Friday, October 04, 2013

sinead, miley and grace unplugged: all I've ever needed is your love

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It's not often that Sinead O'Connor and Focus on the Family (FOTF) agree on much. Maybe anything. But when it comes to Miley Cyrus and the chew-em-up-spit-em-out nature of the music industry, they have some common ground.

PluggedIn, the entertainment arm of FOTF, says in a review of Miley's latest release:
"(Miley) and her producers know...that emotional vulnerability doesn't smash records. Riding naked on a wrecking ball does."
In a recent open letter to Miley, Sinead O'Connor states it a little more bluntly:
"The music business doesn't give a sh*t about you."
I can't verify either of those statements from personal experience. But as an observer they make sense. Otherwise tabloids and the E! network would have little reason to exist.

Most people go into the music business because of love. They love music, they love making good music, they love sharing their music, and they would love to make money playing music instead of working all day in a cubicle (something no one loves). So they cut a demo, send it out, play gigs, and market themselves.

A rep hears them. "We love you!" they're told.

They sign a contract. "Now, change!" they're told.

Now it's no longer about just the music. It's also about the marketability. And it's no longer about just the love. Now it's also about the money. That's why it's called the music "business", not the music "charity." It's not necessarily evil, but it can be pretty tough. And now that the contract is signed, the business end of the machine takes over. So much for the love.

There is a new movie out today that addresses that very topic.

Grace Unplugged tells the story of Grace Trey, an 18 year old singer/musician who aspires to more than just singing at church with her dad, a former pop star. Grace is talented, she loves music, and she just knows she's got what it takes to make it. Her dad was a one-hit wonder. Grace thinks she can do better than that.

Sound familiar?

Miss Grace records a cover of her dad's old Top 10 hit and sends it to Mossy, her dad's former manager. He is impressed and invites her to Los Angeles.

When she arrives, the label's stylist scopes her out and fingers her hair: "We are going to have so much fun with you." Hmmm.

After being styled, Grace plays her first gig with the head of the record label in attendance. She sings her dad's lyrics:
"I'm sorry I'm not all the things that you want,
All the things that you thought
I should be - Misunderstood!"
And that's just how she feels: misunderstood. It's how everyone in the audience feels. They get her message. And they get her music. After all, she's good! After a rocky start, Grace comes off stage feeling triumphant. Yes! this is what she always wanted.

Never mind that she ran away from home to do this. Never mind that she won't return her parent's phone calls and they're worried to death about her. Never mind that the record company wants her to do a sexy video to her pop's old hit. Never mind that she is asked to record a provocative song that goes against every moral bone in her body. Never mind that her handler wants her to sleep with the movie industry's latest boy toy to improve her media image and boost sales...

Oh, wait a sec. Actually...she does mind. But now it seems it's a little too late. The deal has been struck. Can she possibly find a way to make good music and make it big without losing herself?

I won't spoil the ending. But I will say I was pleased with the answer. And with this movie.

Although I am a Christian by definition, I rarely enjoy "Christian" entertainment. It isn't all bad, and the message is usually well intended. It's just that I have high production standards for everything, and that includes music or films with a message. If anything, I think it should be held to the highest standard possible. So when the film's publicity company, Grace Hill Media of Los Angeles, invited me to the screening, I reluctantly agreed. I was honored to be invited, but I couldn't promise to get behind the film just because of the message. If I was going to write about it, it had better be good.

Let's just say I was pleasantly surprised.

Produced by Coram Deo studios, the film was picked up for release by Lionsgate (The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga, Mad Men, Nashville, Orange is the New Black) and Roadside Attractions (The September Issue, Everything Must Go, and Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone). These are big guns in Hollywood. For them to pick up the film, it had to be more than just a nice churchy message in a slick wrapper.

It is way more than that.

The performances are solid. When I saw Kevin Pollack on the cast list, I thought "Wow, this is a real movie!" But the other performances matched his, especially by lead AJ Michaelka. A former Disney star who has a real band with her sister, AJ was amazing as Grace Trey. She really knows how to sing, how to play the guitar and piano, how to be in a band (not just 'act' like she's in a band), and how to act. She's real and she's pretty and she's really pretty talented. Nice combination.

Just as important, the story is well told. I hate stories that get wrapped up in a neat little Christian bow. I just knew this was going to end up saying "Hollywood is the Devil! Jesus wants you to go back home before you end up like Miley Cyrus!" But it doesn't do that. Grace makes some decisions. She follows her talent and her heart. That doesn't necessarily lead her where we expect.

While the movie is being marketed heavily to Christians, this is not just a Christian story. It is a familiar story to anyone who has run away from home to follow a dream only to find out life isn't as dreamy as we expected. It's familiar to any parent who has lost connection with a child, temporarily or permanently, for any reason. It's familiar to anyone who has compromised in life only to look around and find they have jettisoned some important parts of themselves but - to paraphrase U2 - they still haven't found what they're looking for.

And what is everyone looking for? Love.

Like most people, I bet Miley started making music out of sheer love. Her latest song in question is all about love. Unfortunately the video turns that message into something else. In her letter to Miley, Sinead O'Connor writes:
"This is what I need to say...with love...You have enough talent that you don't need to let the music business make a prostitute of you. They're there for the money...we're there for the music."
During the course of the movie, Grace finds this out for herself. She has tried desperately for weeks to write an original song. When she is finally successful and sings her song, we hear in it not only her heart's cry, but ours as well:
"I've chased a million things, bright lights and empty dreams...all I've ever needed is your love."
And to that, I will say a nonsectarian "Amen."
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