Mak­ing a mu­sic man

Sin­ga­porean artiste’s biopic re­veals a lonely school­boy fac­ing set­backs on his mu­si­cal jour­ney.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - People - By JOHN LUI

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.

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