George Michael's Ex-Partner and Friends Remember Star in New Doc: 'He Always Had a Good Heart'

"He was a tortured soul. He really was. And I say he's happy now, even if he's a blade of grass, fertilizing. I know that for sure. It's not something that I even question for a second," ex-partner Kenny Goss tells PEOPLE of Michael

Singer George Michael poses at the "George Michael: A Different Story" Photocall during the 55th annual Berlinale International Film Festival on February 16, 2005 in Berlin, Germany.
George Michael. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty

It's been almost six years since the unexpected death of George Michael at age 53 due to heart failure in 2016. Now the life, career and legacy of the international pop star are recounted by those closest to him in the documentary George Michael: Portrait of an Artist, and despite the artist's then-famous public struggles friends and intimates remember him best for his generosity and dedication to calling things as he saw them.

"I think he would've wanted the story to be told in his entirety," Texas-based businessman Kenny Goss, Michaels' romantic partner of 15 years, tells PEOPLE. Goss sat for interviews in the new film, as did a slew of Michael's friends, peers and colleagues, including Stevie Wonder, Rufus Wainwright, Stephen Frye, Terrence Trent d'Arby and Piers Morgan. Even the film's director Simon Napier-Bell, who managed the pop group Wham!, which consisted of Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, enjoyed a long history and friendship with the singer.

Goss, 64, who was in a committed but open relationship with the pop idol from 1996 to 2009, notes that Michael's often headline-making travails — record label battles, the 1997 arrest for soliciting sex in a Beverly Hills men's room that outed him and a subsequent string of legal missteps involving drug use, public sex and impaired driving — only reveal how fallibly human and relatable the icon could be.

"Everyone's got an addict or someone that's got depression or suffering in some way in their family, or they know someone. So you can relate to it," says Goss, who said that Michael's peers all spoke on camera with compassion. "They talk about it, but they talk about it with kindness because they all loved him, and as a person, as a human being."

British pop star George Michael and his partner Kenny Goss attend the Japanese Premiere of his film "A Different Story" on December 15, 2005 in Tokyo, Japan.
Kenny Goss and George Michael. Junko Kimura/Getty

"It's extraordinary how so many people thought alike in so many ways as I did about his generosity, his good personality, his talent," agrees Napier-Bell. "We didn't find anybody who had anything bad to say about him. Lots of people talked about things he did which were silly or not sensible or sometimes not very good, but nothing bad overall. I mean, he was an artist, and artists are not expected to behave like models of society."

Goss chuckles recalling one familiar refrain from his occasional disagreements with Michael, which he says usually sprang from trivial matters. "One of his great strengths was that he just thought you weren't listening to him if you didn't agree with him," he says with a laugh. "He'd say, 'Darling, you're not listening to me!'"

At the end of the day, compassion for others was what drove the pop star. "He was a real humanitarian, from the top of his head to the tip of his toe," recalls Goss, who still heads the charitable foundation he and Michael established when they were together. "He really believed in helping people, and he instilled that in me as well. And that's the thing that I try to do as much as I can, is do a really good job with the foundation and raise a lot of money and help people."

As well as he knew Michael, Napier-Bell says during the making of the film he discovered new aspects of the superstar he'd previously been unaware of.

"One thing I did learn about him, which I didn't know despite having managed him, is the way he wrote his lyrics without ever writing anything down," marvels Napier-Bell. "Even when he'd written the lyrics in advance for a song, they didn't get written down. And that's something I learned so that was extraordinary — I've never heard of any other artist doing that."

The manager-turned-filmmaker says Michael was especially proud of his songwriting abilities, to such a degree that when a song came to him quite easily, like his first mega-smash hit "Careless Whisper," he could be dismissive of his own work.

"He often denigrated 'Careless Whisper,' which he wrote very quickly," Napier-Bell reveals. "It came to him, he was sitting on a bus or something, and he just scribbled down the lyric. But he was wrong to [knock it] because it really was one of his absolutely great songs. I think he didn't like the idea that he [hadn't] had to think intellectually about creating the lyrics — they'd come in just like that. They were perfect — couldn't improve on them — and I think it annoyed him! He preferred to think of himself as you have to sit down and apply yourself to write."

George Michael live at Nippon Budokan, February 19, 1988, Tokyo, Japan.
George Michael. Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty

Napier-Bell was also stunned to discover that Michael never rehearsed in public, recalling a performance of The Beatles' "The Long and Winding Road" at London's Albert Hall. "It's a very complex song; you really have to know what you're doing ... and he never rehearsed! There, in the house, he'd never sung a note," Napier-Bell remembers. "And it transpired that George did everything in his car. He'd take the car out and go for a drive … and then he would rehearse and sing and practice."

"He wanted to be remembered not as a great musician, but as a great songwriter," adds Goss. "He thought he had a good voice, but it was really about the songwriting, and writing intelligent lyrics that people understand and relate to."

Ultimately, Goss says, Michael believed in harnessing his talents for his humanitarian efforts, even as he struggled with addiction and depression. "He had some issues at the end of his life, but he always had a good heart, and he was s a fine man who really believed in helping people. 'Who needs to be a damn billionaire when people are starving? How much money do you really need in your account?' His philosophy was if he didn't have the cash to help the hospitals, he'd say, 'Borrow the damn money. I can always make more money. I'm a talented man.'"

Michael and Goss remained warm and friendly in the years between their breakup and the singer's passing, and Goss credits his ex with "giving me the tools that he gave me to move forward and do great things that most people don't get the opportunity to do."

"Do I miss him? Yes," Goss admits. But he feels confident that Michael has at last found a degree of lasting peace that long eluded him in life. "At the end of the day, when someone's really stubborn like that, you just want them to be happy, more than anything else. I always say when people ask me about him, he was a tortured soul. He really was. And I say he's happy now, even if he's a blade of grass, fertilizing. I know that for sure. It's not something that I even question for a second."

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