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On the heels of what would have been his 55th birthday, June 25th, the late rock great George Michael came into mind. I realized my rare interview with him needed a rethink and I went back to see what I had. And I found he expressed such insightful concerns. “When we did ‘Wham Rap!’ we were trying to do a parody. We were trying to say, ’Dough is shit by saying dough is great.’ I was trying to say that, ‘Just because you don't have a job doesn't mean you're shit.’”
So said the late pop star a little more than 30 years ago. He was detailing the development of "Faith,” his then much anticipated debut solo album which became a huge hit and life changing for the artist.
The boyish singer added, “There were a lot of elements that people took serious about Wham! when we were being totally tongue-in-cheek. We tried to do a parody of sexism with the guy that was rapping in ‘Young Guns.’ He was supposed to be me. We were making out that he was a jerk thinking that girls were only good for fucking and getting married to. Then I got this sexist crap back. I'm used to being misunderstood…”
The former pop superstar and Wham! lead singer said that and much more during our lengthy interview back in mid-year 1987. I was sent to Los Angeles to conduct this intimate conversation with the former teen star who had made Wham! a hit-making machine and who was virtually a household name at the time. Of course, many rock cognoscenti disdained Michael for his bubbly pop in comparison to say the more critically acclaimed Boy George, Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet.
But as the conversation and album proved, there was much more to Michael than expected or had been expressed at that time. As is known now he went on to record other powerhouse records, make controversial statements, come out as gay, have drug/alcohol problems, and tragically die of natural causes on Christmas, December 25th, 2016. Some have speculated that his past chemical abuses led to the heart condition that felled him.
In any case, I had pitched the idea of doing Michael for the cover of a new magazine, "In Fashion", a Euro-publishing transplant breaking boundaries between pop culture and style in a way that the burgeoning Brit mags like "ID" and "The Face" were doing. Its cover concept at the time was to pair a male personality with a female one — say a music star with an actor of the opposite sex. This hadn’t been done before; no magazine was crossing the divide between men and women that way, incorporating forward fashion, couture and popular design. So no wonder that the creative team — publisher, art director and editor — thought Michael was a perfect artist to pair with some female icon of the time.
Apparently, the idea also intrigued someone in Michael’s camp because Sony not only thought the interview important enough but they sent me westerly to his manager's LA home and gave me enough time to nail down a substantial interview. And he was giving very few at the time.
As a result, editors at a major rock magazine got wind that I had this interview and that "In Fashion" was hesitating to publish it since Michael insisted they use only his favorite photog — which was Herb Ritts. So another magazine came to me to publish a version which forced "In Fashion" to do so as well. I continued writing for this magazine for another year until there was editorial turnaround again.
The soulful singer ruminated about his controversial single off that album. “‘I Want Your Sex’ is perhaps the most successfully black-sounding record I've ever done. Having spent a lot of time listening to modern black music and dancing in clubs, that song is my reflection of my life at the moment. One of the reasons for making sure there is more funk-oriented material on this album, as part of my new career, is to get people to hear the other songs on this album.”
He added, “The most important songs for me are not the funk songs. There are some songs that transcend anything I could possibly do on the dance level. The stuff I'm most proud of are the ones based around my song-making as opposed to my record-making. My songs are not usually contemporary but are usually something that transcends a contemporary sound.
“People will hopefully remember them in five or 10 years. I feel this is not a pop album. It has a far more earthier feel to it, more black-based, simpler, and more aggressive than anything I've done before. I've even added a jazz ballad. There's a strange mix of influences here that gel together.”
As we spoke, I realized I was getting something special from him detailing his career and how it saw it at the time. As he reflected then, “I’m very proud of the pop music I've made, but it's also had very little to do with my personality. [The song] Go-Go’ was not a reflection of my personality, it was a reflection of my craft.
“I built up this group sound which is really only a hint of who I am. I didn't want people to know who I was at the time. I was just very much enjoying my craft. I have had to spend a lot of time in the last two years convincing people that just because the songs I made were pop, they weren't necessarily disposable.
“I think some of those songs were a lot stronger than a lot of the pop that was made at the time and some of those Wham! records will be remembered for a long time. Just because they were lightweight, I've been having to spend a lot of time in the last three years trying to explain to people that I'm not brain dead.”
Caught between pop and soul, Michael found himself in strange place as the build to the LP’s release began. “Black radio would not play "I Want Your Sex." It's the worst reaction I've had on a record for years. For them it was too dirty. Don't ask me why that is, when every good black song on the charts is full of innuendos. If there was a woman singing, they would have played it. I believe the slant on sex generally in the past several years has made it seem terrifying to kids. I've read that even though we've had huge campaigns about AIDS in my country, there hasn't been a large increase of sale of condoms. The kind of lust in "I Want Your Sex" is all part of something good.”
At the time, no one really had an inkling that this solo debut was going to be the smash hit it became. Somehow, between one machination or another, I got to hear some of it early on — especially the title track. I was also deejaying at the time and could hear in every riff and vocal inflection that this was a special recording that powerfully reflected the zeitgeist of that time — the late ‘80s — on both radio and dance floor.
Michael was open and passionate about it all but especially when addressing sex. Of course, the biggest issue surrounding him at the time were questions of his own sexuality. Though I tried, he pivoted around the issue without actually denying it. “I’m totally used to people saying that I'm gay, even though I don't think I've ever done anything lyrically to provoke that. But I'm used to being misinterpreted on that level. People used to say that the only reason Andy was there was because he's gay, but that's a laugh from day one.
The press has tried to link me with my cousin and they've tried to link me with my friend David Austin. They've done the whole bit, but I don't really care, I've never really cared. I've heard so many examples in pop history of that kind of rumor. What difference does it make? These days it's not even an open question. In the '70s it might have been open for debate. Now, if you want your career, it's another story. Yet I don't think anyone's sexuality should get in the way of their talent or career--which it does.
“I have heard the most fantastic rumors about me in the past few years. There are all kind of orgiastic things; they're not even subtle. They're usually something horribly loud. If my life had been that much fun, perhaps I would have written about it. But I know what my life's been like in the past five years, and compared to what people have said, it's extremely dull sexually. I'm happy with it. Anyhow, it suits me if people are talking about it.”
Drugs were another issue that has been a part of his life and even moreso later in his career. “I wouldn't say I'm anti-drugs. I'd say I'm anti certain drugs. They're a very destructive thing to most people, because people only have a certain amount of perspective. There are some people I've seen handle drugs perfectly well in a moderate amount. Moderation with anything is okay but the effects of drugs on the nervous system are far more of a risk to your body. But I don't condemn people for most things. I wouldn't condemn people for taking drugs.
“I condemn encouraging anybody to take drugs because most people can't handle them, it's as simple as that. Put it this way, if we're talking about moderate use of alcohol or moderate drug use, you should go for mild alcohol. I think alcohol is a far more clear-cut issue. Anyway, I've always been glad I was born too late for the psychedelic era, because I would have definitely been a hippie.”
But it was all part of an overall effort to grapple with the consequences of becoming a rock star. As Michael proclaimed, “The rock business is one of the few ways in which young people can become rich very quickly without having to make the kind of rough decisions which push a person into a right-wing bracket. There are business decisions that are made by entrepreneurial types which are to other people's disadvantage. When people want to make money, they have to step on each other.
“Only if you're lucky enough to have the ability and talent which other people want to make money on can you become rich without having to walk over other people. Then you can turn a blind eye for an awfully long time to how people become rich. I've always thought I was always really lucky that I managed to become wealthy without having to walk over others. There aren't many opportunities where that can happen.”
As I read these words again now, long after we spoke, and in reflection of his untimely death at 53, I see however troubled he was or became, he was also incredibly insightful. “There's obviously a dichotomy in having money, yet seeing the things around you that are wrong. I've stayed in my own country, never left for the purpose of taxes, and yet, at the same time, I'm giving lots of money to a country I disapprove of strongly. Maybe I should leave the country. But what difference would that make? I'd only come to the United States. Your government and mine are becoming much the same entity anyway. What bothers me about American culture is it's based on competition. If you don't have a lot of status financially or in terms of celebrity, then you're not much over here.
“On the other hand, when I go home, it depresses me how little ambition there is in England. People just don't aspire to anything there because people feel they're on a loser to begin with. But Margaret Thatcher has an incredible opportunity to do something no one's ever had the opportunity to do before. She's got her third term.
“When you think about her actual ethics, you can't help but admire her ability to turn ideas into reality. She wanted to put England back on the international industrial map and she's done that. That's why our pound's getting stronger again; she's brought money back into the country. But if she wants to be the best known and most respected prime minister ever, she'll have to put some of the money from the top end back to the low end of the country to prevent the division from becoming so wide that the public, especially the middle class, becomes scared. I think a welfare state is absolutely necessary.
“I think it's a shame the way the one in England is being chipped away to resemble the one here in the United States. I was asked to join campaigns of Conservative and Labour in the last election in England. It terrified me because I couldn't believe they were sinking so low as to take a pop artist and to have them up on the hustings, as they call them. Though I understand how politics work, I find it very hard to be in any political direction at the moment. It's easier to apply myself to individual issues.”
Keeping in mind the recent revelations of the charities he supported and his own philanthropic efforts, it’s a tribute to Michael that he had been a champion of many causes for a lon time. He was no Johnny-come-lately to helping — and his put his money where his words were as well, As he said, “I’ve given financial help to the AIDS cause. Anybody who has even vaguely long-term awareness will be able to see that if you've got kids, in 10 or 15 years time, things are still going to be way out of control. You're going to think, "Fuck, I could have done something."
“I’m also very distressed about how the British national health system is deteriorating, equivalent to the one you have here. From the beginning of Wham! we took a tongue-in-cheek at people to get off their asses and not be intimidated. In my country they wouldn't even call me left-wing because the left has become really left and the right has become really right, which makes people like me moderate. The trouble with moderates is that they're a little too nice.”
Disney’s 2013 Oscar-winning animated worldwide phenomenon Frozen, with colossal grosses in excess of $1.300-trillion, is now a Tony-nominated Broadway live-action musical phenomenon by the film’s Oscar-winning husband and wife composers Kristin Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (Coco). Robert’s also the Tony-winning co-writer of The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q. Loosely-inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, Frozen: The Broadway Musical is the story of fearless Princess Anna who sets off with a rugged mountain man in search of her sister Elsa, now Queen, whose curse of cryokinesis has inadvertently trapped their kingdom in eternal winter.
Screenplay writer Jennifer Lee created a more nuanced, sometimes darker, script for the stage. The Lopez’s wrote over a dozen new tunes to supplement the film’s immensely popular power ballads, “Let It Go” and “For the First Time Forever.” The show has shattered the ice ceiling at the St. James Theatre, with week after week record-breaking grosses approaching $3-million -- far exceeding previous record holder, The Producers. Of course, ticket prices are higher. Incidentally, the figures don’t include a virtual department store of souvenir merchandise.
Following a weekend of laying down tracks for the show’s just-released cast album, the men and women of Frozen -- Jelani Alladin, in his Broadway debut, who portrays Kristoff; Caissie Levy, Queen Elsa; John Riddle, the dashing Prince Hans; Patti Murin, sweet Princess Anna; and Greg Hildreth, the human alter ego of Olaf the snowman sat to, in the words of the show’s breakout hit, let it go.
Though it immediately becomes apparent there’s a mutual admiration between the cast members, the men quickly address the media fascination surrounding Elsa’s salute to female-empowerment by wearing pants [quite glamorous ones] as she turns her world into icy tundra. “Oh, and it’s not just onstage,” laughs Riddle. “Caissie proudly wears the pants off stage, but in a good way. She’s the essence of female empowerment and an incredible team leader. We happily quick-step behind her.”
It starts at the top, observes Hildreth, the seasoned pro of three successful Broadway musicals (Cinderella, Peter and the Starcatcher, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson). “It’s nice and rare being in a hit, but what makes coming to work such a joy is having Caissie and Patti as team captains.”
“I’m the new kid on the block,” Alladin notes. “I’ve worked Off Broadway and regionally, so I didn’t know anyone. As luck would have it, when I auditioned I was paired with Caissie. She was amazingly generous, and when she sang it was like time stopped. Her dressing room door’s always open, she’s always reaching out, cheering us on.”
“Patti and I have known each other forever,” states Riddle. “She’s long been my spark of creation. Seeing her bring Anna to life has been a joy. The warmth you see onstage is real. She’s gives so much to the company. When you’re part of something that’s surely going to be around for a while, it’s wonderful to be working in that sort of atmosphere. The company looks out for each other. Even when one person is out, you feel the loss of them. The nature of the show is all about caring – how Anna goes in search of Elsa, so to not have a company like this would be a disservice to the piece.”
“John,” boasts Levy, “is special onstage and off. He’s a triple threat, with everything you’d want in a leading man: charisma, an absolutely stunning singing voice, and he can act. Best of all, he’s a team player. His star will continue to rise.” “The first time I heard John’s absolutely glorious voice,” recalls Murrin, “I was blown away. As brilliant as he is as an actor, the support and love he offers when we're onstage is unmatched. He will, literally and figuratively, never let me fall. I'm lucky that I get to watch him every single day. His performance is one of the most complicated and masterful. I’m in awe how, in the first act, he goes about smoothly, craftily planting the seeds for the stunning events at end of the show.”
Riddle, whom Anna falls head over heels for on first sighting, has the challenge of making audiences forget the film. “My job as Hans is to trick audiences into believing I’m really Prince Charming. Then, in the big reveal, when my true motives come out, to shock them. I love it when they gasp! I’ve done my job. It’s fun to be the villain.” The trio points out that with the deeper character development and new songs, the stage adaptation has gone beyond a kid-friendly animated film. “The show’s been flipped,” Greg says, “so there’s something for everyone.” “When audiences enter,” adds Riddle, “there’s a certain expectation. You want to honor what’s become iconic; however, an actor, you want to say I dare you to rethink what this is and how deep it goes.”
In the area of rethinking, audiences might be surprised at Disney and Tony-and-Olivier-Award-winning director Michael Grandage’s big leap casting an African American as mountain man Kristoff. “I was as surprised as anyone,” states Alladin. “When you go into auditions, you investigate the roles to see what might fit. After so much work Off Broadway and regionally, I was hoping to get anything. This is much more than a dream fulfilled, another thing I can check off on my bucket list. I’m grateful to Disney and Michael for the opportunity to have kids of color see a black man in the role.”
Murin admires Alladin’s energy and enthusiasm. “Jelani faces every challenge with determination and verve. His heart’s bigger than anyone could ever know. We rely on each other a lot in this show, and I know from looking in his eyes that he has my back at all times.”
“This is Jelani’s first Broadway show and it certainly won’t be his last,” predicts Levy. “His Kristoff is strong and tender. Best of all, he’s everyone’s biggest cheerleader. And when he dances, he moves unlike anyone else! You can’t take your eyes off him.”
Olaf the snowman, whom moviegoers fell madly in love with [“he” even became a best-selling plush toy], has unique traits among snowpersons. He’s always seeking warmth and fearlessly loves fireplaces. “It’s been a two-year master class in puppetry,” explains Hildreth. “He’s now my new best friend.” While acting, singing and dancing, he’s tethered to the 5’ steel harness (covered with carbon fiber, foam, andyarn) and manipulates Olaf through some intricate finger trickery and a magnet which allows Olaf to pick things up. “It’s a new talent for my resume. My job is to make him front and center, and then sort of disappear.”
Levy and Murin adore Hildreth’s ability to make them laugh and his personal warmth. “Greg’s heart of gold shines through every performance,” says Levy. “He can do it all, one reason he’s so spectacular as Olaf.” Murin’s the one who has the most fun with him, “As soon as he enters, audiences’ faces light up. They feel what I feel. His task isn’t easy, but watching him is a master class in making some incredibly difficult look easy.”
The men speak for all with high praise for the man driving them through the icy slopes. “Michael’s allowed us to see how far we can go,” notes Hildreth. “He’s incredible to work with because he was an actor.” Riddle agrees, “Michael understands our frustrations and those moments when we’re searching to understand something. Best of all, he knows how to talk to an actor. From the beginning, he said, ‘This is yours. Do with it what you will.’ That’s the biggest gift an actor can have. You see how far you can go, and then, sometimes, you get reined in!”
Every single year—like a grotesque rite of passage—an annual report detailing the lack of diversity, inclusion, and income in Hollywood is circulated and for a brief moment of time, all tongues are wagging and heads are swiveling around in disgust. Murmurs of “something must be done” swell in a cascade and then … another year rolls around, with another report and the ritual begins anew.
But twenty-five years ago the team at Film Independent said enough and actually did something about it creating Film Independent’s Project Involve a brave move—especially in 1993.
25 years in Hollywood, where the “normal tenure of an industry exec rivals the lifecycle of a Mayfly” in its brevity, is an accomplishment not to be ignored.
Project Involve—Film Independent’s signature diversity mentorship program—has remained in place, steadfast in its mission: to support and enable the visions of independent artists and visual storytellers hailing from every facet of our multi-cultural community.
Here is an excerpt from a conversation with Angel Williams (Project Involve Fellow, Directing Track & Current Manager of Artist Development at Film Independent); director and producer Mel Jones (Project Involve’s Producing Track 2012) and Kady Kamakate (Project Involve Producing Track, 2017).
Q: Looking back when you first stepped into Project Involve, and now, what did you expect?
Angel Williams: Project Involve is Film Independent’s signature program dedicated to fostering the careers of talented filmmakers from communities traditionally underrepresented in the film industry. Project Involve runs annually for nine months and selects filmmakers from diverse backgrounds and filmmaking tracks. During the program, participants create short films, receive one-on-one film industry mentors, access to production-based master workshops taught by top film professionals, career development training, industry networking opportunities and more. My good friend and frequent collaborator Mel Jones had gone through Project Involve – it was how I became aware of the program. Going in I already had an outline of sorts of how to maximize the opportunity. I knew that I needed to be thoughtful and intentional about my mentor ask and that the value of the program could extend long after the program ended, building relationships with talented artists that I could create a body of work with.
Mel Jones: Speaking from my experience. Mentorship is paramount. After all Hollywood is an apprenticeship business. And no matter how many degrees you have there is nothing like seeing someone in action and then modeling your approach from what you've learned. I am the producer I am today because of my Project Involve mentorship with Stephanie Allain who is now my producing partner. And as a developing storyteller, it meant giving me access to the world in ways I would not have been able to experience.
Kady Kamakate: I participated in previous shoots before as an AD and PM so I was familiar with the production side of things but not the curriculum. My expectations were for those to be fairly formal and routine, and I was really surprised to see how candid the guests are and how intimate the setting is. It really feels as if you're having a personal conversation, and they really are open to the industry and their filmmaking journey.
Q: Looking back what is the value of mentorship? What is mentorship for a developing storyteller?
AW: Mentorship is everything. I don’t know a single artist who’s found success without mentorship and that’s key to sustaining a career. In a lot of ways mentors are like a parent-child relationship – you inspire and nurture one another and gain a lot of wisdom in the process of growing alongside one another. Project Involve is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and over the years we’ve had the participation of some amazing mentors including Effie T. Brown (Dear White People, Real Women Have Curves), Spike Jonze (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), Kasi Lemmons (Talk to Me, Eve’s Bayou), Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Memento), John Singleton (Four Brothers, Boyz n the Hood), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, American Gun), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Bradford Young (Arrival, Solo), Chayse Irvin (Lemonade), Rachel Morrison (Black Panther, Fruitvale Station), and Reed Morano (The Handmaid’s Tale).
MJ: Speaking from my experience. Mentorship is paramount. After all Hollywood is an apprenticeship business. And no matter how many degrees you have there is nothing like seeing someone in action and then modeling your approach from what you've learned. I am the producer I am today because of my Project Involve mentorship with Stephanie Allain who is now my producing partner. And as a developing storyteller, it meant giving me access to the world in ways I would not have been able to experience.
KK: I think mentorship comes in different ways. I haven't had a mentor most of my career but I don't think that's hindered me in any way. What's been important to me is peer-mentorship, those in your circle that brings you up. It's as simple as bringing you on projects, to bumping you up in title/responsibility and generally taking a risk on you. That's been instrumental in my growth and something I always make a point to do on my own projects. I find it important for us to take chances with our own friends/peers, after all, if we don't make opportunities for our own community we're part of the problem.
Q: Why are diverse stories important?
AW: Representation and diversity on screen are so important because we must see ourselves. Cinema is such a powerful tool and when not used responsibly it can have a negative impact on our cultures.
MJ: Diverse stories are important because they allow for us to connect to one another in ways we wouldn't otherwise connect. I also believe stories have the ability to heal and to challenge peoples ways of thinking and belief systems so we should do that in as many ways as possible with as many voices as possible.
KK: If we want to live in an inclusive and progressive world, we must demand to hear stories from those that are underserved and underrepresented in our society. It's imperative.
Q: As storytellers in this program how much of the business side do you learn?
AW: After I completed Project Involve in 2014 on the directing track they asked me to come behind the curtain and run the program alongside Francisco Velasquez. Project Involve focussing a lot on the business of filmmaking because in my opinion—so many emerging filmmakers aren’t even remotely prepared for that part of it. You get to hear from studio executives, agents, managers, attorneys—but the most valuable conversations come from the filmmakers sharing their personal stories about the business. That’s why mentorship is vital – a good mentor will school you on all the lessons they learned so that hopefully your experience can be different.
MJ: As producers of Project Involve you are tasked with producing a short. So that you can sharpen your ability to put a crew and a film together. But apart from that project involve has Master Classes with Industry Professionals that span from Composing to Producing.
KK: Project Involve does a great job of bringing in guests with a breath of experience and strong careers, which is really where you get to hear some gems. Also as a producer, by nature, we are more involved in the business side of things, but not necessarily the other tracks. So with Project Involve all the tracks (DP, DIRECTOR, EDITOR) get to see the process from scratch and are really intimately involved in a way that doesn't happen in the "real world". Everyone strategizes on fundraising or helps out on set in capacities that are new to them, it's a serious team effort and you walk away with a greater understanding of the process.
To learn more, go to: https://www.filmindependent.org/programs/project-involve/
While French comics have been enjoying attention in the US as far back the 1970s when Metal Hurlant was brought to over as Heavy Metal, there is still much in the world of "bandes dessinées" that has not crossed American eyes. Zep (real name Philippe Chappuis) is a Swiss born author whose work is wildly successful in France, thanks to his raunchy humor, cartoonish art, and a general disregard for authority. Yet he remains an unknown the United States. Zep’s career in comics dates back to the 1980s when he was a contributor to the anthology magazine Spirou. His long running comic, Titeuf, a bestseller in France, follows the escapades of a young boy with an oddly shaped head as he navigates life, school, adolescence, first loves, and parents. The series suffers from a particular conundrum of having humor too risque for children in the U.S., but it is also too kid-centric to appeal to older audiences here either.
Zep is known primarily for his comedic works such as Happy Parents, Happy Sex, and Titeuf, but his first English release in many years is the weighty A Story of Men from IDW. A Story of Men follows a could-have-been rock band, as they have a reunion with their former band leader who has enjoyed success while the rest of the ensemble drifted off into obscurity. While Titeuf is drawn in vivid primaries, A Story of Men opts for muted greys, occasionally mixed with hints of blue or magenta with paneling mostly contained to a 3x3 grid. While Titeuf is influenced by comedic French comic artists such as Gotlib, A Story of Men pulls from the tradition of new wave cinema and directors such as François Truffaut and the art drops cartoony visuals in favor of moody realism. While the visuals and the tone of A Story of Men is totally removed from that of Titeuf, it still embodies themes and motifs explored in Zep's more comedic works, namely adulthood, fatherhood, sex, relationships, and the nature of (and compromises with) rebellion.
I met with Zep at his hotel near Grand Central Terminal, where this interview was shot overlooking the grey and wet streets of Midtown. Zep shared his thoughts on the transgressive nature of childhood and how it’s reflected in Titeuf, and his depiction of sexuality within his work how it became a mission in life.
This interview was conducted by Renzo Adler and Brad Balfour.
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