Grampy’s Grammys

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Music is a touchstone. But many young screenwriters I teach have confessed to me they have previously been instructed NEVER to put a song reference in a script because they will limit or confuse a reader who may or may not know the song or the group they’re talking about or will be taken out of the moment by a tune that will probably never wind up in the movie anyway.

The above advice is, of course, ridiculous. Music has always been a great connecter and the perfect evocation of a mood or moment in time that all the talk or visual images in the world can’t muster. It is true that if someone doesn’t know a song a reference to it will not put them in the mood or mindset you intend. But if you go with your gut and choose wisely that song most certainly will do the job when they get to HEAR it – which is the point of writing musical references to begin with. And besides, any artistic moment in time needs all the help it can get.

Which brings us to #GrammyAwards2015.

Hosted by LL Cool J - for the 2,000th time

Hosted by LL Cool J – for the 89th time

As a resident of the west coast who is not in the music industry and therefore not present at the actual live ceremonies, I was three hours late to the party thanks to the greed and hubris of CBS. As the official broadcaster of said ceremony, the network has decided that unlike the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes they have no public obligation to share the music simultaneously across the world – or at the very least, the country.

Knowing full well that the primary reason people watch a music awards show is for the performances and not the actual awards, CBS instead chose to delay their west coast broadcast in order to sell more prime time ads and create a greater revenue stream for itself. This is, of course, the network’s prerogative – but only for the time being.

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There is a power shift going on in how and where and when we get our entertainment. And that shift is going back to the consumer, which means that before long every event of any importance will be available simultaneously in most time zones. It might be five, ten or 20 years away but the corporate world – which these days includes entertainment and even politics – knows deep down that the party is essentially over and that changeover is causing major and minor freak outs as well as corporate and personal misbehaviors everywhere. These manifest themselves in little bouts of broadcast hubris as well as false and outrageous public statements from people, politicians (Note: No, they’re not the same thing) and various organizations about everything from vaccines to international terrorism, before segueing into mass media hysteria over the possible gender change of an Olympic gold medalist or the newsiness of just what the historical accuracy is of any number of Oscar nominated feature films this year whose only real sin is failing to announce loudly enough its claim that it is merely “based” on a true story.

On the flip side, which of us hasn’t found it a little bit more than fun to live in an age when political gaffes and cultural injustices aren’t events so easily handled?   Truth be told, there is some infinite joy in knowing that eventually Twitter, YouTube and Instagram will provide the real images, observations and videos of said events or thoughts rather than the pre-packaged or approved ones we’ve mostly been previously granted by the gatekeepers.

Enter: Olivia Pope. #ItsHandled

Enter: Olivia Pope. #ItsHandled

I guess I’m gloating but it can be quite entertaining to watch more than a few members of the status quo squirm as their grip on power unwittingly gets pried out from behind our necks. Still, the new scandal du jour of something like NBC anchor Brian Williams exaggerating being shot down in Iraq during the previous decade or fictionalizing a case of dysentery in order to make his Hurricane Katrina reporting more dramatic during the Bush, Jr. presidency is almost quaint at this point. I mean, the one thing we all know these days is that EVERYONE exaggerates a bit – it’s just a lot easier to get caught.   Yes, it’s true – the public already does know that even if the bosses in power don’t.   This is not to excuse the lie or the liar or even to condone that mode of behavior.   Only to acknowledge that we mostly understand that we – most of us – are, in at least some occasional cases, a bit hypocritical, indelicate with our opinions and guilty of bending reality ever so slightly and more – whether national, international or not – whenever the mood hits us.

The new normal today is the degree of the lie. Which is why awards shows are so terribly fun to watch – even when a power broker like CBS doesn’t allow you to view them live along with everyone else.

The craftsmanship of a successful artist’s image is often painstakingly and precisely planned, executed, buffed and shined before you and I get to experience it. But how the famed act in public when they have to be themselves onstage at a live event cannot be any of the above by its very nature. Oh, a person can sort of present a terribly rehearsed version of themselves but on a live show the rehearsal is often fodder for the real show on social media. Sure, he or she or even they can do a bit better fooling us when entertaining live – if indeed that is their profession and they’re good at it. But on the other hand, those who have been auto tuned, or have had their public images sculpted up a bit too brightly become as transparent as an overexposed X-ray held up to the light. Which is more than apt since the people we’re talking about have often been far too overexposed anyway.

Or a little underexposed if you're Sia.

Or a little underexposed if you’re Sia.

Watching this year’s Grammy awards I couldn’t help but feel like I’d be a bit like the star of Gramps Goes to the Movies – catching up with what the young-ins are doin’ and listenin’ to or watchin’ it three hours after the fact or perhaps even a year after my own figurative children’s children had first gotten wise to it.

But then I look up at my TV and the 1970s hard rock band AC/DC – a group I managed to avoid during most of my natural adolescence – are doing a five minute opening number.

What year is this? Am I a teenager again? And what time is it? Don’t I still have math homework to get through? Or perhaps it’s CBS again – playing a cruel trick on the left coast and switching programming back 40 years in order to appeal to its key heartland demographic where presumably they all still do listen to that group.

Performing at next year's Grammys

Performing at next year’s Grammys

As it turned out it was none of those. Only that the actual Grammy broadcast was clearly not hip or even unhip. It actually simultaneously managed to be a hybrid of both and neither. There was something for those of us in or moving into AARP range, others who are indeed still teenagers and the rest of you who fall somewhere in between. In its own odd way, its musical acts, award choices and onscreen behaviors amounted to nothing consistent or at times even decipherable.

This is not say to it wasn’t infinitely entertaining at points or that it failed to reach some quite high moments in others. It is only to note that try as they might to manage it all into something slick and pre-packaged it was actually all kind of a big, engaging mush of truth, fiction, fabulousness and confusion. Sort of like sifting through Twitter or Facebook for too long – but then realizing you’ve both enjoyed and wasted three and a half hours of your life in what seemed like 33 and a third minutes. Not to date myself.

That Zuckerberg

That Zuckerberg

Those of you who didn’t watch along with Grampy Chair or Great Uncles AC/DC can certainly revisit the highlights on the social media platform of your choice. Though I can save you the time with a few thoughts and links to some bottom line highlights.

  • You’ll want to marvel at who thought about having Tom Jones and Jessie J duet You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling as a tribute to famed Brill Building songwriters Cynthia Weill & Barry Mann. No, I didn’t say it wasn’t good. I’m just sayin’…
  • You’ll want to slap your head when you realize CBS is actually choosing to bleep out some song lyrics and words from country superstar Miranda Lambert’s live performance. SHE’S too racy for your core audience? Really? Or do you just think the left coast can’t take a bit of sexual innuendo?
Seasonal allergies be damned!

Seasonal allergies be damned!

  • I want to applaud Katy Perry’s Cover Girl commercial where she frolics amid pink flowers while managing to sell me makeup. Though you might want to boo. But as Taylor Swift, all sleek and tall in Grammy blue once both wrote AND sang: Haters gonna hate.
  • Critics might love groaning when Madonna does her new single about the power of love but I thought it was fun and, more importantly, SHE was once again having fun. You can choose to not think so but you’d be wrong. And no matter what you say anyway, here’s my answer to you in the form of a tweet from GregvsMatt: Roses are red, violets are blue #Madonna is 56 and looks better than you.
Werk it, Material Gurl

Werk it, Material Gurl

  • CBS proves it is once again infinitely unclever by having Fox/American Idol’s Ryan Seacrest introduce NBC/The Voice’s Adam Levine and Gwen Stefani performing their single, but all the network proves is it doesn’t have a tentpole TV reality singing show nor can it even make a lame joke about the others.
  • Matthew McConaughey’s confounding Buick commercials, particularly the one with the bull, will short circuit your brain before you even realize that the revenue it produces is what this three-hour delay is really about. (Editor’s note: It’s Lincoln, not Buick, Chairy. #powerofadvertising)
Annie kills it.

Annie kills it.

  • Sixty-year old Annie Lennox stops the show cold with the best performance of the night both by igniting Hozier’s tired performance of his own Take Me to Church and then electrifying us all with her own rendition of an almost 60 year old song – I Put A Spell On You. If nothing else, the reaction confuses those who live and die by the age demographics of corporate market research. #HelloCBS.
  • I manage to consider that Kanye West’s two onstage collaborations with Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett’s jazz turn with Lady Gaga center stage might disprove every bitchy phrase myself and every other baby boomer has ever uttered about what people, or even corporate networks, will promote those days.
Prince digs into Maude's closet

Prince digs into Maude’s closet

  • I then reconsider the above stance when Kanye steps onstage to try and Taylor Swift Beck’s unexpected win for best album (Note: Presented by Prince in the orange chiffon number your Aunt Esther was gonna wear to your bar-mitzvah but didn’t) and instead pulls back at the last minute even though Beck asks him not to. Then I have to admit to myself that just because one loves a Beatle doesn’t mean one necessarily has or evokes any taste at all.   Though at the same time, I have to also admit Prince looks far better in that getup than my Aunt Esther ever could have, not to mention she’d never be smart enough to publicly state: Like books and Black lives, albums matter.
  • You, if you were indeed watching, probably listened in awe as Sam Smith dueted with Mary J. Blige on Stay With Me – a simple love song/video about a gay guy who isn’t good at one night stands. And you would be right to marvel at both that and the fact that he went on to win four Grammy Awards. #WhoWouldHaveThoughtWayBackWhen. Though it would have really been something if he had dueted with say, Rufus Wainwright. #JustDreamin2025.
Hot damn we love those soulful Brits!

Hot damn we love those soulful Brits!

  • No, it was all of us who kept rewinding Sia’s performance of Chandelier facing away from us while funny woman Kristen Wiig mimed and dance with Sia’s diminutive ballerina all through the song and didn’t so much get a laugh but prove that she is actually also a real live performance artist.
  • You will thank me for advising you to consciously uncouple from Chris Martin and Beck in the fourth hour, almost finale when they duet on one of the songs from what was just voted album of the year. What year, I’m not sure.
I mean.... we get it.

I mean…. we get it.

  • And, though I am in the minority and hesitate to say this – I continue to wonder how Beyonce – clearly an extremely talented and driven woman – can somehow manage to make the finale of the evening – the spiritual Take My Hand, Precious Lord, from the soundtrack of the movie Selma, so beyond grand and indulgent while Common and John Legend sung the hell out of their original song for Selma – Glory – and closed out the show with sincerity. I’ll take a guess. It probably had to do with the fact that they didn’t have a wind machine, flowing white chiffon or enough lighting effects to buff their imagines into a perfect shine.

But hey – that’s just me. And this year’s Grammys. Three hours late. On the west coast feed.

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Starting Over

Thirty years ago I attended the Grammy Awards when John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Double Fantasy” won album of the year and I  watched as Lennon’s widow and sometime collaborator, Ono, walked across the stage to accept the honor.  The irony of the moment was not lost on us attendees or the many millions of people watching worldwide.  The monster hit single being played from the recording as she made her way to the podium was Lennon’s “Starting Over” and its message of new beginnings was especially poignant.   Lennon had been murdered a year before at point blank range in front of his NYC apartment building right after the initial release of “Double Fantasy” and his death required that not only his wife but his legion of worldwide fans would somehow have to heed the advice of the song and begin to finally and fully absorb the shock of living in a world where one of the most iconic artists of that time – or pretty much any time – was gone.

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As the very petite and very soft-spoken Ms. Ono stood at a clear podium that seemed to engulf her very presence amid thunderous applause that definitely engulfed the very room, I remember thinking three things  – a. “how is she doing it?”  b. “she’s so much smaller than I imagined” and c. “it’s sad that this is what it takes for people in this business to forgive you for some large perceived misdeed (in her case it was  the lingering unjust accusation that she had caused the break up of the Beatles).

As for part b. —  well, most very famous people are not as “larger than life” as they appear to be – both physically or in any other way – and in terms of part c. – human beings are often much more comfortable if we can blame a person or an institution for something we didn’t want to happen instead of blaming ourselves, life or the fickle finger of fate more commonly known as bad luck.

But as for part a. —  I’m still trying to figure that out, though I’m much closer to the answer than I was in 1982 – a time when I was sure I’d be spending the rest of my life with the music industry person I was dating whose personal history did not include one long term (or even short term) happy relationship. What was I thinking?   Hell if I know.  (Though if you really think about it you probably can guess).

But what John Lennon knew at that time and probably before most of the rest of us did, is that starting over is a way of life – a state of being – something indigenous to the human condition, and often to the sometimes inhuman condition, known as show business.

This week a student who was about to graduate college and venture out into the world for the first time without the safety net of academia came to me fairly terrified and only a little excited about the prospects that lie ahead.

“I feel like it’s going to be like starting college all over again, only different and scarier,” said the student while trying not to fidget.

“It is,” I answered, all smiley and knowledgeable, “except instead of paying with money you’ll pay in a lot other ways.”

Okay, I didn’t say that last part because I’m not that cynical and I try to be encouraging in the same way I like to think John Lennon would be.  But part of taking on any new project; stretching yourself to try or be anything you never were before; or even reinventing that which is already there, means a change in strategy.  It means looking at it with fresh eyes.  It means pulling out a blank slate and pretending you’re brand new at it.  Or – if you’ve never, ever done it before – it’s asking yourself the basic questions that all aspiring people, especially creative ones, need to ask.  What is my goal (nee objective) and what is the best, though not necessarily fastest, way to get there?

the evidence of hard work

This question is at the core of teaching in the arts.  As a screenwriting teacher it often comes down to what does your hero want; what are the obstacles in his or her way; and in the end, does he or she get it or don’t they get it?  Really good actors know that they’re reading a really good part in a play, movie or TV show if their character is actually DOING something about GETTING something, rather than just thinking about it, and that even though this thing they’re after might be difficult or near impossible to get, what the audience will be mesmerized by is the journey that this actor will personify.  They know, as do writers, that what’s really interesting is not so much the ending but the struggle to get there.  If something is too easy to get then it’s not worth watching.  If the goal is not worth pursuing or not particularly mesmerizing (which doesn’t mean it has to be lofty), then why are we wasting our time anyway?  And what all writers and all actors need in order to make the goal, the obstacles and the ending convincing is -– drum roll –  you guessed it – a beginning.

give yourself the green ight

The actor and writer always need to start somewhere in order to do their jobs.  It’s the question every creative person must take on and forge through in the fictional world of the “story.”  And just as each new story starts at some point so do the many and various cycles of our lives.

Certainly, this territory has been covered before in numerous:

  • a  Self-help books
  • b. Oprah episodes
  • c. Places of worship and
  • d. Psychiatrist’s couches across the country.

But for some reason it’s easy to forget this simplest of facts when dealing in our real lives.  It’s normal to be uneasy when you’ve never done it or lived there before but it also has the potential to be more exciting than anything you’ve ever experienced.  (Note:  I believe this applies to every situation except death and bungee jumping).

  • Start a new job?  Oh God, what if it sucks?  Or worse yet, if I suck?
  • Begin a new relationship?  I’m getting nauseous at the idea of letting one more person in my inner circle who is going to screw me over unless, well…they really know how to scr…I mean, fit into my inner circle.
  • I can’t move to a new _______, begin a new __________, or even venture into another ________    _________ without some kind of assurance that I won’t be met with failure, hurt or disappointment once again.

Well, as Samuel Beckett once advised, “Fail.  Fail better.”  Or as an acting teacher once proclaimed to me, “do you know what FAMOUS MALE MOVIE STAR and FAMOUS FEMALE MOVIE STAR had in common?  They BOTH loved to audition.”  On this last point, I didn’t believe it about the movie stars either but I have since had it confirmed by several sources so I’m fairly confident that it’s true.

Long before he co-created “The Simpsons” but long after he created the seminal 1970s TV situation comedy “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” James L. Brooks wrote the screenplay for a film called — wait for it —  “Starting Over.”  It was a sort of comedy/drama about a divorced man who falls in love but somehow can’t get over his ex-wife.  Candace Bergen, who up to that point was consistently cast as the beautiful but not terribly three-dimension female heroine in various films, played the unforgettable, somewhat twisted ex-wife and it was with one specific moment of reinvention that she redefined herself as a comic actress, the kind she will forever be known for, like in the hit series “Murphy Brown.” But before “Murphy Brown” there was —

No one had ever seen Bergen like this – foolish, off tune, and, when it came down to it, real and funny because she was bold enough to play a crazed ex-wife as…well… kind of crazy.  By all accounts it could have been pretty crazy career-wise…

As crazy as it probably seemed to many a decade later for someone with the pedigree of James L. Brooks (who had since become a double Oscar winner for writing and directing a little film called “Terms of Endearment”) to spend his time co-creating a TV cartoon series that started as a sort of throw away segment on an early half hour Fox comedy series called “The Tracy Ullman Show.”  Something three generations of college kids (and counting) have grown up on called – “The Simpsons.”

And he’s got a sense of humor to boot…

That’s high class starting over but in no way imagine that on some level it wasn’t the same blank page or screen or new life chapter we all face many times over.  When you begin you don’t know what your “Simpsons-like” ending will be – or if you’ll even come close to having one.  All you know is the blankness of the beginning and that you’re scared shitless.

To put it another way – and as crazy as it might seem — sometimes the secrets of life can be simplified to a half century old voiceover from an old 1960’s TV show like “Star Trek.”

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

I’m no Trekkie but those are, I think, our marching orders.  Over and over again.  However, if you do run into any tribbles, it’s probably best to not say hello and just keep walking.