The Backstreets Interview-by-email with Broken Poet screenwriter, soundtrack artist, and yes, movie starů Elliott Murphy
May 15, 2020 - By Shawn Poole
Photographs courtesy of Elliott Murphy

Backstreets is proud to present the official world premiere of singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy's film Broken Poet. The movie is now available to purchase via Vimeo for streaming at home, as a special limited-time offer for Backstreets readers.

Based on Murphy's 1985 short story "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the fictional-narrative film focuses on a modern-day search for world-famous 1970s rock star Jake Lion, who may — or may not — have killed himself in Paris back in 1974.

Elliott Murphy co-wrote the film's screenplay with its director, Emilio J. Ruiz, and plays an intriguing, mysterious starring role in the film. The film also features Murphy's longtime friends Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa in cameo roles, playing themselves, and a lot of great Elliott Murphy tunes from various phases of his four-decades-and-counting career.

In addition to permanent online access to the film, everyone who purchases Broken Poet through this Backstreets digital premiere will receive permanent access to a bonus feature created just for us: Elliott Murphy filmed a special "Couch Concert" especially for Backstreets readers, inspired by his longtime association and friendship with Springsteen.

In the 18:45 bonus video, Elliott tells stories and delivers three beautiful solo acoustic performances: his Broken Poet theme song, "Drive All Night" from his 1977 album Just a Story From America (which predated the official release of Springsteen's song of the same title by three years,) and a cover of Springsteen's "Better Days." An intimate experience, like all of his Corona Couch Concerts, with a Boss twist.

This special premiere of Broken Poet was, of course, brought about by the enormous impact that the coronavirus has had on the ability of artists to present their works to homebound audiences. With that in mind, Backstreets is honored to join Elliott Murphy and our friend Joe Amodei, President of Broken Poet's worldwide distributor Virgil Films, in donating a portion of the proceeds from each Broken Poet purchase to the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

In the spirit of this unique, COVID-19-crisis-inspired way of premiering his film, Elliott Murphy also granted an extensive — but safe — interview with Backstreets, while quarantined in his Paris home.

Broken Poet director Emilio Ruiz (L) and Elliott Murphy in Paris

"…'cause every time I look in the mirror, I see some movie star…"
—Elliott Murphy, "Hollywood"

Shawn Poole: While Broken Poet clearly isn't a documentary or biopic about Elliott Murphy, this fictional film — based on your 1985 short story "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" — certainly touches upon some elements of your own life and artistic odyssey. The soundtrack is filled with some of your best material. I also find it intriguing that "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was written several years before you decided in 1989 to move to Paris, where you've lived ever since. So exactly where and how would you say that the story of Jake Lion — or maybe Eric Lion — intersects with the story of Elliott Murphy?

Elliot Murphy: I can swear to you that I never jumped off a bridge into the Seine, if that's what you're getting at! But back to the origin of the story "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"… I often refer to the early 1980s as my "dark period." I had gone through three major labels in the US (Polydor, RCA, and Columbia), and my career in France and Europe was in its early stages. I was lost, and looking back now, I think I turned to writing stories as a sort of therapy.

My first effort was a short story, "Cold and Electric," published in Rolling Stone in 1980. Its main character was a gifted guitarist who had been left behind by "new wave" rock, which was popular at the time. Eventually I expanded that story into a novel, Marty May, which has been published in four languages. From that came a slew of other stories with similar themes: always an outsider in the world of rock 'n' roll, and often with escape at the core of my characters' motivation.

You could say that "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was prophetic, because my own move to France came years later. I eventually found a safe haven in Europe for me and my music, and I was fortunate to build a real life here thanks to the loving encouragement and support of my French wife Françoise (who appears in the film as Christine, the ex-lover of Jake Lion.) So perhaps you could say that my own motivations were the same as Jake Lion, to escape the search for stardom and find peace on a smaller but far more comfortable scale.   

How did the idea of turning your short story into a film originate?

"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was featured in a collection of my short stories called Paris Stories, which was largely based around the theme of Americans in Europe. Eventually that book was translated into Spanish as Historias de Paris, which Emilio Ruiz (the director of Broken Poet) read, and out of the eleven stories in that collection he immediately focused on "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" as promising film material.

How the film Broken Poet, which is an American story in a Paris setting, came to be directed by a Spanish director is just another of the strange and wonderful twists in my own little career.

I played my first show in Spain in 1983, and the response of the public was beyond belief. (Anyone who has had the good fortune to witness a Bruce Springsteen show in Barcelona or Madrid knows what I'm talking about.) This show led to an appearance on a nationwide Spanish TV show The Road to Gold, where I performed three songs live. You have to understand that Franco, who had ruled Spain with an iron hand, had just died in 1975. So Spain was experiencing its first taste of freedom in over 40 years, and discovering the music they had been denied for years was part of that. So my career and especially my live shows continued to grow in Spain to the point where I was playing 40 shows a year there.

In 2017 Jorge Arenillas, a Spanish director, made a documentary film about the re-birth of my career and life in Europe (The Second Act of Elliott Murphy). Bruce Springsteen was interviewed in this film, along with Billy Joel. It was through Jorge that I met Emilio, and the seeds for Broken Poet were planted.        

Elliott Murphy with co-star Joana Preiss and director/co-screenwriter Emilio Ruiz

The screenplay, which you co-wrote with Emilio, makes some significant changes and expansions to your original short story, including changing the gender of the music-journalist and magazine-publisher characters, some of the details regarding Michael O'Keefe's character (his name/nationality,) Jake and his brother (including the brother's name), etc. How and why did these changes come about?

Short stories often make the best source material for films because unlike novels, which often have to be cut down to fit a 90-minute film, there is room for these stories to grow in the script. That was surely the case with Broken Poet. We needed a backstory for Jake Lion's character — where he grew up, and his relationship with his father, who was in the military.

Michael O'Keefe's character was originally a French music biz executive, but I wanted Michael in the film, and there had to be justification. Michael did an astonishing English accent all through the film (and sometimes off camera as well!) and was married to the great Bonnie Raitt for many years — so he understood the world of rock stardom, which was important to me and Emilio. He's also a fine singer-songwriter himself.

And the last thing I wanted was a male-dominated film, so the pseudo-Jann-Wenner character of the Rolling Stone publisher became female in the form of Marissa Berenson, along with the journalist played by French actress Joanna Preiss. Emilio loves The Phantom of the Opera and made some links in Broken Poet. And the phantom's real name was Eric …  

Joana Preiss, Springsteen & Scialfa during the Broken Poet shoot

Some of the scenes in this film feature non-professional actors acting alongside well-established pros like Marisa Berenson, Michael O'Keefe, and Joana Preiss. You took on a major acting role yourself in this film and handled it very well. I know you've acted previously in some other films (including your amazing youthful encounter with the legendary Federico Fellini,) but I think this role especially adds "actor" to your already impressive list of Renaissance man accomplishments as songwriter, performer, novelist, etc.

Did your acting work in this film feel like a major stretch for you, and do you think you'd like to try your hand at some more acting roles in the future?

Well, I'm not a professional actor by any means, but let's just say I'm ready to fill in for any potential film looking for a Harry Dean Stanton kind of character. In fact, I used Harry Dean Stanton's performance in Paris, Texas as my role model while preparing for the film.

I run on a totally different set of values than Jake Lion (or his brother Eric), but it was not a big stretch to play this role, for Jake Lion and I both underwent the trial-by-fire that early and youthful success in the music business brings.

Of course I'm used to memorizing song lyrics (although if anyone out there would like to donate a teleprompter my way, I'm at an age where I'm ready for it!), but learning my lines in the script was challenging. I had the help of my wife Françoise, who is a professional actress and graduated from the French equivalent of Julliard, and we just really kept at it day after day until that script was a temporary part of my DNA. When Michael O'Keefe arrived in Paris, he was really helpful in establishing my character's motivation and emotional footing. So I was surrounded by some very fine actors who set the bar high.       

From the Broken Poet film

How did the idea of having Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa play themselves in the film come about? Were either or both of them already familiar with the short story?

I don't know if either Bruce or Patti had read "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" (although I have sent Bruce a few of my books that I thought might appeal to him, most notably Poetic Justice, which is a neo-Western). But both Emilio and I knew that Broken Poet needed some charmed elements that would plant this fictional rock 'n roll myth of Jake Lion firmly in real time. So I added a scene in which Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa would be interviewed by the Rolling Stone reporter (played by Joanna Preiss) talking about this fictional character, Jake Lion.

When I called Bruce and Patti to explain the film and ask if they might consider playing brief cameo roles, their response was immediate and positive. "Sure," they said, "send us the script." Just like that!

And I can only express my extreme gratitude and joy to both of them. Their appearance in Broken Poet has taken the film into another dimension, as Bruce talks about the pressures of early success while Patti gives an insightful view into the demons so many artists live with.

Elliott Murphy and Bruce Springsteen in 1976, at the CBS Records convention in Los Angeles - photograph courtesy of EM

When we lost the late, great John Prine just last month to COVID-19, many of us were reminded of that notorious "New Dylan" tag that Prine and so many of his fellow singer-songwriters, including you and Springsteen, had to wrestle with in the early 1970s. You've written a bit on your website about how Paul Nelson's review of your debut album and Bruce's sophomore effort in the same 1974 issue of Rolling Stone unwittingly pulled you both into the dreaded "new Dylan" circle. 

Then there was Loudon Wainwright III's quote in a '74 New York Times article: "I'm thinking of forming a New Bob Dylan Club. Me, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Eliott Murphy — we could meet once a year...."

Yet much to your credit, each of you managed to survive all of that silliness by avoiding the obvious pitfall of simply aping Dylan, who of course still looms today as a primary influence over so many. Instead, you each forged your own unique styles and visions, built your own individual versions of artistic success, and managed to maintain and grow relationships with different kinds of audiences over the years.

What was your personal experience of that whole "New Bob Dylan Club" period, and what have you continued to draw from it through the years?

I saw John Prine perform at his last show in Paris (maybe his last show anywhere) just months before he sadly left us. We hadn't seen each other in decades and, of course, we talked about the 'new Bob Dylan' tag, which seemed funny as all of us were now well into our 70s. John and I even talked about playing some shows in Spain on a co-bill, but I suppose that will have to wait for another life.

The most non-sensical thing about the whole "new Dylan" phenomena was that none of us really sounded like each other. But I suppose we were all pushing the lyrical elements of rock and folk into uncharted territory, and Bob Dylan had truly led the way, so there was a viable connection there between us all.

Isn't it ironic that now, some 45 years after my first album Aquashow and Bruce's second album The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle were featured alongside each other in the same issue of Rolling Stone — and as you said, it was because of those reviews that the whole "new Bob Dylan" episode began for Bruce and myself — that in the film Broken Poet a fictional Rolling Stone reporter goes looking for a fictional Jake Lion after gaining resourceful insights from the very real Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa. Bruce even gets into the "new Dylan" thing in the film while talking about Jake Lion.

More than 40 years later

By the way, have you gotten to hear any of the new Dylan tracks he's released in advance recently, with his new album Rough and Rowdy Ways coming out next month? In the past month or so, we've gotten to hear "Murder Most Foul," "I Contain Multitudes," and "False Prophet."  Any thoughts on any of them?

I'm always excited to hear anything new that Bob Dylan releases. "Murder Most Foul" came out just as the quarantine here in Paris was beginning, so every day for a few weeks I would get on the stationary bike in my office and get some exercise while traveling the 17 minutes of that fascinating musical journey. For me, that marvelous song is like Homer's Odyssey — a journey across space and time filled with heroes and villains. Bob sings history with passion, poetry, cadence and chords. Being a bit of a confessional songwriter myself, "I Contain Multitudes" hits home, and "False Prophet" really swings.

Ruiz, Murphy, and Preiss during the filming of Broken Poet

Of course we're all hoping that this current COVID-19 crisis will end as soon as possible.  Whenever it finally does, might we see a new Elliott Murphy record and/or some more tour dates here in the U.S.?

There will be a Broken Poet soundtrack album released sometime in the near future. It will include various versions of the film's theme song, as well as many of the other songs featured in the film. It also will include the ambient music that my son Gaspard Murphy created, along with bits of dialogue.

Live music was one of the first things to go when this terrible crisis hit us, and I imagine it will be one of the last to return, so I'm not sure I'll be playing a lot of shows before 2021. At any rate, I'll wait until it's safe for everybody.

Gaspard, who also is my producer, is telling me that now is the time to start preparing for a new album, so I better get down to work. During these days of confinement I've been doing live "Corona Couch Concerts" on Instagram and Facebook daily. Today [May 10, when this interview was conducted] will be number 52, with over 200 songs sung and played. I barely repeated the songs, so along with everyone who's been tuning in, I've had a real refresher course in the Elliott Murphy lexicon.

But honestly, I haven't found this crisis too inspiring in terms of writing music or fiction. Like everyone else, I'm just trying to stay safe and be a responsible citizen. But I'm sure that in the aftermath of this mind-boggling catastrophe, artists of all kinds — including singer-songwriters — will try to make sense of it all. That's our job.

Click here to purchase the exclusive Backstreets streaming premiere of Broken Poet, starring Elliott Murphy, with special appearances by Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa, along with an exclusive three-song "Couch Concert" bonus feature from Elliott Murphy in his Paris home, with proceeds from each purchase benefiting the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

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