Variety dubbed it an ‘irresistible pop nostalgia trip’, Forbes observed that ‘audiences can’t help but feel a deep connection to the two friends, Michael and Ridgeley’; Netflix’s latest music documentary Wham! (2023) is a chronicle of the humble beginnings and meteoric rise of the 80s British pop duo that is sweeping up new and old fans alike. From Bushey suburbs to Wembley Stadium, these two North London boys were all the rage, and this archive film does justice to their achievements, friendship, and story. Filmworkz catches up with the film’s archive producer, Alex Black, to hear what it’s like knowing when you’ve struck gold, where to begin looking for archive material, and why using R3store helped make the film what it is.
“I’M YOUR MAN”
After a snowboarding accident in his gap year, Black went back home to Norwich where he got a job as a research assistant whilst he recovered in a production company that was working on the John Peel archive, organising his record collection, and his ephemera.
John Peel was a legendary British DJ and radio presenter, and was the longest serving DJ at Radio 1 broadcasting regularly from 1967 until his death in 2004. He is also credited for helping to break out many artists of all genres during this time by playing their music on his show and was the first to play psychedelic rock and progressive rock on British radio.
‘That particular project was quite archive heavy because it was about a record collection and about different musicians so I did some of my earliest archive research work there although I didn’t really realise it at the time. It was really crucial for me in terms of my professional development because I learned so much about how documentaries work, but it was also something I was super passionate about’.
After that, he moved to London and began working on a World War Two documentary for Discovery as an archive researcher but ended up doing the role of an assistant producer and was across lots of different aspects of the production.
That set a template for the next few years of working on productions for different channels, like BBC and Sky Arts. ‘I would do the filming of interviews, and then switch to production and pre production type work. Then once the production went into the edit I would then switch back to being an archive researcher. I never had a purist career path as an archive researcher which is what lots of other people in the industry have done. I was always doing a bit of everything’. Lots were music-oriented projects, and the experience, knowledge and contacts that comes with it is how it led him onto Wham!…
KNOWING WHEN YOU STRUCK GOLD
One of the most commercially successful pop acts of the 80s, Wham! was the boyhood band of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley that took over the world with songs like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, “Everything She Wants” and “Club Tropicana”. Nearly 40 years later, Netflix went back in time to create an archive documentary to reflect what it was really like from the singer’s perspectives using never-seen-before material.
Director Chris Smith explained why this documentary was different because ‘we were focused on the period from 1980 to 1986 when Wham! existed. So for us, it was like looking at the material and trying to find a way to tell it that felt reflective of the experience that they shared’.
Finding the archive materials themselves is a complicated process. Black explains with Wham!, the record label held a lot of material that was never seen before. but he was given access to: ‘it was an intensive process because there was a level of cataloguing that was done by George Michael’s team where they roughly knew where things were but once you opened the boxes, you realised there was stuff in there that hadn’t really been looked at or touched for 40 years in some cases’.
‘That process is very time consuming, because you’re basically given a loose inventory of what’s there and then you just have to physically go through videos, folders, documents, and all kinds of different things to try and work out what you’ve got. In most cases, watching it is the best way of finding out what’s there and not always trusting what’s written on the film can or on the side of the video.
The holy grail for Black’s team was to find footage of the final concert Wham! played, which a lot of Wham! fans have wanted to see it for a really long time due to its scarcity, but that didn’t come easy…
’We had so many reels that were called “Wham! the final” or “Wham! final”. They also called their final EP “The final” as well. We just spent days and days and days going through all these tapes and film reels. Eventually we found it, but it was a real process’.
Whilst one source might provide you with the majority of material, the real ‘detective work’ begins when you have to track down other, more elusive, overlooked, or forgotten sources
‘It’s an amazing moment in this job when you find a programme that has great footage in it and then you then go back into the BBC archives and you find the rushes (original footage) for it, but that’s not always the case.
‘There’s so many layers to the project it’s like peeling an onion – you have your initial footage from various different sources that gets you from A to B in the story, but then you realise that that person you spoke to, they might give you a name of somebody else that you need to speak, and so you follow up on that lead.
‘There’s so many different places you could find things: people who were playing in the band themselves from that time period, trying to find them, finding their contact details, if they’re not around anymore trying to find their relatives, speaking to them, seeing what they’ve still got. It spreads out like a spiderweb and you’re just following various different leads’.
‘You find photographs by photographers, and ask if they still have their contact sheets (back in the day, when photos were taken on film there would be 36 exposures on a reel. You could lay the strips out and could photocopy them), and most of them did! So in the film Wham!, what we often did was use the contact sheets with a rostrum effect, so you move along and can see the other frames that never got published. It allows you to do different things with photographic archives, in a way that you wouldn’t get with just one still image’.
Some other hidden gems included finding behind the scenes concert tour footage from their first tour Club Fantastic in 1983, getting in contact with the photographer from the ‘Club Tropicana’ video in Spain (although they never found the rushes to that music video – ‘that was the one that got away’), as well as George Michael’s never-seen-before childhood films and Andrew Ridgeley’s dad’s Super 8 films he shot on holiday in the 60s and 70s. Other pinch-me moments were listening to the demoes of Wham! Rap and Careless Whisper.
‘That was a real trust thing with Paul Max, the guy who recorded them and held on to the tape all these years. He was a friend of theirs from back home in Bushey and he reached out again to George in the 00s or 90s, who took a copy of the tapes and in return gave him one of the platinum discs from his Wham! Days as a gift to say thank you’.
An important aspect to archive producing is building trust with the licensees and the people who hold that material to make sure you tell their story properly. ‘Obviously you have to tread sensitively too because especially dealing with George Michael’s family, you’re dealing with somebody’s family who’ve lost someone very dear to them, and material that you might think of as being brilliant archive, this film is also memories for them’.
YOUR MUM WILL ALWAYS BE YOUR BIGGEST FAN
Throughout Wham!, the documentary refers back to Andrew Ridgley’s mum’s scrapbooks, a meticulous collection of Wham’s rise to fame, including chart records, newspaper clippings, tickets, and other memorabilia that tracks the gaining popularity of her son’s band. Whilst offering both an accurate inventory of what happened over weeks that spread into years, it gives the documentary a narrative anchor that is familiar and heartwarming to return to.
‘It was a really good reference Bible because you can read lots of articles, you can read books and get rough chronologies together, but actually seeing month by month how Andrew’s mum laid out everything worked as different markers in time. It gave you a much better chronological layout of how the different events of their career played out. It was much more reliable than any other source because she really was just going month by month and sticking it straight down onto paper, and no one has really touched it since’.
Black worked closely with Andrew Ridgely, who recorded his voice over specifically for the documentary. George Michael’s on the other hand was an assortment of interviews over the years of his life that are produced seamlessly as if he was commentating along to the documentary’s narrative.
‘We would go in for a day with Andrew, with all of our questions. Then Chris Smith, the director, Gregor Lyons, the editor, Simon Halfon, the producer, and myself would jump in with questions to get some more detail and be fact checking at the same time. They were really lovely days, probably four or five different days of recording over the course of last year’.
Many fans find this the most heartwarming aspect, that two friends can reminisce on their past together with one from beyond the grave. ‘You watch the archives right up until the very end, and it comes through like in every frame, they’re just really good mates’.
Director Chris Smith similarly mused that ‘I think it’s a beautiful story about friendship and I never thought in my life that this would be something that I would cover, but in a way there’s something really life affirming about this story. There’s a lot of things in the world that feel like the wheels are falling off, so it’s nice to see a story like this’.
“IF YOU’RE GONNA DO IT RIGHT, RIGHT, DO IT WITH ME”
Having such a vast collection of film, recordings, and photographs of one of Britain’s greatest bands requires expert restoration services. Black’s team turned to R3store to clean, prep and scan large portions of the material – ‘R3store’s work was brilliant, they were incredibly helpful and incredibly lovely to work with’. R3store uses Phoenix’s DVO tools to restore footage once digitised.
‘It boggles my mind how much equipment you need for a restoration because every single era has its own specific kind of requirements and then all the different variations of the different types of tape… Film and video restoration is a whole world in itself.
‘My experience with working with film was pretty limited, but people like Richard Watson and Stephanie Mourey who’ve spent their lives working on restoring have a really invaluable set of knowledge. Nathan Leaman-Hill and Dan Crussell as well are brilliant on the video side of it and the film scanning. They were all just great, they taught me a lot, and were really patient with me’.
R3store also helped with huge chunks of the Wham! in China film, an important piece of British film history considering it was the last thing Lindsay Anderson directed before he died, which was quite controversial in itself since George and Andrew weren’t happy with his cut of the film and removed him from the project. His version was never commercially available and never seen by the public.
With the help of Richard Watson and Nathan Leaman Hill, Black was able to strategically go through a lot of the original source material, without wasting time, money, and resources.
‘The whole R3store team is amazing, really, really great. Without them, I think the film would look very different’.
WHAT DOES AND DOESN’T MAKE THE CUT
With such a treasure trove of content, narrowing it down and finding the right narrative for the documentary is a challenge in its own way. ‘Our editor, Gregor Lyon, had to go through all of the content and then build an incredibly compelling story out of it with Chris Smith, our Director. I think his job was infinitely harder than mine, considering the filtering process, especially when you’ve got so much material to work with.
‘Good editors in archive led films are the real heroes because they just have to watch everything and compute it in a way that I don’t have to, I just find something and go, “Wow, that’s cool, that would be brilliant in the film!” and then just hope it makes it. I would never want to make the decisions on what stays in and what gets cut because even if you find a bit of archive that you think is brilliant, it might not work with the film’.
Black explains that an example of this was the very first time Wham! Visited America in 1983 to film a few TV shows over a couple of days and then flew back immediately. Including this wouldn’t have suited the chronology of the documentary, which emphasises the impact of when Wham! Toured America in 1985, and how they had ‘made it’ in the States.
‘We found great archive of them in America in 1983 and it was such a shame that we weren’t able to show it, but I totally understand why we couldn’t because it didn’t make sense to really major in on the being in America in 1983 because you were still telling the story about them breaking out of Bushey. There’s moments like that where you kind of find a great piece of archive, but you have to accept it just doesn’t fit’.