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Gone to the Movies*

Gone to the Movies*

One of the early readers of Believe in Me, commenting on a change I made several drafts ago, told me that the prologue I had added felt more like the opening of a movie than a book. This was clearly intended as constructive criticism, the implied solution being to “Make it more novel-ish.”

Yeah, well, um, NO.

“Cinematic” is an adjective I have used often to describe music I enjoy. To some it might imply “shallow” or “cliché” or “bourgeouis”; to me it implies drama and power and the ability to engage the imagination immediately and viscerally. Something that’s cinematic sweeps you off your feet and carries you away into another world. That’s what I wanted the opening of Believe in Me to do.

The prologue stayed.

And while Believe in Me is definitely a novel through and through, rather than one of those screenplays-dressed-up-as-a-novel that have become more common, the story is not without influences from the land of cinema.

First and foremost is the movie that is inevitably the two-ton elephant in the room during just about any story written since 2000 that involves getting caught up in the world of a rock and roll band: Almost Famous. My narrator Tim Green is 27 rather than 15, a political operative rather than an aspiring music critic, and distinctly jaded where Almost Famous writer/director Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical doppelganger William Miller is a wide-eyed innocent. But if you’ve seen Almost Famous—and shame on you if you haven’t, it didn’t win the Best Screenplay Oscar for its punctuation—you know that it’s simply the gold standard when it comes to stories about an outsider being initiated into a rock band’s world. It’s virtually impossible to tell that kind of story without in some way, at least briefly, paralleling the narrative trajectory of Almost Famous.

What’s interesting to me in retrospect is identifying the thematic elements I’ve always loved in Crowe’s film that also show up in Believe in Me: the power of music to engage and inspire an almost religious passion and loyalty; the way a touring band becomes an extended family, complete with sibling rivalries and deep-seated tensions; the effort it requires to maintain any sort of grounded perspective once you’ve been pulled inside the celebrity bubble. Crowe showed us the rock life from the inside out, yet made his story, at its core, about friendships and loyalties, family ties both blood and created. The same (I think, I hope) is true of Believe in Me.

Once you get past Almost Famous, there are of course any number of classic concert films and rock documentaries I could rattle off, but they would simply be a laundry list of the obvious (thought I’m still not sure how The Who managed to have not one but two of the best rock biopics of all time made about them, The Kids Are Alright and Amazing Journey).

The other rock flick that really stuck in my head, and that is actually quoted in the book, is Police drummer Stewart Copeland’s wonderful home-movie-compilation-turned-rock-documentary Everyone Stares: The Police Inside Out. Here you see candid, unvarnished reality, real backstages, real roadies and managers and hangers-on, real musicians having real fun and real arguments in real time while traveling a spectacular dramatic arc—from launching the band, to playing stadiums, to done and broken up in less than five years. The cherry on top is Copeland’s narration, which is simply brilliant: witty, self-effacing, and rich with insight.

Personally, I think books and movies continue to have a lot to learn from one another. Many of my favorite novels have had cinematic qualities to them, while many of my favorite movies have had novel-like elements. Introspection and a big field of vision don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can have both intricate detail and bold dramatic strokes. And you can speak to a wide audience without compromising your integrity. The first step is believing you can do it—and the next is doing it.

(* P.S. You may have noticed that each post on this blog borrows its title from a notable song title or lyric.  Now, you may not have heard of “Gone to the Movies,” the closing song on Semisonic’s 1998 album Feeling Strangely Fine, but do yourself a favor and buy the album. It’s superb from start to finish and “Gone to the Movies” is its terrific closer: simple, poignant and featuring an absolutely sublime acoustic guitar hook.)

Comments (3)

  • Richard

    If somebody said that my novel was cinematic, I would thank them. I don't think it's synonymous with "bourgeois" or "shallow." To me, it's another way of saying, "Your story is visual, it conjures images of...."

  • Kristen

    My high school boyfriend got me into Semisonic, and I'm always thrilled to learn when others have an appreciation for songs on that album besides "Closing Time". :) So awesome that you are publishing a book! And an e-book, no less?! I can't wait to check it out once it's released!

    • Jason Warburg

      Thanks Kristen! Yeah, I loved (and still love) Feeling Strangely Fine from start to finish -- one of the great lost albums of the '90s. Glad to have you on board!

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