Saturday, August 08, 2009

The short life and tragic death of Jonathan Brandis

Once upon a time in Connecticut, there lived a charming little boy wonder named Jonathan Brandis. Jon expressed an interest in the arts from a very early age, and had a strong desire to be an actor. In seemingly no time at all, Jonathan found himself in countless commercials. His parents supported his ambitions and the family moved to Los Angeles, where Jonathan made his mark performing several television guest spots and made his entry into the movie world in films such as Stephen King's "It" and "The Neverending Story 2".

It was Jonathan's role in the 1992 teen comedy "Ladybugs" with Rodney Dangerfield that brought him to the attention of screaming teen girls everywhere, and when Stephen Spielberg cast him in the sci-fi TV series "SeaQuest DSV", the rest was history.

During the early 90s, there was not a teen rag that didn't have Jonathan on the cover, where he dominated the scene as the top ranking teen idol of that time, a position reinforced by the fact that every teen idol magazine in which he appeared not only featured multiple pinups, but the centerfold and a non-stop slew of articles chronicling all aspects of Jonathan's life - from his close relationship to his parents as an only child to his prom night, which he attended with Brittany Murphy.

Jonathan wasn't your typical teen idol. Sure, he had the dazzling blue eyes and the ever-present charisma, but he was clearly a deep thinker and a man who had his own way of doing things. During the 90s, his longterm girlfriend at the time was Tatyana Ali from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and he was proud of his interracial romance (Unfortunately, even by today's standards you don't see that often). Jonathan was one of the most prolific autograph signers and letter writers. Despite receiving 4,000 pieces of fan mail a week from around the world, he took every opportunity to return a letter to fans or sign a photo wherever possible. He even had his own advice column in teen magazines and enjoyed a tremendously positive reputation. Jonathan was not part of the wild teen star scene and was a low key character who stayed away from the party and drug scene while trying to remain as accessible as possible to his adoring public. The possibilities for his future seemed endless.

Fast forward to 1997. Jonathan's run as the boy genius with the pet dolphin aboard SeaQuest ended, and Jonathan found himself struggling for parts. Much of the mainstream public wasn't aware, but he was still actively working. He continued acting via made-for-TV movies and independent films and bit parts in larger films including Hart's War (starring Colin Farrell and Bruce Willis, which Jonathan had high hopes for resuscitating his career). Sadly and through no fault of his own, that role ended up on the cutting room floor. George Lucas auditioned him for the role of young adult Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones. The part eventually went to Hayden Christensen.

I vividly remember sitting at my computer in 2004 digging for entertainment updates. This was in the days before blogging had become all the rage, and while reading news on the E! news website, I saw a single line "Jonathan Brandis, star of SeaQuest DSV, committed suicide by hanging at the age of 27." At first I thought it was a rumor, so I Googled it only to find one other location reporting it, a small newspaper based in Middle America. Eventually the news would be confirmed as true.

I remembered Jonathan well, like any other girl growing up during that era, I thought I would end up marrying him. I couldn't believe that someone with such astronomical fame had been reduced to not being worth more than a few words in a sentence on E!, without a picture or any other mention. To put it into perspective, if Zac Efron died in 15 years, would he have this to look forward to? Seeing Zac, one can't help but think of the similarities. Both were a little too pretty, multi-talented and underestimated, proud of their girlfriends, bore big flashy grins, positive attitudes and endless charm, and were squeaky clean compared to their counterparts.

If you ever see the last known photograph of Jonathan, he was stopped by a fan a few days prior to his death where he posed for a photograph. Looking at the picture, I can honestly say as big a fan as my teenage self had been, I would have never recognized him. He didn't look like the Jonathan I had remembered - his face had filled out, he wore scruffy facial hair, and frankly looked a bit out of sorts. I probably did pass him numerous times on the street, unbeknownst to me he lived a few blocks away from my then West Hollywood apartment and in my favorite neighborhood.

No matter how much one tries, they can never understand what it is to go from thousands of pieces of fan mail a week to walking down a street unrecognizable and forgotten. Apparently, Jonathan's suicide came with a few friends in another room. He had come back from an outing flustered, and threw a rope over the rafters of the hallway in his apartment complex completely sober. By the time his friends found him, he was unconscious, and died from his injuries the following day.

The only magazine that took the time to remember his life in any way was People magazine, who wrote a half-page article on him. Apparently, he wasn't important enough to make it on mainstream entertainment news programs, even though he once ruled the world for an era of teen girls everywhere. Are teen idols really a dime a dozen? How can anyone be on top of the world one day and forgotten the next and maintain the sanity to live a quality life afterwards? I am reminded of one of my all-time favorite films, 1950's "Sunset Boulevard", which gave us the iconic character of Norma Desmond - the aging film star forgotten by the world who mentally unwinds in her Sunset Blvd mansion after discovering the extent of her public neglect. Clearly, here-on-day-gone-tomorrow in Tinseltown is nothing new.

Suicide can touch the lives of just about anyone. Upon researching, I found a few old advice columns Jonathan Brandis wrote in teen magazines. A few people wrote in about contemplating suicide, and he claimed such topics were among the hardest he could ever read. He advised that they call the suicide prevention hotline, something he sadly didn't choose in the end. By all accounts, Jonathan was a good kid from a loving home, not the typical child star with the forceful stage parents and didn't have a long history of addiction, and took his life free of any drug or alcohol impairment. He also had aspirations as a writer and director which we will never see fully realized. In an uncharacteristic move, I wrote a letter to his parents. I remembered he was an only child and couldn't imagine how anyone could make that choice without taking that into account, not to mention the many good friends Jonathan seemed surrounded by who would ultimately be so profoundly affected. His mother wrote me back (in true Brandis fashion) and seemed touched her son was remembered and that the time was taken to write. She said Jonathan was the light of her life and would be, and sent a laminated card of Jonathan in his later years, smiling, with the dates of his birth and death. Above his picture, the card was titled "Fade to Black: Gone but far from forgotten".

To this day, many people don't even know he passed, despite it having been five years. However, several fans picked up the torch and created online website memorials, and became a suicide prevention site as well as an online testamonial to a beautiful life. We are all left to wonder what could have been, and fated to contemplate how something so awful could have happened to such a once-hopeful and optimistic young man. Jonathan made tremendous contributions to the film and television industry with his enormous talent and will be sorely missed and indeed remembered by those whose lives he touched. He is forever chrystallized on film as the young boy with the bluest of eyes and the biggest of dreams.


To those contemplating suicide - Please take the advice Jon didn't and call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), a free 24-hour suicide prevention hotline. No matter how much you think people won't notice or care, they will. It's never too late.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

"There's something wrong with (fill in the blank and leave Esther out of it)"

Adoption advocacy groups are in an uproar over the release of the thriller "Orphan", claiming it deters people from wanting to adopt.

Any person who would halt adopting due to a Hollywood blockbuster clearly has no business adopting in the first place.

I guess this means we shouldn't swim in the ocean, never feed our pets after midnight, and stick to hanging garlic outside our bedrooms. While we're at it, we might as well not watch TV, we might get sucked into a vortex and be stuck in TV Land for eternity.

Any time some advocate group pipes up with this kind of nonsense because of a film, I just want to say "Congratulations! You must made this movie a guaranteed hit!"

Monday, August 03, 2009

A Tribute to John Williams

No, he's not dead (thankfully). However, John Williams is one of my all-time favorite artists and someone I believe had he been born any other time would be considered one of the great composers of all time. Because we are living in a modern age and movie composers don't quite get their due or rightful appreciation: John - this one's for you.

John Williams is my musical god. Some of you may not know him by name but you would certainly know him by ear. He is the composer of some of the greatest movie scores of all time and is to blame for bringing us the music to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jaws, Home Alone, Schindler’s List, Empire of the Sun, Hook, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, and countless other masterpieces – including the theme of the Olympic games and NBC Nightly News. John Williams also wrote a composition specifically for President Obama’s inauguration which was played right before he took the presidential oath.

I wanted to pay tribute to this man, who I consider the Beethoven of our time. If he had been born 400 years ago, we’d still be listening to his music today. While I am glad he was born in present day, it saddens me to think that when we lose this genius, his work will be lost to time and his resounding themes will probably not be played several centuries from now. I consider him one of the great musical masters and I wish his work could live on in infamy. John Williams themes aren't just vital to film history, they stand alone as prodigious pieces of triumph, terror, joy, and heartbreak on your radio or iPod just the same.

What would these great movies be without John William’s music, which perfectly captures and evokes the feelings and emotions of these cinematic gems? I don’t think any of these movies would be what they are without his contributions. E.T. was actually written as a completely different film until John Williams wrote the captivating soundtrack which caused a complete rewrite of the film and an entirely different change of direction. Our images of Jaws, the beastly man eater, wouldn’t be complete without his haunting theme. Visions of Jedi and Sith wielding light sabers to any other music would be a travesty. “Duel of the Fates” made Phantom Menace worth it.

No doubt, I was familiar with John Williams themes as a child growing up in the 80’s. However, my first specific recollection of his music and it’s effect on me was when I saw Empire of the Sun in school in fifth grade. I was too young to understand the movie (and am a bit shocked such a violent film was played in class, at a Catholic school no less) but I remember being completely floored by the soundtrack, particularly “Toy Planes, Home, and Hearth” which I thought was the most beautiful tragic piece of music I’d ever heard. I went out and bought the soundtrack and used to listen to it on my headphones, tears flowing every time. That probably wasn’t normal, haha, but I couldn’t help it. I was so moved by the piece and the power of the composition.

I began collecting John Williams soundtracks and soon amassed quite a collection. John kept giving me so much to work with. Home Alone was one of my favorite childhood films. I absolutely loved the soundtrack, which I considered heavily influenced by my all time favorite song – The Nutcracker Suite. Such songs are in the tradition of 'neoromanticism', which I can never quite get enough of. There is a beautiful haunting melody on the Home Alone soundtrack CD that doesn’t completely make it’s way to the film that is mind boggling.

Hook and Jurassic Park also took my breath away.

I had the opportunity to see John Williams perform some of his classic film scores at the Hollywood Bowl and never made it out. It’s one of the few regrets I have in life. For those fortunate enough to have an opportunity to see John perform live, I urge you to go - I’ve seen performance clips of the show on YouTube and it’s awe-inspiring. He also plays from time to time in other major cities, please check him out of he comes to your area, I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

As some of you know, The Legend of Zelda is one of my favorite theme songs of all time. There is an orchestral version that exists and is available for download on file-sharing sites or can be viewed on YouTube. It is mistakenly attributed to John Williams, but is actually played by the amazing Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra which redid several classic video game themes into sweeping soundtracks available on a rare multi-disc set. However, it’s easy to see the similarities between the Zelda theme and classic John Williams compositions, especially when you hear the orchestral version which is so epic. The composer of the Zelda music, Koji Kondo, unsurprisingly lists John Williams as his main influence musically. John Williams has involved himself in some surprising projects in the past so I suppose it isn’t completely unrealistic to assume how this rumor may have been started.

The hallmark of a John Williams soundtrack is that one feels completely overwhelmed and invincible after hearing it. It will make you cry, get chills all over your body, or send your heart racing even when you are in your car listening to a soundtrack CD. There is truly no other individual I would rather listen to. I credit Steven Spielberg for hearing one of John’s early soundtracks and recognizing his potential, wanting him to be the person to compose for his films. It takes a great to know a great.

A few fun John Williams facts:

One of John William’s sons replaced the lead singer of Toto.

John Williams has been nominated for 45 Oscars for his soundtracks, and only won 5 (He is the only living individual to receive that many nominations).

As John gets older, I shudder to think of a world without him. His impact on my life has been beyond measure. I’m sure my love affair with the movies was in part due to those very compositions that changed me profoundly. While he clearly isn’t reading this, I just want to send some great karmic vibes into the universe for him and let him know how much he is appreciated and that he is singular. No one can replace him. To me, his name is right up there with the all time greats where he belongs. None of those movies would be the same without him.

Many orchestras, bands, symphonies, and artists have been inspired by John Williams and have countless performances on YouTube, including compositions conducted by John himself. I am adding a few links of some incredible performances for your viewing pleasure, I encourage you to check them out – they are well worth it.

Thanks, John. You are truly and simply, THE MAN.

Additional links to amazing John Williams compositions. (Must click!)
Watch these and imagine what those films would be without the amazing scores they were blessed with: (Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T. orchestral) (Phantom Menace Soundtrack orchestral) (for the Harry Potter fans)

Even Puerto Rico gives mad love to John Williams: (Jurassic Park Boricua Style!)

And, if you really want to dork out: