CENTURY CITY, Calif. -- Just as Harvey Keitel was explaining the importance of being present at the creation of the modern "indie" film movement -- Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, The Bad Lieutenant and more -- the fire alarm erupted.
Nervous journalists eyed the doors of the hotel conference room. They were ready to bolt. "Be cool," Keitel cautioned, and everyone laughed. (It was a false -- but noisy -- alarm.) Not only had Keitel managed to charm and relax the minions, he had gotten in a terrific plug for his latest movie -- fittingly called Be Cool. It was a promotion job done well.
While this $40 million MGM release is not an indie film, its producers aspire to the same kind of street credibility that indie movies once had. More to the point, the people behind Be Cool want the film to be hip and groovy in the way as contemporary Rap and Hip Hop-flavored Pop. And it needs to be, in order to be a commercial success.
This sequel to 1995's comic thriller Get Shorty, also based on an Elmore Leonard novel, follows gangster-turned-Hollywood producer Chili Palmer (John Travolta) into the sleazy world of the independent-label music industry. And to make that milieu seem cool (and funny), it is chock full of postmodern stunt casting, stunt singing and characters who seem as fresh and exciting as the latest songs loaded onto an iPod.
Aerosmith's Steven Tyler plays himself, although he cautions Chili, "I'm not one of these singers that show up in movies." Christina Milian, the young singer who co-wrote J-Lo's "Play" and had her own hit with "Dip It Low," plays an Alicia Keyes-style belter named Linda Moon. She is trying to break free of a California-casual mobster manager (Keitel) and go with Chili, instead. Linda's big break comes performing Aerosmith's "Cryin" onstage with the band -- it was really filmed at an Aerosmith concert.
André Benjamin, aka Andre 3000 of OutKast, plays a clumsily inept rapper/gang-banger named Dabu, who just can't wait to shoot somebody, anybody. Cedric the Entertainer is his record producer/boss Sin LaSalle, a character seemingly modeled on Death Row Records' Suge Knight. LaSalle orders his men to suspend an annoying music-business hanger-on (a riotous Vince Vaughn) by his feet from a high balcony. Reportedly, Knight once did the same thing to Vanilla Ice.
Travolta and Uma Thurman's Edie Athens, who runs a record label after her cheating husband is murdered, even reprise their seductive dance scene from Pulp Fiction -- only in Be Cool they sashay to a Black Eyed Peas/Sergio Mendes collaboration called "Sexy." (The Peas and Mendes perform it live while they dance.)
Macho actor The Rock as a gay bodyguard gets in on the musical potpourri that pervades Be Cool by warbling an intentionally bad version of Loretta Lynn's "You Ain't Woman Enough (to Take My Man)."
Oh yes. And Keitel even gets in a rap of sorts.
To make sense of all of this and keep it from being wack, producers Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher and Danny DeVito (who has a cameo in the film) turned to F. Gary Gray, a director who knows the music world. He won the MTV Best Music Video award in 1995 for directing TLC's "Waterfalls." And as a result of making music videos with OutKast, he could convince Benjamin to play the role of Dabu, which wasn't in Leonard's novel. "He's had a legendary music-video career and he knew the music business," Sher said when meeting the press.
Gray is also a 35-year-old African-American who has moved from urban comedies and thrillers like Friday and Set It Off to mainstream, mass-appeal product like The Italian Job and Be Cool. (Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed Get Shorty, passed on this.) Gray's Hollywood success prompted a press-conference question about his smashing through a "glass ceiling" that had contained other black directors.
Later, sitting in his hotel room and fidgeting with a bottle cap during a private interview, the trim-bearded and intensely modest Gray attempted to address that topic further without sounding boastful.
"I hear it quite a bit," he said of the glass-ceiling term. "Some people say, 'You're a pioneer, you're making history, so enjoy it because it hasn't always been this way.' But you've got to remember, I didn't go to film school, so my focus isn't on what I have achieved -- it's on how can I get better. I have to take a look back to think about the climate regarding race in this industry. I don't focus on that."
To be honest, Be Cool has moments where its attempt to be all-knowing about Pop music comes off as clunky. When Chili, for instance, tries to convince a too-easily pliable Tyler that he wrote "Sweet Emotion" for his then-baby daughter, Liv, one groans at the artificiality of the scene. But other moments break through and feel real, as when Edie tells Chili how great it feels to hear a hit she made: "That's my record. I produced that -- something with soul!"
Another example comes with Cedric the Entertainer's defiant, sermon-like address to some Russian gangsters about the African-American contribution to arts. It plays like a Big Statement whose message extends beyond the movie's plot, and cuts deeper than much of the rest of the Sin Lasalle portrayal.
"He gave a great performance," Gray said of Cedric's scene. "I thought it fit within the movie. Sometimes, instead of delivering characters that are cardboard, cutout or stereotypical, it's good to invest an extra dimension in them. You don't expect it from him, because you're used to seeing him play a funny guy. But he took it and ran with it, and I thought he did a great job."
Gray, by the way, does not feel the portrait of a gangster-infested music business should be taken too seriously, anymore than This is Spinal Tap should be interpreted to accurately reflect the intelligence of all Heavy Metal rockers.
But when I ask Travolta about this at a press conference, aware that he briefly had a career as a recording artist with hits like "Let Her In" and "All Strung Out on You," he had a different reply. Smiling and benignly corporate, trim and dressed in cool black, he said the film isn't that far off the mark. (Later, after becoming established as a film star, Travolta enjoyed several further hits with Grease duets with Olivia Newton-John.)
"Even though this is slightly exaggerated, adding a Hip Hop overtone, it was to some degree like that," he recalled. "You'd go to meetings with people with sunglasses on, and you didn't know where their eyes were looking, didn't know what deals were being made behind your back. It was pretty interesting stuff in those days -- and I'm sure it still is."
And, yes, Travolta said, he was screwed out of royalties on those early, pre-Grease hits. "But the good news about that is it allowed me to do something like Grease, because that's what stirred them on to say, 'You could sing, too.' " And, as he has proved aplenty, he could be cool. ©