Thirteen No.1 songs on the UK Singles Chart, 10 on the US Billboard; 125 million records sold; two Grammys; three Brits, four MTV awards; a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, and one of the biggest-selling musicians of all time… There’s no wonder we’re still talking about George Michael, seven years on from his death. And very few people have a bad word to say about the pop icon.
"I interviewed people who he had big quarrels with, but none of them disliked him," says Simon Napier-Bell, who managed Wham in the 1980s, and whose documentary George Michael: Portrait of an Artist is now out on DVD and Blu-ray.
"He'd get furious because something wasn't ready at a gig or something wasn't done right, but that was his job. If he played a gig and the sound wasn’t right, or a musician played a bad note, it was George who looked bad, not the musician. He could be short and sharp and bad tempered but hey, we all are. I couldn't find anyone to say anything bad about him.”
Biographical documentaries can often fall into two camps: slobbering hagiography or brutal character assassination, with little room for nuance or complexity. But Portrait of an Artist is refreshingly candid about George’s flaws as it is about his genius. So what does Napier-Bell think the singer would have made of the film?
“I think he'd be happy with it,” he smiles. “He might feel that there weren’t enough bad points, though."
George Michael is an artist whose cruelly short life has been raked over in numerous articles and documentaries in the years since his death, but this film is different, coming as it does from someone from within the singer’s inner circle.
Napier-Bell was, in the 1980s, Wham!’s manager, but more recently has reinvented himself as a documentary filmmaker. For him, this was a chance to tell the story of the George Michael he knew.
[George Michael] does fascinate people. There are some artists who are just as interesting when they're not here as when they were.Simon Napier-Bell
“When he died,” the now 84-year-old reflects, “I saw a succession of really second rate documentaries come out and they were all rather sensational. I just wanted to make a film which would show George as he was. I didn't want to avoid any of the downsides of his life, I just want to show how clever and how brilliant he was in using his own life and experiences as the basis for his art.”
The result is a rich and balanced portrait of an artist which explores the singer’s creativity and kindness as much as it does his personal demons. A host of friends, collaborators and admirers pop up in the documentary, from Stephen Fry (who tells of being moved to tears at George’s generosity) to Stevie Wonder to Rufus Wainwright to Sananda Maitreya. One of the benefits, one presumes, of having an address book as bulging as Simon Napier-Bell’s.
“My address book’s not bad,” he laughs, “but when I mentioned George, people just wanted to do it. Stevie Wonder was the biggest coup. He’d only just had a kidney operation and said he wouldn’t be doing any interviews, but he did this one.”
One talking head that’s notable by his absence, however, is Simon Napier-Bell himself (“I knew my point of view, I wanted other people's,” he says simply). Starting out in the 1960s, looking after artists such as The Yardbirds and Marc Bolan, the sometime songwriter and producer took on Wham! in 1983 just as George and bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were attempting to extricate themselves from their contract with Innervision Records.
“My first impression of George was that he was very self-sufficient,” Napier-Bell says. “He was nervous of people using him. Artists are nearly all the same – they have something that happened in childhood which makes them very afraid of people and very in need of communicating with people. So they're both desperately in need of attention and approval and love, but also very cautious about giving it to anybody, and George fell into that pattern.
"He was a completely different type of person than he was on stage – serious, slightly untrusting, very cautious, very pushy… He knew what he wanted, he had his life planned out, and wanted people who could help him.”
Napier-Bell says that, though he knew George well during his Wham! days, researching the singer’s later years took its toll, emotionally.
“I was quite depressed by the time I’d finished it,” he says. “The downsides of George's life began to enter into my mind too. It’s normal when you make a film. I made a documentary about Frank Sinatra a few years back and I thought, ‘This is going be a wonderful, uplifting film’, but he was exactly the same. The happy Frank Sinatra on stage wasn’t the one you’d see when you were talking to him.”
One of the more astonishing clips in the film is from 1987 where an interviewer asks George bluntly, “Are you gay?” to which he responds, “No, I’m not.” It’s a moment that Napier-Bell believes George forever regretted.
“I think he realised that when he finished Wham!, he should have just come out,” Napier-Bell theorises. “Then he got swept up into making even more of a heterosexual image with Faith. He did want to be a huge star and to be as big as Madonna, and he knew this was the way to do it, so he covered [his homosexuality] up. He obviously felt bad about it, though, because he was somebody who loved honesty.
"It was during the Faith tour that this guy came out with this question, and he's such an obnoxious interviewer. And George said no and I think you can see in his eyes, even as he says it, him thinking, ‘Oh f***, I've made a mistake, I should have just said yes.’ This would have been the moment to say, ‘Yes, I am – next question, please’, but he said no, and you could almost feel the disappointment George had in himself for missing that opportunity.”
Once George did come out, however, Napier-Bell believes the singer’s attitude towards his sexuality was important at a time when society was still coming to terms with gay issues.
“He really helped the gay cause, if you want to call it that, by making being gay so normal,” Napier-Bell, who’s gay himself, says. “You'd see him with Kenny [Goss, George’s partner] in an interview, and Kenny would be sitting around, and would go, ‘I've got to go now, darling,’ and then they’d kiss just like an ordinary married couple.
"It was wonderful to see a gay person behaving so normally. But then George would go on about how he liked cruising, and you’d think, oh, dammit, that's not normal. So he was very conflicting, and that’s what was so fascinating about him.”
George Michael: Portrait of an Artist collector's edition Blu-ray and DVD are available now from Peccadillo Pictures.