“Modern. Day. Elvis”: quite a claim to make for the late George Michael, and all the more striking because it is advanced by – of all people – 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’ from Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1 (1990), he raises his arms to an imaginary audience and declares: “In fucking 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 Rodgers, James Corden, Ricky Gervais and many others, the posthumous film (an interim, less polished version of which was broadcast by Channel 4 in 2017) 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 at Bushey Meads School in Hertfordshire to global musical legend. A very small number of individuals in every era are, for whatever reason, simply plugged in by mains cable to the creative spirit of the age; and, it would seem, don’t have much choice in the matter.
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 Concert 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! – ‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)’ – is that his music is even more deeply embedded than ever in contemporary culture: not only in the annual campaign to get ‘Last Christmas’ to the top of the charts or the 2019 Paul Feig movie of the same name, but in the subtler sense that his records are routinely sampled, referenced and recognised by people who were not yet born when his last studio album, Patience, was released in 2004.
Amongst the songs that have lodged themselves in the planetary unconscious is ‘Freedom! ‘90’ – you know the Latin percussion with which it opens, even if you’ve never heard of it – and the track is at the heart of the movie. Its lyrics are full of references to Michael’s sexuality (though he did not come out formally until 1998) and the video, which featured supermodels Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and Tatjana Patitz lip-syncing, was both groundbreaking in format, and, because of Michael’s conspicuous absence, a powerful message to the world that he was stepping back from superstardom. As if to leave no room for doubt, director David Fincher had great fun burning the iconic Faith leather jacket, and blowing up a jukebox and electric guitar.
What made sense for Michael at that time, as a musician and a human being – to step back from the limelight and to draw breath – was, of course, a prospective promotional disaster for his record company, Sony. The ensuing court case, which lasted from 1992 to 1994, ended in technical defeat for the singer, but also made his eventual liberation inevitable – Virgin and Dreamworks SKG buying out his contract in 1995 for $40 million.
The heartbreaking backdrop to this bitter litigation was the death from Aids-related illness in March 1993 of Anselmo Feleppa, the man whom – as we see in new footage – he spotted in the crowd at a concert in Rio in 1991 and fell for more or less immediately. It was, he recalls in the narration, “the first time I loved someone selflessly.” Older was and remains one of the great records about grief and the struggle of the bereaved soul to claw back, inch by inch, to something close to a livable life.
Those who are looking for drugs, prostitutes and the sad tale of decline that marked Michael’s final years will have to wait for James Gavin’s biography, published on 7 July. Also missing from Freedom Uncut is Kenny Goss, Michael’s partner from 1996 to 2009, and Ridgeley himself, who is reportedly working on his own documentary with Netflix (you can already check out his heartfelt memoir of the duo’s friendship, Wham! George and Me).
Throughout it all, 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 – see his turns for Comic Relief, Little Britain and Extras – 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 (his arrest for performing a “lewd act” in a Beverly Hills rest room in 1998 inspired him to write ‘Outside’, one of the greatest dance tracks of all time). 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 (“charity is a coat you wear twice a year”; “now we meet to take him flowers/ And only God knows why”; “I guess the hungry just can’t see”).
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.
Brian Cox: Seven Days on Mars (BBC Two, 17 June)
A truly remarkable feat by Brian Cox and his production team – gaining access for a week to Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where they sit alongside the command team directing the Perseverance rover in the Jezero crater on Mars. Once a lake 41 km across, it is now a rocky desert – but one full of potential clues not only to the mysteries of the red planet, but (possibly) the origins of life on Earth. Because there are no plate tectonics and relatively little weather on Mars, the evidence remains in place – and so, as Cox points out in his buoyant, Britpop-meets-Carl-Sagan way, might have much to tell us about how life emerged on this planet, and perhaps on others. Because Mars is 207 million km away, it takes communications from JPL 16 minutes to reach the rover – and 16 minutes for data to be sent back. Much of the working day, therefore, is spent planning what instructions are to be sent to Perseverance and analysing in meticulous detail the information it transmits in return. To add to the drama, the rover has its own helicopter, Ingenuity, which soars above the crater, adding ever more to the stock of scientific knowledge about Mars. A gripping, feature-length treat.
Lightyear (general release, 17 June)
A space story of a different kind, but none the worse for that. Twenty-seven years after Toy Story transformed the animation genre forever and made Pixar a household name, we are now invited to enjoy the movie that – in the saga – supposedly inspired the Buzz Lightyear figure that so enthralled six-year-old Andy (and so threatened – initially at least – his beloved cowboy toy, Woody). Chris Evans excels as the space hero, accompanied on his adventure by crew members Izzy (Keke Palmer), Mo (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules), and “Personal Companion Robot” Sox (Peter Sohn). Josh Brolin – Thanos in the Avengers franchise – is the natural choice as intergalactic villain, Emperor Zurg. There are Easter Eggs aplenty for eagle-eyed fans, and the pace, stunning visual style and plot twists will keep most viewers amused. The best thing that can be said about Lightyear is that one can see why Andy enjoyed it.
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 – Darren McGarvey (Ebury Press)
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. It is not hard to see why The Social Distance Between Us is already being compared to Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier; and it is certainly the most important book on poverty and inequality to have appeared since James Bloodworth’s Hired four years ago.
Women Who Blow on Knots – Ece Temelkuran (Parthian Books)
On Saturday, after Tortoise’s ThinkIn on the future of democracy, chaired by James Harding, at our inaugural festival of music and ideas, Kite, I was ashamed to admit to Ece Temelkuran that I had never read one of her novels. The Turkish author and activist is justly celebrated for her non-fiction books – especially How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship and Together: A Manifesto Against the Heartless World – but is also a very successful storyteller. So – in the spirit of a slow newsroom – I picked up the first of her novels to be translated into English (by Alexander Dawe), which won the Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award in 2017.
Taking its title from a verse in the Koran which describes women practising witchcraft, and set during the Arab Spring, Women Who Blow on Knots is a road trip novel describing the journey of four women from Tunisia to Lebanon. Three of them are young: Amira, the Tunisian activist; Maryam, the Egyptian scholar; and the unnamed Turkish narrator. And then there is the septuagenarian Madame Lilla, who seems to be connected with Russian mobsters and the world of spooks. There are many secrets, plenty of political dilemmas, and a dose of magical realism for good measure. It has been described as a Thelma & Louise for the modern Middle East – a characterisation which Temelkuran herself enjoys. I wish I had discovered it earlier. Highly recommended.
All in My Head: A memoir of life, love and patient power – Jessica Morris (Little, Brown)
“I didn’t choose cancer. Cancer chose me”: this simple reflection, offered early in this remarkable book, is a bracing reminder that oncology is an exclusively medical and scientific field, that there are no “battles”, no deserving and undeserving patients, no personal moral content to the success or failure of the treatments presently on offer. On the top of a hill in January 2016, Jessica Morris, a communications consultant, became suddenly aware that something was very wrong indeed. “I felt as if I were struggling to call out during a nightmare”, she writes. “It was a strange combination – feeling out of control, yet sensing a baton being slowly and inexorably passed to a stranger.”
Without warning, a person whose career has been dominated by the life of the mind finds herself focused like a laser upon the fate of her body. “For most of my life, the psychological me has grabbed my consciousness like a tabloid headline; the physical me has been sidelined to the classified ads in a local magazine gathering dust on the coffee table.” But not when you have cancer – in Morris’s case, a glioblastoma, an especially aggressive form of brain tumour. As deeply moving as All in My Head undoubtedly is, its tone of forensic inquiry and its absolute commitment to science are admirable: there is much to be learned here about the flaws in therapeutic oncology and how they might be addressed. Morris herself died in June last year, aged only 57 – but not before founding the magnificent charity OurBrainBank, which seeks to mobilise patient power to make glioblastoma treatable, rather than terminal.
Prima Facie (Original Theatrical Soundtrack) – 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.
The New Four Seasons: Vivaldi Recomposed – Max Richter
Ten years ago, Max Richter reworked Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to great acclaim, matched by huge audience reach (more than 450 million streams to date) – inspiring many other composers to try their hand at reinterpretation of classic works (see Creative Sensemaker, 21 November, 2021). Why, then, repeat the exercise? Because, as Richter has put it, Vivaldi’s original cycle is “something we all carry around with us”, a core feature of our shared cultural inheritance that can be endlessly customised and augmented. This time, Richter has recruited American virtuoso violinist Elena Urioste and musicians from Chineke!, the Black and ethnically diverse orchestra founded by Chi-chi Nwanoku in London in 2015. Richter has also used period instruments for this new reworking, observing in the Guardian last week that they “have a different character from modern ones and bring out different qualities in the musicians. The instruments and the bows are lighter, the strings – made of gut rather than steel – are more responsive, so there is more intimate human connection. They might make a smaller sound but within that sound there is greater light and shade.” To enrich the eclecticism even further, he deploys his own vintage Seventies Moog synthesisers. What proceeds from this ambitious mix is a triumphant exercise in creativity, full of surprises – from the use of ambient sonic landscapes – to moments of joyous recognition that genuinely enrich the listener’s appreciation of Vivaldi’s original concertos. You can catch Richter performing this new work (and his earlier composition Voices at the London Royal Hospital Chelsea on Thursday, 16 June – which is to say, this evening.
New Mythology – Nick Mulvey
After leaving Portico Quartet in 2011, Nick Mulvey delivered a stunning debut album, First Mind, that set a very high bar indeed for his future endeavours as a singer-songwriter. This, his third solo LP, produced by Renaud Letang, shows that there is plenty of creative excellence still to come, and that his unique blend of indie folk and Afro-Hispanic guitar is a rich source of energy, optimism and musical beauty. As mellow as much of the album is, there are often unexpected twists in Mulvey’s lyrics – “We hate suffering but we think we love its causes” on ‘Causes’, or, on ‘Sea Inside’, “if you wanna keep on cooking a dream, then stay where the dreaming’s done”. His mastery of the ukulele and rhythm guitar is enhanced by imaginative use of keyboards, powerful bass (check out ‘The Gift’) and unobtrusive but seriously deft production effects. The declared theme is “interbeing” – the connectedness of everything – and the mood is mystical, psychedelic and absolutely perfect for the summer of 2022.
… also, 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.
Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (21 June to 21 August)
For the first time in three years, it is glorious to be able to enjoy this fixture of the cultural calendar free of the constraints of Covid. Co-ordinated by the sculptor, Alison Wilding, the exhibition takes “climate” as its theme: and this has already enraged some critics who see it as too bland, or too faddish, or both. In fact – as is often the case with the summer exhibition – it is more interesting to consider each of the 13 individually curated rooms and each of the 1,465 pieces on their own merits, rather than as part of a grand didactic exercise. Ben Edge’s ‘Man Made Nature’ – two plastic mannequins covered in synthetic flowers and wearing trainers – is an arresting spectacle in the opening gallery, as is Marina Tabassum’s ‘Khudi Bari: Mobile Modular House’ flood shelter in the Large Weston Room. The two galleries curated by Grayson Perry are full of wit and imagination, much of it supplied by graphic art (such as Ahmad Ahmad’s ‘No One Really Understands Crypto’ and Lene Bladbjerg’s ‘you don’t have to look like a twat to be an artist’). There are spooky dolls, a beautiful Jess de Wahls embroidery, and a striking black palm constructed from blown-out tyres and steel by Douglas White. And in Gallery III, curated by Stephen Chambers, there is a lone watercolour by Gillian Wearing of Volodomyr Zelensky, to remind us of the world beyond the serene halls and courtyards of Piccadilly. Book here.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to email@example.com.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs Christopher Pillitz/Getty Images, Patrick Downs/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images, Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images, Arthur Sidey/Mirrorpix, Michael Putland/Getty Images, Kevin Mazur/Getty Images, Phil Dent/Redferns, Mark Milan/FilmMagic, Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images, BBC, Netflix, Universal Studios, Sony Pictures, David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts