A different story: George Michael’s new documentary, ‘Freedom Uncut’
Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency
Sunday 19 June 2022 By Matt d’Ancona
Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.
‘Modern. Day. Elvis’: quite a claim to make for the late George Michael, and all the more striking because it is advanced by Liam Gallagher, referring to the macho rock persona adopted by the singer-songwriter in his blockbuster first solo album, Faith (1987).
Nor does Gallagher’s reverence for the musician born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou end there. Playing the opening moments of ‘Praying for Time’, he raises his arms to an imaginary audience and declares: ‘In f**king one’; and then, warming to his theme: ‘Reminds me of John Lennon… Cut from the same cloth as ‘Imagine’.” There is, of course, no higher praise in the Gallagher family.
It is more than five years since Michael died, aged 53, on Christmas Day, 2016, at his home in Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire; he would have been 59 on 25 June. The cinematic release of the documentary he left unfinished, now completed by his friend David Austin – Freedom Uncut (22 June) – marks the occasion, and also sets the scene for the re-release of his most personal and poignant album, Older (1996), on 28 July.
Featuring contributions from Kate Moss, Tracey Emin, Mary J. Blige, Nile Rogers, James Corden, Ricky Gervais and many others, the posthumous film sets out to put on record Michael’s own version of what he was trying to achieve. Some will be antagonised by its billing as the musician’s ‘final work’, but it is hard to resist the power of the tale it has to tell: one of the great stories in the history of pop, tracing the evolution of an icon from chubby adolescent and music fanatic to global musical legend.
When you hear Stevie Wonder say how much he admired Faith, or see Elton John fall silent with emotion as he listens to one of his friend and collaborator’s tracks, or watch David Bowie quietly applauding in the sidelines of a rehearsal in 1992 as Michael prepares his version of ‘Somebody To Love’ with Queen for the Freddie Mercury Tribute Stadium at Wembley Stadium, you grasp how great was his impact upon the very artists he had revered as a teenager.
What is most striking, 40 years since Michael and his school friend Andrew Ridgeley released their first single as Wham!, is that his music is even more deeply embedded than ever in contemporary culture.
Throughout his life, he was both profoundly self-aware and wracked by self-doubt. He believed he was following a ‘red line’ towards greatness, but hated the way he looked and wondered if the work amounted to much. He was loved by millions but painfully lonely, ‘spiritually crushed’ and feeling that he was ‘picked on by the gods’. He had a fine sense of humour, usually at his own expense, but, away from the stage, enjoyed only fleeting encounters with true happiness. These are familiar paradoxes in the creative psyche. But, in Michael’s case, they were especially pronounced.
Still, the music is what counts. Like an alchemist, he could turn fiasco into magic. He produced perfect pop in records such as ‘Young Guns (Go For It)’, ‘Everything She Wants’, and ‘The Edge of Heaven’. But he could also write songs of extraordinary depth and plangent lyricism.
There are intimations of mortality in the film, oblique premonitions of what was to come. After completing Patience, he reflected: ‘That is enough… if a bus hit me tomorrow, I would be happy with the music I left in the world.’
The end was not so sudden, but it still came far too soon. This is a fitting tribute to an artist whose work did much to define and shape the music of an age. Watch without prejudice.
Here are this week’s recommendations:
Good Luck To You, Leo Grande (general release, 17 June)
Nancy has never had an orgasm. In her sixties, widowed and retired from her career as an RE teacher, she decides to do something about it, and hires a much younger sex worker, Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) to meet her in the unpromising setting of a Norwich hotel room. Emma Thompson is extraordinary as the simultaneously anxious, aroused and thwarted lead character – yearning for disinhibition and sexual abandon, but aware that this is not going to be straightforwardly achieved. With Katy Brand on writing duties, all the awkwardness of the encounter (Nancy is more than 30 years older than her mixed-race ‘sex saint’ Leo) is turned into humour. Leo’s patter-for-the-punters soon relaxes into true conversation and what is inescapably a transaction becomes something more as the two learn about each other. Fearless work by both actors makes this a tender, excruciating and richly rewarding movie.
The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain by Darren McGarvey
Perhaps best known for his Orwell Prize-winning book, Poverty Safari: Understanding The Anger Of Britain's Underclass, the author, activist and hip-hop artist Darren McGarvey returns with this blistering analysis of how distance in all its forms – physical, psychological, political, economic – shapes the way we live and the still-underestimated gap between the powerful and the powerless. The rage that underpins McGarvey’s prose is palpable but his analysis is lethally cool in its delivery: time after time, he nails what we get wrong, from the distribution of wealth, to childhood, to our institutional arrangements, to the basic ignorance of those in power of the life of nerve-shredding insecurity that is led by many millions of Britons every day. And he has plenty of ideas about how to make it better, from an overhaul of the constitution and rejuvenation of the unions to a radical programme of social housing.
Prima Facie (Original Theatrical Soundtrack) by Self Esteem
Fresh from her barn-storming Saturday night performance at Kite, the force of nature that is Self Esteem (AKA Rebecca Lucy Taylor) drops this terrific soundtrack album: the music that accompanies the West End smash hit starring Jodie Comer, Prima Facie (see Creative Sensemaker, 21 April). Suzie Miller’s extraordinary and deeply troubling play explores the treatment of rape victims and the yawning gap between law and justice. Only an artist of Self Esteem’s integrity, imagination and principled commitment would be capable of setting such a drama to music that matched its emotional openness, anger and defiance. And because of this, the album is worth listening to in its own right: not least for the songs ‘The Process’ and ‘Perfect 2 Me’; the latter being a majestic takedown of, as Self Esteem put it in an Instagram post on Wednesday, ‘[t]he men that press single flowers into the pages of the Catcher in the Rye they carry around with them. The ones that erode the space you should take up slowly and stealthily.’ Nothing short of a phenomenon, whose rise is only beginning.
Happy 50th birthday to The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Do check out this terrific piece by Martin Samuel from the latest Tortoise Quarterly, Anniversary, on David Bowie’s masterpiece.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner