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Interviews

The Free Styling Accomplishments of Producer Tony Moran

Dance music producer Tony Moran recently joined forces with the great Rock and Rock Hall of Fame recipient/mega-producer Nile Rodgers and singer Kimberly Davis to add another notch in his belt of accomplishments.  The result was the incendiary "My Fire" — a new song which premiered this week (with an accompanying music video.) Moran has been making records for a solid 30 years with a long string of successes attached to his resume.

The Irish/Colombian Moran penned top-charting hits for the Cover Girls and then worked with Cher, Donna Summer, Michael Jackson, Gloria Estefan, Deborah Cox and many others. Moran was named #92 among Billboard Magazine’s Top 100 of the “Greatest of All Time Dance Club Artists.”  Says the producer of 67 #1 records, “It will always be an honor to be included on that list of utterly amazing talent. But it’s just as great an honor to have worked with over half the people on the list!”

Moran has worked with and remixed some of the biggest female artists ever -- divas like Rihanna, Mariah Carey, Martha Wash, Cher, Madonna, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. “Perhaps my having worked more often with women has something to do with the dance market itself. I took a quick, informal look at Billboard’s list of ‘Greatest of All Time Top Dance Club Artists’ and noticed that women outnumber men there, too.

“For me, things simply evolved naturally on their own, giving me lots of experience with women, as both songwriter and producer.  All that was exciting and remains unforgettable.  And then Luther Vandross -- one of the greatest male singers of all time -- asked me to write with and produce for him. I was blown away as this amazing person re-calibrated my mind and opened me up to creativity with no limits or restrictions of any kind.”

With gusto he continues, “Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Gloria Estefan, and Vandross all gave me the most incredible work experiences. These encounters were extremely personal and engaging. You don’t go into a room with any one of them and not be on your “A” game. You just arrive like that. You have to. Of course, I always do my homework, preparing in advance as best I can. But working with any of these astounding talents is magically unique, period. I just can’t compare them.”

Moran also co-wrote and produced over half of Estefan’s 1998, “Gloria!” — her most dance-oriented album ever. Besides being known for Estefan’s “Don’t Let This Moment End” and “Heaven’s What I Feel,” this two-time Grammy nominee was remixing other popular songs, too. In 2007, he twice achieved #1 on the U. S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart.  Those hits were “Walk Away” featuring Kristine W and “Keep Your Body Working” featuring Martha Wash, late of Two Tons O’ Fun.

The widely respected singer, songwriter, music editor, producer and remixer has worked with a client list that includes Ne-Yo, Robin S. and Kenny G.   Among the singles Moran created as a solo artist was the dance anthem, “If I Was Your Boyfriend”, performed with Anastacia and “Free People”.  His second hit with Martha Wash and another #1 on the U. S. dance chart.  Moran recently worked with vocalist Jason Walker, producing his chart-topping dance music release, “So Happy.”

As if those weren’t enough, Moran produced other major dance club hits like “Put Your Hands Up”, “.” and “The Promise”.  And we can’t forget “Body to Body, Heart to Heart” for Cher’s “Living Proof” album.

Another major production was Donna Summer’s “You’re So Beautiful” which appeared on “The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer",  her greatest hits LP.   In December 2012, Moran released “Valley of the Moon,” an additional original production with the late Ms. Summer, recorded at the same time as “You’re So Beautiful.”  What’s more, Moran produced Deborah Cox’s four dance hits — “Easy as Life”, “House Is Not a Home”, “Everybody Dance (Clap Your Hands)” and “Tenderness.” 

In addition to his talent for pumping sounds, Moran creates a vibrant presence in any room. When the youthful, energetic music master strode into the room for our chat, his ripped arms gave the impression of a man with as much physicality as musicality. Maybe that physical acumen helps him as a touring DJ-performer.

Currently considered one of the best known Dance music DJs, Moran plays to massive crowds at events worldwide. In the last several years, DJs have been transformed from remixer/producers into full-fledged live performers.  DJs like Calvin Harris, David Guetta and Skrillix have become marquee names, achieving the stature of such band-oriented headliners as Imagine Dragons. And although Moran resisted it for a while, he has become another star to join this celebrated group. 

Most DJs who crave national attention quickly realize they have to branch out into making music, not just spinning it. After 14 years away from the DJ booth, Moran slowly realized that the opposite is also true. “As the years go by, I’ve heard so many times that I’m ov-ah,” Moran says, in a thick Brooklyn accent. Or he hears, “I thought you hung your hat up and moved to Key West.”

A couple years ago, Moran stopped turning down requests to DJ, and reintroduced himself to his fellow gay club goers.  He forced himself out of his studio to dance and express himself live for his audience, which he does every time he spins. As he puts it, “I’m not a bit embarrassed about smiling, throwing my hands in the air, jumping up and down or even falling off the DJ booth.  My only goal is to give people a good time and to let them know that I’m sharing it with them. The spirit of music is contagious”

As he says from his home studio in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, “For 14 years I wasn’t spinning at all. It was only about a year ago that I decided to DJ again on a regular basis.  I’ve always been a DJ but had focused for so long on studio work.

“But after recording three albums in a row, I found myself essentially locked in my recording studio with only one or two other people.  I realized I was becoming a hermit and became disenchanted with just that way of being.  I was basically not seeing anyone except my boyfriend.  Regardless of any monetary success, that solitary way of being was no longer fulfilling.

“So I decided to hit the circuit again. Event promoters and producers were buying [Moran’s Centaur Records compilations] and they started asking if I would play this party or that. For a long time, I had been turning down the offers.  I never want to do anything unless I know I can offer my personal best, and my head just wasn’t into it.   But then I started playing at Miami’s Crobar.  The experience was so incredible, I was like, ‘What have I been missing?!’”

Moran had re-discovered his own groove.  He had first made his mark In 1981, when he teamed up with friend Albert Cabrera, to form the Latin Rascals, the legendary free-styling hit DJ duo. Their re-edited versions of hit songs enjoyed major air-play on New York City dance radio WKTU’s popular mix show. That exposure led to a deal with Shakedown Studios who hired them to restructure hit radio songs into viable dance club hits.

Shortly thereafter, the duo was contracted by another studio, Fever Records, to write and produce a song for one of their new acts, The Cover Girls. The result was “Show Me” which not only became Moran’s first Top 40 gold record, but also helped usher in the freestyle music era. That success opened the doors for new artists including TKA, Sa-Fire (“Boy, I’ve Been Told”) and Lisette Melendez (“Together Forever”) — all of whom benefited from Moran and Cabrera’s skills.

At the heart of his success is his family, explains the born and bred New Yorker. “I come from a close-knit, supportive family. We were poor but there was so much love and still is. I was never made to feel awkward for believing that dreams could come true. As long as I stayed in school, kept out of trouble and had good grades, I was allowed to work on turning my dreams into reality.”

He adds, “I started as a DJ at Brooklyn Tech, my New York City high school. As a result of my own particular style of playing and of blending hip-hop with other music, things started happening and I began to receive attention. It must have been around 1980 when I started building my own club speakers from spare parts. And when I started doing block parties in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the crowds got bigger and bigger. 

“I grew up part of a time and place where the people around me loved block parties. I’m so glad that I was there to live it, feeling all that ethnic fire emerging onto the dance floor. The inspiration from that experience has been a part of me ever since. I couldn’t afford to buy vinyl back then, as hungry as I was to support my obsession with music. But I loved the way that energy flowed out of it. Despite the fact that creative extended versions of songs were all over the map, a gifted DJ could find a way to take everyone on a shared journey of delight. I wasn’t even 21 yet, but I managed to get myself into clubs like Paradise Garage, Bond’s, and Danceteria.”

The twice Grammy-nominated artist received what he considers a Harvard-equivalency education from dance music pioneers like Arthur Baker, John “Jellybean” Benitez, Shep Pettibone and Junior Vasquez. So he went to a college of a non-conventional sort.

“I got a job at the world-famous ‘Downtown Records’ store in the Wall Street area. Not only did they sell the same dance music I was hearing out on the streets and over the radio.  They also sold all kinds of Dance music, arriving from all over the world. Some of the biggest club DJs on the New York circuit shopped right there and I found myself was interacting with them every day.  Getting a real-world education from taste-makers like that was priceless — and again, inspiring.”

Then in ’82 — shortly after meeting DJ Albert Cabrera at the store — they became partners, combining the special editing techniques they had developed independently. “As a team, we began creating our own music, melding together our favorite selections from the world around us. Next thing you know, we were dubbed “The Latin Rascals” and had our own show on WKTU, NYC’s #1 radio dance station. Our sound and style made us so popular so fast, it was hard to believe what was actually happening. After hearing our show, producer Arthur Baker asked us to apply our special style to his remixes and POW! Suddenly we’re in music business with our first credited song, by Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The USA.” Can you believe that. And the list grew from there…”

Moran’s first Top 40 hit -- the ’80s song “Show Me” by The Cover Girls -- featured lots of percussion. It was a natural part of his environment. “Because I’m Colombian and Irish, and was raised in a Spanish ghetto, I was always surrounded by percussion. When I began making records it just seemed natural to include it.  I didn’t do that in response to other percussive records. Our whole freestyle sound was considered revolutionary for the way it incorporated Latin-style melodies and chord progressions with beats that, while not being hip-hop, became the driving forces of the songs we produced.”

The multi-faceted DJ/producer/artist looks back with pleasure on freestyle tracks that included “Dance With Me” by Concept of One, “One Way Love” by TKA, “The Question” by NOEL.  Also “Arabian Knights” by Latin Rascals “Funk Boutique”, “Inside Outside”, “We Can’t Go Wrong”, “Promise Me” and “Wishing On A Star.”

“In addition to producing the Fat Boys,” he notes, “each of our songs made it at least to the Billboard Top 100.”  Moran credits his freestyle background for the pop sensibility he incorporates into his music today. “Playing music that generates a feel-good energy is what I love about being a DJ/mix master.” 

Moran measures a successful dance floor by the number of hands in the air as the crowd happily dances and sings along.  He eschews the strict underground house mentality preferred by some of his contemporaries.  Instead he imparts his remixes and productions with a hook-laden commercial appeal that’s both radio-friendly and dance floor-driven.  A number of DJs don’t consider it cool to play vocals, seeing them as trivial, but Moran has consistently employed pop vocals in the music he’d written or produced.

“I like playing vocals,” he says.  “Every DJ has the right to express himself in his own way in his sets.  If I based what I was going to do creatively on every opinion that came to me, I’d never get a chance to be myself.  Another DJ once came up to me when I was in the booth — I’m dancing around the booth, I’ve got my hands in the air -- and he’s like, ‘You know, DJs are not supposed to dance.’

I said to him, ‘Well, then … I guess I’m not a DJ. But I’m still the guy behind the turntables here!”  I’ve described it before as working to get the hormones flowing. That’s the way I like to be. I like to see people smiling and jumping around. I like to watch people touch each other.  I not talking about sexuality.  I just love to see people share their energy with each other. It brings me a lot of satisfaction.”

In January, Moran released “Moodswings,” a double CD set of his most definitive productions. In this package, he presents both his influences and musical experiences. On the dual CD’s 28 tracks (subtitled “Feel” and “Move”), Moran surrounded himself with an all-star team of players and singers including veterans Davis, Walker, Wash and Ryan Shaw.

“Moodswings allowed me to express the many different musical styles I knew were within me. My label and collaborators helped me pick the best of the best from the many things we had created. The writers and singers who worked with me made us a top-notch team.  I was there for every vocal. That’s what a producer does. Essentially, ‘Moodswings’ is my dream come true, a genuine labor of love. Being in control of one’s own project changes everything.”

Moran is constantly busy, most recently with on "My Fire," his current collaboration with music legend Rodgers and Davis — the lead singer of the group CHIC.   He blends elements of Rodgers' trademark funk sound with soul, disco and house influences on the uplifting track. As Davis said in a statement, “The flame is burning, just waiting to be fanned. I hope our song makes people feel good, as though they’re in the middle of a party, letting go and having fun.”  Moran co-wrote the song with his friends and collaborators, Mike Greenly and Audrey Martells.

The project came together after Moran recruited Davis to work on a song for his new Moodswings album, calling the singer "a rare talent in the realm of Whitney [Houston] and Mary J. [Blige]." Then Rodgers joined in after hearing a rough cut while Davis was touring with the Hall of Fame guitarist's iconic band.  To her surprise, he expressed enthusiasm about being involved. "Of course, I said yes," added Davis. "Not only is he my boss but he’s also Nile Rodgers! No sane music artist would deny Nile being a part of their project."

Adds Moran, “Nile is a true inspiration to the world in his ability to create and shape musical genres," "It was a thrill to work with him in the booth." The Patty Nieto-directed video for the song features behind-the-scenes footage of Rodgers, Moran and Davis recording the single, as well as Davis strutting her stuff in Times Square. 

Continues Moran, “The idea was to incorporate the vibrant energy of New York City to capture the spirited power of the song. I’m truly completely open to any new project I take on.  I just want to give everything I’ve got, every time, all the time.”

 

Wordsmith Mike Greenly Transitions From Corporate Life To Singing Words

GREENLY pic copy 2

Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Midtown Manhattan offers a quiet private room with shaded lightning — the perfect place for a power meeting, say with someone like Mike Greenly. But the 70-something Southerner is long past his executive power lunch days.

A man of precise, confident words, Greenly is someone who has lived several lives and is much better for it. One wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he held key marketing positions at both Lever and Avon, mega-corporations that easily represent all that’s meant by mainstream America. But one would be surprised to hear that he threw that life aside to become an entrepreneur -- first, as a speech writer, and then, as a songwriter as well.

Yet for this songwriter/lyricist, abandoning that corporate world — or at least leaving behind working within its traditional confines — not only transformed his life and work; it was the best thing he ever did and made him a happier man for it. Explaining his decision, Greenly acknowledged, “I know for a fact that I will live longer having left corporate life, but it gave me a great advantage in the wisdom I gained from the experience.”

The mustachioed multi-talent realized that to be happy he had to follow his passion. “I knew I was good with words and enjoyed what I did with them in the corporate world, but nothing was as satisfying as what I’m doing now.” And in doing so he is inspiring others.

Greenly’s written “Our Great Virginia” — the official traditional state song of Virginia, which was signed into law by Governor Terry McAuliffe in 2015. And he’s worked with pop star Kimberly Davis on the lyrics for several of her Billboard-charting songs. To do so,  he applied his skills in wrangling corporate execs and their presentations into teaming up with singers and collaborators on their musical creations. So he outlined his process. “With singer Shara Strand I wrote from the heart. We collaborated but in order to contribute lyrics, I often interview an artist to pull a story out of them — much the way I interview execs when writing their speeches.”

In the course of interviewing Shara, it came to light that she was still angry at a former manager who had taken advantage of her.  The result was “Not Gonna Miss You” — written with composer Paul Guzzone. The song helped Shara express her feelings about the betrayal and move on to happier times.

Is songwriting akin to speechwriting? “Absolutely,” Greenly affirmed, “A song or speech expresses something of importance to the person delivering the message. My job is to help that message be as effective as it can possibly be.”

Greenly had been successful in his corporate life. When Avon made him a V.P., he was told he was the youngest officer in the company’s history of more than a century. But once he realized that he’d had enough of corporate life, as he explained, ‘I knew it was time to discover and become my own authentic self.”

Along the way he confronted his gayness. “Until I admitted that I was gay, I didn’t feel whole. I knew I could never be happy in the world until I accepted my own identity for myself.”  The risks he took were worth it, he added. “By fully accepting myself, I discovered that I could unleash more of my real potential — personally and creatively.”

Before he turned to songwriting, Greenly jumped into the cyber revolution as an early proponent of digital communications. After his corporate stint, he formed the Transcoastal Electronic News Service (TENS) with two colleagues he met online – Sherwin Levinson in Atlanta, and Diane Worthington in San Francisco — and they pioneered online interactions. As far apart as they were geographically, their online activity made them a team.

Typing on his then state-of-the-art RadioShack laptop, Greenly was in the reporter pool when tech super-guru Steve Jobs launched the Macintosh computer. He then became the first journalist to report on both the Democratic and Republican conventions and the Academy Awards, sending reports out online to readers who responded from around the world.

Greenly segued successfully into being a sought-after speech writer and coach — acquiring clients such as ExxonMobil, Google, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, New York Life, Novartis and Sanofi. Greenly’s assured his clients that he could help them “sound like themselves — only better.”  And he still enjoys his speechwriting practice today.

So he outlined how he does it. “I interview my clients the way a journalist interviews a subject. In the process, I help them get in touch with the core of who they are. The result each time is a speech that is more authentic to the executive and to his/her mission which makes the message more effective and impactful to an audience.”

Said ExxonMobil’s Ann Juranek, “Mike is a true expert. First in developing presentations that wonderfully achieve their objectives, and then, in coaching delivery that makes his clients the winners they want to be.”

In the course of building his freelance corporate work, Greenly turned to songsmithing. His most successful hit so far has been “Say Yes” — written with hit dance-pop producer Tony Moran and performed by the talented vocalist Jason Walker. The song landed on Billboard’s U.S. Dance Music Charts as Number 1 in December, 2016. 

Greenly has had four other charted hits, with another song  — “My Fire” — coming out late May, 2017. This one, too, is performed by Davis and was written with Moran and Audrey Martells. It features the guitar licks of iconic composer/producer Nile Rodgers, who founded the chart-topping disco-pop group Chic and was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In addition to writing dance songs, the affable creator has written songs with choral composer Jim Papoulis, whose tune “Always My Angel" honored the victims lost at the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. Greenly also has worked with Guzzone on “Everything Happens for a Reason,” co-written and performed in Italian by tenor Michéal Castaldo.

Greenly has authored or contributed to several books, including Chronicle, The Human Side of AIDS, about the start of the global health crisis of 30 years ago. He also contributed a chapter to volume 8 of “The Change” book series. Greenly’s chapter is titled, “From ‘Stage Fright’ to the Power of Authenticity.” In it, he explains shares some of the insights he uses in speech coaching his executive clients.

Though Greenly admits that he “can barely change a light bulb,” it seems he has always had an affinity for words. He still remembers the first poem he composed at the age of four and — unusual, in his home town congregation — he wrote his own Bar Mitzvah speech instead of having the Rabbi write it for him.

Born on October 2, 1944, this 72-year-old grew up in Beaufort, South Carolina. “Eventually I went to Duke University. So I am a real Southerner by birth and upbringing. But I’m also Jewish which made me ‘different’ — especially back then. I actually had classmates ask, in all seriousness, if I had been born with a Devil’s tail.”

As he further recalled, “Being Jewish in the Deep South back then, I heard the phrase, ‘Dirty Jew Boy’ more than once and had swastikas carved into my locker. My own family pharmacist once asked a customer, right in front of me, if the man had ‘Jewed someone down’ to get a lower price. That hurt but… What could I do?”

His Jewish experience in the South helped to shape who Greenly was and who he became. Being something of an outsider -- the kid who didn’t quite fit -- motivated him to learn how to fit in, almost too much so. “When I went to high school, I was determined to become popular and, indeed, was voted ‘Most Popular’ as a senior. The problem was, that persona was not the real me, just the identity I had invented to hide behind.

“In college on a scholarship to Duke, I was called into the Dean’s office and was told I would lose my scholarship because my grades were just average instead of meeting the Dean’s List requirement. They said, ‘You're a smart guy, so why aren’t you getting better grades?’  What they helped me to discover was that my inherent anxiety from childhood was getting in the way of my studies. Thanks to their help, I got into psychotherapy, was able to keep my scholarship and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. That therapy was the best gift I ever gave myself!”

From that point on, Greenly began to develop the knowledge that has led him to the career and creativity he so enjoys today. “I can remember being at a sock hop with my classmates, where my job was to change the old 45 rpm records. Even just walking across the stage in front of my peers freaked me out. Now I can easily can give a speech to 5000 people. I transformed myself and eventually found a way to share the knowledge I gained with the execs I coach today!” 

Doc Directors Face A Situation No Filmmaker Ever Wants to Handle In “Left On Purpose”

 
Thanks to Left On Purpose, a new documentary now screening in theaters and on VOD, a pertinent question has been raised in light of the recent resurgence of radical activism. Does it take being a little crazy to fight for progressive issues in reactionary America? Or, in surviving a sustained period of activism, regardless of the futility of fighting for issues in this reactionary country, does such radicalism drive you crazy?
 
After all, legendary Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman, a writer and member of the Chicago Seven, committed suicide at age 52. So did 33 year old Tom Forcade, founder of High Times Magazine. And certainly there have been other suicides by progressive artists such as avant garde jazz musician Albert Ayler and poet Sylvia Plath. There have been bio pics and forensic analyses of such individuals as Hoffman. 
 
But until directors Justin Schein and David Mehlman filmed their encounters with New York based Mayer Vishner, nothing in recent memory has offered such an insight into a lefty radical activist’s psychology, suicidal condition and decline. The film is really Schein’s tale of his exchange with Vishner as he copes with his subject’s threat to commit suicide while filming; Schein tries to both  reconcile with Vishner’s declaration and make his effort to convince the aging writer not to do it. 

Says Schein, “He was a yippie and yippies are all about spectacle. I think he saw an opportunity and he saw me as a willing participant. But I think he maybe overestimated my participation; he wanted me to really glorify [his life] in a way that I wasn't ready to do.  

schein right mehlman leftHe had been talking about ending his life for decades. So when he first told me, one of my questions was whether it was serious, whether he was being serious. So I spoke to his friends and his doctors, and even up to the end I wasn't sure if it was just his way of getting attention.”

What a dilemma Schein faced. 

After he had made No Impact Man, his previous film which detailed a man and his family living off the grid, Schein decided to develop a film on Vishner after they had met in the course of making this notable feature. Vishner managed the local garden that provide food for the film’s subject. Schein decided to document Vishner’s radical legacy and cultural engagement. He had a huge archive of the last half century of culture change and his own psychological disarray. 

As this documentary reveals, the portly greying Village resident had tried to live up to his radical notions. He doesn’t have a bank account or contemporary tech tools. But as a hoarder, he’s saved his history in radicalism — storing many boxes and living among the piles of clutter. Some of his deterioration is partly his own doing, having been an alcoholic who didn’t take care of his health even while he sustained his radical ideals. 

The 48-year-old filmmaker obviously admired his efforts and those of his peers who continued as believers while the movement deteriorated. He had had a presence in the Village as the night manager of St Mark’s Books, engaging in next-generation movement members. But he became tired as his physical and mental pain increased. 

When Schein took Mayer to Occupy Wall Street, we see his engaged political persona; when we see him talk with an older woman friend we see his emotional defeatism. But he also turned down opportunities to teach, use the money he gets for selling his archive for his own emotional well-being. “I took him to Occupy and took him to other events and though he was interested, it also depressed him…”

So when Vishner announced that he wanted to end his own life as part of making the film, the production veered wildly into another direction. Before that declaration, it might have been a very different film — in fact, at the point when Vishner made his announcement, it might have only been a 30 minute film. Said the director, “I started off thinking, ‘Oh, this is a little bit, like [the film] Grey Gardens, you know, this is a brilliant man but kind of [deteriorated] and I wanted to know how he got to this point, what his perspective on the world was… Bush was still president maybe, [it was 2007 or 08]. 

I wanted to better understand him and I saw it as a short film about this village character, [like those guys] you see walking through Greenwich Village and you know they have a history but you never got to meet them, and this was this opportunity.”

But once Vishner made his declaration, the production took on a different focus and mission. While Vishner thought it was his final political act, Schein — and his co-director/editor David Mehlman — realized that they had to grapple with such moral issues while doing this documentation. They had to even ask whether to stay involved or not.

Said Mehlman, “Justin didn’t know what to do, what to film, and he would go and have these dates with Meyer trying to find out what and, why he was feeling this way, why he would do it, what he could do, what he couldn't, what he should be thinking about. He was going to Vishner’s doctor, and do all these different things thinking that [there] might be another whole strand of this story. 

“I think what it became was that there was a sense from Justin that he needed to gather as much as he could, certainly in the first six months to year after hearing that Meyer wanted to kill himself. When it drags on beyond that, the shooting was a little more sporadic, there was a lot of, knowing that something is important, but not knowing what the story is, so you sort of have to collect it all.”

And that they did, hundreds of hours over four years, of Vishner ruminating, his various friends and associates and most important, the therapists and doctors involved.

As Schein and Vishner became friends during the filming, Vishner did not reveal his wishes until later in the filming. The plethora of conflicting emotions confronted Schein which he incorporated into the film; audiences then have to confront these issues as well. A he explained, “Mayer talked about dying of loneliness but he really pushed everyone away. He was really seeking attention. There’s a certain narcissism involved in the whole process. On some level, this question of someone’s right to live or die is fundamental.  

I certainly was not interested in being a co-conspirator, but I respected what I thought were his rights. Especially since he had spent a lifetime of being in treatment for his depression, and he was taking medication and he had been hospitalized. 

Part of it is Abbie Hoffman, who was his very good friend, [as was] Tom Forcade. There is this concept of a suicide contagion — when people close to you do it, it then became an acceptable option for him and no matter how the people who loved him tried to suggest otherwise, he had it as his plan. Also you know, that suicide for men Mayer's age has doubled in the past decade.”

Audiences also grapple with what sometimes seems to be a futile effort to save a man who — through the film’s biographical nature — felt this has been happening to him for years not what he had accomplished. “Why has it doubled is a good question. Part of it could be because of drug and alcohol abuse. Part of it could be the lethality of guns — more people are using guns. And part of it has to do with this generation who took [control of their] life and, tried to lead it on their own terms; now they're facing death and they feel like they want to be empowered.”

Schein asked himself, “How am I going to edit it and more importantly, how am I going to end this? I felt that in some ways the process was keeping Mayer alive and if I said, ‘Listen, I’m done…’ He would then end it.

“Conversely I felt a certain pressure to find an ending. I was in a bind. I told him very clearly that I didn't need his death to be the end of this movie, that it could have a happy ending — that it didn't have to be a dramatic result. I wished that it was enough for him, but it wasn't so.”

Even though he has been a cinematographer on over 60 films, nothing quite prepared him for this. Thankfully, the director had Mehlman’s distance as both an editor and outside observer to help him cope with completing the film.

Added Mehlman, “I never met Mayer. I had the opportunity to meet him [when] he was still alive. I knew Justin all through the time when he was filming with him, and we started editing 2-3 months before. 

“We didn't know when or if, because he kept so many false alarms over the years and this didn't seem any different. From my perspective, I felt I needed to be detached enough that, if I had a relationship with Mayer, might have changed. I pushed the material and pushed him and that because I didn't have a relationship with him, because I didn't love him, I also didn't necessarily think it needed more spectacle.

"I approached it in some ways like, ‘OK, here’s a story to tell, how do I tell the best story about this person’s life and what they’re going through and [Justin was] the essence of another character. How do you build the narrative with the nonfiction material?’ 

LOPFor the same reason I was looking at the footage — like, say, the scene with Justin when he's cleaning up Mayer's apartment, he puts the camera down and rubs [Mayer’s] back. If you're watching that in a fiction film, it means one thing. But as soon as you’re thinking if Justin was making the choice to include that, it's a very different thing for me as a storyteller, as opposed to perhaps [me] making commentary of my own involvement in this person’s life.”

Vishner did finally commit suicide; 12 hours after dropping off his cat with writer Michael Ventura in Texas, he fulfilled the act on on August 22, 2013. The night before his death, Vishner told Ventura while smiling, “Part of me really wants to see the movie."

On reflection of that, Justin added,  “I don't know if the film could have happened if I didn't have the access to his doctors. Doctor [Shuller] really let me into the process and was also there to consult with me when I had questions about what was going on and whether my role and the film's role was helping him or hurting. And that was really important. 

“I also spent a lot of time with his psychiatrist and Meyer, filming them. In the end, he chose not to be in the film and I respected that. But it was not such a good process to watch, and there are few moments when I actually participated in the therapy. But, to go on with what Dave what saying, there's so much sadness that we filmed that you have to take this step back when you editing and try to decide how much can a viewer take. Also, how do you set somebody up who's in that state without crossing somebody out?”

Thankfully, he and Mehlman have substantial experience as the co-founders of Shadowbox Films. An Schein is known for his work on cinéma vérité films which also includes directing America Rebuilds: A Year at Ground Zero and as the cinematographer for the documentary My So-Called Enemy.

Born in New York, he attended the Bronx-based Horace Mann School, Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University where he graduated in 1990. After working for a  film company in NYC, he returned to school earning a documentary film master's degree from Stanford University where he met Mehlman who became an established film editor. For more than 20 years, he’s worked on films that have appeared on The BBC, The Discovery Channel, HBO, and PBS.

Now after this long process of creation, stressing out his wife (who gave birth over the course of the film’s creation), Schein is finally at work on something else. “I’m working on several projects right now. I made a film in ’93 about homeless kids in San Francisco. It's called Down on Polk Street and was my thesis film at grad school. It became this HBO film on Black Tar heroin that I worked on with Steven Okazaki. Anyway, I have all this amazing footage and now I’m in touch with some of the kids who are grown-ups now. i'm going back to find them, it's pretty intense…”

Yet there’s still some cleaning up to do after all that Vishner left behind. “Over the years like every decade, his friends would take his stuff and put it in boxes in this warehouse. That was the collection that he sold to the University of Michigan. When he was done, there was still a whole new round of stuff that I [saved]. Some of it was garbage, but it was like a treasure hunt. I went to the University and over the course of four days looked it up.  I looked through a hundred and seventy-five boxes, because he had 40 years of stuff, photos with John Lennon, posters, and this amazing [archive].

“After he died I [cleaned] up [his apartment.] I kept a few posters… And also I have all his t-shirts. They’re in my basement, the ones that I could clean [laughs]. I would love to give them somewhere. I wish the University of Michigan would take the t-shirts but... I guess, storing textiles is a whole other thing so they said no. I'd thought about it, but I really need to move on. I’ve done enough but hopefully that’s the last thing I have to do to close the book on this — find a place for those t-shirts.”

Vocal Coach Arthur Levy Transforms Meryl Streep Into “Florence Foster Jenkins”

Arthur Levy

From director Stephen Frears (The Queen, My Beautiful Launderette) comes one of the truly unconventional stories told through a film this year. Florence Foster Jenkins is the story of the titular millionaire socialite (played by Meryl Streep) whose love of music led her to be both a benefactor to many and a performer as well. She owed thanks to her remarkable — and decidedly outré — relationship with husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who afforded her opportunities to perform and record the music she loved despite her incredibly wretched vocalizations.

But in order to play the role without shredding her gifted voice, the legendary star turned to an equally masterful vocal coach for help.

Opera coach Arthur Levy made it possible for her to sound like Jenkins. In fact, a large part of Levy’s mission was to make sure Streep could mimic Jenkins’ sound without any permanent damage, but she also had to maintain her standards as well.

That’s because Jenkins not only tried singing privately but she also held a famous bought-and-paid-for live Carnegie Hall concert of her performing classic songs and operatic pieces with her screeching soprano.

Previous to the concert, Jenkins made several 78 rpm recordings that became camp classics and are in print as various CDs to this day. Since her associates couldn’t entirely control who attended her concert, she received scathing notices, had a heart attack right after, and died five days later at 76 years old.

When I was invited to interview Levy — an acclaimed faculty member at the Mannes College of Music — in anticipation of the DVD/Blu Ray debut of the Golden Globe-nominated Florence Foster Jenkins (released mid-December), I was offered a chance to get a vocal lesson in lieu of an interview. Realizing Levy needn’t be tortured further by a journalist’s agonizingly off-keyed soundings, I chose to apply my better skills and conduct this conversation.

A member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, the exuberant Levy is a vocal consultant and master class teacher at the Glimmerglass Opera and the Roundabout Theatre. Having coached dignitaries from theater stages to Hollywood such as actors Oliver Platt, Lauren Graham (Gilmore Girls), Lea Michelle (Glee), to MET tenor Yonghoon Lee, he has been deemed the expert on great singing. So, he most certainly could take on the challenge of training someone to do it horrifically.

Says Levy, “All that singing — whether by a great singer or a mediocre one — is playing with the same mental instrument. Even if the instrument goes astray, but the person actually does know how to sing, then you basically come from a base of knowing how to sing and then, in this case, of finding the flaws that were unconscious in Florence Foster Jenkins.”

Applying that to Streep, Levy explained, “Meryl got her voice up and running at its best so that she knew how to support even a note that was bad that anybody else might do without training.”

To that he added, “I just think that when people are committed to singing and have an idea of how they want to sound[,] somehow something comes out and in this specific case, because Meryl is a good musician and had training up until her early 20s/late teens, she wasn't singing in that upper octave that Florence approximated in her way. So a lot of these off-key singing was built off of how to sing well.”

So how did he handle the torture of listening to it? There’s an irony to it all, he acknowledged,  “When not being right is right then you train somebody to do it incorrectly so subconsciously knowing that they know how to do it correctly. Does that make sense?”

florence posterIn fact, he does owns Jenkins’ music on CD, “I had ended up buying the record [before this project came up] because her commitment is so important in that kind of belief in an art form. It’s so important that people that are less [than engaged should support others who are].”

This is how he understood the Jenkins phenomenon. “It's like the idiosyncrasy of Florence Foster Jenkins was built on her musical imagination — of how she truly desired how to sing.”

To that he adds an example: “Like in the part of the movie, The Lily Pons scene where you should have Pons’ beautiful voice in your head — that's what Florence aspired to, she's probably imagining or hoping that she would sound like young prime Lily Pons.” Nonetheless, she didn’t — much to everyone’s embarrassing dismay.

Did Levy have to get into Jenkins’ psychology as well to understand how she would make her sounds? Yes, and in doing so he could then train others to make her sounds. “In this particular case. There are people who are what [you could call] beyond OCD. They have a narcissism or were brought up to think that everything they did was perfect so I assume that if they sing badly it's much better than they think it is.

“But in the case of Florence, it's really partially physical ailments that distorted her perception of herself. But I don't think it was a selfish or narcissism because really she put herself out there as a singer much later in her life so she didn't although she had fine musical training it's not like she was a laughing stock from her late 20s as a singer up until her death.

“I think in her head she knew what good singing sounded like. There are people that have terrific voices but they either don't love music as much as they think a musician should or they don't think they're less of an opinion how they think it should go.”

Would she have been the same phenomenon today? Levy considered this. “In this day and age, I think social media is a good thing but also it dispenses opinion very fast so a lot of musicians are subject to half-baked opinions and if they're very vulnerable or read too much they can start doubting a brilliant intuition.”

So there’s a lesson to be learned through the peculiar popularity of Jenkins. “That can actually [be bad] in a case of someone who is very talented that can actually bring a talented person down in their career because they're trying to please so many people and yet they forgot what their voice truly was.”

 

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