June 03, 2005

BELT & Felt

I'd like to introduce you to MELT’s Brother Blog.

The day after JFK was assassinated, Jackie gave extensive taped interviews about exactly what happened and what she knew. They are locked away from public consumption until 50 years after her death. I'm hoping to live long enough to read the transcripts. That is my most anticipated political secret.

With Deep Throat, my 2nd most-anticipated political secret has been revealed, and after marveling at Felt's saga, it's anti-climactic. I'm now trying to avoid the wet spots left behind with all this press self-love, and choking on the deep irony of them having once toppled an evil empire while purposely ignoring today’s presidential manipulation and corruption. Nixon and Watergate radically altered the
country's fabric in great ways and small, but obviously didn't change the news media’s play book much past those few winning seasons. After its brief moment of truth and bravery, the only thing the press has learned in the 30-odd years since is how to pick up where the Hollywood Studio System’s PR departments left off. Welcome back, Deep Throat! Washington D.C. (Hollywood East) just adores a triumphant return.

May 31, 2005


On the eve of Batman Begins, before Christian Bale becomes a megalopolis superstar, I want to revisit his movie Newsies. His technique of physically morphing to fit a role began here. As a non-singing, non-dancing Welsh teenager, he had 3 months to learn how to dance, as well as talk and sing with a 19th century Bronx accent. But rather than paragraph prattle about how supremely talented (and utterly hot) he is, I want to introduce the Newsies Conspiracy Theory.

In the genre of original musicals made for the movies (not movie versions of musical stage plays) Newsies flopped bad in the theaters. Not as in Xanadu bad ($22.7 million total), or Under the Cherry Moon bad ($10 million total), but as in only $2.8 million worth of critical derision before they put it out of its misery with a bullet through the heart.

But much like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Newsies found life after death. For proof, start at any site and wind your way through the labyrinth that is Newsies devotion. Or note that the movie is a pop culture touchstone for 20-somethings. Or look to the 2001 remastered CD soundtrack and the 2002 DVD release of the movie, which got an ultra deluxe treatment bursting with extras. Disney took a financial hit in 1992, but has obviously minted money since, hence such lavish and expensive attention to a once-reviled movie.

That it continues to find appreciative viewers (sometimes over-zealously so) is testament to the film’s classic quality. Or as director Kenny Ortega points out, both The Wizard of Oz and An American in Paris were also failures when first released.

It’s clear to see that Disney believed in this adventurous project, putting all their muscle, resources and cash into it, much like breeding and training a thoroughbred race horse. Come the maiden race day in April 1992, the horse stalled at the gate. What went wrong?

Conspiracy theories make sense out of senseless occurrences. My friend Steve Carosello has one:
At the last minute, Disney purposely pulled the plug on the movie for political reasons.

Half the country is aware of the diversionary schemes and manipulations of the Republican party, and that strategy was already in place during the 1992 presidential campaign, when Karl Rove was hoping to extend Reagan’s Reign with a 2nd term for Papa George Bush. While courting the Hollywood business elite on the campaign trail, Rove certainly checked in with Disney to thank them for their sizeable contributions. While talking business, it’s entirely possible that Rove got an excited earful about Disney’s latest musical project.

Newsies is an accurate account of the 1899 paperboy strike. Pissed off, ripped off street kids banded together to form a union, and slapped down two of America’s most powerful men, publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst. Not only were newsboys successful in doing “what we gotta do until we break the will of mighty Bill and Joe,” but also exposing – and ending – business owners’ reliance upon child labor, and introducing labor unions to the American worker. The movie fully embraces the anger and indignation that lead to an epic battle, and the musical aspect merely keeps you from turning away from an ugly period in American history.

Remember President Reagan destroying the air traffic controller’s union 1988, and you know the Republican Party’s take on labor unions. Disney had its own union issues. Imagine Karl Rove getting a sneak peek at hordes of poor kids singing about a thirst for capitolist blood with a fervor and conviction that could turn innocent movie audiences into Bob Fosse’s Norma Rae. Imagine Karl strongly suggesting that a campaign year is just not the right time for such a politically inflammatory movie, and that future Disney tax breaks could hang in the balance.

Our Theorist remembers the months of publicity buildup to the movie, including an airing of the “Making Of” documentary on HBO. At the time, the movie was considered a big, big deal right up until the few weeks before the movie’s release, when PR quieted to a whisper. The DVD release also provides some interesting evidence.

The 1st widely-seen movie trailer was all about evil empire and the struggle to win against capitolists. Even though it proudly touts the multiple Oscar Award-winning music of Alan Menken, the David & Goliath struggle is the main thrust. A few weeks before the release date, a 2nd trailer takes a completely different tone. It’s now a musical about “boys on the streets making a living and headlines of their own.” A loud, proud push of being the latest Menken musical ends with, “Get ready for excitement! Get ready for adventure! Get ready for pure Disney fun!” Seeing the 2 trailers back to back is disconcerting, and further highlights last-minute marketing changes that surely contributed to the derailment.

DVD commentary from the director, producer and writers is also curious. Considering the movie’s floptastic reputation, you’d expect some conversation about such a notorious event. But they never mention it because they know the movie is a success because of its ever-growing influence. Their take is not that of losers trying to explain it away, but of winners who put out an amazing piece of work, and time has proven them right.

The movie releases to a lackluster weekend and is promptly yanked from theaters, never given a chance to benefit from the word of mouth that has sustained it to this day. But despite Disney’s rash decision, the soundtrack had an immediate life of its own, reaping several more awards for Menken, with songs from the film being covered by various Broadway and jazz musicians, while high school and chorale productions still go on. The movie could be killed, but not the top-drawer music.

So, maybe a higher-up at Disney puts the brakes on Newsies out of political fear. The company writes it off as a tax loss, and then Bill Clinton wins the presidency, and then Disney makes millions in home-video and soundtrack sales. It’s actually a heart-warming conspiracy theory where everyone eventually wins.

The last two Newsies thoughts:
No one ever discusses the overt homoeroticism of the movie, so I guess I shouldn’t either?

It’s obvious that Newsies is a Broadway natural. If high schools can stage the thing, so can Broadway. The movie’s writers (Bob Tzudiker & Noni White) reveal in DVD commentary that from day one, they’ve retained the Broadway rights, and continue to pitch this brilliant idea. Noni figures the notion of 60 kids on stage scares off most Broadway producers, but she counters with one word: Oliver. Arise and seize the day, sign the petition, and help bring Newsies to a logical and fabulous conclusion.