George Michael preferred music to fame. The doc he made does, too.
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George Michael preferred music to fame. The doc he made does, too.
“George Michael: Freedom Uncut,” a film the musician worked on with his longtime collaborator David Austin, tells the story of his professional life via interviews and previously unseen footage.

by Rob Tannenbaum

NEW YORK, NY.- George Michael and David Austin were best friends who met because their mothers were best friends. Austin’s family lived at 67 Redhill Drive in the working-class East Finchley area of North London, and Michael’s family was at 57. The two wrote songs together and remained close even as one became a global superstar and the other didn’t.

Michael was a gifted and determined musical dynamo who became a star at the age of 19, first as a member of the British duo Wham! He won two Grammys in the solo career that followed, and collaborated with some of the greatest stars of the previous generation, including Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Elton John. He was a gifted writer, producer, arranger and musician, sometimes playing all the instruments on his songs. And as a singer, he moved fluidly from Motown pop to hard funk to Brazilian bossa nova, with a voice that was sure, expressive and flush with poignancy and drama.

Neither Michael nor Austin had significant movie-directing experience, but neither lacked confidence, so around 2014, they began directing a documentary detailing the vicissitudes of Michael’s career and life, including pop supremacy and international scandal, euphoric love and lacerating deaths.

In December 2016, they’d picture-locked the film and planned a screening for their families, who’d gathered, as they often did, to celebrate Christmas together. “We were going to show it to our parents on Boxing Day,” Austin said. “George was immensely proud of it.” But Michael died in his sleep at 53 and was found by a lover, Fadi Fawaz, on Christmas morning. The cause was a heart condition.

Austin trimmed Michael’s final cut to fit a TV time slot on Channel Four in England, where it aired in October 2017 as “George Michael: Freedom.” But he was dissatisfied with the edit because it didn’t tell the full story as Michael saw it. So in the following years, while resolving some worldwide rights issues, Austin restored the final cut and added an introduction by Kate Moss and tribute performances by Adele as well as Chris Martin of Coldplay. The film, now called “George Michael: Freedom Uncut,” debuts in theaters worldwide Wednesday.

“Freedom Uncut” was preceded in 2004 by the BBC’s “A Different Story,” which included interviews with Michael’s close friends as well as his father, a Greek immigrant who’d viewed his son’s dreams of stardom as juvenile and foolhardy. Throughout “A Different Story,” Michael discusses his private life with self-mocking candor, which was one of his most charming traits: “Oh, my God, I’m a massive star, and I think I may be a poof,” he says at one point, describing a time when he began coming to grips with being gay. “What am I going to do?”

So for “Freedom Uncut,” Michael wanted to focus on his professional life. “He said, ‘This is a different film. This is about me and about the people I work with,’” Austin recalled in a phone call from his office in London. The documentary includes interviews with fellow music stars, including John, Wonder and Mary J. Blige; comedians Ricky Gervais and James Corden; producer Mark Ronson; and supermodels Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, and others who starred in his “Freedom! ’90” video. The film includes recently discovered 35 mm footage shot by director David Fincher, who directed “Freedom! ’90” before his successful career in Hollywood, and unseen home videos Michael made of Anselmo Feleppa, his longtime boyfriend, who died in March 1993 of an AIDS-related illness.

Michael was a self-described homebody who was happiest playing with his dogs at his country house, but his career brought him into contact with music’s and fashion’s biggest stars. “What struck me instantly was how down to earth and what a sweet, beautiful soul he was,” Campbell wrote in an email. “He was unique, a one-of-a-kind divine personality of our time.

IN THE RAPID-ASCENT stage of his career, Michael was a remarkably prolific songwriter: Starting in 1982, Wham! (the duo he formed with Andrew Ridgeley) had four Top 10 U.K. singles in a row. The pair’s second album, “Make It Big,” gave them three No. 1 songs in the United States: “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” “Careless Whisper” and “Everything She Wants.” When I interviewed Michael following the breakup of Wham!, he described the duo as a carefully plotted return to pop escapism. “I can understand why people wanted to punch me out,” he admitted.

Everything Michael learned about craft and marketing conjoined on his first solo album, “Faith” (1987), which made him a star on the magnitude of Michael Jackson or Madonna. But the celebrity he’d desired and attained “had taken me to the edge of madness,” he says in “Freedom Uncut.”

For the release of his next album, “Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1,” he insisted his name and face not appear on the cover. He refused to promote the record or appear in his own videos. And in his song “Freedom! ’90,” he deconstructed pop stardom and exploded the foundational illusion of fandom: “I don’t belong to you, and you don’t belong to me.” It was, regardless of its message, a massive hit.

Michael felt that his record company, Sony, was not promoting his new album avidly enough, and in 1992, he sued in the hope of terminating his contract. By then, he’d met Feleppa and felt loved for the first time in a sexual relationship. “I was happier than I’d ever been in my entire life,” he says in a “Freedom Uncut” voice-over.

His disenchantment with stardom collapsed into depression over the following years. In June 1994, a little more than a year after Feleppa died, Michael lost the Sony case. In 1997, his beloved mother, Lesley, died of cancer. And in 1998, he was arrested in a Beverly Hills park for committing a “lewd act” with an undercover policeman, which is when he came out as gay and declared, “I don’t feel any shame whatsoever.”

In the midst of these troubles, he released a 1996 album, “Older,” which included the Top 10 hits “Jesus to a Child,” written in tribute to Feleppa, and “Fastlove.” (Michael called “Older” “my greatest moment,” and an expanded edition will be reissued July 8.) But he made only one more album of original songs in the following 20 years before his death.

“Freedom Uncut” vivifies Michael for younger generations who didn’t live through the Pop Star Wars of the ’80s. He loved and emulated Black music, which created controversy in the moment; George Benson’s eyes nearly rolled back into his head when he announced Michael’s 1989 American Music Award win in the favorite soul/R&B album category. But time often engenders empathy, and the singer is now viewed as an ally. “Michael’s journey as a working-class gay white man from London who loved Black music and Black culture gave him an intersectional legacy that few artists (save Prince) will ever achieve,” Jason Johnson wrote in The Root, a website that focuses on African American issues, two days after the singer died.

The fact that Michael was able to write, arrange and produce at such a high level places him in “the rarefied air of Sly Stone, Prince or Shuggie Otis,” Ronson added in a phone interview. “It’s crazy, because he made incredible R&B music, but he didn’t go to America to record it” with Black musicians, he noted. “There wasn’t the insecurity of being a white soul boy from England.”

Ronson also hears melancholic or even mournful qualities in Michael’s music: “A lot of our favorite artists sound catchy and peppy, but when you peel back one or two layers, you see somebody who’s dealing with serious inner demons.”

IN 1984, WHEN Michael was already a gleaming pop phenom in England, he went on TV and introduced Austin, who was singing his debut single, “Turn to Gold,” which Michael wrote with Austin and produced. “I’ve known this young man since he was 2 years old,” Michael said, before declaring his pal “the biggest star of 1984.”

Austin recalled, “He was telling a porky pie,” and laughed, using Cockney rhyming slang for a lie. “We’d known each other since he was the grand old age of 6 months, and I was 11 months older. From early childhood, right through to our late teens, we were together all the time.”

David Austin is a stage name; he was born David Mortimer, to Irish parents. George Michael was born Georgios Panayiotou, to an English mother and an industrious Greek Cypriot father who worked in a fish and chips shop and became a restaurateur.

Austin doesn’t often give interviews. Although he’s sometimes described as Michael’s manager, he wasn’t; he was a collaborator, an adviser and a deputy, and since his friend’s death, he’s been in charge of the estate’s artistic decisions. In the course of a 70-minute phone call, he talked warmly about Michael, sometimes referring to him in the present tense, and joked about his own modest recording career. (“What career?”)

His father made trumpets and other instruments for British music company Boosey & Hawkes. Their home was full of instruments, and Austin learned clarinet and guitar, while Michael played drums. “We both aspired to be pop stars,” he said.

By age 6, Austin had learned to use a Revox recording machine, and he recorded four or five songs with Michael, including “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John; “Wig Wam Bam” by the Sweet, Michael’s favorite band; and their first co-written original, called “The Music Maker of the World.” (“I’m never going to tell you what the lyrics are, because I’m going red talking about it,” he said and chuckled.)

The two friends had a band called Stainless Steel, and they decorated Michael’s bass drum with the band’s initials. “But they were slanted S’s,” Austin recalled, which made them look like the Nazi Schutzstaffel logo. “One of the parents came up — ‘Right, off with that!’ We were like, ‘What?’ We hadn’t been taught about World War II yet.”

After that, Michael and Austin played in a five-piece ska band called the Executive, with their pal Ridgeley. “We were terrible, but everyone loved us,” Michael had told me years ago.

But when the Executive broke up, Michael and Ridgeley kept working together, finding almost immediate success as Wham!, while Austin chased a solo career. “It was very hard at the time, watching my two best friends have enormous success,” Austin admitted. “It took me a few years to accept.”

The success of Wham! “opened the door to the industry for me,” Austin continued. But he turned out not to be the biggest star of 1984. After Wham! broke up in 1986, he and Michael went to the south of France and tried to write Austin’s next single. Michael wrote “I Want Your Sex,” which Austin demoed, and the two wrote “Look at Your Hands” together. But Austin’s label didn’t love the songs, so Michael held on to them and released them on “Faith.” (That album has gone 10 times platinum, giving Austin considerable publishing royalties.)

As a director, Austin’s strength was his rapport with Michael and his inside understanding of the singer’s feelings and fears, going all the way back to Redhill Drive. He even knew Michael during his awkward phase: “People have no comprehension of what I looked like as a kid,” the singer had told me, laughing wildly. “I was such an ugly little bastard.”

Austin confirmed his friend’s self-effacing analysis: “George didn’t feel attractive as a child,” he said. “People who go on to have extraordinary careers, quite often there’s something lacking in their life. The career is filling a void, and that’s what the extra drive is about.

“When you initially get there, it’s everything you want.” he added. “Then when it becomes huge, you realize fame will never, ever fill that void.”

Rather than repairing anyone’s bad feelings, fame is more likely to exacerbate them. Michael figured this out, Austin said, which is why he spent his last two decades among friends and family more than in front of fans. “Now I’m gonna get myself happy,” he sang, and he did.

“George and I used to fight as kids and even as adults,” Austin said. “But we were incredibly close. Music, family, close friendships — those are the things in life that fill the void.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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