Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Simon Napeir Bell Is Helping To Change Our World

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To be honest, just the ability to keep going. I’m not someone to be proud, I’m just happy to be able to have something to do that interests me and to continue to be able to do it. If we can replace the word ‘proud’ with ‘satisfied’, then it’s all those occasions when, as a manager, I’ve been able to help young artists realize their ambitions, and as a film maker whenever I think I’ve told a story well and compellingly, so that the viewer has both been gripped to watch to the end and has learnt something. As a writer, I think what I most enjoy most is having made the reader laugh.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Simon Robert Napier-Bell.

Simon Robert Napier-Bell is an English record producer, music manager, author and journalist. At different times, he has managed artists as diverse as the Yardbirds, John’s Children, Marc Bolan, Japan, London, Ultravox, Boney M, Sinitta, Wham!, Blue Mercedes, Alsou and Candi Staton, among others.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I grew up in London just after the 2nd world war (I was six when it ended). My father was a documentary film director so from the age of five or six he was teaching me about films — taking me to art house cinemas to see French and Italian movies, and to the National Film Theatre. I was crazy about films and books — read everything I could get my hands on, not just children’s books but by the age of 10 or 11, most adult books too. But at the age of 12 I discovered jazz. I was given a trumpet for Christmas and for the next five years played it in the school jazz band and orchestra, read books on jazz, and listened to jazz records — Dixieland and New Orleans music to start with but soon progressing to be-bop and modern jazz of all sorts. At 17 I left my boarding school in Dorset, England, and at 18 emigrated to North America, where I earned a living for two years playing trumpet in a dockside tavern in Montreal — not jazz, mostly pop songs. I played for a while in a band led by Chuck Peterson, Oscar Peterson’s brother, who played trumpet and only had one hand. I wasn’t very good, but it was a great gig to have because whenever famous jazz musicians came into town they always met with him — so I met them all too — Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet. But it did nothing for my confidence — it just made me realize how utterly useless my own playing was. So, I gave up.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

My fifty years career in the entertainment business has veered from music to films to books back to music and now back to films again. Currently the most important film for me is my recent one George Michael: Portrait of an Artist. The obvious thing that led me to make that film was that I was George’s manager for three years when he was in Wham!. I was manager of Wham! from 1983 to 1986, took them to China and bought them to America. In fact, the purpose of the China trip, which took a year and a half of going there every month to negotiate, was to jump start them to

the top in America. The group had already had two hits in America before they went to China, but I wanted to find a way to leap from them over all the other new British groups coming into the USA in the 80s. By having them play a concert in Beijing — the first ever Western group ever to play in Communist China — they ended up on all the American news bulletins — ABC, NBC and CB — 24/7 for ten days. After that we went straight from China to booking a stadium tour in the USA, just 12 months after their first American hit. It was those three years with Wham!, and more importantly George Michael, that brought me to making this documentary about his life 35 years later. At the time I started managing Wham! I was having doubts as to whether I’d spent my life well managing pop and rock stars. But George was the sort of artist that made me realize that sending my life that way was thoroughly worthwhile. To have helped him move from being just an aspiring teenager with a love of pop, to being a major star and a creator of such songs as Careless Whisper and Faith, made all the years I’d spend in management feel worthwhile. After I stopped managing him, I continued to watch his progress, both the ups and the downs, with the same fascination that you would a close relative, or a best friend from school. From having spent those three important years with him at the beginning of his career, I felt invested in his story and realized it needed to be told truthfully, with no holds barred, but kindly too — something no other film about him had managed to do.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Obviously, I was influenced by all the film directors I mixed with when I was young. My father’s documentary company was the starting for several top feature directors — Lindsay Anderson, for instance (This Sporting

Life, O Lucky Man, If) and Karel Reisz

(The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sweet Dreams, and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning). But later the director who really taught me the most about film making was Clive Donner. I worked with him on three films, most importantly What’s New Pussycat, where I was music editor and helped put together the film’s score with Burt Bacharach, another wonderful person to work with. So, Clive gets my vote as the person who influenced me most in the film business. But in the music business it was different. I went into it in the 60s and became manager of the Yardbirds, one of the top three British rock groups, the other two being the Stones and the Beatles. I learned a lot about management from the group themselves, in particular Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. From dealing with them — sorting out their two differing personalities while dealing with producing their records and touring America — I learned an enormous amount about what management entailed and how to do it, they weren’t exactly teachers, but they provided me with the all the material I needed to learn from. And back in films — when I was working on the film What’s New Pussycat in Paris in the early 60s, I got quite friendly with Peter O’Toole. I’ve no idea why, I was much younger than him, but he seemed to enjoy chatting with me. He once said — “You don’t seem like someone who needs much advice but one thing I’ll tell you is — never allow yourself to be too far away from a drink.” It’s unfashionable to say it nowadays, but alcohol has been a great friend throughout my life and nearly all the best things I’ve done seemed to have come from some sort of indulgence in it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There’s a great story told by the celebrated British author Cyril Connolly about how, when he finished studying at Oxford and received an honorary first degree, he went to say goodbye to his tutor, who looked at his results on the paper in his hand, sniffed, and then said, “Well Connolly, you now have a clear run to the grave.” It depressed Connolly no end that the most challenging part of his life might have already finished. And try as he might thereafter, he later admitted he never again encountered a high spot as stimulating as his university life. In music business terms, that’s all too easy to relate to. Young music stars have massive success in their 20s but never match it again in later life. The really important thing to do is to try and have challenges ahead of you, whatever age you are. Right from the day I left school and went off to America to be a professional musician, I’ve always tried to look at my life as a story to be told (maybe just to myself), as it happens. If it’s going to have a big, exciting ending, then I must consider everything that happens in it, however important or exciting, must be seen as less so than the really big, interesting ending I plan to give the story. The wonderful thing about the film industry is that being old seems to be a plus. If you write down the names of the 20 top film directors in the world today, it’s surprising how many are over 70, even more surprising how many are over 80 — Ridley Scott, 83, just completed House of Gucci; Martin Scorsese, 80, currently making a film about the Grateful Dead; Roman Polanski, 89, making a new film with Mickey Rourke called The Palace; Clint Eastwood, still directing at over 90. Making films allows you to continue the story of your life in an interesting and optimistic way, as perhaps does politics (as the ages of the current and former presidents of the USA show). In making a film about an artist, as I did with George Michael, it’s important to bear in mind that the artist himself is likely (quite apart from creating great songs), to be aware that his passion for creativity and storytelling is likely to influence many of the situations in his life. With George Michael, his arrest in an LA toilet, should have been a disaster. But by treating it as just part of a longer story to be told, and by making that fabulous about it and talking constructively about it on TV programs rather than with shame, he made it a high spot in an overall story of his life. The same is true of the very public court case with Sony over his recording contract. And his arrest for motoring offences and subsequent imprisonment. From all of these events there’s no doubt he coaxed I have no doubt he purposefully coaxed the maximum dramatic content from them, aware that their impact on his overall story was almost as important as the impact of his songs. So, in analyzing and following his life, and finding reasons for what he did, I always bore in mind that he probably viewed the overall story of his life in the same way as he viewed the overall story of a song. For instance, whether he took his own life or not in the end is open to conjecture, but there’s no denying he would have been well aware of the perfect arch of fate that would see him die on Christmas day having been the writer of one of the greatest Christmas hits ever. So, my main life lesson is — always look at your overall life as an overall story that you’re telling, and make sure it’s a good one.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

Something that anyone gay and British was aware of growing up in the sixties, seventies or eighties was that the only gay people you saw on TV and films were jokey, camp, limp-wristed comedians. Stereotypes that the majority liked to laugh at. They were tolerated as funny freaks. And for a kid growing up who was beginning to realize he was gay; it meant your future was doomed to be the same. Young gay people had no gay role models to look up to. Almost no one in show business came out and said they were gay. Only David Bowie. And Elton John, who said he was bisexual. I grew up in the 50s. By the 60s I was prepared to admit to anyone who asked that I was gay, but I would be very discreet about it, right on till the 80s,by which time I was in my 40s. Researching the film about George I was impressed by the degree he thought it was super important once he came out as gay that he tried to change the perception of gay being acceptable so long as they were amusing and camp. So, while he was endlessly open about his gayness, he absolutely avoided ever behaving in any gay stereo type of way. Today there are many openly gay actors, comedians, and singers — and even more who are openly bisexual. For young gay people the stigma has almost gone. This is a good example of why there is such a need for diversity in film and TV. The same was true of black people in an earlier decade. Movies in the 1930s always portrayed black people in a happy, dancing, shoe-shining image. It took serious actors like Sydney Poitier and Cicely Tyson to begin to change that. And the same has been true about people of Indian heritage too. Gay people necessarily have to be activist, but they should always be open about their sexuality. I think that’s all an actor or celebrity needs to be — the more normal they make being gay seem, the more help they’re helping young deal with it. Likewise, people of colour should resist all attempts to make them fit any particular mold because simply because they have a different coloured skin. Nowadays we’re seeing some of problems that trans people suffer being solved in the same way — competent actors and entertainers of all sorts leading the way to make being trans unremarkable.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I have a new book coming out at the end of the year, Sour Mouth Sweet Bottom, a personal reminiscence of my life. My three previous books have all been strictly about the music business, but this one is about my life in general. And at the start of next year, a previous book I had out in the UK, is being published in the USA for the first time — that is the very opposite. It’s called The Business and it’s a complete history of the music business from the 1700s to today, from sheet music to today’s digital world. Based on that book, I’m also working on a movie series aimed at Netflix that is about the music industry in the 1920 and 30s. A very glossy big budget series — Downton Abbey meets Tin Pan Alley. We are already quite advanced and will go into production in early 2023. I also have a new music company based out of The Netherlands called Amsterdam

Rock Exchange that has just had its first hit single, with a new English singer named Tori McKew. But we’ve also released a hugely well received rock album featuring three members of Status Quo and three f the top Dutch rock musicians. And I have my rock show in Las Vegas — Raiding the Rock Vault. It’s been running now for 8 years and has been voted “Best in Vegas” for each of those 8 years.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud?

To be honest, just the ability to keep going. I’m not someone to be proud, I’m just happy to be able to have something to do that interests me and to continue to be able to do it. If we can replace the word ‘proud’ with ‘satisfied’, then it’s all those occasions when, as a manager, I’ve been able to help young artists realize their ambitions, and as a film maker whenever I think I’ve told a story well and compellingly, so that the viewer has both been gripped to watch to the end and has learnt something. As a writer, I think what I most enjoy most is having made the reader laugh.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Whatever those 5 things are, my guess is that at various times I was told all of them and didn’t bother to listen. I see life as an adventure, and you have to find your own way — for me that’s the rules of the game. I’m not sure that giving out 5 clues at the beginning is a good thing. Young people should have access to all knowledge and experience that has gone before and work out how to use it for themselves. In the digital age, with smartphones and Wikipedia, there’s nothing they can’t find out in five minutes for themselves. If they follow other people’s “5 things worth knowing” rather than working them out for themselves, they’ll never learn anything. At least, not until everything goes wrong for them while they’re doing exactly what one of those “5 things” instructed. Then they’ll realize they shouldn’t have slavishly followed other people’s instructions. But should have worked it all out for themselves.

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

Firstly, obviously, you feel you want to follow your own creative instincts, you feel that should come first. But unless you also pay attention to how the film will be marketed and sold, you could end up with a film than no one sees. So, filmmaking is always a compromise between how you would like it to look and how the financier feels he can best sell it. What is almost never worth considering is what the audience will think of it. You can’t possible second guess their reactions and if you try to you, might as well replace them with an algorithm — because, if you ask them, they can only answer based on their own previous experience of other films. They can’t ask for something they’ve never experienced before, which hopefully is just what your film will be. So do it the way you want it. The big compromises will be with the actors and how they want to perform, or the promoters and how they want to promote it. However, this is my attitude as a film maker, as an artist’s manager, it’s quite different. There, it’s important for me to lose my creative ego and do everything I can to help the artist present himself exactly as he wants to. I cease to be a creator and become facilitator. Though, naturally, a lot of creativity may be used to find the means to facilitate the artist’s needs. But what the public finally get to hear and see should always come from the heart and mind of the artist. Not from me.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I’m old and I’ve been in the business a long time. Most of the people at the top of the Entertainment Industry in all fields are now younger than me. I’m in my 80s, they’re in their 60s or 70s. I’ve already had dinner and breakfasts with a great many of them and I think we’d all agree that as we get older, we get more set in our thinking and our way of operation. So, while it can be hugely fun or reassuring to spend time with them, I don’t usually learn anything new. I find it much more interesting to have meals with people from a completely different field of work — people whose work, and the problems it involves, are novel to me. Someone at the top in education, or a construction engineer building state of the art buildings, or an architect, perhaps even someone in the military. These people are going to interest me more than meeting anyone from the top of the entertainment industry. Or maybe it should someone much younger in the entertainment business, in their mid-30s but already successful, with new ideas about what film and music can achieve. If they need to be older, then someone who’s job has given them experience in areas that mine hasn’t take me. I was once on a flight from Delhi to New York and the man in the next seat was Buckmaster Fuller, the architect. That was the most interesting inflight dinner chat I ever had. Another time, I was next to the president of Burroughs Wellcome, and we realized how little difference there was in the egos of pop stars and Big Pharma research chemists. And once on Concorde I spent four hours next to the President of Austria. But the truth is — the best talks are usually with people who’ve lived more ordinary lives than that. Or just with friends. I think I’d prefer breakfast with one of them if I could, thanks.

How can our readers further follow you online?

I have Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, Twitter and a website. Put my name in a search engine and you’ll find access to all of them.

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Simon Napeir Bell Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.