George Michael’s Freedom: if only the film had more depth and grit

Where we could have done with a Simon Reynolds-style figure, we made do with a nodding Mark Ronson.

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Did everyone of a certain age have a Wham! moment, surreptitious or otherwise, back in the Eighties? Although I definitely didn’t – even now, I can’t hear “Wham Rap!” without wanting to punch the nearest derelict gas holder – this was certainly the myth put about by Freedom (Channel 4, 16 October, 9pm) the autobiographical film George Michael was close to completing when he died on Christmas Day last year.

Liam Gallagher, for instance, insisted that “our kid” (ie his brother Noel) had one, even if he wasn’t going to admit out loud to having been a fan himself. So, too, did both Tracey Emin (“It was one of the most depressing times for young people in British history,” she offered, in mitigation) and Ricky Gervais (“Let’s party!” he yelped, trying and failing to sound dismissive). Basically, the line was that while the Specials were all very well, people could only be expected to take so much mass unemployment and industrial collapse. “You… can… sun… tan,” said Gervais slowly, proffering “Club Tropicana” as an antidote to Terry Hall’s droning social commentary.

At this point, I tried hard not to think of Gervais the UCL student and future lead singer of Seona Dancing bopping around in his underpants in front of a mirror, a can of Tizer standing substitute for the free cocktails of Michael’s dreams. Elsewhere, though, my embarrassment found its focus in the programme’s weird motif, in which a man who appeared to be George Michael was repeatedly filmed from behind, sitting at an old-fashioned typewriter in the bay window of what we naturally took to be his Highgate mansion.

Was this his idea? Or had the producers added it later? I wasn’t sure. It seemed so madly cheesy, the boy from Bushey attempting to appear as nine-parts Proust to one-part Hemingway.

What made it worse was that the image implied a radical reappraisal that simply never happened. Michael, when we heard from him, was predictably honest, dealing by turns with his depression and anxiety, his sexuality, his battles with Sony (he would, he said, always regret fighting the record company in the courts; the whole thing had been a “waste of time”). But the effect of having to listen to so many celebrity talking heads, none of whom dared for a second to edge away from swooning admiration, was in the end one of hagiography.

The film wanted for grit, and for context. Where we needed Johnny Marr, we got only James Corden. Where we could have done with a Simon Reynolds-style figure, we had to make do with a nodding Mark Ronson. (The producer might well have rhythm, but he seems lacking in pop-historical insight.)

In H is for Hawk: a New Chapter (BBC Two, 19 October, 9pm), Helen Macdonald trained a new goshawk, her first since Mabel, the “griffin from the pages of an illuminated bestiary” that was at the heart of her 2014 prize-winning memoir of the same name. Many will disagree, but I’m not sure this documentary quite worked. It had a weirdly convoluted structure – 30 minutes in, and we still hadn’t seen her in action with Lupin – and the whole thing felt far too much like a set-up. I knew from all the interviews Macdonald had done to promote it that the bird doesn’t live with her now – once trained, she left it with a friend at the Pennine farm where she filmed it – and as a result it was sometimes hard to accept the more emotional things she said during the bonding process. I wasn’t keen, either, on the special lyrical voice she used for her narration.

When I read H is for Hawk, I longed to see a real goshawk on a falconer’s arm; I spent quite a while on YouTube. But for all that this film looked madly beautiful, it gradually dawned on me that it couldn’t have hoped to take us as close to a bird as Macdonald did in her book, where her descriptive writing is never anything less than startling. This, I now realise, is something I can’t help but find cheering. Those who haven’t read her memoir will perhaps be encouraged to do so by the BBC’s film. Those who have, will cherish it all the more. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions