We Are the World: Remakes Suck

By now, you’ve probably seen the remake of Michael Jackson’s “We Are the World” with new talent. I use the word “talent” loosely, since some vocals apparently needed help from auto-tune technology. I accept that good songs will always be covered by other artists, bar bands, and hopeful American Idols who will re-interpret classics to show how “original” they are… which is my problem with the current state of the music and movies biz. Very little seems new these days.

It’s one thing to put a fresh spin on old tunes, or update black and white films from another era. But to take an event like the recording of “We Are the World” and use it for the crisis du jour, just seems… I dunno, unoriginal. The same goes for hip-hop that relies heavily on recycled beats and riffs from songs that were popular before these guys were born. As for movies, do we really need a remake of Weekend at Bernie’s? I kid you not. It’s in the works.

Anyhow, I have a personal connection to the original MJ song through a friend. James Arceneaux (father of former Hawaii football star Darnell Arceneaux) had started a local publication about cheap eats, called The Budget Gourmet, in the mid-80s. In exchange for free meals and drinks, I wrote restaurant reviews despite having no credentials to be a food critic. It folded after a few issues (not because of me) and James reinvented himself as a music publisher.

He began by working with local talent, produced a few demos and hired me to write his promotional materials. Then he moved to L.A. and I lost touch with him. A few years later, he called: James was living in Beverly Hills with Anita Pointer. He had made some music deals and was now trying to break into the TV biz. James wanted my help to write TV show pitches for the Pointer Sisters to star in. I came up with what I thought were great concepts. Alas, nothing came of those ideas.

However, around the same time (1994) I won a scholarship to attend the American Film Institute TV Writers Workshop. The AFI is a prestigious school for aspiring movie directors and screenwriters, so I was excited to be spending a month at the L.A. campus on their dime. And of course, James said we should get together while I was in town…

He took me to a birthday party in Venice Beach for a talented young black actor named Glenn Plummer. Since I had recently quit drinking, it was an awkward scene for me. Although it was fairly mellow — mostly beer and wine, some reefer, lots of dominoes playing — I wasn’t used to being sober at parties. Also, I was one of the only non-blacks there. Glenn was cool though. He saw this short half-Japanese guy in an aloha shirt standing off to the side, and came over to chat awhile with me.

Later on, the son of Motown legend Berry Gordy dropped by, along with other hip, young musicians, models and actors. When it came time to leave, James suggested I crash at Anita’s mansion instead of going back to the cheap fleabag motel room on Franklin Avenue that I had rented for the month.

The Pointer Sisters were off performing in Atlantic City, so she wasn’t around when James gave me the tour of her house way up on the hill, overlooking the city. We walked past a wall where her gold and platinum records were displayed. But what really caught my eye was in her small music room, which James used as a mini-recording studio. On the wall was a framed copy of the lyric sheets for “We Are the World,” signed by all the original artists who were there that day. Wow…

The rest of the mansion was nice, but everything else paled in comparison. Except for one other piece of paper James showed me. We were in the four-car garage looking at his and her collection of vehicles, when he reached into a cardboard box and pulled out a letter: it was a handwritten note from Bruce Springsteen to the Pointer Sisters, telling them how much he liked their version of his song, “Fire.”

James shrugged and said he couldn’t stand Bruce’s voice — but conceded the Boss did write great songs. Being from Jersey originally, I couldn’t believe Anita had relegated a piece of Springsteen memorabilia to a box of junk in her garage.

Just goes to show that when it comes to tastes in music, whether it be originals or remakes, everybody’s a critic.

Things I Failed At In This Post: Was unable to capitalize on the AFI TV Writers Workshop connections (pitches rejected); failed to use the Pointer Sisters connections to get representation by Hollywood agent; didn’t stay in touch with James to develop other TV/film project ideas.

Update on James Arceneaux: He and Anita eventually went their separate ways. He is now Eddie Murphy’s personal assistant — and yes, I’ve been trying to pitch James ideas for Eddie’s next movie! No luck yet.

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