How do you tell the story of the complex figure that was George Michael?
The singer, who in 1988 had become the world’s best-selling artist thanks to his first solo album Faith and his earlier huge success with Wham!, will be remembered for his music. He was a songwriter with a gift for creating remarkable, soulful earworm and voice, as well as handsome looks and spirit; a perfect pop star package that has earned him the adulation of millions around the world.
But for a long time the real george michael was hiding behind an image of a sex god. And in his later years, tales of run-ins with the law, health issues and drug abuse threatened to overshadow his talent. Despite his eventual candor about his sexuality and the fact that he enjoyed casual sex — after years in the closet before his very public release — it still provided a rich source of salacious headlines.
The death of Michael at the age of 53 at Christmas in 2016 – as thousands of people listened to his younger self sing a broken heart among the Slades and Mariah Carey on festive playlists – stunned the world, and shrines of flowers, candles and tributes to the singer were quickly built in front of his houses.
As well as homages and revisits to his back catalogue, there were also the stories of George Michael the philanthropist, a man who allegedly quietly donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to charity, secretly funded the IVF treatment of a woman after seeing her on television, and volunteers anonymously at a homeless shelter.
There were many sides to the star and his story is currently being told in a new biography as well as a re-released uncut documentary, which is Michael’s story in his own words.
Leaving behind the song-based puns, tales of tragedy, or headline-grabbing crime, music biographer James Gavin simply chose George Michael: A Life for the title of his in-depth book. He says he set out to encompass everything, positive and negative, after speaking to almost 250 people who knew or met the singer at different times in his life.
“George, for all the sadness in his life, was not seen that way, is not seen that way,” he said. “People don’t see him as a tragic figure. Yes, he died at the age of 53. It shouldn’t have happened. It happened. And yet, I think George Michael, his name and his music instantly make people happy.”
Michael’s music has made millions happy, and still does – whether you’ve found him dancing to the carefree pop of Wham!, swooning over Faith, embracing change with Freedom! 90, or cheered him on as he shamelessly addressed the moment that led to his release – being arrested for performing a ‘lewd’ act in a public toilet following a secret police sting in Los Angeles in 1998 – with Outside, a song about having sex outdoors; Michael dressed up as a police officer in the video, dancing and swinging a baton next to a row of urinals decorated with disco balls.
As Gavin puts it, he was a musician who had “a flair for taking confused and conflicted lives of struggle and great achievement and turning that into beautiful and often sad music”.
The project Michael was working on before he died
Shortly before his death, Michael told Kirsty Young TV that he hoped a period of music hiatus would “result in something spectacular” and she later wrote of their interview that she thought he “had a lot of hope that good things were to come”. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. Although he featured on a few singles in his later years, he hadn’t released an album of new material since his fifth album Patience in 2004.
However, he had been working on one project before his death – the documentary Freedom, which was re-released in cinemas in June and featured material from his discussion with Young. Directed by Michael himself alongside his longtime friend David Austin, as well as spotlighting his music, it’s also a deeply personal and moving account of the star’s struggles with his sexuality, fame and bosses. industry, as well as his grief over the death of his first love, Anselmo Feleppa, who had AIDS, and his mother from cancer. However, he doesn’t really address the more turbulent period of his later years.
Michael talks about being a teenager and his “desperate ambition to be famous and to be loved and respected”, in the film, but then goes on to discuss his struggles with the spotlight: “I am aware of the need for a character, and my actual character that I’m not really ready to give.”
Gavin’s book also details those struggles, charting the star’s transformation from shy and awkward Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou into the superstar he became. It also delves into Michael’s self-destructive nature.
“George had a lot less joy being George Michael than we had in George Michael”
He says he wanted to tell Michael’s story honestly. “I’m fascinated by both the bright, shining, triumphant moments of lives and the really depressed moments of lives. And I think artists like George – and all of us, but especially artists of that depth – are defined by everything that happened to them.”
Michael was “tortured” for much of his life, Gavin says. “I found that George had a lot less fun being George Michael than we had in George Michael. And that is the case with so many superstar lives.”
The star also felt he was looked down upon, he says. “Unfortunately, the circumstances of George’s life were such that he put the press scandal on a silver platter and it was easy for people to perceive him, in my opinion, unkindly, as a spoiled superstar who had gone off the rails and destroyed all of his enormous privileges and achievements.
“And that’s not wrong. But what I tried to convey…is the fact that he was a human being underneath it all. He was a struggling guy who was struggling with the hatred of self to a high degree. The first half of George Michael’s life was to build and create the character of George Michael. The second half was to destroy him.
George Michael: A Life, by music biographer James Gavin, is available now. The George Michael Freedom Uncut documentary is also out now