham, but to his emergence.

"And Andrew's very clear about that. George's raw talent was unstoppable and undeniable. So I think that there's something very gracious on both sides in terms of the way that they look back to.

Netflix is a huge platform. Will this arguably reach a brand new audience and a much younger audience for George Michael and Wham?

"I hope, I think with any film, you put a lot of time and energy into these things and you just hope that they connect with people.

"I think, to me, there's a beautiful takeaway from this movie about a story about friendship. And to me, I think that more stories like that that are I don't know, there's something very beautiful and life-affirming about what happened in those four years.

"And so I think it's exciting that people will get the opportunity to see that. And you hope that there's some takeaway that people can have from the film?"

Wham! will be available to watch on Netflix, from Wednesday, July 5.