The crowd that gave Michael Moore's controversial "Fahrenheit 9/11" a standing ovation last night at the Ziegfeld Theatre premiere certainly didn't have to be encouraged at all to show their appreciation. From liberal radio host and writer Al Franken to actor/director Tim Robbins, Moore was in his element. But once "F9/11" gets to audiences beyond screenings, it won't be dependent on celebrities for approbation. It turns out to be a really brilliant piece of work, and a film that members of all political parties should see without fail.
As much as some might try to marginalize this film as a screed against President George Bush, "F9/11" — as we saw last night — is a tribute to patriotism, to the American sense of duty, and at the same time a indictment of stupidity and avarice. Readers of this column may recall that I had a lot of problems with Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," particularly where I thought he took gratuitous shots at helpless targets like Charlton Heston. "Columbine" too easily succeeded by shooting fish in a barrel, as they used to say. Not so with "F9/11," which instead relies on lots of film footage and actual interviews to make its case against the war in Iraq and tell the story of the intertwining histories of the Bush and Bin Laden families.
First, I know you want to know who came to the Ziegfeld, so here is just a partial list. Besides Franken and Robbins, Al Sharpton, Mike Myers, Tony Bennett, Glenn Close, Gretchen Mol (newly married over the weekend to director Todd Williams), Lori Singer, Tony Kushner, "Angela's Ashes" author Frank McCourt, Jill Krementz and Kurt Vonnegut, Lauren Bacall (chatting up a fully refurbished Lauren Hutton), Richard Gere, John McEnroe and Patti Smythe, former Carter cabinet member and ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Carson Daly, NBC's Jeff Zucker, a very pregnant Rory Kennedy, playwright Israel Horovitz, Macaulay Culkin, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kyra Sedgwick, Linda Evangelista, Ed Bradley, Tom and Meredith Brokaw, director Barry Levinson, NBC anchor Brian Williams, Vernon Jordan, Eva Mendez, Sandra Bernhard and the always humorous Joy Behar.
If that's not enough, how about Yoko Ono, accompanied by her son, Sean, who's let his hair grow out and is now sporting a bushy beard that makes him look like his late, beloved father John Lennon?
And then, just to show you how much people wanted to see this film, there was Martha Stewart, looking terrific. I mean, talk about eclectic groups!
Now, unless you've been living under a rock you know that this movie has been the cause of a lot of trouble. Miramax and Disney have gone to war over it, and "The Passion of the Christ" seems like "Mary Poppins" in retrospect. Before anyone's even seen it, there have been partisan debates over which way Moore may have spun this or that to get a desired effect.
But, really, in the end, not seeing "F9/11" would be like allowing your first amendment rights to be abrogated, no matter whether you're a Republican or a Democrat. The film does Bush no favors, that's for sure, but it also finds an unexpectedly poignant and universal groove in the story of Lila Lipscombe, a Flint, Michigan mother who sends her kids into the Army for the opportunities it can provide — just like the commercials say — and lives to regret it. Lipscombe's story is so powerful, and so completely Middle American, that I think it will take Moore's critics by surprise. She will certainly move to tears everyone who encounters her.
"F9/11" isn't perfect, and of course, there are leaps of logic sometimes. One set piece is about African American congressmen and women voting against the war with Iraq and wondering why there are no Senators to support them. Indeed, those absent senators include John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Kennedy, among others, which Moore does not elaborate upon. At no point are liberals or Democrats taken to task for not speaking out against the war, and I would have liked to have seen that.
On the other hand, there are more than enough moments that seemed to resonate with the huge Ziegfeld audience. The most indelible is President Bush's reaction to hearing on the morning of September 11, 2001, that the first plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. Bush was reading to a grade school class in Florida at that moment. Instead of jumping up and leaving, he instead sat in front of the class, with an unfortunate look of confusion, for nearly 11 minutes. Moore obtained the footage from a teacher at the school who videotaped the morning program. There Bush sits, with no access to his advisers, while New York is being viciously attacked. I guarantee you that no one who sees this film forgets this episode.
More than even "The Passion of the Christ," "F9/11" is going to be a "see it for yourself" movie when it hits theaters on June 25. It simply cannot be missed, and I predict it will be a huge moneymaker. And that's where Disney's Michael Eisner comes in. Not releasing this film will turn out to be the curse of his career. When Eisner came into Disney years ago, the studio was at a low point. He turned it around with a revived animation department and comedy hits like "Pretty Woman" and "Down and Out in Beverly Hills." But Eisner's short-sightedness on many recent matters has been his undoing. And this last misadventure is one that will follow him right out the doors of the Magic Kingdom.
The proposed merger of Sony Music and Bertelsmann Music Group may wind up saving Michael Jackson.
I have known for some time that Jackson's advisers had come up with a plan by which Jackson's 50% ownership of Sony/ATV Music Publishing could be used as leverage in a plan to extricate the beleaguered pop star from his financial straits.
Now, because Sony might be forced to sell off its publishing unit in order to merge with BMG, the likelihood is stronger than ever.
Recently the proposed merger of the two music giants met with frowns from European regulators who saw the combining of the conglomerates as a huge monopoly. One way out is for the companies to sell their publishing units in order to win approvals here and abroad for their plan.
In the end, Jackson could wind up owning a merged version of Sony/ATV and BMG Music Publishing. Sources tell me this is the newest plan on the drawing board and one that would resolve at long last Jackson's huge financial loans and massive debt pertaining to what is commonly known as the Beatles catalogue. The songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney are the core of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, but Jackson has used his 50% ownership as collateral for over $200 million in loans. Thanks to the Sony BMG merger, Michael may finally have a way of paying back that loan plus another $150 million all to Bank of America.
Needless to say, Bank of America execs are probably whistling "We Can Work it Out" to each other.
A third publisher, not presently owned by either company, could also be involved, I am told. Earlier, Jackson had hopes of using his stake in Warner/Chappell Music for a similar deal, but that fell through when the owners of Warner Music decided not to sell their publishing company. The third publisher — whom I cannot yet name — would then combine to put Jackson and his publishing adviser, veteran Charles Koppelman, in a unique position.
One problem, I am told, is that Jackson is totally unaware of the daily strategizing by his legal advisers and financiers with regard to Sony/ATV. He is utterly clueless, in fact, about what really goes on in his financial life. There has been almost no communication for quite some time between him and John Branca, the music attorney who manages to keep track of Michael's Sony situation and hold all the elements together.
And where is Michael? For the last couple of weeks Jackson has been back in Florida, staying in Miami and spending a fortune while the mansion he rented in Beverly Hills sits empty. The rental agreement on that house runs out on June 30, with Jackson still spending no time at his Neverland Ranch or "in the community of Santa Maria" where his trial is scheduled to begin in September.
Davis Triggers Velvet Revolver
Wouldn't you like to be Clive Davis? I know I would at this point. Davis' latest hit, the first album by supergroup Velvet Revolver, will be No. 1 this week with almost 350,000 copies sold. The album appears on the RCA label, which came under Davis' purview when he took over BMG North America earlier this year after making his J Records a huge success following his unpleasant easement from Arista Records.
Velvet Revolver comprises Slash, Duff McKagan, and Matt Sorum from Guns N Roses and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, as well as David Kushner of Suicidal Tendencies. The wittily titled album, "Contraband," is a return to regular old rock 'n' roll, with lots of slicing guitars and heavy drums. As a concept, it harkens back to Asia, the supergroup of the late '80s. As a hit, it's something that every record executive will wish they thought of.
Davis isn't the only one getting hits these days, even though it sure seems like it. Over at Epic Records' Or Music division, Los Lonely Boys are the breakthrough story of the year, jumping from number 26 to number 10. Larry Miller and Michael Caplan really built this little label up from nothing. Many congrats to them. Now they should sign Maine's hot Vacationland and really show the record business how it's done!
Meantime, just circling back to Sorum: he replaced Steve Adler in Guns N Roses after Adler was fired. Now that story is one I'd like to hear one day. I'm told there is still a record executive out there, then an entertainment lawyer, who had a hand in changing Adler's life.