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The Legacy of Freedom: George Michael

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Written: by Flick and Nikita

George Michael’s documentary, Freedom Uncut (2017), offers an intimate look into the life of one of the most iconic musicians of the 20th and 21st centuries. This documentary is a must-watch, not only for fans, but also for those intrigued by the music industry. While celebrating Michael’s extraordinary talent and contributions to music, it also serves as a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame and the often harsh realities of the music industry.

Uniquely, Freedom Uncut features Michael himself as the main narrator of his story, rather than others speaking on his behalf. This approach allows for a more personal and authentic portrayal of his life and experiences. Kate Moss, who speaks at the beginning of the film,  emphasises the significance of this, noting that George Michael died suddenly on Christmas 2016, just days before completing the documentary. “This really is in his words, his final work, his final contribution,” she states, highlighting the authenticity and personal touch of the documentary.

WHAM!’s formation in 1981 marked the beginning of Michael’s ascent to fame. Along with Andrew Ridgeley, Michael co-wrote and produced songs that resonated with the youth of the 1980s. Their debut album, Fantastic (1983), and subsequent release, Make It Big (1984), produced international hits and established WHAM! as a global pop powerhouse. However, the band wasn’t just popular because they were catchy, they also tackled some tough themes in some of their songs, such as poverty and depression. Ricky Gervais commented that Wham!’s songs spoke to those who were suffering, in pain and in denial, as well as those who wanted to pretend things were fine and have fun. The duo’s ability to blend catchy pop melodies with meaningful lyrics set them apart from other acts of the time.

One of WHAM!’s most memorable moments was their historic visit to China in 1985, making them the first Western pop group to perform there. This event symbolised the global reach of their music and the cultural bridge they built between the East and West.

They were staples in the music scene and their success as pop icons was solidified. Sadly, it seemed that WHAM!’s success was a double-edged sword for Michael. While it catapulted him to stardom, it also pigeonholed him as a teen idol, a label he found increasingly suffocating. He was expected to wear tight outfits and exude sex appeal, something he found difficult as his family believed it was a sin to be vain in this manner. This period laid the groundwork for Michael’s later struggles with his public image and his relentless pursuit of artistic credibility.

In 1986, Michael embarked on a solo career that would solidify his status as a musical legend. His debut solo album, Faith (1987), was a commercial and critical triumph, featuring chart-topping singles such as “Faith,” “Father Figure,” and “One More Try.” Faith won numerous awards, including a Grammy for Album of the Year, and showcased Michael’s versatility as a songwriter and performer.

Michael began to explore a wider range of musical genres and themes. His second solo album, Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 (1990), marked a significant departure from the dance-pop sound of Faith. This album featured more introspective and socially-conscious tracks, such as “Praying for Time” and “Freedom! ’90”. The latter, accompanied by an iconic music video directed by David Fincher, featured supermodels lip-syncing to Michael’s vocals, symbolising his break from the pressures of fame.

Despite his solo success, Michael’s journey was far from smooth. The pressure to maintain his status as a top-selling artist was immense, and the scrutiny of his personal life intensified. Michael’s struggle to reconcile his public persona with his private self became a recurring theme in his career. Within the documentary, Michael tells the viewer how he struggled and recoiled from his fame, stating that he took to wearing sunglasses constantly for a year after Faith was released as a type of shield between himself and the public. During this section, Michael states that he didn’t expect the effect that level of fame would have on him mentally and personally, referring to himself as a “caricature” of who he actually was inside: “I went full gusto into creating a new character, one that I thought would be resilient enough to stand up there with Madonna and Jackson and Prince.” The level of hyper-sexualised promotion Michael had to endure also took its toll on him: “I see hard sale promotion as prostituting myself. I can’t help it. Even if it’s a complete fallacy, that’s how I see it.” Tracey Emin reflected upon this with the documentary, stating, “Musicians are manufactured and he didn’t want to be; he struggled with that.”

Michael’s love life is another area within the documentary which is mentioned. There’s no secret that this was marked by both joy and profound sorrow, affecting his music and ability to cope with his fame. His relationship with Brazilian designer Anselmo Feleppa was truly significant, with Michael referring to Feleppa as the love of his life, but the relationship was tragically cut short when Feleppa died of AIDS-related complications in 1993. Michael’s grief was compounded by the necessity to keep his sexuality hidden from the public, a reflection of the homophobic climate of the time. When performing at the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert in 1992, Michael stated  in the documentary that he performed, not only for Freddie who died of AIDS, but for Feleppa who was in the crowd and dying of the same disease. Michael goes on to state, “I went out there knowing I had to honour Freddie Mercury and I had to pray for Anselmo.”

Michael’s relationship with Anselmo Feleppa and his subsequent loss had a profound impact on his music and life. The song “Jesus to a Child” is a tribute to Feleppa, reflecting Michael’s deep sense of loss and mourning. This period of his life was marked by a series of personal challenges, including coming to terms with his sexuality in an era when being openly gay was still met with widespread prejudice.Michael’s personal life, particularly his relationship with Anselmo Feleppa, deeply influenced his music and personal trajectory. Meeting Feleppa in 1991 during the Rock in Rio festival was transformative for Michael: “It’s very hard to be proud of your own sexuality when it hasn’t brought you any joy. Once it’s associated with joy and love, it’s easy to be proud of who you are. The first time you actually believe somebody loves you, that’s a wonderful, wonderful moment in your life. For six months I was happier than I have ever been in my entire life.”

Obviously, the documentary talks about Micahel’s highly publicised battle with Sony Music. Frustrated with what he perceived as the company’s exploitation and lack of artistic support, Michael sued Sony in 1992, seeking release from his contract and highlighting the inequities faced by artists. Although he lost the case, it raised important questions about artists’ rights and the balance of power between musicians and record labels. Other artists showed their solidarity for the cause, with Prince most notably writing the word ‘slave,’ on one side of his face as he also faced his own battle with his label. This fight also impacted his output, as he felt stunted in producing new material for the label. Although Michael states there’s an element of regret in suing Sony in the Channel 4 version of the film, in the uncut version, the subtext of this section of the film is very clear: Michael didn’t regret the court case itself, but the timing with which it occurred. He was grieving both the loss of Anselmo and his mother and that grief alongside the stress of the lawsuit took its toll on Michael both creatively and personally.

Michael’s issues with management extended beyond his battle with Sony. Throughout his career, he faced challenges in finding managers who truly understood and respected his artistic vision. His conflicts with managers often stemmed from his desire for artistic integrity versus the commercial pressures imposed on him. Michael stated, “it wasn’t about the money but about the total and utter lack of respect. That the minute that someone doesn’t see themselves as a commodity, that they actually have the audacity to think they are creating something and must keep themselves sane to do that. The minute they do that, they’re over.” This sentiment is backed up by Andy Stevens, who was the representative of Michael’s label in the UK and was more sympathetic than his American counterparts: “You can’t put a gun to the creative person’s head and order them to create, but that’s what the US label was doing to George.” This ongoing battle affected his mental health and contributed to his growing disillusionment with the industry.

In conclusion, Freedom Uncut is not just a documentary about George Michael’s life; it is a narrative that encapsulates the triumphs and tribulations of a musical genius who constantly battled for authenticity in an industry that often values profit over artistry. For fans, it offers a deeper appreciation of Michael’s work and his personal journey. For those interested in the music industry, it provides a stark look at the challenges and pressures that come with fame. By sharing his story in his own words, Michael leaves a lasting legacy that continues to resonate with audiences and serves as a powerful reminder of the costs of fame and the importance of artistic integrity.


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