Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In the June 28 episode of A & E’s reality series, “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” flamboyant KISS frontman Simmons – famed for his demonic makeup, fire-breathing, tongue-flicking, 10-inch platforms and female conquests – cries at his father’s grave in Israel.
It was the first time Simmons (born Chaim Witz in Haifa) had ever visited the grave; in fact, it was the first time the 61-year-old had returned to Israel in more than half a century, having left at 8 with his mother, a Hungarian survivor of Auschwitz. He stood at the grave and said “Kaddish” with half-siblings he did not even know he had until this “Family Jewels” trip; they were his father’s children from subsequent marriages.
Simmons’ longtime partner, Shannon Tweed, a former Playboy playmate, had arranged for the rocker to meet them: “She was very sneaky and planned the whole thing, with a lot of surprises,” he said. “I didn’t even know I had any siblings. We were at a restaurant when a good-looking guy approached me; I thought he was the waiter. Then they sprung it on me that he was my half-brother – and I met my half-sisters.”
For the KISS bass player-singer-songwriter (a.k.a. “The Demon”), it was a chance to confront some personal demons; particularly those surrounding the father he believed had abandoned him and his mother.
In the show, the catharsis comes as cameras follow Simmons into the the cemetery where his father, Feri Witz, is buried; a sibling reads aloud a heartbreaking letter Witz wrote but never mailed to Simmons in the United States. “I spoke six languages, was very good in math and physics,...but because of the war in Europe and here in Israel all the time, and all kinds of tragedies in my life, I couldn’t progress and I’m going to finish my life as a nobody, as a nothing,” Witz wrote. “The only thing I can be proud of is my children.” The letter goes on to say how avidly he had followed Simmons’ career and “I’m very happy that you are happy.”
It’s almost too much for the rock star, who laments, “I was so stupid…so f——-g stupid. Why didn’t I go see him?”
“I’ve been arrogant about lots of things, especially my father,” he says later in the show. “I wanted to prove to myself and to everyone else and to my father that I didn’t need him. So once I proved it and became successful, I wanted to stand stubbornly on my pride…. Unfortunately I never saw my father again until I stood over his grave, and that was not easy.”
On the phone with me, Simmons recalled of the cemetery trip, “It was too much, actually. I didn’t even know that was going to happen. They don’t tell me anything on the show; what you see is pretty much what you get. They have cameras on all sides, so people think we do additional scenes, but we don’t. I thought we were going sightseeing on that day.
“I found out a lot of stuff: that my father was married at least six times, and apparently had a lot of kids,” he added.
Tweed, who this season has threatened to leave Simmons for his infidelities, noted the similarities between father and son. “Her point was: lots of women—it seems to be in the DNA,” he said. “Let’s just say I’ve been around thousands of women.”
Confronting issues about his father proved transformative, however: “The last time I saw him I was almost 7,” Simmons said. “So it was time [for me] to grow up, because men don’t want to grow up, you know.”
Here are excerpts from the rest of my conversation with Simmons, who was alternatively thoughtful and provocative as he discussed his ardent support for Israel; why President Obama is “foolish” for his take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; why Jews should change their names, and how “Baywatch” can save the world.
NPM: Why did you wait so long to return to Israel?
GS: I had come to America as an immigrant – a legal one, because there’s a difference – since my father had left us when I was 6. I couldn’t speak the language, and I hadn’t ever seen a supermarket before: to me, it was like a city of food, with streets [aisles] going in different directions. By 9 or 10 I was working: doing newspaper deliveries, scraping the fat off of butcher blocks, and was shocked by how easy it was to make money here. This truly was the land of dreams, the streets paved with gold and all that. And every day that I got up and became more successful, I was afraid to leave; I thought once you get off the bus, it leaves without you.
NPM: Did turning 60 have anything to do with your homecoming trip?
GS: No, it was more Shannon, who convinced me that Nick and Sophie [their children] should see where their father came from, because they’d already been to Canada to visit her birthplace.
NPM: You also revisited your home in Tirat Carmel, Haifa.
GS: When I was a kid there was nothing there except dirt roads and cactus, and one house on a dirt road. When I came back it was pretty bustling.
NPM: Your mother survived a death march from Auschwitz. How was it to visit the national Holocaust memorial, Yad VaShem?
GS: My mother has never really come clean and talked specifically about her [ordeal]; it’s just too emotional. She saw her mother and her grandmother walk to the gas chambers; almost her entire family was wiped out. So she doesn’t talk much about it. When we went to Yad VaShem, I was able to find concentration camp information, hand-written by the Nazis, which listed every single Jew in the camps. I actually found records of my mother as she was being taken from one camp to another at 14 years of age. There was her name, hand written by a Nazi.
NPM: While you were at Yad VaShem (this was back in late March) a bombing killed a British tourist just two miles away.
GS: We were shocked, but nobody on the streets even thought about it. It was very strange, like, “Oh, yeah, it rained today, no big deal.”
NPM: How do you feel about President Obama’s statement that Israel should return to its 1967 borders?
GS: I think he means well, but he clearly doesn’t understand the world body politic. He would understand if he lived in Israel: 1967 borders? You’re out of your mind! I don’t care if you think it’s a good idea, or if it’s right or wrong, it’s simply indefensible. Any military tactician will tell you that would be suicide.
NPM: You’ve called artists who have supported boycotting Israel (like Elvis Costello) “idiots.”
GS: It’s clear they’re being foolish. But let’s say war breaks out between Arabs and Jews again, whose side do you think they’re going to take? There’s no question it’s Israel’s, because I don’t remember the last Jew who ran down the street with bombs attached to himself and blew himself up. I know the history of the Stern gang and all that when Israel was formed, but today, the idea of Jewish extremists is a joke. And Christians by and large don’t run around doing wacky stuff, though there used to be the Inquisition and such. It’s just that certain cultures are going through their dark ages, the way all cultures have.
The cure for all that is American TV. Because watching “Baywatch,” [for example], emancipates women: [lets them know] it’s OK to wear makeup and high heels and skimpy skirts, because men shouldn’t have anything to say about who and what you are.
And by the way, I am vehemently against the Hasidim and the [ultra-Orthodox] having any effect on Israel. I get pissed off when I’m in the hotel and somebody tells me I can’t have the fleishedik with the milchigdik.
NPM: Do you feel optimistic about the future of the Middle East?
GS: What’s happening now in the Arab world is very inspiring. And during these amazing, inspirational marches across the Arab world, I don’t see any hatred towards the west or Israel. This is a new generation; things won’t happen overnight but the Internet helps. In fact, on the streets of Cairo, one of the leaders of the revolt was asked by CNN if there was anybody he wanted to thank and he said, “Yes, I want to thank Mark Zuckerberg for inventing Facebook.” He’s an Egyptian Muslim thanking an American Jew for inventing Facebook. That’s as cool as it gets.
NPM: KISS has never played in Israel. Would you like the band to perform there?
GS: Yes, but it’s very expensive. You’re surrounded on one side by Arab countries and on the other side by the sea, so you can’t just truck your equipment in there. And as soon as you put it 747s, it costs millions. That’s the only reason KISS hasn’t played there before.
NPM: Is it coincidence that you and Paul Stanley, the founding members of KISS, happen to be Jewish? [Current member Eric Singer is also an MOT, as well as former guitarists Ace Frehley and Bruce Kulick.]
GS: Yes, it’s coincidence. By and large, Jews don’t exist on the frontlines of pop culture; we tend to be more the managers and the record label owners and the movie studio executives and the producers and so on. There are no real Jewish stars.
NPM: What about you and Paul Stanley?
NPM: If anything, we changed our Jewish-sounding names; we’re the great assimilationists. It’s like that [old saying], “Dress British, think Yiddish,” because ultimately in the world, Jews know instinctively that the sound of their names are not perceived as cool; the Jewish culture itself isn’t really perceived as cool, so we change our names, we straighten our hair, we fix our noses.
NPM: So you and Stanley weren’t drawn together, at least in part, by your shared heritage?
GS: No, because that would have been the height of lunacy. By and large, if you look or sound Jewish – and this is a great wakeup call to those of us who are delusional—it doesn’t work; the masses don’t react to it.
NPM: My name is Naomi Pfefferman Magid.
GS: If I had that name, I would’ve changed it immediately.
The “Family Jewels” episode chronicling Simmons’ return to Israel, “Blood is Thicker Than Hummus,” will be rebroadcast on June 29 at 8 p.m., and at midnight on June 30, both Pacific time.
5.22.13 at 12:36 pm | In June 1965, during the most violent days of the. . .
5.15.13 at 2:00 pm | A British journalist recalls how she once sat. . .
5.1.13 at 11:20 am | “I don’t think I’m in any way a. . .
4.30.13 at 4:57 pm | Bar Paly is the new hot export from Israel.. . .
4.26.13 at 11:25 am | Michael Shannon was shy and soft-spoken during a. . .
4.18.13 at 12:34 pm | In the most searing sequence in Tadeusz. . .
4.30.13 at 4:57 pm | Bar Paly is the new hot export from Israel.. . . (9359)
5.15.13 at 2:00 pm | A British journalist recalls how she once sat. . . (453)
5.22.13 at 12:36 pm | In June 1965, during the most violent days of the. . . (245)
June 15, 2011 | 9:48 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
One has to wonder when James Franco ever sleeps. Hollywood’s most educated thespian — perhaps best-known for his Oscar-nominated turn as the guy who cut off his own arm in Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” – has famously juggled acting on soap operas and in blockbusters (think Rupert Wyatt’s upcoming “Rise of the Apes”) with doctoral studies in English and film at Yale, hosting the Academy Awards, creating art exhibitions, albums, a short story collection, conceptual and visual art. In Los Angeles on June 20, he’ll unveil his latest endeavor – directing and starring in an experimental biopic of the tortured, gay American poet Hart Crane – at the Los Angeles Film Festival, which runs from June 16-26. (UPDATE: Here’s an account of the festival event by the Journal’s Ryan Torok.)
A mustachioed Franco portrays Crane (1899-1932), who emerged on the scene with his Brooklyn-bridge epic, “The Bridge,” yet agonized over ever written word—even as he ferociously chased sailors, and was “incredibly comfortable with his sexuality,” Franco said by phone. But booze, brawls and depression took its toll on the poet, whose last work, “The Broken Tower,” chronicles his single heterosexual affair. Not long thereafter, when Hart was 32 – just a year younger than Franco – he jumped from a boat into the Gulf of Mexico and drowned.
Franco’s black-and-white film captures Hart’s brief, burning life in 12 “voyages,” or chapters, that merge verbal and visual imagery. It’s a stream-of-consciousness telling of Hart’s early years as the rebellious son of a wealthy Cleveland businessman; his sojourns through New York, Cuba and Paris; his torrid affair with a ship’s purser named Emil Opffer (Michael Shannon); his manic highs and suicidal lows and of course, his unapologetic love of men. The sex scenes, are, accordingly, explicit, with Franco-as-Hart ebulliently performing fellatio on what appears to be an impressive phallus, or ecstatic as he is topped during anal sex.
The idea for the film began as Franco was reading Paul Mariani’s biography of Crane, also titled “The Broken Tower,” on the set of the 2002 film, “Sonny” (Franco played a male prostitute who was pimped out by his mother). “I suppose it was that Crane had the quintessential tortured artist’s life,” Franco said of why he was drawn to the material. “He was trying to write in a way that was atypical for his time; he was not understood by most of his peers; he was struggling both with his financial circumstances and within himself to produce his work. He drank, he had lots of sex, he had one great, if short-lived, love. And so I thought, ‘That’s a story that lends itself to a film, easier than a story about someone like James Joyce, [who] wasn’t as readily dramatic or tragic. Although it could be done, it’s not quite the same kind of tortured life.”
Franco—who has appeared in the Spider-Man franchise and opposite Julia Roberts in “Eat Pray Love”—began “The Broken Tower” as his thesis project at New York University’s film school, and eventually decided to star in it himself. “He has made a film about Hart Cane, the visionary, but also about the hard life of Hart Crane, as a gay man, not just gay, but a wolf, really, going after sailors,” Mariani told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “And also his heavy drinking, despondency and proneness to suicide.”
The graphic gay sex scenes will no doubt be fodder for those who love to speculate as to Franco’s sexuality, given that he has also played the lover of congressman Harvey Milk in “Milk” and the Jewish beat poet Allen Ginsberg in “Howl.” He’ll release a vinyl album in July with his frequent collaborator, the drag queen Kalup Lindsay, and he once famously teased a reporter, “Maybe I’m just gay.”
Franco, who reportedly has had the same girlfriend, the actress Ahna O’Reilly, since 2006, appears to enjoy provocative intellectual fare as much as occasionally playing the provocateur.
Here are excerpts from the rest of our interview:
NPM: What was it like for Crane as a homosexual in the 1920s?
JF: He didn’t seem to have ever been troubled by being gay at a time when it must’ve been much more difficult to come out. But aside from not telling his parents, I think he was pretty open about it among his friends. So that didn’t seem to be a big issue, although he had that strange, unique-for-him, heterosexual relationship with Peggy Crowley, while he was in Mexico. But for me that didn’t feel like it was Crane renouncing the way he had lived before or that he had been struggling with being straight his whole life. Somehow he just came together with Peggy at a time when he was very emotionally needy. She was someone he felt really close to, and so it was more just coming together with a person; it wasn’t really about being troubled over being gay.
NPM: Why do you think Crane jumped from that boat to his death?
JF: In the film, I tried to show a lot of the different contributing factors that might have led to his suicide. Who really knows what the one trigger was, but there were a list of possibilities: His parents sounded like they had a really horrible marriage; he was a teenager when he tried to kill himself for the first time, and had a history of suicide attempts from a very young age. While I (again) don’t think he was troubled over being gay, his whole life he had trouble with drinking and he was probably an alcoholic. Then his father was a millionaire from selling chocolate, but he never really gave Hart any support. I think that Crane had been waiting his whole life, first to inherit money from his grandmother, and then from his father, and when that didn’t happen it was a big blow.
In addition, it was so difficult for him to write—I mean it just took years and years and YEARS—and his friends had turned on him with [negative reviews]. So there he was going back to a New York that had just fallen into the Depression; he had been trying to write some epic about the history of Mexico, and felt like he couldn’t write anymore. He had just written a poem that nobody cared about; he had no money and no inheritance; he was going to have to find a job in advertising again, which to an extremely sensitive person like him was just hell. And maybe he wouldn’t even get that kind of job because it was the Depression. So he was just going back to a place where he really had nothing to look forward to but misery.
NPM: Are there ways in which you identify with Crane, as an artist and a person?
JF: I suppose there are things that I both admire and, in some ways, think he maybe went too far with. He was an autodidact; he didn’t go to college, but he was always searching, and his letters are famous for engaging in these very pure and intense dialogues about his work. But he went too far in that he was very stubborn. He knew his work was difficult, and that he was going to turn off most readers. But he felt that if he had six good readers that was enough for him.
I am in a business where that’s harder to do, because movies cost more money, so you need more than six viewers to make the money back, or nobody is going to invest in your movies anymore. So I guess I admire his attitude, but when I’m dealing with something like a film, I try – depending on the subject – to walk a middle ground. The film, “The Broken Tower” is not going to be a blockbuster, but I’ve made it for not a ton of money – I made it for a very responsible amount of money, because I know what it is. But I’ve also tried to be true my subject and not water down or try to make it more entertaining just for entertaining’s sake.
NPM: Speaking of popular entertainment, you’re starring as a (human) scientist in the “Planet of the Apes” prequel, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (to hit theaters on Aug. 5). Do you view the original “Planet of the Apes” films as an allegory of race relations in America? And was the fact that these films transcend their science fiction genre part of the draw for you?
JF: Yes, it was. I wasn’t a “Planet of the Apes” aficionado but I went back and looked at the older movies. The setup for the original films was extremely well done because the apes were great figures to compare ourselves to. They look different but are as intelligent as humans, so the underlying premise is that these two cultures are not very different at all, yet they are fighting and each thinks it’s superior to the other.
Our film doesn’t really delve into race relations, because it’s an origin story, so the apes are only starting to grow into their intelligent versions. They’re in the transition stage, so the dynamic between the apes and the humans is very different than in any of the older films. I really don’t think there’s a strong racial bent in our film; it’s more about the dangers of experimentation and the relationship between human and animals than anything else.
NPM: The last time I spoke with you, you mentioned you’d like to have a bar mitzvah when you have the time. [Franco’s mother, Betsy Franco, is Jewish; his father is not.]
JF: Yes, I would like to. I would have appreciated having gone to Hebrew school and having that history, just because I love learning and I had so many friends who were going to Hebrew school and having bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs when I was growing up. At the time, I didn’t envy them, because none of them seemed to really enjoy it; it was a chore [laughs]. My parents were all over the map in terms of religion, but maybe it was good that nothing was imposed on me too strongly because there were so many different influences. But I am very interested in learning more about my Jewish heritage.
For information about “A Conversation With James Franco” at the Los Angeles Film Festival (a screening of “The Broken Tower” plus discussion afterwards), visit www.lafilmfest.com.
June 8, 2011 | 6:27 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
On a white couch in their airy and still very new-looking Beverly Hills offices, actress Jami Gertz and former agent Stacey Lubliner recounted how they came together to form Lime Orchard productions, whose first feature, “A Better Life,” will premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 21 before hitting theaters June 24. The Summit Entertainment drama—about an illegal alien gardener struggling to keep his son out of gangs – is already receiving awards buzz and will be released in the same slot as Summit’s Oscar-winner “The Hurt Locker.” The Chris Weitz-helmed film, starring Demian Bichir (“Weeds”) and Jose Julian, is also produced by Weitz, Paul Junger Witt and Christian McLaughlin.
Several years ago, Gertz, who starred in 1980s films such as “The Lost Boys” and “Less Than Zero,” found work offers dwindling, as they typically do for actresses around 40. “It’s a bit more forgiving for men, age-wise,” said Gertz, who on HBO’s “Entourage” recently played the wife, of an adulterous agent, who sets hubby’s Aaron Sorkin notes afire. This came at a time when Gertz’s three sons were growing older and more independent, leaving the actress with time on her hands and the desire to reinvent herself creatively.
Lubliner, meanwhile, had left her own career as an agent after eight years of representing writers and directors such as Nancy Meyers. “The culture of agenting had become so much more competitive; there was much less time to be creative with your clients,” she said. “It seemed like everyone was on the defensive, so the staff meetings and the daily calls were a lot of damage control for clients and other people’s clients. There was less and less time to do what I really enjoyed.”
Then, in 2008, Lubliner received a call from one of her old colleagues at ICM, Toni Howard—who also happens to be Gertz’s longtime agent. Howard thought the actress and the ex-agent should meet. “Toni knew I wanted to start a production company,” Gertz said. “While I knew a lot about acting and scripts, I knew so little about how the business worked. Toni told me she knew this great woman, Stacey, who had just had a baby and didn’t want to be an agent anymore.” Soon after Lubliner and Gertz met over lunch in 2008, Lime Orchard was born.
The partners clicked not only over their desire to create character-driven work but also on a Jewish level. While growing up in Chicago, Gertz had attended weekly Conservative services and United Synagogue Youth. She began her career at 16—after winning a nationwide talent contest—by playing a Jewish preppie on CBS’ “Square Pegs.”
Lubliner attended Camp Hess Kramer and Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, where she learned to love movies courtesy of her grandfather, Frank Rosenfelt, a legendary CEO of MGM.
As for her own relationship with her producing partner, Lubliner said, “We call it the macro and the micro.” Added Gertz: “Once I came in with a David Ives play about Baruch Spinoza [the 17th-century Jewish philosopher] and Stacey was like, ‘I can’t really see the poster.’”
They discovered “A Better Life” (originally titled, “The Gardener”) in 2009. Lubliner knew about the script because her husband, agent David Lubliner, represents Chris Weitz, who was attached to direct the movie. “Chris could have done whatever he wanted after his film, ‘The Twilight Saga: New Moon,’ became a huge hit,” Stacey Lubliner said. “He was getting offers on a lot of big movies, but he was passing because he really wanted to do this film.”
Lubliner was strongly moved by “The Gardener” and so was Gertz, who cried while reading it at the hairdresser, drawing stares from other patrons. “We had read so many scripts by that time, because when we announced we were in business, we said we are unique in that we actually have money to spend on development and possibly production,” Gertz recalled. “So as you can imagine, we had received numerous submissions. But from the moment I started reading [The Gardener], it was so beautifully written that I cared about this father and son and wanted to know what happened to them. I wanted to know how this boy would grow up, and wanted him to have a good life, a better life than his father.”
Gertz and Lubliner were on the set every day of the entire 38-day shoot in 70 locations around Boyle Heights and South Central Los Angeles; they and Weitz kept things authentic with the help of Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, an anti-gang organization. Gertz also helped by seeking imput from attorneys who work pro bono for illegal aliens detained by the authorities.
“In a jail sequence, one of the homeboys was wearing an ankle bracelet, the kind for monitoring by the police,” Lubliner recalled. “I asked our wardrobe person how she had managed to get one, and she said the bracelet was real. In fact, the actor was nervous and embarrassed by it, so we assured him that we would not see it in the film.”
The movie isn’t intended to be political: “We never set out to make a movie about immigration, although immigration is part of the story,” Gertz said. “It’s really a father and son tale that is beautifully told. But if you come away from it [realizing] that there is a face to your gardener, to your busboy—if it makes you sit up and think about those around you, all the better.”
The themes of the movie resonate for the producers, as parents and as Jews. “It’s in that sense of family, of one’s responsibilities as a parent, and the social awareness of what is going on around you,” Lubliner said.
“It’s in the teachings of Judaism, and tikkun olam, to make the world a better place—and that’s certainly a part of our lives,” added Gertz, who with her husband, financier Tony Ressler, has been described as one of the top charitable celebrities in Hollywood. “In my own philanthropic life, we’re involved with 18 charter schools, mostly in low-income areas; we are graduating 98 percent going to a four-year college, many of them Latino and African-American. We go into very difficult neighborhoods and we graduate kids. We begin in middle schools specifically because that’s when gangs start to heavily recruit.
“So when you ask what kind of movies Stacey and I want to make, I imagine there are going to a lot of films like ‘A Better Life,’ because it’s the kind of film we are attracted to doing.”
June 1, 2011 | 12:32 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
As “X-Men: First Class” continues to glean first class reviews, it’s worth noting that the mutant saga is perhaps the most Jewish superhero film to grace the silver screen: which makes sense considering the movie marks the return of producer Bryan Singer to the franchise. (He directed the first two “X-Men” films, but not this time. Now he gets a writing credit.) As a gay and Jewish filmmaker, his work has long reflected his own outsider-group status.
The Marvel Comics saga depicts the origins of the rivalry between telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender)—who can manipulate magnetic fields—from their very different childhoods in the 1940s. While Xavier grows up privileged, Erik spends his boyhood in the Warsaw ghetto and, ultimately, is tortured by a sadistic doctor in a concentration camp. As the adult Lensherr tracks down that physician—who now has Armageddon on his mind—the movie becomes the best Holocaust revenge fantasy since Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Here are some of the movie’s top Jewish moments, which chronicle Erik’s journey from tortured child to his transformation into the villainous Magneto. [SPOILER ALERT]
1. As the film opens in 1944 Poland, Erik and his parents are herded in the mud and rain to the gates of a concentration camp, where the boy is forcibly separated from his family. When the gates of the camp slam shut, Erik is restrained by guards who are shocked when his screams and gestures actually bend and twist the iron gates to the compound. As the guards finally wrestle him to the ground, the camera zooms in on Erik’s yellow Star of David—a branding that will follow him for the rest of his life.
2. In an office gleaming with knives and other instruments of medical torture, the concentration camp’s sadistic doctor, Dr. Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), orders Erik to demonstrate his telekinetic talents on a Reich coin adorned with a swastika. “Blue eyes, blond hair, pathetic,” the doctor tells the boy of the Nazi’s genetic goals. Schmidt is far more interested in mutant powers. “Genes are the key that unlocks the door to a new age…a new future for mankind, evolution,” he tells the terrified boy. “A little coin is nothing compared to a compound gate,” he adds, encouragingly, referring to the gate incident. But when Erik cannot move the coin via brain-power, Herr doctor changes his tactics. Reflecting that while the Nazis don’t always have the greatest ideas, their methods seem to produce results, he gives the boy an ultimatum. Unless Erik can move the coin by the count of three, he will shoot Erik’s mother, who is brought into the room for the occasion. It’s only after the shot rings out that the enraged Erik practically destroys the office with his anger-induced magnetism. Dr. Schmidt is pleased. “So we unlock your gift with anger; anger and pain,” he says. “We’re going to have a lot of fun together.”
3. It’s Geneva, Switzerland, in 1962. While extracting information about Schmidt’s whereabouts from a smug Swiss banker, Erik makes his point by also extracting (via magnetism) one of the man’s tooth fillings. “This gold is what remains of my people,” he says of the bank money.
4. More ironic mayhem awaits German expatriates in a bar in Argentina who resist Lensherr’s questions about Schmidt. “Let’s just say I’m Frankenstein’s Monster,” he tells them. “I’m looking for my creator.”
5. As Xavier helps Erik unleash his powers without the use of anger, Xavier (via telepathy) unearths a tender memory from the Holocaust survivor’s brain: Lighting the chanukiah with his deceased mother. “I accessed the brightest corner of your memory,” he tells the baffled Erik, adding that there is so much more to the survivor than pain and anger. To discover his full powers, Erik must “find the point between rage and serenity.”
6. At a crucial moment before Erik’s transformation into the evil Magneto— and in one of the most powerful sequences in the film—human soldiers attacking the mutants were “just following orders,” a fellow mutant tells Lensherr. It’s not exactly the best thing to say to a man who has survived a concentration camp. “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders,” Erik replies. “Never again.”
The film opens on June 3. For another point of view about the movie, check out Geek Heeb.
May 31, 2011 | 6:47 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
It’s impossible to watch Chris Weitz’s transcendent new film, “A Better Life,” without wondering about the struggles of every immigrant laborer in Los Angeles. The drama — which will premiere this month at the Los Angeles Film Festival before hitting theaters June 24 — spotlights the heroic, if quiet, travails of a Mexican illegal immigrant gardener to eke out a living and to keep his teenage son out of the gang culture. Entertainment Weekly has already suggested that the film, which Summit Entertainment will release essentially in the same slot as its Oscar-winner “The Hurt Locker,” could be the first awards movie of 2011.
The lengths to which gardener Carlos Galindo (Mexican star Demián Bichir of “Che” and “Weeds”) will go to achieve that goal is evident from the beginning of the film, which depicts his exhausting days toiling for clients in affluent suburbs, only to return to his one-bedroom home in Boyle Heights so drained that he falls asleep, fully clothed, on the couch.
His son Luis (José Julián), who gets the bedroom, scorns his father’s dronelike existence and looks up to the gang leaders who appear to promise their own version of a better life. All this creates a palpable desperation in Carlos, which is greatly exacerbated when his gardening truck, in which he has invested his life savings, is stolen. Father and son embark upon a dangerous journey to recover the vehicle, which brings them together in unexpected ways — a story reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist classic “The Bicycle Thief.”
“The movie, in a sense, is about both of the characters finding a way to talk to one another,” Weitz, 41, said recently during an interview in a Venice cafe. “Carlos sees his life as work, and he is not evolved in an Oprahesque way. And while Luis is streetwise, he is also rather ignorant. He doesn’t understand what his father has done for him until the scene in which they go to what is essentially a flophouse, where 15 people sleep in shifts — a sequence we filmed in a two-bedroom apartment with bunk beds set up in the kitchen and everywhere else. That’s the point when Luis realizes this was probably the life his father led when he first came to this country, and begins to understand the sacrifices he made.”
The film turns a lens on Angelenos who are often devalued, Weitz said; the cafe’s Latino busboy, as if on cue, poured him another glass of Pellegrino. “Actually, the story isn’t even about your gardener — it’s about the guy who works for your gardener, the one who is genuinely invisible.”
Bichir, who is best known in this country for playing Fidel Castro in “Che” and a Tijuana gangster on “Weeds,” worked with real gardeners around Los Angeles in order to physically and emotionally prepare for the role. “My previous characters were powerful and larger-than life,” Bichir said in a phone interview. “The challenge with Carlos was going all the way to the opposite direction. All he wants is to go through life as quietly as possible, not drawing anybody’s attention.”
Weitz shot one telling scene during a real mass protest against the harsh new Arizona immigration law: “ When Luis asks what is happening, Carlos replies, ‘Nothing.’ He doesn’t have the luxury of debating the politics of his situation, because he’s too busy surviving,” Weitz said.
Not that Weitz intends the film to be a screed for “bleeding-heart liberals,” as some online critics have accused him of being. “No one is depicted as a villain, not even the guards at the detention center,” Weitz said. “I don’t see this film as chest-thumping — it’s really just a movie about human beings.”
“A Better Life,” originally titled “The Gardener,” was inspired by a true story of a gardener whose truck was stolen but was unable to call the police because he was undocumented. The script, which has gone through several screenwriters, came to Weitz several years ago, when he was a new father and somewhat reluctant to return to the director’s chair after making “The Golden Compass” in 2007. (He is also known for the 2002 “About a Boy.” His vampire saga, “Twilight: New Moon,” became a blockbuster in 2009.)
The screenplay may have appealed to Weitz ,albeit unconsciously, because of his own relationship with his late father, the legendary fashion designer John Weitz. “He was a strong personality, and his psychological influence remains strong on me,” said the filmmaker, a Cambridge University graduate whose first major success was directing “American Pie” with his older brother, Paul. “My father had a very sort of combative outlook towards life, and in reaction, I’m much more theoretically easygoing; yet I was very driven to excel as a young person, probably to impress him. And so my academic history and my ambition that fueled everything since is due to him.” Complex relationships between father figures and sons have also fueled many of Weitz’s films, from “Pie” to “About a Boy,” which earned Weitz a screenwriting Oscar nomination in 2003.
Weitz was so moved by “A Better Life” that he quickly signed on, but not without trepidations. There was some white liberal guilt — yes, he’s privileged and lives in Malibu, the location where Carlos, in the film, climbs a palm tree without proper equipment in order to trim its branches.
Concerned that his film could be perceived as exploiting an underclass he knew next to nothing about, Weitz hired a mostly Latino crew, took Spanish lessons, read myriad books on East Los Angeles and migrant laborers and, most importantly, earned the trust and assistance of Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention program based on the Eastside.
“I told him we wanted to shoot in real places, but we didn’t want to be a movie that buys itself into a location, has heavy security, shoots what it wants and then leaves without any connection to the community,” Weitz said.
Boyle’s second-in-command, Hector Verdugo, a former gang member, introduced the director to residents of the Ramona Gardens project in Boyle Heights: “You might assume Hector was there to protect me from the people who lived there, but it was kind of the opposite,” the director recalled. “It was Hector assuring people that I wasn’t some gabacho who was going to make a movie about guys selling drugs and shooting each other.”
Weitz’s own family is a testament to the American dream. His maternal grandmother, the actress Lupita Tovar, was plucked from obscurity in Oaxaca at 17 by a talent scout searching for a lovely Mexican actress to star in Hollywood silent pictures. She eventually married the famous Jewish agent Paul Kohner, an Austrian Jew who came to represent luminaries such as Dietrich and Garbo.
Weitz’s father, John Weitz, meanwhile was a son of wealthy, assimilated German Jews who fled Nazi Germany to Shanghai. Although he arrived penniless in the United States at age 17, by 19 he was an OSS spy and, after the war, reinvented himself as a pioneering designer who starred in his own ads, raced cars professionally and, in his later years, wrote best-selling books about Hitler’s Germany.
“My father loved America because he genuinely felt anything was possible here for somebody who works hard enough,” Weitz said. “And, of course, that makes me think of the characters in the film. Its title comes from the fact that if you talk with anyone from any immigrant family, the phrase that comes up time and again is that they came here searching for a better life.”
For information about “A Better Life” at the Los Angeles Film Festival, which runs June 16-26, visit lafilmfest.com. For stories about actors Bichir and Julián, as well as producers Jami Gertz and Stacey Lubliner, visit jewishjournal.com/the_ticket.
May 31, 2011 | 3:36 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
At the opening of “Tim Burton,” the ghoulishly charming filmmaker’s retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Saturday, the wild-haired auteur held court at the Resnick Pavilion, where more than 700 pieces of his movie and personal artwork will be on display through Halloween. My husband, Ron Magid, and I were eager to attend—not only for the chance to meet this master of the macabre but also because one of our own pieces is on display. It’s a scarecrow head from Burton’s 2001 remake of “Planet of the Apes,” a three-foot-tall, skeletal visage that signals to Mark Wahlberg (in the film) he is entering forbidden yet sacred territory.
Ron, a collector and purveyor or high-end movie memorabilia, essentially saved the head from the garbage (it hadn’t sold at auction and its owner didn’t want to shlep down to the company’s warehouse to pick it up), but the exhibition’s originating curators thought it was vintage Burton when they visited our home while preparing the show. “The minute I saw that scarecrow head I knew it was going to be in the exhibition,” Ron Magliozzi, one of the show’s organizing curators, told me when I interviewed him for my story on the retrospective—which will grace the cover of The Journal’s summer preview on June 3.
Those perusing the exhibition—and our scarecrow head—included Burton’s favorite film composer, Danny Elfman, who wrote the score for “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” among other Burton films such as “The Corpse Bride” (which, as I outlined in this 2005 story, was inspired by a 16th-century Jewish folk tale). Elfman also penned music to accompany the exhibition. Also on hand was Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, Winona Ryder, who starred with Depp in “Edward Scissorhands” and was also in “Beetlejuice;” Crispin Glover and Martin Landau (who won an Oscar for portraying Bela Lugosi in “Ed Wood”).
Ron and I met the affable Magliozzi once more at the opening, along with organizing curators Jenny He and Rajendra Roy—and Burton himself. He was far sunnier than one might expect of cinema’s reigning gothic director: Ron told Burton how much he had admired the scene from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in which the children finally enter Willy Wonka’s lair; as it turns out, that very sequence is the one that inspired Magliozzi to create the exhibition. “I was watching ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ in the theater and there was just this magical moment when Willy Wonka opens the door, bringing the children into the chocolate factory for the first time,” Magliozzi said. “Somehow I thought: We should be doing an exhibition of Tim Burton.”
Ron’s reaction to the scene was perhaps even more dramatic—he actually teared up —and Burton seemed genuinely touched by that revelation, even putting his hand to his chest in response. He thanked Ron for rescuing the scarecrow head from the garbage. And then he was off to the performance by Jane’s Addiction in front of the pavilion, where a real topiary deer from “Edward Scissorhands” stood amidst other Burtonalia.
The show will be on display through October 31.
Check out my full story on the exhibition:
May 18, 2011 | 10:52 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Before Justin Bieber stepped onstage in front of 40,000 radiant fans at Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park last month, Dan Kanter, Bieber’s musical director and guitarist, took the spotlight to deliver a Jimi Hendrix-style rendition of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. “It was one of the most memorable moments in my whole life, and it was definitely one of the proudest,” he said from his hotel room during a break from Bieber’s My World tour in Melbourne, Australia. “The fans were singing so loud they were almost jamming up my guitar; some people were crying and it was quite emotional.
“Justin could feel the appreciation and the love from the audience, because his Israeli fans have been supporting him on the Internet from the very beginning, especially on Twitter and Facebook,” Kanter added. “They have been a really strong presence and they had been writing and begging him to come to Israel for a couple of years now. So many other acts have canceled concerts there, so for Justin to go and put on a show – there was a vibe in the air that night. It’s always loud at Justin Bieber concerts, but this was one of the loudest concerts [fan-wise] that we have ever played. And it was definitely one of the most exciting audiences he has ever played for.”
Kanter 29, has been with Team Bieber – his self-described “dream gig”—almost from the beginning. He was a doctoral student in musicology at Toronto’s York University, in 2009, when a Universal rep suggested him to perform guitar for Bieber on a popular Canadian TV show. “Justin had quite a following just from YouTube and Twitter at that point, but it was more at the grassroots level. He hadn’t yet blown up in the mainstream,” Kanter recalled.
Since then, Kanter has not only had a front row seat to Bieber’s rise to global heartthrob status, he’s also musically guided the teenager, who – according to Rolling Stone – wouldn’t sound the same without his musical director. Kanter has performed with “The Bieb” everywhere from Madison Square Garden to the Philippines—where the poor Bieb was sick and vomited onstage. At the time of this interview, Kanter was planning to continue on with Bieber to Japan (some members of the crew reportedly have refused to follow due to fears of radiation poisoning).
Kanter was prominently featured in the documentary, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” (just out on DVD); he has schmoozed backstage with fans such as Johnny Depp and sat in cars with the munificently-coiffed teen as manic fans climbed atop the vehicles. With Bieber’s Jewish manager, Scott “Scooter” Braun, Kanter is the reason Bieber, a devout Christian, recites “The Shema” before every concert.
Bieber has just been named number three on Forbes’ Celebrity 100 list, after Lady Gaga and Oprah. But for Kanter, the most surreal “fame” moment came when Japanese fans wished him “mazel tov” after viewing Internet photos of Bieber at Kanter’s wedding in October 2010. (Kanter met his wife, Yael, when both attended the Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel for Jewish young adults in 2003.)
During our recent conversation, the affable Kanter spoke to me about his own musical (and Jewish) journey, including the Tel Aviv concert that so far, has been a highlight of his own life and career.
NPM: In a previous story, I profiled Justin’s manager, Scooter Braun, whose Jewish background is quite extensive. How about yours?
DK: Growing up in Ottawa I went to a school called Hillel Academy until grade 6 or 7; I was bar mitzvahed and used to perform in Jewish community society musicals – I was a pirate in “Peter Pan!” But the biggest part of being Jewish for me is that I went to a Jewish sleepover camp for 15 summers – I was the guy with the acoustic guitar playing Dave Matthews songs around the campfire. I got my first guitar, an electric guitar, for my bar mitzvah.
NPM: What was your first impression of Justin Bieber?
DK: I had come in to play acoustic guitar with him on that [Canadian] TV program, and we just really hit it off. We got on quite well because we were both Canadian and we could talk about hockey and Canadian bands that we love but no one in the United States had ever heard of. We started jamming and for 15 years old he could play very well. But not only that – he was like a sponge. If I played something, he could sit and watch me and then play it right back to me. Musically we had a lot of chemistry, and it’s grown since then. I was also quite impressed that he played drums and piano and had a beautiful voice and he was just such a nice kid; he was really excited about everything. And together, Scooter and Justin collectively believed in me and brought me on board and made me part of the team.
NPM: Scooter told me that besides acting as a father figure to Bieber, he at times imposes discipline, such as taking away Justin’s cell phone. What are your responsibilities, as Justin’s music director and beyond?
Dan Kanter performing his Jimi Hendrix-style rendition of “Hatikvah” at Bieber’s concert in Tel Aviv last month
DK: I form the band, rehearse and work closely with Justin, our tour director, the lighting and video people and the choreographers to make the show; and if we’re on an awards show like the Grammys, it’s my responsibility to work out if we’re going to do a medley and things like that. I don’t really ever discipline Justin. But since we’re all older than him, we all feel—or at least I feel—not only a responsibility musically but also personally to be a good influence on him and steer him in the right direction. I do put a lot of pressure on Justin, musically, which he likes. Before each show, I do 30 minutes of vocal warm-ups with him, and we’re doing scales and I can test his range every day. It’s very important to take care of his voice. In “Never Say Never,” there are scenes where Justin is losing his voice, but on this tour, it’s getting stronger every day. Also, I’m really into making sure we’re learning new songs and he’s learning new guitar licks and practicing. Justin is an amazing songwriter. Backstage, before a show, we’ll have some guitars lying around and he’ll write songs.
NPM: What kind of new songs has he been composing?
DK: The songs I’ve heard him writing are much more personal, about what’s going on in his life, and I think a lot of his fans will relate to them. That’s the secret – for his audience to grow up with him, not grow out of him. I think we’ll see issues of traveling, of being away from home, and being in the spotlight, in songs on his next album.
NPM: How do you see him evolving musically? Could he ever go the alternative rock route?
DK: I don’t know about alternative music, but he’s definitely going to evolve musically.
NPM: So no punk rock Justin Bieber?
DK: I don’t know about that, but he loves all styles of music. So who knows if he’ll record a heavy metal record one day. But I think it’ll continue to be these great, danceable sing-along songs.
Justin Bieber and Dan Kanter onstage
NPM: Can you see his music getting edgier?
DK: I’m not sure, but right now I can’t see that just because his music is definitely a reflection of his personality—and he’s so genuinely happy and nice and easygoing. I don’t think there’s a reason now to be edgy.
NPM: I saw photos of Justin at your wedding, wearing a kipah.
DK: It was a traditional Jewish wedding, and Justin came and brought his mom [Pattie Mallette] as his date. I couldn’t believe when I was in the middle of the Horah with all my boys that I’d grown up with and there was Justin. And when I was being flung around in the air, to look down and see that Justin was there, holding one of the legs of the chair. I think that was his first Jewish wedding. And he performed with the band and myself, his song, “Baby”—we all just rocked out with the band.
NPM: I had heard that Justin was upset by the paparazzi in Israel.
DK: We didn’t think it would be that extreme, but he still had an amazing time and he was able to see everything that he wanted to see in the end. He was able to go to Yad Vashem, and the Western Wall, and Tiberias, and he had an amazing trip. He did meet with those kids [affected by Gaza rocket fire], who were invited to the show. And at the concert he gave a special shout out to Scooter’s mom, who is a Holocaust survivor, and everyone applauded and it was very emotional. Just at the same day to be at Yad Vashem and then to be at a Justin Bieber concert with 40,000 kids, must have been quite incredible for her.
NPM: What happened during the concert in Sydney, when someone pelted eggs at Justin? Some news outlets reported that he became angry and stormed offstage as a result.
DK: No, not at all; he left the stage at the same point that he normally does for a costume change. We were all onstage and thank God none of the eggs hit anyone—I’m not even sure where they came from. But it was actually quite amazing how Justin and the dancers communicated and danced around them. I’ve since read about it on the news, but for Justin and the rest of us onstage, it was all very quick. It happened, it was cleaned up, the show went on, and we didn’t even think about it afterward. It’s never happened before, and I hope it never happens again.
NPM: What are your plans for after the tour is over?
DK: Justin will be working on his new album and hopefully we’ll be doing some stuff together on it, and I’m going to get back to school, and also take some time off to see some concerts. I’m going to go follow the band, Phish, around a little bit. And there will hopefully be some other tours coming up shortly.
Dan Kanter and Justin Bieber
May 11, 2011 | 11:22 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The closing night film of the 2011 Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival, “Who Do You Love”—starring Alessandro Nivola and David Oyelowo (of the upcoming “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”)—will screen on May 12 at Laemmle’s Town Center 5 in Encino. It’s a biopic about Leonard Chess (Nivola), the Polish-Jewish immigrant who founded Chess Records with his brother, Phil (Jon Abrahams), brought Southern blues to the mainstream via black artists such as Muddy Waters (Oyelowo) and eventually helped birth rock ‘n’ roll.
Leonard Chess was such a larger-than-life figure that he has recently inspired not one, but two biopics – 2008’s “Cadillac Records” being the other. “Who Do You Love” was selected as a gala film at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and was firmly backed by the Chess family; its filmmakers, including director Jerry Zaks, had access to the family archives and Leonard’s son, Marshall, served as a consultant to the production.
The somewhat fictionalized film – whose title comes from the Bo Diddley song, “Who Do You Love” – begins with Leonard’s scrappy childhood in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Chicago. It goes on to recount his preoccupation with the music and culture he observed in nearby black neighborhoods; his sale of the family junkyard in order to purchase the brothers’ first club, the Macomba; Leonard’s discovery of a young Muddy Waters in 1946 and his risky venture into the realm of “race records.”
Oyelowo—a British thespian of royal Nigerian descent—impeccably portrays the Mississippi born Waters, who was so impoverished upon meeting Chess that he had to borrow a guitar for the audition. Talk about versatile: Oyelowo, who previously starred as Dr. Junju in “The King of Scotland,” will next appear in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” opposite James Franco, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis and Brian Cox in the Rupert Wyatt film hitting theaters on Aug. 5. In this “Planet of the Apes” prequel, set in modern-day San Francisco, Oyelowo will play Steve Jacobs, a corporate head pushing for further clinical trials on lab apes—genetic engineering that will eventually create intelligent apes and a war for supremacy with humans, according to metacafe.com. “I basically bring about the end of the world,” he told me.
Oyewolo will appear in several more films through January, including Dreamworks’ “The Help,” and George Lucas’ “Red Tails,” about World War II black aviators—and will also portray the American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King in Lee Daniels’ upcoming drama, “Selma.” His British-born character in “Rise of the Apes” is “the first time I’ve used my own accent in five years,” said the London-born actor.
In “Who Do You Love,” Oyelowo’s Mississippi-bred character of Muddy Waters develops a close but complex relationship with Chess; we learn of Chess’ complicated relationship with other artists, who earned relatively low wages while the brothers made a mint. The film also hints at Leonard’s womanizing, which in the film is condensed into a single affair with a heroin-addicted singer named Ivy (Megalyn Echikunwoke). While Ivy is a fictionalized character, some critics have perceived her to be a stand-in for the singer Etta James, with whom Chess was rumored to have had an affair.
“Who Do You Love” will screen on Thursday, May 12, 7:30 p.m., at Laemmle’s Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd. in Encino, followed by a question-and-answer session (moderated by myself) with actors David Oyelowo (Muddy Waters) and Jon Abrahams (Phil Chess), as well as producer Jonathan Mitchell. For tickets and information, call (818) 981-9811 or visit www.lajfilmfest.org.
Here are excerpts from my recent conversation with Mitchell about why he wanted to tell Leonard Chess’ story; the more controversial aspects of the character; why Chess was crucial to the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll, and more.
NPM: How was it that you decided to make a film about Leonard Chess?
JM: I was interested in how rock ‘n’ roll came about as a result of the partnership between blacks and Jews. I discovered that Chess Records was the first rock ‘n’ roll record label; that the Chess family were Polish immigrant Jews and that Leonard Chess, the head of the family, loved black music and eventually decided he would record it. It was very unusual for white people at the time to record black music; it just wasn’t done, and he broke that barrier, if you will.
NPM: Did Chess’ Jewish background have anything to do with his willingness to break that barrier?
JM: At the time, blacks and Jews didn’t live far apart in Chicago, which is where the Chess brothers grew up, and Leonard used to go over into the black neighborhoods and listen to the music.
Leonard was an interesting character; he carried his Jewishness throughout his life, he spoke Yiddish often. But when he got into black music and wanted to get involved in that community, he started to use their vernacular and their way of speaking—you almost couldn’t tell the difference. He identified with African-Americans, and he wanted them to feel that he was a part of their community.
NP: There’s one scene where Leonard shows his brother the location that will become their future club. Phil says, basically, that no white people are going to venture into that neighborhood – and Leonard responds with something like, “F—- ‘em. We don’t need those rich white people from the suburbs.”
JM: He resented the rich, white community because early in his life he had experienced [anti-Semitism]. Maybe part of the reason he got involved in the business that he did was to kind of get back at those people; he thought he was sticking it in their eye.
NPM: Because he was responsible for bringing black music into the mainstream?
JM: He was the one who got black music onto white radio, which was critical. Black music previously just wasn’t accepted in the white world.
NPM: Why did you focus on Leonard rather than Phil?
JM: Leonard was the driving force, if you will. Phil was certainly a partner, and Leonard probably would not have been able to do it alone, but [the business] was Leonard’s concept.
NPM: In the film, Leonard has an affair with a talented but tragic African-American singer, a heroin addict, to the chagrin of his wife, Revetta (Marika Dominczyk) .
JM: In fact, he was very active with the ladies. Yet he was never divorced; he lived with his wife until his death, at age 52, of a heart attack. But he always had a roving eye.
There is only one character in the film who is a completely fictional character, and that is Ivy Mills [Leonard’s African-American mistress]. We decided to do that because we needed to let people know that Leonard wasn’t exactly the most faithful man in the world, and he developed close relationships with women who were musically inclined. In real life, he had a very close relationship with Etta James – that’s why we have Ivy sing James’ song, “At Last.” People always questioned whether or not Leonard and James had a romantic relationship; but when Marshall actually went to her and asked the question, she said they did not. Because of that, we couldn’t say the character in the film was Etta James. We took the position that he didn’t have a romantic relationship with her. But he did have romantic relationships with other women.
NPM: What about the charges that the Chess brothers exploited their black artists?
JM: Leonard was a very clever, very smart businessman – and it’s true a lot of people have charged him with taking advantage of his musicians. The fact of the matter is, nobody in the white world wanted to have anything to do with black people when it came to music. But Leonard started recording black music and trying to get it on white radio when nobody was willing to take that kind of financial risk. I also remember hearing Little Richard interviewed on VH1 and when they asked him about Jews exploiting blacks, Little Richard said, “Thank God for the Jews. If it wasn’t for the Jews, nobody would ever have heard our music.”
NPM: Were you concerned that Chess could be perceived as a kind of Shylock character?
JM: He was perceived that way by everybody. But not so much during his lifetime. Muddy Waters never, ever, felt he was exploited. After all, Leonard Chess was his champion…. He and Waters developed a very, very close relationship; in fact I don’t think Leonard Chess had a closer relationship with any other human being.
NPM: How did you get Marshall Chess involved in the film?
JM: I just picked up the telephone (laughs). I said we wanted to make a film about his family, about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and what they’ve done for the music industry and really, music worldwide. Our screenwriters interviewed Marshall and Phil Chess, who is still alive, in his 90s and living in Arizona.
One of the most important things that Marshall ever did was to create the Rolling Stones, and he managed them for quite some time. “Rollin’ Stone” was a song that Muddy Waters did, so he took that name and applied it to the group, calling them the Rolling Stones.
Marshall told me a great story about his bar mitzvah. Leonard didn’t really know many white people; most of his comrades and the people he went around with and knew were black. And so the congregation was filled with black people, sitting there with yarmulkes on top of Afros. Marshall said he got up there and started to laugh, because it was such an unusual scene in a synagogue.