Reasonable Facsimiles

Been awhile since my last post, mostly because I’ve been busy with my Career Changers TV show, and also because I haven’t had much motivation to blog about screenwriting or the entertainment biz in general. Lately, it feels like nearly everything I see on TV/movies, or read in “hot” scripts and amateur screenplays, or listen to that is supposed to be “new” music…. well, it all seems like pale imitations of better stuff that has been been amped up, dumbed down, and homogenized for a mass market with short term memories.

Okay, I know that’s a tired trope. And maybe it’s more of a reflection on how long I’ve been writing. As you get on in years, you can’t help comparing things you grew up liking with things that are in vogue. I suppose every generation thinks “their” art and creative ventures were more original than the next generation to come along. But it really hit home the past week on a personal level, causing me to ponder whether I still have the stomach for screenwriting in a business world dominated by the cold hard realities of commerce versus the idealistic notions I once had of creating art.

The clash of personal artistic ambition and what I do these days to make a buck came full circle last week in an unexpected venue: my  cameraman and I were shooting a segment on the Legends in Concerts Waikiki show, which features “tribute artists” who perform as Elvis, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Michael Jackson. The Chief Operating Officer of all the Legends shows worldwide, Brian Brigner, explained they don’t call them impersonators because of negative connotations associated with that word — i.e., con artists, drag queens who lip sync, comedians who do bad imitations of celebs, etc. In fact, these performers did all their own singing on stage, which has not always been the case with some of the stars they portray in the show who often rely on lip synching themselves because it is very difficult to dance, perform acrobatic moves and sing at the same time.

What made my interview with Brian even more interesting is that before he began working with Legends, he was managing and producing real music legends such as the Gatlin Brothers, Ronnie Milsap, and others who were huge country stars. He also had managed touring productions of big Broadway shows and ran live theater operations that offered a variety of “products” as he refers to shows and music acts. His start in show biz though came through the Indy car racing circuit… which actually makes sense. Fresh out of college, he decided he wanted to get involved with the business side of car racing, and that’s how he learned about marketing tie-ins to sponsors, packaging race car drivers as stars, putting people in seats, and so on. All the things you have to do in selling live theater shows — or movies for that matter.

I was really impressed with Brian’s professionalism and how smoothly the Legends show ran from start to finish. Everything was well organized, every performer and supporting cast member hit all their marks on cue, the band was note perfect, and the customers — mainland tourists, Australians, lots of Japanese — ate it up, squealing with delight when the look-alikes ventured into the audience to shake hands, kiss cheeks or accept a small stuffed koala bear as a token of appreciation for the Elvis imitator — er, tribute artist I mean. Truth be told, I enjoyed the show too.

But afterwards I flashed back to a script I wrote years ago that had been optioned by the writer of an iconic movie. I’ve blogged about what went down in the past, and the writer asked me to take his name out because he said there were some things that were inaccurate or might give the wrong impression of him. Rather than argue or ask which things I may have misremembered, I deleted those posts. Still, it was a script that to this day I believe was prescient and a smart commentary (or weird and bizarre at the very least) on the state of the entertainment biz back when I wrote it in the mid-1990s.

It was called I GOTTA BE ME and it was about a failed punk rocker stuck in a dead-end job, who becomes the poster boy for the ultimate “lifestyle makeover” company… which is really a front for a Disney-esque multimedia conglomerate whose real goal is to makeover entire cities, beginning with Hoboken, New Jersey, by brainwashing the residents into consuming their products from the cradle to the grave. That includes shows in which “look-alikes” replace dead stars to perpetuate the sales of their work, while remaking crappy TV shows and movies for a younger, dumber generation (they take over education and job training by privatizing government). The recycling metaphor is extended to how the corporation handles its biggest infrastructure headache: dealing with all the human waste produced by old people in Hoboken. So the CEO gets the brilliant idea of recycling shit into frozen yogurt, which they add an addictive ingredient to, then reselling it to the residents who produced it.

In my plot, the protag winds up in a Movie Coma, and the corporation replaces him with a look-alike — who does a better job of selling their product than the real guy. So they keep him in a coma, until he accidentally gets out of it and discovers the contract he signed allows them to use a Reasonable Facsimile of himself should he ever be unable to perform his duties as company spokesman/poster boy. When I look at the kind of scripts I’m currently trying to write to fit what I hear producers/agents/managers say they want, I start to wonder if I have become a Reasonable Facsimile of myself as a writer.

Needless to say, the writer/producer who optioned it was never able to get any traction with studios on the project. Yet when I look at the entertainment landscape today, I can’t help but think this is where we are and who we’ve become: mindless consumers who will swallow our own recycled crap if it’s dressed up with artificial flavorings, packaged in bright colors with cool graphics, and touted by the latest, hip celebs who get a piece of the action.

And you know why I was inspired to write this long, rambling missive? Last night I watched a documentary, GOOD OL’ FREDA, about the woman who was the Beatles’ secretary and fan club president for the 10 years they were together. Listening to her talk about the “lads” and seeing the old black and white photos of the four young guys made me yearn for a time when bands kind of just happened on their own, with no clear intention of conquering the music world or becoming a corporation unto themselves. They seemed so natural and authentic — the antithesis of music stars who aim for millions of YouTube views with each new release, regardless of how mediocre it is.

It got me to thinking about rock concerts back in the 60s and 70s, when bands and music events were often unpredictable, unruly affairs where nothing happened on schedule, musicians might be impaired or unable to perform… and even a bad show could seem special because you knew you were there to witness something unique. Sure, the band might flame out or never quite catch fire with the masses for whatever reason. But the glow from seeing the real thing — the originals — always stays with you.

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