Writer Michael Heagle answers some frank questions about the making of his book, Synthesizers and Saxophone (2019)
What was the “ah-hah!” moment that made you decide to write the book?
The book started innocuously enough. I caught myself watching and re-watching the 1984 breakdancing film Breakin’ and its sequel, the infamously-titled Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. I approached them non-ironically, just enjoying them for the dance work and as a snapshot of a particular period I was fond of. I was listening to the soundtracks, seeking out posters and lobby cards and autographs and other memorabilia but I found there wasn’t really a book on the subject – my usual go-to for collecting on a movie subject. So I said, “how hard could it be?” and wrote a short article about them, then added one of the other films from that short-lived trend – Beat Street. Soon I found there were even more of these that I hadn’t heard of, and the book escalated from there. You add early Rap movies and suddenly you have a chapter – but not quite a book. What was the creation/research process like? How did you gather materials and piece everything together, even having to “cherry-pick” what you used?
The most dangerous thing was that every piece of research led to another film, and another and another. Scouring YouTube for interviews on one film suddenly had me discovering dozens of other movies, some just sitting there in their entirety. I quickly realized I had seen almost nothing from this decade except the hits and the occasional, accidental B-movie. But it was a great revelation. I loved the films of the period, and the knowledge that there were still hundreds of bad and hilarious things I hadn’t seen? That was like discovering a $100 bill in a jacket pocket. The idea of leaving things out of the book was a practical decision – I didn’t want to spend more than a year on the project, nor for it to balloon up to some impractical length. By putting it through the certain criteria, I was able to edit myself before I got into trouble. Was the film a traditional musical, where people broke into song? If those songs were in a 1980s idiom, it went in. So, a disco film like Xanadu or Can’t Stop the Music, which came out in 1980, didn’t make the cut, but something like Earth Girls Are Easy or the ridiculous Voyage of the Rock Aliens was in. A film where an aspect of the music business was shown, like Krush Groove, is the perfect movie for this book – you’ve got essential artists like Sheila E and Run D.M.C and Fat Boys and The Beastie Boys performing in it, so it’s a movie and it’s pop music and you’re off and running. Is Madonna in the movie – yes? Is it Shanghai Surprise, where it’s set in the 1940s and she doesn’t sing any songs – it’s out. I also just tackled things I thought would make the table of contents sound funny and compelling, so you have a chapter about songs in action movies called “Songs for a Muscular Activity,” and “Danger Zone: the Importance of Being Kenny (Loggins).” Maybe the best one is “Modern Earth Girls that Desperately Want to Have Fun.”
Were there any challenges/writer’s blocks? It was easy and it was fun, but mentally strenuous. I’d pick out a few movies to work on for the week, watch them with a notebook and jot some ideas down, kind of get a synopsis and movie review sort of take on the material, then take a day to research the music and write the chapter. So every movie in the book only took a day or two, and maybe a little time to go back and make sense out of it.
The challenge was working exclusively with second hand sources – it would have been a lot more fun to sit down with Giorgio Moroder for an afternoon, or chat with David Lee Roth about his failed attempt at making a “Diamond Dave” feature film right after he left Van Halen. Maybe the next one will have more firsthand interviews, but this one was at a distinct disadvantage – John Hughes, Prince, David Bowie – a lot of these guys aren’t around anymore. Being outside the entertainment industry and working out of the Midwest instead of Los Angeles makes it harder, too.