Don’t for­get the mo­tor city

Iconic pop singer Michael Bolton is putting the fin­ish­ing touches on a doc­u­men­tary about the work be­ing done to re­vive Detroit

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY GE­OFF EDGERS

DETROIT — On a re­cent af­ter­noon, Michael Bolton — yes, that Michael Bolton — walks down Michigan Av­enue show­ing off the city he has grown to love. A cam­era­man tails him, which might be why the singer, with­out the nu­clear hair of his “When a Man Loves a Woman” hey­day, can’t avoid be­ing no­ticed.

A fan leans in for a hug. A cop on a horse in­vites him to visit the sta­ble. A bald man who sings in a Bolton trib­ute band asks for a selfie.

“It’s $22.50,” Bolton says, smil­ing. “You got PayPal?”

He walks on. The stroll is not meant for au­to­graph seek­ers. Bolton is in Detroit for his latest pro­ject, and it’s a doozy. The pop singer, whose boom­ing voice has kept the mom-jeans in­tel­li­gentsia mes­mer­ized since roughly 1987, is mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary about the city’s at­tempt to dig it­self out of dis­as­ter. Bolton has spent three years and $250,000 of his own money in the hopes of re­cast­ing how the public views Detroit.

“This,” he says, “is one of the great­est come­back sto­ries in Amer­i­can history.”

Michael Bolton mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary about Detroit?

“He’s prob­a­bly one of the last peo­ple I would have ex­pected to do it,” says Aaron Fo­ley, a lo­cal writer and Detroit na­tive.

The Web site Dead­line Detroit was less po­lite. Another “para­chute celebrity,” it bris­tled, mock­ing the pro­ject through a se­ries of snide links to glossy 1980s Bolton videos.

But the still-un­ti­tled doc­u­men­tary, which Bolton is host­ing and di­rect­ing with his man­ager, Christina Kline, will pre­miere Oct. 2 at the city’s his­toric Fox Theatre and then hit the film fes­ti­val cir­cuit. The pro­ject has sparked con­sid­er­able in­ter­est since Bolton be­gan con­duct­ing in­ter­views with ev­ery­one from Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robin­son to Mayor Mike Dug­gan and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gil­bert.

Char­lie LeDuff, the au­thor of “Detroit: An

Amer­i­can Au­topsy” and no pushover, doesn’t snicker.

“I’ll re­serve judg­ment un­til I see it,” he says. “Come on in. Do your thing. What have you got, brother?”

Gil­bert, the bil­lion­aire Detroit na­tive who also owns the Cleve­land Cava­liers, goes fur­ther. He’s im­pressed by Bolton’s ap­proach.

“Look, to have some­body of his stature reach out and tell the story, the way it is and not just tell ruin porn, show­ing the same six burned-out shops, I like that,” says Gil­bert. “He’s go­ing to show what hap­pened, where this city was and then all the great things hap­pen­ing.”

On his walk, Bolton is joined by Bruce Schwartz, Gil­bert’s “re­lo­ca­tion am­bas­sador,” es­sen­tially a guide, re­cruiter and civic cheer­leader fea­tured in the film. They head to Cam­pusMar­tius Park, a small square meant to serve as a cen­tral meet­ing place, with an ice rink in the win­ter and pic­nic area dur­ing warmer months. They stop at the Roast­ing Plant, an up­scale cof­fee house. Next, they walk across the street to what Bolton views as another sym­bol of the city’s re­vival: The Com­puware tower, where Gil­bert moved Quicken Loans, the coun­try’s sec­ond-largest mort­gage bro­ker, in2012. Gil­bert, for Bolton, is one of the city’s he­roes, buy­ing and ren­o­vat­ing build­ings through­out the down­town. In­side the com­pany’s of­fices, Bolton shows off a sprawl­ing model of the city, point­ing out fash­ion de­signer John Var­vatos’s new flag­ship store. That evening, Bolton will be one of the bold­face names, along with su­per­model Kate Up­ton, rocker Alice Cooper and Tigers pitcher Justin Ver­lan­der, at the store’s open­ing-night bash.

Still in the Quicken Loans of­fice, Bolton wan­ders over to the bas­ket­ball court Gil­bert has in­stalled among the cu­bi­cles. He doesn’t look 62, scoot­ing across the par­quet floor, scarf and all, throw­ing in soft hooks and 12-foot­ers. Em­ploy­ees gather in a land­ing above, tak­ing pic­tures and cheer­ing each swish be­cause, well, Michael Bolton is shoot­ing hoops in the of­fice.

Back out on the side­walk, Bolton is asked whether film­ing in this part of Detroit — the high-rises, the ex­ecs, the best place to get an al­mond milk latte — presents too rosy a por­trait.

“I don’t think any­body’s ever go­ing to sweep the blight and is­sues of se­cu­rity un­der the car­pet,” he says. “But the re­al­ity is that the peo­ple who have come through, who have also used up a lot of valu­able time, wind up go­ing and cov­er­ing only the tough stuff about the city. There are great things go­ing on now.”

Maybe this doc­u­men­tary shouldn’tcome as such a sur­prise. Bolton is fa­mous for his­pop­ca­reer, but he has also recorded opera, been the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer for a doc­u­men­tary about do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and shown a will­ing­ness to take cre­ative chances, even when it means pok­ing fun at his own im­age.

The doc­u­men­tary was sparked by Bolton’s de­ci­sion to make an al­bum of Mo­town songs three years ago.

He had grown up on the mu­sic of Robin­son, Marvin Gaye and Ste­vie Won­der and played gigs in Detroit for 25 years. But this time, com­ing to visit the city that had inspired his record, he was drawn into the bat­tle to re­cover from what would be­come the largest mu­nic­i­pal bank­ruptcy in U.S. history. He also met Gil­bert and Schwartz.

Kline had taken cam­eras along sim­ply to doc­u­ment Bolton’s Mo­town visit. Soon, the two re­al­ized they had a big­ger story to tell, of the de­vel­op­ers, en­trepreneurs and reg­u­lar peo­ple work­ing on a Detroit re­vival.

“All of these jour­nal­ists and in­ter­ested par­ties have come in and pre­sented them­selves as peo­ple in­ter­ested in the truth and in re­al­ity, [but] they’re just com­ing around and blud­geon­ing Detroit,” says Bolton. “Why aren’t peo­ple cov­er­ing the great sto­ries, the promis­ing sto­ries?”

Bolton, de­spite years of suc­cess, also feels deeply con­nected to the peo­ple strug­gling in Detroit. Af­ter all, he knows what it’s like to have your rent checks bounce, to won­der how to feed the chil­dren. Bolton only fin­ished a year of high school, leav­ing his home town of NewHaven, Conn., in the late 1960s to be­come a rock star. But solo al­bums and records with his ’ 70s band Black­jack flopped. One day, in the early ’80s, he got a call from a lo­cal book­ing agent. Too much snow. The week­end’s gigs were can­celed.

“I re­mem­ber hang­ing up the phone and think­ing, that means there’s no money this week and hav­ing a sit-down with my wife and talk­ing about how din­ner was go­ing to be man­aged over the next few nights,” he says. “Frozen Brus­sels sprouts. I think they were three for a dol­lar.”

Bolton’s strug­gles ended in 1982 when CBS Songs signed him to a song­writ­ing deal. Hits for Laura Branigan, Cher and Kiss fol­lowed. His own singing ca­reer took off in 1985 and, by the early 1990s, he says, he had earned enough to never worry about money again.

Suc­cess, though, did not bring him peace. His lone mar­riage ended in 1991 and even as he cra­dled awards, Bolton found him­self un­der at­tack, sav­aged by crit­ics who called his mu­sic over­wrought, pop fluff and mocked his hair. Bolton fought back. “A bunch of no-tal­ent chim­panzees,” he said back­stage at the Gram­mys one year.

“They were al­ways mak­ing fun of him for his hair or be­ing cheesy,” says song­writer Diane War­ren, a friend who worked closely with Bolton in the 1980s. “What they for­get was what an amaz­ing singer he is and that the songs were great. That’s why he sold 50 mil­lion records.”

Sorry, it’s ac­tu­ally 60 mil­lion and count­ing. Keep in mind that Tay­lor Swift, to­day’s most pop­u­lar pop star, is at 17 mil­lion. Then, in the late ’90s, Bolton faced a new chal­lenge. That’s when the ma­ture white male song­writer ceased to ex­ist.

“It wasn’t just us,” says Bolton’s friend Richard Marx, who had his own string of top-10 hits in the late 1980s.

“It was Bryan Adams, Billy Joel, John Mel-

lencamp. I looked and said, ‘I’ve had a good 10 years’ run. I can’t com­plain.’ WhatMichael did is he took his time and tried all kinds of records. Ev­ery time we’d get to­gether for din­ner or have a cou­ple of tequi­las, the main or­der of busi­ness was, ‘We’re not just go­ing to quit, to fade away. We’re go­ing to try dif­fer­ent things and see what works.’ ”

By 2009, Bolton had cut his cas­cad­ing hair and taken a gi­ant step into what mod­ern en­ter­tain­ment wonks call “re­brand­ing.” He hired Kline, aGe­orge­town grad­u­ate in her 30s who grew up on Ra­dio­head and U2 and had never man­aged an artist be­fore. Kline helped Bolton reach a new au­di­ence by re­veal­ing a side he usu­ally kept pri­vate.

Some­time in 2010, then-“Satur­day Night Live” star Andy Sam­berg ap­proached Bolton about col­lab­o­rat­ing with his spoof rap group, the Lonely Is­land, for their song and video “Jack Spar­row.” As the ti­tle sug­gests, Bolton played Johnny Depp’s “Pi­rates of the Caribbean” char­ac­ter as well as For­rest Gump and Al Pa­cino’s Tony Mon­tana from “Scar­face.” He even threw on a dress to do Erin Brock­ovich. “Jack Spar­row” went vi­ral af­ter its 2011 pre­miere on SNL. Soon, Bolton was do­ing comic Honda com­mer­cials, an in­ten­tion­ally corny Amer­i­can Greet­ings video birth­day card and, just re­cently, a mu­si­cal bit on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.”

“Maybe those young boys and those guys who were cap­ti­vated for Jack Spar­row weren’t nec­es­sar­ily wait­ing around to see when the next al­bum’s com­ing out,” saysK­line, “but they are in­ter­ested when they see Michael’s name at­tached to some­thing that’s comedic in a space they can nav­i­gate.”

Ear­lier this year, Bolton also agreed to act in a spoof video of the 1999 film “Of­fice Space.”

In the sketch, Bolton played David Her­man who had played a char­ac­ter named Michael Bolton in “Of­fice Space.” In that movie, Her­man’s char­ac­ter is tor­mented by the con­stant ques­tions of whether he’s re­lated to the singer or, he calls him, that “no-tal­ent ass clown.”

In this re­make, Bolton, with glasses and a short-sleeve, but­ton-down-shirt, plays Her­man. At one point, a col­league asks why he doesn’t just go byMike in­stead ofMichael.

“No way,” says Bolton, not break­ing char­ac­ter. “Why should I change? He’s the one that sucks.”

The lap­top is open, and the rough cut of the doc is play­ing. Bolton is sit­ting at his din­ing-room ta­ble in West­port, Conn. He bought the house af­ter his mar­riage dis­solved so his three daugh­ters, now all in their 30s, would have a place to stay. Bolton’s mother and brother also lived nearby. As the cut plays, Bolton is beam­ing. There he is, as the host, walk­ing into Mo­town’s famed Stu­dio A, lean­ing his head against the acous­tic pan­els and look­ing like a kid handed a soft serve with the cho­co­late shell. There’s Aretha Franklin, on cam­era, talk­ing about Detroit.

“Wait,” Bolton says, lean­ing for­ward in his chair. “It gets bet­ter in 10 sec­onds.”

And it does, as Franklin, decades younger and now in black-and-white, kicks into the break. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

The din­ing- room ta­ble is cov­ered: A pitch for a re­al­ity show, a glossy photo to be signed for a woman with ter­mi­nal can­cer, a DVD of “Whiplash,” a photo book show­ing burned-out homes in Detroit, a AAA card un­der his birth name, Bolotin, which he’s never legally changed.

Down­stairs, Bolton’s walls are plas­tered with plat­inum records. Reach­ing into a box, Bolton picks out a framed­pic­ture of him­self, in the hair days, next to a then-un­knownMariah Carey. He’s singing at a record in­dus­try con­ven­tion. She’s wait­ing.

“[ Tommy] Mot­tola asked me if I would do him a fa­vor,” Bolton says, in­vok­ing the name of the leg­endary record exec. “’ We’re break­ing in his newartist, and can you let her come up and sing with you?’ ”

Bolton isn’t a name drop­per nec­es­sar­ily. It’s just that he has worked with, hung with and known so many big names. He’s writ­ten with Bob Dy­lan and Lady Gaga, sung with Ray Charles and Pavarotti, chilled with Bill Clin­ton.

Bolton, still fit and with those pierc­ing blue eyes, ad­mits he’s in­se­cure about ag­ing. He has five grand­chil­dren and is re­lieved the ones old enough to speak call him “G Pa,” not grandpa. He is not ready to slow down.

“My grand­fa­ther was a plumber from Ukraine and Kiev,” Bolton says. “He worked pretty close to the time he passed away. He said, ‘ When you stop work­ing, you die.’ And I tend to agree. I can’t imag­ine slow­ing down or re­tir­ing. When some­one uses the word re­tir­ing, that’s the last thing I think about. I think about ex­pan­sion.”

In Detroit, the Var­vatos bash is get­ting started. Near the red car­pet, Bolton’s greeted with a shout and­man­hug fromChrysler chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer Olivier François, the man be­hind the com­pany’s high-pro­file ads with Dy­lan, Clint East­wood and Eminem.

François is in Bolton’s doc, along with a slate of Detroit fig­ures both fa­mous (Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola and car com­pany heir Bill Ford) and not so fa­mous, in­clud­ing Gen­eral Mo­tors work­ers, lo­cal teach­ers and high school stu­dents. He ad­mits what sur­prised him most about Bolton is not what he asked him on cam­era, but what he didn’t ask for: money to make the film.

“I couldn’t be­lieve it,” says François. “Be­cause so many peo­ple reach out to me look­ing for an endorsement deal or com­mer­cial deal or some kind of deal.”

The party or­ga­niz­ers hus­tle Bolton to the car­pet to pose for photos with Var­vatos and Alice Cooper, that night’s en­ter­tain­ment. As cam­eras flash, the singers, out of earshot, talk about their great pas­sion— golf.

“Took my son to Peb­ble Beach and Spy­glass,” Cooper says. “How did he do on Spy­glass?” “Great,” Cooper says. “He killed it.” A TV re­porter asks Bolton about the doc­u­men­tary.

“Our cov­er­age is about the re­build­ing and re­birth of Detroit,” he says. “It’s an awe­some story.”

Detroi­ter AaronFo­ley said he won­ders what will hap­pen when Bolton fin­ishes his film. So many have come to Detroit, made some­thing and headed out.

“I won’t hold it again­stMichael Bolton if he leaves,” says Fo­ley. “Be­cause he wouldn’t be the first.”

Bolton said he doesn’t plan to aban­don the city. He also is go­ing to wait to talk about his plans— for now.

“I don’t want to be per­ceived as some­one pass­ing through Detroit, do­ing this trib­ute to Mo­town and then stum­bling upon Dan Gil­bert and all these other peo­ple, and that I saw some busi­ness op­por­tu­nity,” he says. “But I can prom­ise this: I’m not go­ing to dis­ap­pear from Detroit.”

“I don’t think any­body’s ever go­ing to sweep the blight and is­sues of se­cu­rity un­der the car­pet. But the re­al­ity is that the peo­ple who have come through, who have also used up a lot of valu­able time, wind up go­ing and cov­er­ing only the tough stuff about the city. There are great things go­ing on now.”

Michael Bolton


TOP: Michael Bolton ex­its theMo­townMu­seum in Detroit in April. Bolton, known for his big hits and equally big hair in past decades, is mak­ing a doc­u­men­tary about Detroit’s come­back. He says he fell in love with the city while in town to make a record atMo­town. Bolton’s movie will pre­miere Oct. 2 at the city’s his­toric Fox Theatre be­fore hit­ting the film

fes­ti­val cir­cuit. ABOVE: Brent Pala­ian, 26, and Cyn­thia Bishara, 24, watch the sun set over down­town Detroit from the Wil­liam G. Mil­liken State Park and Har­bor.


Michael Bolton takes a photo with fans dur­ing a VIP event for the open­ing of fash­ion de­signer John Var­vatos’s flag­ship store in Detroit in April. De­spite years of suc­cess, Bolton says he feels deeply con­nected to the strug­gles of the city’s res­i­dents. Bolton fin­ished only a year of high school in the late 1960s to chase his dream of be­com­ing a rock star. But solo al­bums and records with his ’70s band Black­jack flopped. Above: An­tea Shel­ton, mid­dle left rear, the head of song­writ­ing and vo­cals at the Detroit In­sti­tute of­Mu­sic Ed­u­ca­tion, teaches a song­writ­ing class there in April. The mu­sic col­lege will be fea­tured in Bolton’s still-un­ti­tled doc­u­men­tary about Detroit’s come­back. “There are great things go­ing on now,” the pop singer says of the city.


Grammy Award-win­ning artist Bolton, bot­tom left, pre­pares to in­ter­view FordMo­tor Co. Ex­ec­u­tive Chair­man Wil­liam Clay Ford Jr. at the com­pany’s head­quar­ters in Dear­born, Mich., in Fe­bru­ary 2014. Bolton in­ter­viewed lo­cal public fig­ures, busi­ness peo­ple and celebri­ties for his doc­u­men­tary.

An­drew Lemanek, shown work­ing in a com­mu­nal workspace, is an em­ployee of dPOP!, a com­mer­cial in­te­rior de­sign firm in Detroit that is fea­tured in Bolton’s doc­u­men­tary. Be­low, Bolton walks through down­town Detroit in April. Bolton is renowned for his pop mu­sic ca­reer, but he has also recorded opera, been the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer for a doc­u­men­tary about do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and shown a will­ing­ness to take cre­ative chances, even when it means pok­ing fun at his own im­age. The doc­u­men­tary was sparked by Bolton’s de­ci­sion to make an al­bum ofMo­town songs three years ago.


Down­town Detroit buzzes be­hind the­Mon­u­ment to Joe Louis in Hart Plaza. “The Fist,” as it is com­monly re­ferred to, is one of Bolton's fa­vorite at­trac­tions in the city. The Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings, is named for the boxer who grew up in Detroit.

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