Hollywood Will Listen

I never paid much attention to the artfully manufactured bubble-gum pop Robbie Williams cranked out under the fist of Take That leadman Gary Barlow, so when Williams parted ways with the band in the mid-nineties I found it all-too easy to dismiss him as another moderately-successful musician who had fallen under the twin spell of his own ego and Columbian marching powder.

Flash forward to September 1998, and I was sitting in a nearly-empty Leicester Square movie house with my wife waiting for the matinee to start, when William’s anthem “Millenium” came over the speaker system. I was enthralled. The unforgettable string-figure from John Barry’s superb 1967 James Bond soundtrack for You Only Live Twice was woven throughout the song, and that grabbed me long enough to listen to the lyrics. At its heart the song was an anthem, a heartfelt cri de coeur wherein a jaded star realizes that while celebrity is great, it is going to kill him unless he slows down. Williams could have taken that theme down a darker but better-traveled road, but he chose instead to keep it forward looking and hopeful rather than mournful and hopeless.

Nearly every album he has delivered since (and, make no mistake, Williams is best enjoyed by the album, not by the song) has offered us some combination of Williams’ dark wit accompanied (mostly) by a thumping dance beat, the former aimed as often at himself as at others, and sometimes (“Handsome Man”) in both directions.

Cover of "Swing When You're Winning"
Cover of Swing When You’re Winning

On Swing When You’re Winning, though, Williams took a hard detour into Big Band territory. Channeling his abiding admiration for The Chairman of the Board, Williams followed Harry Connick, Jr. into Sinatra territory, recording fourteen standards from the 40s and 50s with the appropriate (and sometimes misbehaving) assistance of Rupert Everett, Nicole Kidman, Jon Lovitz, Jane Horrocks, and Jonathan Wilkes. Each song is brilliant in its way. Music lovers, though, will dwell over his rendition of “One for My Baby,” sung to the accompaniment of pianist Bill Miller, who played for Sinatra when he recorded the standard fifty years prior at Capitol’s studios in Los Angeles.

All of this is prelude, though, to the anthem Williams placed at the beginning of Swing When You’re Winning. “Hollywood Will Listen,” penned by Williams and longtime collaborator Guy Chambers, is subtly iconic, a musical artifact that is in its execution pure Hollywood big-production, and in its words captures the hopes of every naif who ever walked through a studio gate.

Shamelessly dropping names, but of people he hopes will eventually revere him rather than those he “knows,” Williams plays the part of L.A. newcomer, facing a Tinseltown he knows to be hard and impersonal yet swearing it will eventually be at his feet. Anyone who has ever mustered the courage and confidence to take an audition knows the feeling, and, with the orchestra swelling to dramatic crescendos behind him, Williams almost makes you believe it.

But then he does something even more powerful: he just ends the song. There is no triumphant climax, no musical cue that suggests the dreamer has or will reach his dream. The final chorus ends as almost a fade-out, an anti-climax. You can almost see the orchestra fading out of existence, leaving the singer alone in an empty sound stage into which he has wandered, the dreams echoing away in the face of the cold reality of another casting call, another audition.

Once again, Williams is laughing at his own ambition, letting his aspirations soar but never forgetting that no matter what he brings with him, Hollywood is and ever will be a cruel crap-shoot.

Williams’ anthem, then, is neither a celebration of success nor a blues-laden wallow in failure, but a subtle reflection on the reality of life for dreamers inside the Thirty Mile Zone. This is Southern California in the cold bright light of a winter Monday morning, a tribute to Hollywood-as-dream-machine in the 21st Century.

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Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

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