Character study on fame, creativity and the desire for artistic freedom in “George Michael: Portrait of an Artist”

Simon Napier-Bell, “George Michael: Portrait of an Artist” (2022)

For a documentary whose narrative is based completely on interviews with people who knew or were acquainted with its subject, this film about the life, career and troubled personality of British pop musician George Michael is surprisingly very clear and detailed. A person who knew very little about George Michael before seeing this documentary will learn a great deal about this artist’s development from cheery adolescent pop idol in his Wham! years in the early 1980s to a more mature, soulful artist known for his almost aggressive creativity, his philanthropy and activism, and the various controversies, personal and legal, that cast shadows over his life and career. Perhaps the only glaring defect in this documentary is that it doesn’t attach dates to significant events in Michael’s career so that we get some sense of his downfall after the first decade of the 21st century, when substance abuse and failing health began to take their toll.

One surprise here is that Simon Napier-Bell, who directed this documentary, is very much invisible in this work even though he managed Wham!’s career from 1983 until the duo broke up in 1986. I would have thought that Napier-Bell might at least have narrated parts of the documentary, filling in with useful information where the various interviews, gathered from other musicians, journalists, and others who knew him, fail. One problem with documentaries that are based entirely on interviews is that, unless the interviews are organised chronologically, viewers often have to guess the links between one interview and the next in order to make sense of them and construct a narrative of the subject’s life. Fortunately though, there is plenty in what interviewees say that viewers will get a good grasp of the demons that haunted Michael’s life from even before he became a teen pop idol, when he was growing up in a Greek Cypriot immigrant family with socially conservative beliefs in London. Michael’s ambition to become rich and famous, to compensate perhaps for not measuring up to his parents’ expectations, only for him to discover that wealth and fame are double-edge swords, and that such materialist goals turned out unfulfilling, is delineated well. From this moment on, Michael finds himself caught up in the cynical machinations of the music industry, demanding much from him and other artists but giving him few rewards other than wealth and fame – artistic freedom and intellectual ownership of his songs being two such rewards denied him.

In his later life, the issues of Michael’s sexuality and the risks he took either to deny it or to proclaim his homosexuality crudely and aggressively, along with his health problems after 2012 and his dependence on drugs, are covered in quite considerable depth. We may not know exactly what prompted Michael to cruise public toilets looking for gay sex, which behaviour landed him in a sting entrapment by Los Angeles police, but the documentary prepares us with enough information about Michael’s private life beforehand so we can guess at the complex motivations that led to Michael behaving as he did.

The documentary is a visual delight as well as a trove of information about Michael’s career, his personality and his generosity with his money and his time for others. Many interviewees speak warmly of Michael’s kindness and philanthropy towards others. One might surmise that his philanthropy might have arisen from the same set of contradictory motivations and feelings that influenced some of the risky behaviours and the substance abuse he engaged in. Where significant songs are mentioned, some of their music is played though no song is played in full.

After covering Michael’s death from heart disease on Christmas Day in 2016, the documentary ends very quickly with little discussion of the legacy he left to popular music and the commercial music industry, the global LGBTI community and to other activist causes. Perhaps Michael’s life and death are still too recent for a documentary to cover his work and the impact he had on others dispassionately, and more time will have to pass before a film can address his legacy with the importance Michael deserves.