Book Review: High Concept (Don Simpson And The Hollywood Culture Of Excess) by Charles Fleming

Director Robert Altman once said of his classic 1992 satire ‘The Player’: ‘What we show is a very, very soft indictment of Hollywood’.

Revisiting Charles Fleming’s excellent, coruscating ‘High Concept’, one can easily believe it. It is to the ’80s and ’90s movie scene what Peter Biskind’s ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ was to the ’60s and ’70s.

The main focus of the book is Don Simpson, producer of ‘An Officer And A Gentleman’, ‘Flashdance’, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’, ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Days Of Thunder’. He died in 1996 at the age of just 52.

‘High Concept’ explores this fascinating, contradictory character; an egotistical monster who was also inordinately generous to friends and relatives; a rampant egomaniac and alleged sex pest who was nonetheless haunted by his God-fearing Alaskan upbringing; a producer best known for lowest-common-denominator fodder but described by various people as a creative genius whose 30-page memos to screenwriters became legendary. Many also heralded his uncanny ability to find a screenplay’s crucial flaw.

Both the Simpson character and this book feel incredibly prescient. He comes across as half Trump, half Weinstein. There are endless stories that could have sparked a #MeToo moment had Twitter been around in the late ’80s.

He flourished at a time when corporate skullduggery in the movie business was a given. You could get away with anything as long as the studio was profitable. As Fleming puts it, ‘As long as he didn’t kill anyone he was always going to be welcomed back. If he did kill someone, well, arrangements could be made’ (indeed Stephen Ammerman, a doctor, was found dead at Simpson’s pool house in 1995).

Other people very much in Simpson’s orbit included Heidi Fleiss, OJ Simpson and Kato Kaelin. He was ahead of his time but always went too far. Or, to put it in Simpson-speak, ‘Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. It’s not enough until it’s too much. Because how do you know it’s enough until it’s too much?’ Fad dieting, plastic surgery, Scientology, junk food, kinky sex, prescription drugs, cocaine – they were all meat and drink to him.

Simpson was also always super-competitive, in the classic ‘Wall Street’ style, from day one. Late in his career, he said: ‘Anytime I see someone come into the business who is smart and talented…and likes to go to lunch and dinner…I know he was failed already. He hasn’t got a prayer. Because someone like me is going to run all over him…’

But ‘High Concept’ opens out intriguingly to look beyond Simpson and explore the rampant egos of the entire Planet Hollywood generation, outlining staggering tales of excess involving Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, John Travolta, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Robert Downey Jr., Julia Roberts and Charlie Sheen. Only Eddie Murphy and Tom Cruise emerge with anything approaching dignity.

Fleming – an experienced, respected movie writer who has contributed to Vanity Fair, LA Times, Variety and Newsweek – writes superbly, with natural elan and a swinging turn of phrase. Along with ‘Indecent Exposure’ and ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’, ‘High Concept’ is the best book I’ve read about the darker side of modern Hollywood.

The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way

I recently got hold of Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond’s ‘The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way’ for a quid in my local Amnesty bookshop. Written in 1988, it purports to be a foolproof guide to creating a hit single.

But then you never can tell. It might not be wise to take it too seriously because Cauty and Drummond are very naughty boys. The former was once in ’80s pop agitators Brilliant and Zodiac Mindwarp while the latter is of course an industry veteran, a member of Liverpool proto-punks Big In Japan (also featuring Holly Johnson, Budgie and Ian Broudie) and later the manager of Echo & The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes.

The two pop pranksters got together and made some serious money from their genre-busting (read: nicking bits of other records and stitching them together), giant hits as The KLF, The Timelords and The Justified Ancients Of Mu-Mu, before announcing their retirement very publicly onstage at the 1992 BRIT awards in a hilariously inappropriate send-off.

Two years later, they burnt a million quid on an island off the west coast of Scotland to make a point about…something. Even they didn’t seem to know, as evidenced by this interview with Gay Byrne.

All bluster aside, these days ‘The Manual’ makes for fascinating and weirdly relevant reading. When it comes to the pop biz, it seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. Cauty and Drummond were already rewriting the rules back in 1988 and correctly predicting how chart music would turn out…forever. The following was written when the UK record industry was thriving and studios had never been more popular:

‘It’s obvious that in a very short space of time the Japanese will have delivered the technology and then brought the price of it down so that you can do the whole thing at home. Then you will be able to sod off all that crap about going into studios.’

Then the ‘boys’ seem to predict the whole home recording/laptop thing:

‘A kid with a box of records, two Technics turntables, a sampler and drum machine can have a number one.’

The third aspect that jumps out is the section on ‘trademarking grooves’, especially in the light of the recent Pharrell/Marvin Gaye lawsuit controversy. Cauty and Drummond claim that ‘copywright law…has been developed by whites of European descent – 50 percent for the lyrics, 50 percent for the top-line melody. Groove doesn’t get a look in. If copyright law had been in the hands of blacks of African descent, at least 80 percent would have gone to creators of the groove.’

Controversial and prescient stuff, and cheap at the price (a quid from a charity shop). Ah, the sweet irony. Not sure if it’s going to spawn a hit single though. And where are the lads now? They’re probably doing OK, although Drummond already looked pretty ‘ancient’ in 1994…