On Christmas Day 2016, the world awoke to shocking news. George Michael, one of music's brightest stars since the 1980s, had died suddenly in his sleep at age 53.
So many were left reelingpeople who felt they almost knew the iconic musician. However, who was Michael, really? A new documentary, George Michael: Portrait of an Artist, provides many of the answers thanks to insights from everyone from music journalists to fellow musicians (the latter including Rufus Wainwright, Stevie Wonder and Sananda Maitreya, formerly known as Terence Trent D'Arby). Windy City Times recently talked with Simon Napier-Bell, the director and executive producer of the film; and Kenny Goss, a former longtime partner of Michael and one of the interview subjects of the film.
Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Windy City Times: Why did you make this documentary?
Simon Napier-Bell: I managed Wham! I managed him at a crucial part in his careerwhen he changed from an aspiring, hopeful teenager to someone who wrote great songs. Once in a while, when you manage people someone comes along who you can help move from where he was when he started to where he got to. When he went on his solo career, I followed his career like you would your brother. So when he died, and I saw a lot of these documentaries come out that were really second-rate. No one got to the point of who he really was. There is a big fight for every artist with the music business, but with themself.
WCT: George once said in his career he always had a red dot pointing him in the right direction.
SNB: He had it worked out. With Wham!, this was the order of the records. He was very intentional with how he grew his market. He had spent his life from the age of 8 planning and writing pop music. To begin with, he needed an enormous amount of help. But by the time he got to "Faith," he didn't need that. And when he came out he had the confidence to help young people, to help them be gay. He really did it in such a normal way, and [then there was] the way he defended cruising. When George wanted to defend something, he did it vulnerably and articulately.
Kenny Goss: It was interesting how he handled it so well, and every single newspaper said "Shame, shame, shame."
SNB: I was in a restaurant the week after the arrest and suddenly up the stairs came George, and the entire restaurant stood up and applauded.
KG: Even in America, what they print in the tabloids, it feeds that negativity. Even then, it wasn't printed nearly as terribly hear as it was in England.
SNB: George once said to me, "I have never done anything I could regret later." I thought what he meant was that he was always so cautious and thoughtful with how he ran his life that he did things so carefully, he would never regret it. Later I realized what he meant was that he has never done anything where he couldn't resolve the problem that he created. He loved that challenge.
KG: He was proud of his coming out. He was very intelligent when it came to speaking; he knew what to say. But what he wanted was for all the women to know that those songs he wrote in Wham! were about women. I thought that was interesting because he never mentioned it again.
SNB: George was so committed to what he was saying that if you were arguing he would say to you "You're not listening to me," as if that was why you didn't agree with him.
KG: He would bang his hand on the table and say, "You're not listening to me! That's why you don't understand!" And I would say, "I'm listening to you, but I just don't agree." You have to believe in yourself to fight those battles.
WCT: What do you think now he would be saying to LGBTQ+ youth at this time?
SNB: Absolutely be yourself. Stand by your guns. You're not just perfectly normal, but you're the upper echelon of society being gay. George wouldn't say that we should be treated equal. He would be happy if gays were treated better just for being gay.
KG: He became an expert on all injustices, especially in America.
WCT: Was he competitive?
SNB: He was. His whole reason for going to court with Sony was because he got a lower percentage than other artists even though he had sold more records. That was the thing that really wrangled him. He was pissed off because the head of the company said he was a faggot or something, so he couldn't stick with a label like that. But what really pissed him off was that he wasn't getting the same deal as the others who had sold the same number of records.
WCT: If you could ask George one question right now, what would it be?
KG: I would ask him if he wanted to use his lessons, to help people not have those same issues in their lives. I know confidently that he definitely would have wanted to make a difference. You can change things. And he would want to help people change things. Let's change the way people look at addiction. People don't like to look at mental illness, and that's something he would absolutely agree with me on. Everyone has an addict in their family, a bipolar person.
George Michael: Portrait of an Artist is available on Prime Video, Apple iTunes and Google Play.