‘WESTSIDE’ FLIPS THE SCRIPT ON MUSIC REALITY
Netflix’s reality show has nine struggling singers but promises the songs as co-stars
With the iconic Hollywood sign at sunset as a backdrop, two of the stars of “Westside,” Netflix’s first music reality series (arriving Nov. 9) — and arguably its most experimental and ambitious show to date — describe their real lives as aspiring stars. Meta enough?
“What I love about ‘Westside’ is that it’s the first of its kind,” says Pia Toscano, who may be the most recognizable cast member, having placed ninth on season 10 of “American Idol.” “I’m finally able to tell my story and peel back those layers and write and collaborate with other incredible artists [on the show]. But we weren’t competing with each other, so there was this camaraderie — we became a tight-knit family. We really grew and learned from each other. It wasn’t like: Who’s going to win this week? And who’s going to get voted off?”
“I don’t necessarily consider this a reality show,” adds Sean Patrick Murray, one of the eight other cast members and co- creator of “Westside.” (These two have already come up with a nickname for themselves: Sepia. Get it?) “Pia’s not trying to be a reality star from this. I’m not trying to become an Instagram influencer. We’re all musicians, and we allowed cameras to access our lives. Our goal is to share our music and tell our stories. We’re all just trying to be the best versions of ourselves.”
Indeed, “Westside” is hardly your typical unscripted show. Pageantry doesn’t factor; rather, we see the hopefuls at their worst — confronting performance anxiety, alcoholism and drug abuse — in a way that feels at once fresh, gritty and undeniably authentic.
“I struggled with my career,” Toscano says. “As you can see on the show, I went from being a household name and touring and having a record deal to losing it all — very quickly. People would attack my physical appearance on social media and rip me to shreds, from my weight to my features. They called me Gonzo! I felt so defeated. I felt ugly. I felt like I was a has-been who had let my family down. I had to deal with rejection and failure and going back home and singing with a wedding band.”
All this may sound somewhat depressing but, in fact, it makes for highly watchable entertainment. “When we first started the unscripted initiative here almost two years ago, like everyone at Netflix, we were encouraged to take risks, innovate, find the most exciting projects out there and support that creative vision of our producing partners,” says Jenn Levy, director of unscripted originals and acquisitions for the streaming giant. “‘Westside’ came along and checked all of those boxes. It was like nothing we’d ever seen before and we thought it was a heck of an idea. And so we decided to jump in with Love [Prods.] and Madwood [Studios] and the whole team.”
As Kevin Bartel, one of “Westside’s” co- creators and executive producers, who heads up Love Prods. USA and is executive vice president of the company that is best known for “The Great British Bake Off,” recalls: “Our initial, knee-jerk reaction to that was: Does the world need another one of those shows? … But in meeting what ultimately became the cast of the ‘Westside,’ there was something really interesting about a group of twenty-somethings that are pursuing their passions on a daily basis despite all the adversity that they encounter daily.” (For the record, the cast ranges in age from 20 to 32; Toscano, for instance, recently turned 30.) “We started to dig deeper to get to know and understand their relationships and their fears — and the decisions they were making that were impacting their lives. These are really captivating individuals. And the breakthrough moment for us was: ‘Well, wait a second. What if we could turn the genre on its head and really make this about the people?’ If you fall in love with the people, you’re going to fall in love with their music.”
The music plays a co-starring role in “Westside.”
“We collaborated with some of the best and the brightest in the music industry along with the cast to write and produce music that’s inspired by the storylines in the show,” Levy says. “And then we weaved those [songs] into the narrative of every episode that then elevates and further illustrates the storylines.”
Enter executive music producer James Diener, who previously served in senior executive roles at A&M/ Octone Records and RCA and now co-manages several acts including Avril Lavigne and the Struts.
“The vision for music for this show had never been done before, which is one of the reasons I was interested,” he says. “You have an unscripted show where all of the characters are coming into place dynamically in real time, and then you’ve got 25-30 multi-plat-
We took a documentary approach. It allowed for them to live their real lives — and that’s uncensored, so they’re dealing with superheavy stuff.”