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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Story of a Song

          “Dream On’ was meant to be about alienation, wrote Steven Tyler, its composer and lead singer of Aerosmith, in his memoir.
           “The song started with a melody in my right hand that rocked back and forth hypnotically, out of the ether,” Tyler wrote. “I began it in F-minor with a C, C-sharp dischord. That gave it a haunting, Edgar Allen Poe kind of feel...”
         By the time the lyrics were completed, at a hotel near Logan Airport, it had become an anthem of hope.
         “I’ve always said it’s about hunger, desire, ambition,” he wrote, “...a song to give to myself.”
         “Dream On” continues to give more than 40 years after its release.  In a recent incarnation, as the finale to the Boston Marathon special of E:60 Presents, Tyler and guitarist Joe Perry performed it with a new wrinkle.
         The E:60 version of “Dream On” is a collaboration with the Southern California Children’s Chorus, which paired 50 fresh-faced youth, ages 11 to 17,  with the two well-traveled rockers.  Tyler, Perry and the chorus paid tribute to the bombing victims of the 2013 race, and to runners everywhere.
         Executive Producer Andy Tennant saw and heard it recorded at the Vibiana, a decommissioned cathedral in downtown Los Angeles.
         “When Steven Tyler played those first notes on piano with Joe Perry’s iconic opening chord, I looked down at the goose bumps on my arms,” Tennant recalled.
         The idea was hatched last fall when Tennant and feature producer Heather Lombardo planned a special to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the bombings.  Tennant wanted a musical endnote to reflect the images and story lines, and thought of Aerosmith, with its Boston roots from the early 1970s.
         ESPN music director Kevin Wilson took the idea to Aerosmith, with whom he had worked on a NASCAR show in the past.  Wilson suggested that the band record a special “Dream On” for iTunes, with proceeds to go to charities for bombing victims.  Aerosmith jumped at the idea.
         “Steven and Joe were excited to do something for Boston, to give back,” Tennant recalled.

         The initial idea was for an acoustic version, with just Tyler and Perry, absent bass or percussion, in a recording studio.
         “They never had done the song like that, just the two of them,” Wilson recalled. “It really interested them.”
         Then Tyler and director Casey Tebo had another idea, to bring in a children’s choir.   E:60 reached out to John and Lori Loftus, a couple who founded the Southern California Children’s Chorus in 1996.  They had overseen its growth to 340 members in seven choirs, and had performed to good reviews at the Oscars in 2012.  They agreed.
         The Loftus’ spent a Sunday afternoon with Tyler at his West Hollywood home where they wrote an arrangement.
         “It was clickin’,” Lori, a keyboardist, recalled.  “He said ‘this’.  I said ‘Do you mean this?’  He said ‘Yeah’ and laughed.  I had ideas. He had ideas.”
         The challenge was to blend Tyler’s voice, “so big and rock and rollish”, as Loftus described it, with the classically trained voices of the choir.
         “You keep your sound,” Loftus told Tyler.  “The children will put the force of hope behind you.”
         The arrangement tucked the choir in “from below and above” Tyler and Perry’s range, Loftus explained. She was determined that the choir support Tyler and Perry without “getting in their way”.
         Tyler suggested the choir echo his signature “Dream On” phrase for an angelic effect.
         The shoot took place over two days late in March.  E:60 had Tennant, producer Martin Khodabakhshian, editor Tim Horgan,  four cameras, and several photographers.  Aerosmith had a crew of about 40, including legendary audio engineer Chris Lord-Alge.
         Visuals were not a concern.  Tyler and Perry were elegant, as was the choir.  The old cathedral was atmospheric and well-lit.
         “I approached it like a music video,” said Khodabakhshian. “What’s the jib shot look like? How to hit certain points of the song to accentuate the lyrics? How to get the emotion on Tyler’s face and Perry’s focus on his guitar?  A lot of it was hands and faces.”
         Audio was a concern.  The choir’s vocals could bleed into the mikes meant to capture Tyler’s vocals and piano, and Perry’s electric guitar.
         “That’s where the Aerosmith crew stepped in and ensured that we captured all the audio channels separate and distinct for the best mix,” Tennant recalled.
         Prior to the first rehearsal Tennant met with Tyler and Perry in their respective dressing rooms.  He showed them the stories slated for the special – about victims Marc Fucarile, Aaron Hern, and Karen Rand; runner Kris Biagiotti and her special needs daughter, Kayla; and first responders Joe Andruzzi and Carlos Arredondo.  Actor Ben Affleck voiced the piece about Fucarile, while Patriots quarterback Tom Brady voiced the others.
         “I wanted them to have an idea of who they were performing for and to,” Tennant recalled.  “Both were deeply moved by the stories that the victims told.”
         Tyler, Perry and the choir rehearsed the song twice on the first day at the old church.  This was “Dream On” as never before, stripped down and minimalist.
         “Not a lot was going on, which is why it sounded so great,” said Wilson.
         After the rehearsal, Tennant recalled, Tyler remarked, “in some ways this is how I envisioned the song would always be performed.”
         Tennant was happy, too. “The choir brought a certain mood, a certain innocence and reflective, melodic tone that hit all the right notes for what we originally set out to accomplish.”
         Said Wilson:  “The choir added a touch of sophistication -- a more inspirational sound.  It evokes emotionally in people.”

          They sang it twice, for keeps, on the second day.  After the second take Khodabakhshian asked the choir to do it again, without Tyler and Perry, to get tight shots of the faces.
         The final edit included two specialty shoots.  One was of items from a makeshift marathon memorial stored in a Boston warehouse.  The other was of Team MR8, a group that runs in honor of 8-year-old Martin Richard, who died from the second bomb blast.  Khodabakhshian shot Team MR8 at daybreak, early in March, on the quiet streets of Boston’s Back Bay.  Those shots, in slow-mo, connected the studio/church in Los Angeles to the horror and redemption of Boston.
         “The key to the edit was to balance the iconic rock stars with the somber and powerful imagery of the runners,” Lombardo said.
         To her taste, it worked.
         “The overall show came across as genuine, not forced or over the top,” said Lombardo.  “We wanted the ending to fit with that sentiment.  Steven Tyler and Joe Perry were very genuine about the reason they participated.  The video is understated, all about the song, and the imagery of Team MR8.  It fits the sentiment of just being genuine and raw.”
         Aerosmith’s new version of “Dream On” was released on iTunes at the end of July.  All funds received by Steven Tyler and Joe Perry in connection with this track will be donated to charities for those affected by the Boston Marathon bombing.
(Posted by Steve Marantz on August 5, 2014)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Almost Perfect

         “Perfect”is the story of one of baseball’s rarities, the perfect game.  Only 23 pitchers have retired 27 consecutive batters, with no hits, walks or errors.
         In January 2013, producer Martin Khodabakhshian set out to interview the 17 living pitchers who threw perfect games:  Don Larsen, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax, Len Barker, Mike Witt, Tom Browning, Dennis Martinez, Kenny Rogers, David Cone, David Wells, Randy Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Dallas Braden, Roy Halladay, Philip Humber, Matt Cain and Felix Hernandez.
         “Going in, I thought I would get half the living guys,” said Khodabakhshian.
         Thirteen consented.  Initially, four did not:  Koufax, Rogers, Buehrle, and Wells. When Buehrle heard that 13 were on board, he changed his mind. 
         That left Koufax, Rogers and Wells. Khodabakhshian queried Koufax and Rogers at least six times over a three-month period.
         Koufax’s representative stipulated a contribution to a charity of Koufax’s choice.
          “My response was E:60 doesn’t pay anybody for an interview,” Khodabakhshian recalled.
         “Rogers never gave me a reason.”
         That left Wells.  He was not favorably disposed to ESPN for a past incident that did not involve Khodabakhshian or E:60.  Khodabakhshian contacted the sports marketing agent, Andrew Levy, who contacted Wells’ wife, Nina.  She passed on Khodabakhshian’s number to her husband.  Wells’ call came in to Khodabakhshian as he pulled into a Magic Kingdom parking lot with his son.
         “I Know you’re upset with ESPN for whatever reason,” Khodabakhshian told Wells. “But that shouldn’t keep you out of this.  There are people in my family who hurt me – people I’ve done a lot for – who don’t call on my kids’ birthdays.  But I’m not going to stay away from a family reunion because of one aunt or one cousin.
         “Don’t look at this as an ESPN or E:60 thing.  Look at it as a perfect game film.  You are probably the most favorite of those pitchers, because of who you were and what you did.  If you aren’t in this, millions of fans will say ‘Where was Wells?’
         “You will regret not being in this. You will disappoint yourself.”
         Wells finally agreed.  He sat for an interview at his home in San Diego the week prior to the airing of the 16-minute version of “Perfect” in April 2013.  Khodabakhshian conducted the interview by telephone from an edit room in Connecticut.
         Wells brought the tally to 15 of 17 living perfect game pitchers.  Before each was interviewed, Khodabakhshian and producer Toby Hershkowitz reviewed the films to identify key plays, moments and stats.
         E:60 also interviewed one of four pitchers – Mike Mussina – who lost a perfect game in the ninth inning or later.  (It happened to Mussina twice).  Two others -- Armando Galarraga, Pedro Martinez – declined to participate.  Another, Dave Stieb, could not be reached. Jim Joyce, the umpire who blew the call at first base that cost Galarraga his perfect game, declined.
         But none mattered to Khodabakhshian as much as Koufax and Rogers – especially Koufax, because of his iconic legend.
         “If anything about ‘Perfect’ wasn’t perfect it was that we didn’t get all of them,” said Khodabakhshian.  “The good thing is that it’s timeless.  There will be another perfect game.  You can always add people.”

(posted by Steve Marantz on April 14, 2014)

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Thug Question

         Last summer Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch agreed to be interviewed and filmed by E:60 over four days of charitable activities in his hometown of Oakland.
         Producer Frank Saraceno and reporter Jeffri Chadiha undertook the assignment with some apprehension.  Lynch is famously reticent with media, so much so that the NFL reportedly fined him $50,000 for shirking his obligations.
         On the first day Saraceno tagged along with Lynch to his family picnic and shot video on his own.  He found Lynch relaxed and pleasant.
         But the real test was the sit-down interview the next day, in front of the producer, reporter and crew.  Initially, Lynch was “restless”, Saraceno recalled, and tended to answer questions with questions of his own.
         About 30 minutes in Lynch’s demeanor changed.
         “He opened up,” Saraceno recalled.  “Once he opened up he talked three, four and five minutes at a clip.  Not just meandering – very insightful. It wasn’t contrived -- everything felt original and genuine."
         At that point Saraceno and Chadiha were emboldened to steer the interview into a sensitive area.   Lynch has had several scrapes with the law, including a DUI and possession of a concealed firearm.  In a 2008 incident he was the driver of a car that struck a pedestrian and left the scene.
         Chadiha referenced Lynch's cousin Josh Johnson, who had told E:60 that "some people" perceived Lynch as a "thug".
         "How do you deal with that perception?"
         "Me bein' a thug?"
         Lynch reflected, in silence (at 6:35), as the cameras rolled.  Saraceno held his breath.
         “He kind of went ‘hmmm’,” said Saraceno.
         Then Lynch responded...and responded.  His answer went on for a couple of minutes.  In its candor and self-awareness, the answer belied Lynch's nickname of "Beast Mode". 
         “I remember standing there and thinking ‘Wow, that’s going to make the piece’,” Saraceno recalled.  “Because it gave you not only a window into where he came from, but an answer to his critics.”
         In edit, Saraceno decided to let Lynch’s response run beyond a minute.  He did so, he said, as a matter of context and fairness.
         “We let it go on for a while,” Saraceno said. “He thinks a lot in that answer -- stops talking for gaps at a time.  Normally we would edit that up just for time -- I didn’t want to do that in this case.  I wanted that silence to resonate with people, let it sit there.  You could see he was troubled -- he was really thinking. 
         “As a producer sometimes silence is your best friend – I think what made this answer so special is what he didn’t say.  If we had edited it down for time it would have taken all the emotion and power away from it.”
         “We wanted to do him justice by letting him struggle – because I think people realize this isn’t a guy who’s polished. He’s not a guy who’s blow-dried who is going to give the same answer over and over.  This is a guy who is really thinking through what he wants to say and then it’s up to the viewers to decide whether they like him or not.
         “You don’t want to misrepresent anyone.  It’s not like you’re protecting people, but you want to be fair, and as a journalist that’s always the struggle.  Am I being fair to this person?  Is what we’re reporting accurate?  Is their answer fair and contextually right?
         “In this case I know the way we handled it was definitely the right way.”
Jeffri Chadiha (left) and Marshawn Lynch

Posted by Steve Marantz on January, 20, 2014