With the one-year anniversary of the passing of George Michael coming up on Christmas Day, I came across an illuminating documentary on Showtime that the pop superstar was working on up until the time of his death at the untimely age of 53. What an irony that he joined two other colleagues in the musical stratosphere of his time — Michael Jackson and Prince — in leaving us at the half-century mark. (And with Whitney Houston also gone, that leaves Madonna as basically the sole survivor of that golden age of pop gods and goddesses.)
In the film, entitled Freedom (after one of his top hits and an epic video— more on that later), Michael is unflinching as he assesses his meteoric career, which began with the boy band Wham! before launching his solo phase with the album Faith in the late eighties. As a boomer who remembers the era quite clearly, I recall Michael as the always upbeat, always sexy performer who seemed to have more hits than anyone at the time. (In fact, Faith ended up selling more than 20 million copies).
But you come away with a very different impression after this film. An introspective and melancholy musical genius, Michael struggled with the loneliness very much at his core (one reason for the ever-present sunglasses) and only experienced real happiness with first love Anselmo Feleppa, whom he met in 1991 and who would succumb to AIDS in 1993, leaving the singer devastated. (Michael did not actually come out until 1998.) The event was followed by the death of his mother a year later, which threw the singer into an emotional tailspin from which only music could save him.
I discovered the album Older (released in 1994) as a result of this doc, being mostly familiar with the Michael masterpieces Faith and of course, the transcendent Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1. Considered by Michael as his finest work, Older is very much a “healing” album, with many allusions to his relationship with Feleppa, especially on the amazing track “Like Jesus to a Child.” (I’ve had it on repeat for a few days now. It’s that good.)
So back to that Freedom! ‘90 video. It’s really a magical moment in pop culture, capturing the zeitgeist of an irreplicable epoch, anchored by Cindy and Christy and Linda and Naomi, the supermodels who needed no last names, recruited by Michael for a once-in-a-lifetime music video directed by David Fincher (The Social Network). Explosive, sensual and giddily glamorous, it’s also remarkable for its notably absent star. That’s save for one of his bomber jackets, which literally goes up in smoke — symbolic, of course, of Michael letting go of one stage of his career before embarking on the next. And shall we say, with a bang.
There are also prescient words from him as regards his legacy. How did he want to be remembered? “As a great singer/songwriter…from a period of time which I don’t think we’ll be seeing again. I don’t think youth culture will produce someone like myself or Madonna or Prince. I think it’s too fragmented now.
“So I’d like to be remembered as one of those last kind of big stars in the sense that there was a certain glamour to it.”
And that, by George, is certainly the case.