The title of Simon Napier-Bell’s warm, incisive “George Michael: Portrait of an Artist” documentary is somewhat limiting. The film captures the rise of a pop icon and taps into his creative process and place within pop culture. But it also explores Michael’s activism, romances, his tortured public life and decades of secret and often extravagant philanthropy.
It’s damned good, a brisk overview and a celebration of the man, his music and the world he lived in and, as many of those interviewed here maintain, changed, and a lamentation of his addictions and premature death.
We hear from collaborators and peers, biographers and broadcasters, journalists, friends and a lover — but also psychotherapists — all of them with an opinion of how he lived, what he endured and the things that made him the person he was and the pop artist he became.
Napier-Bell, who’s made music videos as well as docs on Sinatra and “The 27 Club” (“27: Gone Too Soon”), dashes confidently through quick-cuts of this life and material, giving us a taste of the breathless rise to fame of the former Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou, the heady highs and the grim, often self-destructive lows.
Sometimes, those could happen the same day. “The love of his life,” Anselmo Feleppa, was dying of AIDS and watching as Michael paid tribute to the late Freddie Mercury by covering “Somebody to Love” in the concert celebration of the Queen singer’s life.
Michael’s arrest for propositioning an undercover cop in an LA public restroom was “liberating,” more than a few who knew him say. Michael not only complained of the 1950s style entrapment still being practiced by the LAPD. He made a righteous spectacle of his “community service,” working at the Project Angel Food kitchen and dragging the media along to highlight a charity he’d been giving to for years, and continued to support for years afterward.
British actor, wit and activist Stephen Fry talks about the “secret” philanthropy that suggested Michael wanted to give as much away as possible without getting credit. Fry remembers breaking down in tears when Michael declined to write another check to an AIDS charity Fry was fundraising for, instead offering the group all British royalties from a greatest hits album.
Michael’s self-destructive side wasn’t just limited to his shifting sexual image and later drug addictions. He took on Rupert Murdoch’s venal right wing media empire. “He knew he was going to get eaten alive, and he did,” one observer notes.
He even wanted to make a pornographic film, expanding the music video for one of his most eye-opening and sexually raw tunes, “Freeek,” and got pretty far into production before thinking better of it.
The “telling anecdotes” from friends, the TV interviews Michael did himself, the armchair analysis of the things that drove Michael and shaped his later life make “Portrait of an Artist” a terrific snapshot of the Wham! star who became a legendary figure not just in music, but the gay community and world pop culture as well.
Rating: unrated, profanity, drug abuse discussions, sexuality
Cast: George Michael, Stevie Wonder, Jo Whiley, Terence Trent D’Arby, Kenny Goss, Sandana Maitretya, Rufus Wainwright, Stephen Fry and Piers Morgan.
Credits: Directed Simon Napier-Bell. A Protocol Media release available on streaming platforms.
Running time: 1:34