George Michael and the High Price of Freedom

A reedited documentary and massive biography reexamine the pop star's pursuit of happiness through lurid details—and occasional self-awareness.

George Michael and the High Price of Freedom
George Michael performs on stage in Australia, March 1988. Photo:Michael Putland (Getty Images)

There’s the story a celebrity wants to you hear, and then there’s the truth. Some moments in the new George Michael documentary Freedom: Uncut blur the line between the two, elevating the movie into momentary transcendence. Almost invariably, these moments come via Michael’s own words. On his early career as the lead in the two-man boy band Wham!, Michael recalls: “We were taking the piss out of ourselves half the time. How could the country be in love with these two idiots?” On his ascendance to stardom that would find him standing shoulder-to-shoulder with titans of ‘80s pop like Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince, Michael comments: “If I was looking for happiness, this was the wrong road, but I don’t think there’s any way I could’ve controlled my ego enough to have stopped me exploring the possibility of being the biggest-selling artist in the world.” On his formative influences, Michael recalls owning records by the Supremes and Tom Jones as a child, and then admits with a chuckle that he essentially settled somewhere between the two in his career.

Michael’s aptitude for talking about himself in vivid, pithy terms was part of his job description as a pop star. In a documentary that is presented with such gravity (“HIS FINAL WORK” reads its poster, and friend Kate Moss says in the film’s introduction that he had been working on it in the days leading up to his death on Christmas 2016), his words are a double-edged sword. They give Freedom: Uncut, which Michael co-directed alongside his childhood friend and lifelong confidant David Austin, momentary insight that exceeds your usual pop-star vanity doc, and they also make it clear that he deserved better than what is, in other moments, just another pop-star vanity doc.

Freedom: Uncut is storied, a restoration of a director’s cut that Austin had chopped up to fit on television when it originally aired in the U.K. in 2017, according to a recent New York Times piece. Included in the Uncut version, the Times reported, are “recently discovered” outtakes from the “Freedom ’90” video and home-video footage of Michael and Anselmo Feleppa, his first boyfriend, who died of AIDS complications in March 1993, less than two years after Michael and he met. “It was a wonderful six months,” says Michael in Freedom of the brief period he knew Feleppa before his diagnosis and health downturn.

We see Michael and Feleppa spending time together (at one point, they pose with Harry of …and the Hendersons fame), though we don’t hear from Feleppa directly. Those that we do hear from are mostly stars who provide shine of their own. In the section of the movie devoted to Michael’s relationship with Black music and embrace by Black audiences (the ballad “One More Try” from his blockbuster 1987 album Faith went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Black Singles Chart, as it was then known), Stevie Wonder makes a joke in reference to Michael’s appeal and his own blindness: “You mean George is white? Are you serious? Oh my God.” Nile Rogers cries while listening to Michael’s cover of Wonder’s “They Won’t Go,” and Mark Ronson compares “Freedom ’90” to the Mona Lisa. Oasis’s Liam Gallagher gushes about Michael’s sophomore solo album, 1990’s Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, and sums up Michael’s Faith-era appeal in three words: “Modern. Day. Elvis.” On appearing in Michael’s iconic “Freedom ’90” video, supermodel Linda Evangelista tells us that “lip-syncing is hard.”

According to the Times story, Freedom was devised as a complement to the 2004 BBC documentary A Different Story. Whereas that one focused on Michael’s personal life, Freedom followed his musical life, which is why it barely addressed the decade before Michael’s death. There’s no mention of his multiple arrests for traffic violations (including crashes and falling asleep at an intersection) in the 2000s, no mention of the boyfriends who came after Feleppa (Kenny Goss and Fadi Fawaz), no indication that he struggled with managing his sexuality while attempting to appeal to the masses (in particular, the girls and women that dominated his audience during his pop heartthrob ‘80s). The arc in Freedom finds him going from conforming to an image that could be sold to everyone to realizing that, “I’m not like other people at all.” That’s all well and good, but it hardly gets under his skin. Freedom: Uncut is satisfied with rehashing Michael’s public triumphs, and his perseverance in the face of setbacks (Feleppa’s death, losing a lawsuit against Sony in the early ‘90s, being outed after his arrest for indecent exposure in a Beverly Hills park bathroom). It’s a nice reminder to anyone who paid attention and perhaps a decent primer for those who aren’t acquainted with Michael’s work, but there’s little new information or insight to behold.

For that, you could crack open James Gavin’s behemoth biography, George Michael: A Life, out next week. The 528-page book is about as definitive as these things get. It seems to spare no lurid detail, and has the feel of a deliciously unauthorized J. Randy Taraborrelli tell-all from the ‘80s. Tales of drugs (including cocaine, ecstasy, marijuana, and, toward the end of Michael’s life, GHB), sex, Aretha Franklin eating ribs out of his lap in the studio during the recording of “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” Michael’s years-long feud with Boy George, and an aborted Daft Punk collaboration keep things moving at a tantalizing clip.

Gavin’s particular interest lies in Michael’s private life, specifically how he dealt with being in the closet as one of the world’s biggest pop stars. According to Gavin, Michael started cruising for sex with men around the age of 16 and enlisted a line of “beards” to help keep his cover, including Kathy Jeung, who appeared as his love/sex interest in the video for “I Want Your Sex.” (For one birthday, Michael bought her a Toyota—her choice—with a license plate that read “IWANTYOURSEX.”) The rumors swirled around Michael as early as Wham!’s signing with manager Simon Napier-Bell, who recalls that when the news hit the trade papers, “At least four friends called me up and said, ‘George is gay.’ I said, ‘No, he’s not.’ They said, ‘I’ve been in a toilet with him.’ ‘I’ve seen him in that club.’”

Michael, Gavin contends, wrote “I Want Your Sex” for a straight guy named Tony Garcia, “a swarthy, curly-haired, handsome French playboy and occasional record producer with whom he had spent glamorous times in St.-Tropez and elsewhere.” Michael was repeatedly asked about his sexuality in the press, including by 60 Minutes Australia’s Jeff McMullen, whose first question in an interview that aired in 1988 was, “George, are you gay?” Years before he was forced out of the closet, Michael refused to answer the question and indicated that he never would. After the 1998 bathroom incident, though, Michael became one of the few openly gay superstars. Few had been as protective of their queerness, and then as free with it as Michael. In very much the same way, few superstars addressed the topic of monogamy so explicitly (Michael writes “EXPLORE” and “MONOGAMY” on Jeung’s body in lipstick during the “Sex” video) and then discussed living in non-monogamy with equal candor (“He knows who I am,” explained Michael regarding his open relationship with Goss).

Michael was sometimes winking from the closet (the strand of pearls affixed to the shoulder of his iconic leather jacket in the “Faith” video was there because “I somehow wanted to make people understand that I wasn’t stupid enough to think I was butch”). In Freedom: Uncut he indicates that Older, his 1996 album that was dedicated to Feleppa and included gender-specific pronouns in love songs, was his soft announcement to the world about his sexuality: “For anyone who had a clue about any kind of symbolism, I was coming out.” But half out is still half in, and that’s an awfully closed-mouthed way to discuss something that caused a considerable amount of concern and perhaps devastation. Gavin’s account makes the closet sound more like a prison. After his HIV diagnosis, Feleppa had returned to Brazil for medical care, and was admitted to a hospital after falling ill. He was expected, at least by Michael and his people, to recover. He didn’t. “Why Michael didn’t rush to the side of his gravely ill partner was open to speculation. But had he gone, the possibility existed that his secret might have leaked out, especially if he were visiting Feleppa in the hospital,” writes Gavin. Feleppa died and was swiftly buried. Michael missed the funeral.

Though the attempt at a 360-degree view of Michael’s life is far more pronounced in Gavin’s book than Michael’s movie, George Michael: A Life is nonetheless buoyed by Michael’s words, which can read as charmingly self-effacing and otherwise remarkable in their self-awareness. Michael was a true pop scholar, much like Courtney Love or Lady Gaga (though they were more vocal about their self-education). Before the word poptimism was coined, Michael waved the flag for bubblegum: “Somewhere along the way, pop lost all its respect. And I think I kind of stubbornly stick up for all of that,” he told Rolling Stone. He admitted that “there’s not much that I write that doesn’t stem from some other influence,” going as far as to label “I Want Your Sex” a “rather limp attempt to do a Prince.” He was very good at soundbites. George Michael on sex workers: “You don’t pay an escort for sex. What you really pay an escort for is to leave after the sex.” George Michael on his gay audience: “They’re only interested when you’re in the closet. Once you’re out, they don’t give a toss.” George Michael on motivation: “It’s the things that are missing that make you a star, it’s not the things that you have.”

Gavin revels in Michael’s contradictions. From the closet, Michael “wanted to titillate with sex and keep his secrets untouched,” according to Gavin. During the Faith era, at the height of Michael’s fame in the U.S., he was lonely and, according to Michael himself, “The adulation from this huge, huge record put that loneliness into such stark contrast.” Michael was generous with his money (Gavin estimates that by the time surrounding Michael’s 2004 album Patience, the star had quietly donated £20 million) and also cheap (“Friends talked of how he had employed the same housekeeper for over two decades and never given her a raise,” writes Gavin, adding that his staff did not receive health insurance). He was ahead of his time, fighting his record label over a shitty contract that he signed under what he claimed was duress and certainly when he had much less knowledge of the business, and yet his allergy to self-promotion reads as quaint in a time when people perform it as a matter of course. “I see hard-sell promotion as prostitution,” Michael once said.

The Freedom doc, as it originally aired, contains a similar, albeit dubious, multivalence to Gavin: “The star renowned for wanting his privacy had shown an almost pathological compulsion to explain himself, spelling out the what, how, and why of his every move, while assuring viewers of how happy he was.”

George Michael checks his video camera on a railway station platform in Japan during the Japanese/Australian leg of his Faith World Tour in February 1988. Photo:Michael Putland (Getty Images)

Gavin is not so sure about that happiness. Michael’s death was sad and its timing—on Christmas—made it sadder. “Its incredible poignancy was widely noted: At 53, Michael had died alone [in his room] at Christmas, while his 21-year-old voice was in the air all over England, singing wistfully of a broken heart,” writes Gavin in reference to Wham!’s enduring holiday chestnut, “Last Christmas.”

“Now I’m gonna get myself happy,” Michael sang in the autobiographical “Freedom ’90,” and he seemed to not just mean it, but to be taking steps to ensure it. But happiness seemed to elude Michael after losing Feleppa. More than 20 years later, as he was working on the Freedom: Uncut doc, he referred to Feleppa as “Anselmo: such a beautiful companion, such an amazing person… I was so proud that this was my destiny.” After his death, his friend Elton John maintained that Michael never really accepted his sexuality. His press agent Michael Pagnotta said, “I always felt that the last fifteen years or so of his life were about him trying to punish himself.” George Michael: A Life suggests that making himself happy remained an unrealized ideal, hardly the fait accompli that his smile and ebullient pop would have you believe.

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