Wednesday, October 26, 2016

There's Just a Song for All the Movies and the Rife


Night Flight’s video profile of Dire Straits — originally airing on August 15, 1986, and now available on Night Flight Plus — offers a look at both the UK and the US videos for “Walk of Life,” a song which was not only one of the band’s biggest hits, but which one nervy editor suggests can improve the ending of any movie!

Dire Straits had earned plenty of critical and commercial respect for their first four records, with songs like “Sultans of Swing” and “Industrial Disease” becoming album rock radio staples.

The release of Brothers in Arms in the spring of 1985, however, catapulted the band to their biggest level of success.

The album debuted at #1 on the UK charts, spent nine weeks at #1 on the US Billboard chart, and even set a Guinness World Record for being the first album in the nascent CD format to sell a million copies.

Its lead US single, “Money for Nothing,” was the band’s first #1 Top 40 hit, won a Grammy for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, and its accompanying music video won Video of the Year at the third MTV Video Music Awards.

In this profile, broadcast after the band’s two Grammy wins, you will be treated to many unique videos created for the band’s songs, along with exclusive interview footage with Knopfler, where he addressed some of his feelings about the art form.

In one segment, he stated that he would leave directors alone to dramatize his music as they liked, since they should be accorded the same artistic freedom as filmmakers that he enjoyed as a musician.

The three videos from the Making Movies album directed by photographer and commercial artist Lester Bookbinder — “Romeo and Juliet,” “Tunnel of Love,” and “Skateaway” — are a prime example of this cooperative mindset. This trio was packaged into a twenty minute short that played in theaters and was an early home video success.

However, upon the release of Brothers in Arms, Knopfler had soured on the process.

Where he had been an active dramatic participant in clips for “Tunnel of Love” and “Private Investigations,” for the singles from Brothers, he chose only to appear in performance footage or occasional candid moments.

Steve Barron, who directed two videos for the album, said,

“The problem was that Mark Knopfler was very anti-videos. All he wanted to do was perform, and he thought that videos would destroy the purity of songwriters and performers.”

“Walk of Life” was the first video offered to American television outlets, though it was not the first single released from the album.

Filmed in the tunnel that runs under the Thames from London Docklands to Greenwich, it depicted a young busker portrayed by Tom Jennings, dressed as Knopfler often dressed in concert, playing the iconic 1937 silver steel guitar from the cover of the album, performing for change from London commuters, with some cutaways to a daylight concert by the band.

After the smash success of “Money for Nothing,” “Walk of Life” was earmarked as the followup single, but record executives requested another video to be made for the song, feeling the first version wasn’t clicking. A recent USC Film School graduate, Stephen R. Johnson, got the assignment.

The new clip featured another performance of the band, this time intercut with dozens of moments from American sporting events.

In the book I Want My MTV, Johnson described how the incongruous concept came from Knopfler himself:

“I went on tour with them to shoot live footage, and Mark Knopfler told me he wanted the video to have sports in it. So I wrangled all this funny sports footage, with bloopers and the like. Mark’s other edict was that he didn’t want to be photographed from the side, because he didn’t like the fact he had a prominent proboscis. Everyone in the crew was running into each other, trying to avoid that angle.”

The new video proved very effective. “Walk of Life” became the band’s biggest UK hit, reaching #2 on their singles chart, and peaking respectably at #7 on the US singles chart.

The original busker video for “Walk” was not included in the band’s home video anthology; Johnson’s sports-themed video has effectively become the default version.

This episode of “Night Flight” offers fans a rare opportunity to watch them back to back and decide for themselves which they prefer. The two videos are a study in contrasts.

The first narrative clip uses the song for poignance, as its hard-working protagonist is often ignored by travelers, barely gets any money, and ends up being forced by cops to pack up and leave.

The second clip uses the song for lighthearted buoyance, at first underscoring missed plays and embarrassing moments, then ending with moments of triumphant victories.

One curious detail both videos share in common though are prominent shots of replacement guitarist Jack Sonni’s bare feet.

Each video ultimately suits the song well, since its message is that Johnny’s struggle is our struggle.

As sports blogger “CJ” observed, “[While] Mark Knopfler’s lyrics are clearly about a street musician busking in subway stations, his working class platitudes are general enough that we can easily apply them to an athlete doggedly pursuing his dreams, on and off the field. Indeed, even the title hints at something greater…Listening to the song feels like receiving one giant ‘attaboy’ from your radio.”

It was that spirit of universality that drove freelance editor Peter Salamone this past March to create The Walk of Life Project, asserting that the song was perfect for the ending of any movie.

Through 52 different examples, running multiple decades and genres, all available to view at his website, Salamone demonstrated his point. His playful exercise received widespread media coverage, inspiring dozens of fans and imitators to continue the experiment.

Here is one of the recent fan-made responses we particularly enjoyed, with the maxim applied to Point Break:

Mark Knopfler dismantled Dire Straits and went his own way a long time ago, and newer generations may derisively refer to the band as “dad rock” today.

However, when those first few organ notes waft into your ears, whether you’re recalling those videos from before, or maybe living the movie of your life right now, we’re sure you’ll think the moment plays better with that great song underneath.

See both “Walk of Life” interpretations, along with other classic Dire Straits videos and exclusive interview footage with Mark Knopfler, right now on Night Flight Plus!

(This essay was originally written for Night Flight Plus. It has been recreated in the style it was presented in at the site, and matched to its original date of publication. Tremendous thanks to Stuart Shapiro and Bryan Thomas for the platform.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

"Let's get into trouble, baby!"

Now available for streaming on Night Flight Plus is a special behind-the-scenes episode — originally airing on October 15, 1988 — prepared by music video director and “Night Flight” contributor Bill Fishman to promote his feature film debut Tapeheads, a rock ‘n’ roll comedy which still delivers a lot of savvy laughs about the music business for any comedy fan looking to get into trouble.

Bill Fishman once summarized his motivation to direct music videos by quipping, “I couldn’t do much worse.”

In the mid 1980s, the self-deprecating director in fact delivered a streak of memorable videos for the Ramones, Hank Williams Jr., and George Clinton.

In the course of attempting to get more money to shoot his initial breakout hit — “Institutionalized” for thrash pioneers Suicidal Tendencies — he befriended producers Michael Nesmith and Peter McCarthy, whose recently-finished film Repo Man had featured the song.

McCarthy was drawn to an idea Fishman had been developing about the wild environment of making videos. Together, they scripted Tapeheads, about two friends, guileless Josh and conniving Ivan, who stumble into success and political intrigue through their scrappy productions.

Former Monkee Nesmith — who won a Grammy for his musical sketch video Elephant Parts — and NBC president Brandon Tartikoff — who had expanded into films after launching hit sitcoms and TV’s “Miami Vice” — loved the final script, and eagerly agreed to back the film. McCarthy said it was the fastest greenlight he ever received.

The script found its way to John Cusack and Tim Robbins, who were doing a play together at Robbins’ longtime L.A. theatre company The Actors’ Gang. The friends wrangled an audition, and improvised at length as the characters. The filmmakers were knocked out, and hired them in short order.

Cusack modeled his performance as sleazy but charming Ivan on snatches of Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success and Robert DeNiro in The King of Comedy, using buzzwords from self-help books to flesh his character’s drive. Much film dialogue came from actual encounters Fishman had with industry folk, repurposed into different situations, including the movie’s catchphrase “Let’s get into trouble, baby.”

The diverse supporting cast featured Clu Gulager as smarmy Presidential hopeful Norman Mart, “Arrested Development” star Jessica Walter as his wife Kay, “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius as a record executive, and Mary Crosby from “Dallas” as an opportunistic journalist.

The cameo appearances were even crazier: sprinkled in for flashes of screentime were Bobcat Goldthwait (using his normal speaking voice for the first time publicly), Courtney Love, Doug E. Fresh, Fishbone, Lords of the New Church singer Stiv Bators and his then-girlfriend, VJ Martha Quinn, Ted Nugent, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Jello Biafra, and producer Nesmith himself.

The bright and unmistakably eighties production design was by Catherine Hardwicke, who would move up to big-budget pictures like Tank Girl and Three Kings before directing the massive hit Twilight.

Musical aspects were treated very seriously, as the plot involved our heroes trying to revive a downtrodden R&B act, the Swanky Modes. Fishman traveled the country looking at many beloved soul artists trying to determine who should play them, before picking Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) and Junior Walker. Blondie bassist Nigel Harrison was the film’s music supervisor, choosing tracks to feature among the original songs created for the Modes. In the press kit for the film, a complete fictional “history” for the band was helpfully provided.

In a commentary recorded for the 2001 DVD release, Nesmith and Fishman noted how well Moore and Walker clicked as the duo. During shooting for the climactic concert sequence, they saw the recruited audience, initially unfamiliar with either singer’s legacy, become legitimately enthusiastic for their performance of “Ordinary Man.”

Besides the antics of Cusack and Robbins, what most fans remember fondly from Tapeheads is the bizarre, hilarious arc of Clu Gulager’s would-be Commander-in-Chief. This press conference exchange is a favorite, scarily predicting the modern day obsession of media and candidates alike with genitalia size!

Though its creation went smoothly, the release of Tapeheads met with assorted problems.

DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group, who originally financed the film, was having severe money troubles; as the production went on, Fishman recalled seeing staff and office furniture disappear. DEG went under, and the film was tied up in bankruptcy proceedings for months.

Once freed from creditors, small arthouse distributor Avenue Pictures agreed to service the film in the fall of 1988, but even after a well-received screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, they failed to get it shown in New York or Los Angeles during the short-lived run.

Cusack and Robbins both did promotional interviews, but often behaved as if they were still their characters, giving irreverent answers and irritating the press. An interview they taped with Joan Lunden for “Good Morning America” was even shelved due to what ABC called their “unprofessional” behavior.

Fishman had a history with “Night Flight” — appearing on the program in 1986, as well as having many of his videos showcased — so to spread awareness of Tapeheads, Fishman created this custom episode, featuring farcical vignettes about him spending the day shopping for mansions and yachts, to celebrate his big time director status, interspersed with two of his music videos (“Institutionalized” and “I Wanna Be Sedated”) and exclusive outtakes of the cast goofing around, footage never made available on any subsequent home video release.

In one segment, Fishman shows how he staged the film’s infamous “Baby Doll” video, where a pretty-boy synth band is assaulted with paint, glitter, and feathers in a single take, decades before OK Go would pull a similar trick in their “This Too Shall Pass” video.

Fishman cautions the band actors to keep performing regardless of what happens, and their shocked reactions are very real.

Tapeheads got a second chance when, in early 1989, it finally opened in Boston, to coincide with its soundtrack release. Nesmith suggested to CNN that the city was a good luck charm.

Fishman still directs music videos for his Fallout production company, with The Decemberists and Shirazee among his recent subjects.

Watch Bill Fishman’s special “Night Flight” episode, featuring behind-the-scenes material from Tapeheads unavailable anywhere else, right now on Night Flight Plus!

(This essay was originally written for Night Flight Plus. It has been recreated in the style it was presented in at the site, and matched to its original date of publication. Tremendous thanks to Stuart Shapiro and Bryan Thomas for the platform.)