Making a music man
Singaporean artiste’s biopic reveals a lonely schoolboy facing setbacks on his musical journey.
WHEN one thinks of Dick Lee, what usually comes to mind is the Singaporean songwriter behind the stirring and popular song, Home.
Older viewers in the Lion City might remember the gifted kid who rose to fame on the Talentime series in the 1970s. Others might think of the dapper pianist who penned the feel-good musical Fried
Rice Paradise, or the sharp-tongued judge on singing contest Singapore Idol.
With Wonder Boy, a film inspired by his teen years, the multi-hyphenate – who has been a singer, songwriter, fashion designer and creative director – adds another title to the list: feature film director.
The biopic shows Lee to be a lonely schoolboy, his hopes of becoming a musician performing original songs scoffed at by everyone, save for a few.
He meets Linda (played by Julie Tan), a girl who is his entree to parties in which a small group of privileged locals and expatriates have fun behind tightly closed doors.
Wonder Boy depicts the parties, where substances are inhaled and partygoers touch one another.
“It was an experimental time,” says Lee.
What took place in those posh bungalows stood in contrast to Singapore at large: This was a time when long-haired men were viewed as degenerates and songs that contained less-than-perfect English or dialects were banned from radio.
Lee makes no apologies for enjoying illicit pleasures in his youth, nor is he bitter about the setbacks he suffered at the hands of repressive teachers, class bullies and government language rules that stymied the sale of his early albums. “I want to show what happened, which made me who I am,” he says.
It was Melvin Ang, chief executive of media company mm2 Asia, who in 2013 proposed that Lee write a screenplay about his life and also direct the film – “two massive jobs,” says Lee. The performer baulked at first. “Why? What for? I had never done a movie, except for writing scores. Directing a film was never on my bucket list,” he says. Besides, he was busy with other work, including a stint as creative director of the 2015 National Day Parade, marking Singapore’s golden jubilee.
But last year, he changed his mind.
“I did a 60th birthday concert, which looked back at my life. I suddenly felt nostalgic. Then I said, Okay lah, maybe.”
Veteran writer and director Wang Guo Shen wrote a draft of the screenplay, based on interviews with the composer, which Lee fleshed out with biographical detail.
The film covers his life from age 16 to 18, just after the release of his first album, Life Story, and before he enters national service. Some events that in real life take place years later have been compressed into that period, while a few characters are composites of several people.
Lee, played by actor and musician Benjamin Kheng of band The Sam Willows, falls in love, loses his virginity and is chased by the police for his long hair.
When he was a teen, he was acting out. “I was an angry kid. There were suicide attempts not shown in the movie. My father took me to priests and psychiatrists. I was troubled and troublesome. He did a lot of things to get me out of it. All of that is true,” says Lee, who is divorced from singer Jacintha Abisheganaden and is now single.
Casting someone to play yourself would appear to be the toughest part of the project. But that job turned out to be the easiest for Lee because Kheng, 26, had experience playing him.
In 2012, in a theatrical piece marking the Esplanade’s 10th anniversary, actors portrayed local arts figures. Kheng was picked to play Lee, while Lee played Esplanade chief executive Benson Puah.
Kheng had studied videos of Lee performing onstage. Lee was struck by how, like him, the young man was an all-rounder, able to act, sing and play the piano.
“I was so impressed. I told him then, ‘If I ever do a movie about my life, you could play me,’” says Lee.
The secret to playing Lee, says Kheng, is to understand that one is not doing a caricature. Kheng, a theatre actor who also plays keyboard and guitar for The Sam Willows, recorded himself riffing on Lee’s speech and body patterns, then studied the playback.
“He has signature mannerisms, but I don’t want to blow them up so they become laughable,” says Kheng. One trait he had to capture: The way Lee flaps his hands when he talks. But when he first did it on camera, Lee stopped him.
Lee says, “I asked him what he was doing with his hands. Then I saw that my hands were flapping when I said it.”
Actress Tan, 24, plays Linda, Lee’s first real girlfriend. She is a muse, inspiring him to write music, and a free spirit who challenges his assumptions and makes him a more mature person.
Playing Linda was a challenge not only because this would be the former Mediacorp artiste’s first major English-speaking part, but also because it would be a stretch in character.
“She’s the complete opposite of me. I had never played someone like her. I had to learn how to hold a cigarette and how to light it,” she explains.
As director, Lee took care to make sure that scenes struck the right emotional note and provided helpful biographical details, while co-director Daniel Yam, 42, took care of the technical details.
Lee made Tan feel comfortable, helping her to get past her insecurities about her body, she says.
Tan is happy to be making history: This is the first made-in-Singapore film which acknowledges that in the 1970s, the island was not immune from the sex, drugs and rock & roll revolution shaking the world.
“We have a film that has authenticity. We shouldn’t be ashamed of our past,” she says.
Lee (left) with Kheng, who plays the lead role in a film inspired by Lee’s teen years.