In one eight-month period during the mid-1980s, the British duo of George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, also known as the pop supergroup Wham!, made history twice: In April 1985 they were the first major Western pop act to visit Communist China (15,000 fans paid about $1.75 each to watch them perform at the People's Gymnasium in Beijing), and in December 1984, they recorded their generation's most enduring holiday song, "Last Christmas."
While not quite as popular in the U.S., "Christmas" was the 21st century's most played holiday song in the U.K. and Ireland (until it was overtaken in 2015 by The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York"). It has been covered by dozens of artists including Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Gwen Stefani, and the music video generated 65 million views on YouTube in 2018 alone. On Nov. 8, it joins the rarefied world of films such as White Christmas — movies with titles taken from popular holiday songs — when Universal releases Last Christmas.
"The song has the perfect juxtaposition of melancholy and hopefulness," says the film's composer, Theodore Shapiro. "And George Michael's vocal performance brings out both of those emotions in equal measure. I think it's that tension between those emotions that makes the song so enduring."
It all started one afternoon in 1984, at Michael's parents' home. "As we watched football on the telly," Ridgeley writes in his new memoir, Wham! George Michael & Me, Michael "was suddenly struck by inspiration" and dashed off to sketch out "a chorus and verse on his keyboard upstairs." (Michael loved Christmas and hosted an annual Christmas Eve party for his closest friends.)
In what would prove to be an immensely generous gesture, Wham! donated all of the song's royalties to Ethiopian famine relief. And in an ironic turn for a holiday songmaker, Michael died at 53 in 2016 on Christmas Day.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.