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Joni Mitchell receives Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song

Since the 1960s, Mitchell has been one of the most influential singer songwriters in popular music. We'll listen back to her 2004 Fresh Air interview.


Other segments from the episode on April 7, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 7, 2023: Interview with Seymour Stein; Interview with Joni Mitchell; Review of Air



This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Today we're remembering Seymour Stein, who died last Sunday at age 80. He was the co-founder of Sire Records, which he ran from 1966 until he stepped down in 2018. We're going to listen to two of our interviews with Stein. Over his long career, he signed a wide range of pioneering artists, from the Ramones and Madonna to Talking Heads, The Pretenders, k.d. lang and Ice-T. Here's a sampling.


RAMONES: (Singing) Beat on the brat. Beat on the brat. Beat on the brat with a baseball bat, oh, yeah, oh, yeah, oh.


MADONNA: (Singing) You must be my lucky star 'cause you shine on me wherever you are. I just think of you, and I start to glow.


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Watch out. You might get what you're after. Cool, babies - strange but not a stranger. I'm an ordinary guy burning down the house. Hold tight.


ICE-T: (Rapping) Six in the morning, police at my door, fresh Adidas squeak across the bathroom floor. Out my back window I make my escape - didn't even get a chance to grab my old-school tape. Mad with no music but happy 'cause free, and the streets to a player is the place to be.


LOU REED: (Singing) He's got nine brothers and sisters. They're brought up on their knees. It's hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs. Pedro dreams of being older and killing the old man, but that's a slim chance. He's going to the boulevard. He's going to end up on the dirty boulevard. He's going out to get the dirty boulevard.


THE PRETENDERS: (Singing) Going to use my arms, going to use my legs, going to use my style, going to use my sidestep, going to use my fingers, going to use my, my, my imagination 'cause I'm going to make you see.

BIANCULLI: Seymour Stein learned the record business at King Records. He was only 14 when he met Syd Nathan, that label's founder. At the time, the young teenager was working at Billboard magazine. Billboard used to host listening sessions where record company owners would play their new recordings and try to persuade Billboard to give them a good review. At one of those sessions, Stein met Syd Nathan. Seymour Stein recalled their first meeting in a conversation with Terry Gross in 2009.


SEYMOUR STEIN: I remember that session, you know, like it was yesterday, and it was over 50 years ago. Syd was there and another record man was there as well. What I remember very clearly was there were a large amount of records to listen to, and the last two or three were on the Jubilee label. And one of the reporters said, oh, I hear Jubilee Records is going out of business. Why should we even bother with these records? He said, I'm sure - you know, Syd is getting a little bored here. And Syd said - and the way he spoke, you know, he said, (imitating Syd Nathan) look; what if I wasn't here? Would you talk that way about me? Listen to these records.

And so the person said, boy, Jerry Blaine - who was the owner of Jubilee Records - he said he must be a good friend of yours. And he said (imitating Syd Nathan) oh, no, I'm suing the son of a b****.

TERRY GROSS: (Laughter).

STEIN: And he said, but what's right is right, you know? And one of the records actually became a hit. I can't remember - it might have been "White Silver Sands" by Don Rondo or something like that.

GROSS: So how did you get to work for Syd Nathan?

STEIN: He invited me out to spend the summer with him. I was still in high school. I was 15, and I said, yeah, wow. And my parents were a bit - you know, my father was an Orthodox Jew and, you know, just didn't understand all of this. And I'd brought them up to Billboard. And an appointment was made, which I didn't talk to my parents for a couple of weeks. I was so embarrassed that they would, you know, question something that was so wonderful.

And just as they walked into Syd's office, he put out his - my father - cheap cigar, and Sydney immediately reached into his pocket and gave him a Havana, which my father was not used to. And he had my father in his pocket. And he said, well - he said, Seymour here - he's got shellac in his veins. And what a compliment. It meant that, you know, I was a record man, you know, because shellac was the main ingredient in an old 78. And then he explained that to my father. He said, if you don't let him do what he wants to do, he's going to wind up doing nothing. And you'll have to buy him a newspaper route because that's all he'll be good for. And this was April, and my parents rushed home, and when I got home, everything was packed. I wasn't supposed to leave till the end of June when high school was up.

GROSS: So how old were you when you went to work with Syd Nathan at King Records full time?

STEIN: Full time was 1961, '62. So I would have been 19 or just turning 20.

GROSS: Now, one of the things that Syd Nathan did for you after you started working with him at King Records was tell you to change your name. Your real last name was...

STEIN: Oh, I was born with the name Steinbigle - Seymour Steinbigle.

GROSS: And what was wrong with that in Syd Nathan's eyes?

STEIN: It was too long. And he kept asking me to change it. And I didn't want to hurt my father's feelings. My father was the eldest son and both his brothers had changed their name, had shortened it, but he felt out of respect to his father, he should keep it.

GROSS: So - but you did change it.

STEIN: Well, yes. Not everybody had phones at King Records. People shared phones. As much as three or four people could share a phone at one time. But there was a paging system, and the switchboard operator had one microphone, and Syd had the other one on his desk. And I was being paged at an incoming call. Seymour Steinbigle, pick up the closest phone. Seymour Steinbigle, there's a call. And she was repeating it over and over again. And all of a sudden, Syd's voice came on and he said (imitating Syd Nathan) oh, no, it's Stein or Bigle or back to New York.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STEIN: And I was so - I almost started to cry. I was so embarrassed. And I changed my name. And it - I'm very glad that I did.

GROSS: So you got started at Billboard magazine. Do you ever miss the importance of the charts, the days when, like, Top 40 really meant something?

STEIN: I miss it a lot.

GROSS: What do you miss about it?

STEIN: I miss all the the excitement. I mean, that's how I heard about Billboard. And there was this disc jockey long before rock 'n' roll, Martin Block.



GROSS: Make Believe Ballroom.

STEIN: Exactly. (Singing) It's Make Believe Ballroom time and free to everyone.

Well, I would come back on Saturday mornings from the synagogue and and have my radio sort of under the pillow so my father couldn't hear it when he came home, listening to Martin Block play the Top 25 off of the Billboard chart, and later he started playing, in addition, the Top 5 R&B and the Top 5 country and western. And that's how I got introduced to Johnny Cash and Ray Price and Hank Williams on the one hand, and to some of the R&B records, to my idol, Fats Domino, as well. Radio was very important, and the charts, and they played the Billboard charts. That was what Martin Block played off of. And that's how I knew to go up to Billboard.

GROSS: Seymour Stein, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

STEIN: You're very welcome.

BIANCULLI: Seymour Stein speaking to Terry Gross in 2009. He died last Sunday at age 80. After a break, we'll hear another of their conversations. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening back to our interviews with Seymour Stein, the influential co-founder of Sire Records. He died Sunday. Terry Gross spoke with Stein again in 2018. He had just published his autobiography, called "Siren Song: My Life In Music."


GROSS: Seymour Stein, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In your book, you write, I'm a hitman, a record business entrepreneur. What I'm not is a producer like Phil Spector or Quincy Jones. I can't play any instrument. I can't operate a studio. My exact job description is A&R, artist and repertoire, the old showbusiness term for talent hunting. How do you think not being a musician has been both a shortcoming and an advantage for you?

STEIN: Well, I think that for me it's been somewhat of an advantage because what I listen to first and foremost are the songs. And I always feel that an artist as a performer can always get better and usually does. The same thing with a musician - they usually get stronger, you know, as it goes along. But the songs have to be great from the very beginning, and that's what I've always looked for in all the different categories and fields of music that I've signed artists in. It's always been the songs.

GROSS: You started in the record business at age 15, when Syd Nathan, the founder of King Records, convinced your father to allow you to spend summers in Cincinnati at King's headquarters.

STEIN: Well, no, that's not exactly correct. I started really going up to Billboard when I was 15 years old just to copy down the charts because I had kept the charts religiously from around - when I was about 9 years old, I started writing them down. I would listen to a show called "Make Believe Ballroom," and they would play the Top 25 hits off of the Billboard chart. And I wanted to go backwards and go into the '40s and find out what was going on then. But that brought me to New York. That brought me to Billboard in the Palace Theater building, and that was the center of the music business there. And I saw everything that was going on.

GROSS: You were just really pivotal in the punk movement in America. You signed the Ramones, one of the first punk rock bands. How were you tipped off about them? How did you know to go hear them?

STEIN: I had heard about them from a number of people, but I think mostly from Danny Fields. And I had wanted to go see them a couple of times, but I was in England. And I came back particularly to see them. And I got sick when I was in England, and I couldn't go. So I sent my wife with Danny, and she came back raving.

So the next evening I bundled up, rented a rehearsal studio, and I rented it for an hour. But their set - they must have done, you know, about 18 songs in about 25 minutes. I may exaggerate a little bit, but they were just incredible. I was - it was like nothing else I had ever heard. I started talking to them immediately, and we came to an agreement, a deal right then and there. And two days later they were in the recording studio, and that was it, you know - one of the greatest signings for me and really a great thing for Sire Records.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite track from the Ramones among the records that you put out on Sire?

STEIN: I suppose, you know, what always comes to mind immediately is "Blitzkrieg Bop." There are so many of their songs that I like, but "Blitzkrieg Bop," I think, is my favorite.

GROSS: So let's hear "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones on an album released by Sire Records, which is the label co-created by my guest Seymour Stein, who still has Sire Records.


RAMONES: (Singing) Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho. Let's go. Hey, ho. Let's go. They're forming in a straight line. They're going through a tight wind. The kids are losing their minds - the blitzkrieg bop. They're piling in the back seat. They're generating steam heat. Pulsating to the back beat - the blitzkrieg bop. Hey, ho. Let's go. Shoot them in the back now. What they want, I don't know. They're all revved up and ready to go. They're forming in a straight line. They're going through a tight wind.

GROSS: So that's the Ramones, one of the great bands signed by my guest, Seymour Stein of Sire Records. So - yeah, go ahead.

STEIN: Wait. One correction - I don't still have Sire Records. About a month ago, I left. And...


STEIN: You know - yes. I left Sire. And I left Warner Bros. And I'm now interested in pursuing new objectives.

GROSS: So let's get back to the Ramones. It was very hard for you to get any kind of radio play for the Ramones because why? And we're talking a time when there's - like, there's AM, and there's FM. And FM is more album-oriented then. And AM is still, like, singles. So at the risk of asking the obvious, why was it so hard to get the Ramones some airplay?

STEIN: I think they were kind of misunderstood and not fully appreciated. And that was in the United States. But when we finally got them out of the United States and, you know, touring in England, they were a sensation. In fact, the first gig that they did, a lot of English bands came to see them - the Sex Pistols and The Clash and others. And they were so enthralled with the Ramones that it made them convinced that they could make it, too. And it kind of turned the tide for them. They were also big in other parts of Europe and South America. And it's a shame. They would be playing big theaters in England and then coming back to America and playing, you know, small clubs. It kind of broke my heart. And I'm sure it broke their hearts, too.

GROSS: So one of the things you tried to do to get your bands airplay was to tell your promotion people, don't use the word punk. Use the word new wave. Why did you do that? And was it effective?

STEIN: Well, that really came about with the Talking Heads because they were describing them as punk, and they were the furthest thing from punk. I said, look; New York used to be the absolute center of the music business. And that was maybe 20, 25 years before that. And then, of course, LA came into prominence, San Francisco, Detroit with Motown, and Philadelphia with labels, you know, like Cameo and Parkway and later Philadelphia International. And Memphis and Nashville was growing. And it all took away from the importance of New York. And then I think that this music, which was predominantly coming from New York but not exclusively, was like a new wave for New York. And that's what I called it. And it didn't sound bad, like punk.

GROSS: So let's talk about Talking Heads. You heard them kind of accidentally the first time around. Correct me if I'm wrong. But you went to hear new songs by the Ramones at a club.


GROSS: Talking Heads was opening for them.

STEIN: Yeah.

GROSS: And that's how you heard them.

STEIN: And it was a surprise opening. They weren't supposed to be the opening act. But I had heard about Talking Heads. But they were not spending that much time in New York. They were very early involved in video. And they were working on that. And they were going back to Rhode Island, you know, which is where they went to school. And so they - I missed a lot of their gigs. And Johnny wanted me to hear some new songs live.

GROSS: Johnny Ramone.

STEIN: Johnny Ramone, yes. And so I came down. I investigated what the opening band was going to be. And they were a band called The Shirts, which I had seen and liked but not liked enough to sign. And so I was waiting outside of CBGBs. And all of a sudden, I hear this music. And, I mean, it, like, sucked me into the room. That's how incredibly good it was. I was standing outside with Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith band. And I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was so incredible. I said, this isn't The Shirts. He said, no, no. They got another gig. He said, this is Talking Heads. And, boy, I was just blown away.

GROSS: So I want to play a track from their first album that you released, "Talking Heads: 77." And this is "Psycho Killer," which is such a great track.

STEIN: Fabulous.

GROSS: OK. So let's hear Talking Heads. And this is "Psycho Killer."


TALKING HEADS: (Singing) I can't seem to face up to the facts. I'm tense and nervous, and I can't relax. I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire. Don't touch me. I'm a real live wire. Psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est. (Vocalizing). Better run, run, run run, run, run, run away. Oh, oh, oh, psycho killer, qu'est-ce que c'est. (Vocalizing). Better run, run, run, run, run, run, run away. Oh, oh, oh, oh. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You start a conversation. You can't even finish it. You're talking a lot.

BIANCULLI: That was Talking Heads. Seymour Stein spoke to Terry Gross in 2018. He died last Sunday at age 80. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. Also, we'll hear from Joni Mitchell, who last month received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. And film critic Justin Chang reviews "Air," directed by Ben Affleck. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, sitting in for Terry Gross. Let's return to Terry's 2018 interview with Sire Records co-founder Seymour Stein, who died last Sunday at age 80. Among the many acts he discovered and signed include the Ramones, Ice-T, Talking Heads and a certain ultimately very famous material girl. He was in the hospital when he signed her.

STEIN: Well, let's go back a little before that. Mark Kamins was someone that I thought had a lot of potential as a producer, a scout and everything. And the third or fourth artist he brought me was Madonna. And he brought the record to me while I was in the hospital. This - I was there about a week and a half when he came to see me, and he played me this one track, "Everybody" by Madonna, and I was totally blown away. And so I said, look. I'd like to see her. I'm going to be here for another almost three weeks. Try to bring her down here so I can meet her and we can, you know, do a deal.

So he goes away and calls me up at 5 o'clock and says, Madonna and I are coming to see you at 8 o'clock. And here I was, you know, laying in this hospital uniform and a mess, you know, and I probably hadn't taken a shower in a few days and all that 'cause they had to take all the needles out of me. I freaked out. I had somebody come and shave me and cut my hair and look the best I could in 2.5 hours before she got there.

But when she came, when I saw her, I realized that the way she spoke - first, she's amazing. But she wanted a shot more than anything. And I wanted to give her that shot 'cause I totally believed in her. So we spoke about a deal, and we agreed on a deal for recordings. And she walked out of there very happy. And I went to bed very happy that night, and that was great. And later, I learned that she had been trying to get a deal for over two years. And people like Chris Blackwell, who was somebody that I have the greatest...

BIANCULLI: He ran Island Records.

STEIN: Yeah, he owned Island Records and ran it - had turned her down, and other people had turned her down. I couldn't believe it because to me, it was a no-brainer. And it was a great day in my life.

GROSS: So of the early tracks that you recorded with her, do you have a favorite?

STEIN: I think that the song I liked best and was really the song that became the one that launched her most was "Borderline." I loved it. But I liked everything that she did.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "Borderline"? Seymour Stein, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for signing the bands that you signed.

STEIN: I appreciate it very much.


MADONNA: (Singing) Something in the way you love me won't let me be. I don't want to be your prisoner, so, baby, won't you set me free? Stop playing with my heart. Finish what you start when you make my love come down. If you want me, let me know. Baby, let it show. Honey, don't you fool around. Just try to understand I've given all I can 'cause you got the best of me. Borderline. Feels like I'm going to lose my mind. You just keep on pushing my love over the borderline.

BIANCULLI: That was Madonna. Seymour Stein spoke to Terry Gross in 2018. The co-founder of Sire Records died last Sunday at age 80. After a break, we listen to an archive interview with Joni Mitchell, who was recently honored by the Library of Congress for her songwriting. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Since the late 1960s, Joni Mitchell has been one of the most influential singer songwriters in popular music. Her songs include "The Circle Game," "Both Sides, Now," "Carey," "Help Me," "Free Man In Paris" and "Big Yellow Taxi," to name just a few. Last month, she received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song and was honored and performed at a concert televised on PBS last week.

We're going to listen to an excerpt of Terry's interview with her from 2004. At the time, Mitchell had put together two compilations of her work, "Dreamland" and the "Beginning Of Survival." They began with her song "The Magdalene Laundries." These are the laundries run by strict nuns to which young Irish women were sent, where they became virtual prisoners. They were sent because they were unwed and pregnant, had been raped or were considered too flirtatious. Terry asked Joni Mitchell how she wrote that song.


JONI MITCHELL: The thing that sparked the song was my - I have a property in Canada by the ocean, and I have a caretaker there who is a Dane (ph). And he said to me one day, you know, Joni - he said, you're a basically cheerful person, but you write these melancholy songs. I think it's because you stay up late at night. You should write something during the day. So I went out on the point, and I came up with that music for "The Magdalene Laundries," which sounds very much like the spot that it was created in - and water and birds and so on.

Then I went in to get some groceries, and I bought a newspaper. I came back, and on the front page of the newspaper, there was an article about the sisters in a Magdalene Laundries in Dublin selling off an acreage to realtors. And while they were grading to build something on it, they unearthed over a hundred unmarked graves, women's graves, marked Magdalene of the tears, Magdalene of the sorrows. So they had gone - Catholic girls, too, and consecrated into the ground without even their names on them. So then I - well, I wrote the song with a lot of empathy, and, to a degree, imagination from just a little bit that was mentioned about them in this newspaper article.

TERRY GROSS: Well, let's hear this song, "The Magdalene Laundries," written by - written and performed by Joni Mitchell and featured on her new compilation, "The Beginning Of Survival."


MITCHELL: (Singing) I was an unmarried girl. I'd just turned 27 when they sent me to the sisters for the way men looked at me. Branded as a Jezebel, I knew I was not bound for heaven. I'd be cast in shame into the Magdalene laundries. Most girls come here pregnant, some by their own fathers. Bridget got that belly by her parish priest. We're trying to get things white as snow, all of us woe-begotten daughters, in the streaming stains of the Magdalene laundries.

GROSS: That's Joni Mitchell recorded in 1994, and that song is featured on her new compilation, "The Beginning Of Survival." Now, my understanding is that you're not writing or performing now that you're on a...


GROSS: ...Hiatus from writing and performing. Do you miss it? I mean, like, are you singing at home even though you're not performing on stage?

MITCHELL: No, I can think of nothing to raise my voice in song to at this particular time. I don't want to write social criticism. I don't want to write angry songs. I'm waiting for something to happen, I guess, within me. I've said, and I think there's an element of truth or maybe it's very true, that I wrote songs from the time that I lost my daughter until the time she came back. And since my family has returned to me, I don't write anymore. It seemed like I mothered the world until I got my own family to, you know, mother or befriend.

GROSS: Can we explain what you mean by that? When - in 1964, you were pregnant out of wedlock, and you - I guess this would have been a big scandal at the time, yes?

MITCHELL: It was in 1965. I gave birth to a girl. The traditional way of dealing with it in those days was the child would be taken away, and you didn't see her, and that made it - and placed up for adoption. But in 1965, in the city of Toronto, girls came from just about every city in Canada to give birth to these children in the anonymity of the city. The - you know, it was the year before the pill was available, but the movies had gotten very sexy. So there was a moral shift, you know, that was taking place. And Toronto - there were more babies than there were adoptive parents available at that time.

GROSS: Right. I'd like to talk a little bit about how you think your voice has changed in the years that you've performed. You used to sing a lot in a high kind of falsetto voice, and then your voice really deepened. Part of that was age, probably part of that was cigarettes. You know, one of the songs on the new CD "Dreamland" is a fairly recent version - I think it's from 2000 - of "Both Sides Now." So I thought it would be interesting to hear that orchestral version from 2000 - you have a full orchestra behind you - back to back with the original version and hear not only how your voice changed, but also how you interpret the song differently. It's - I think it's a darker song. It's a slower song...

MITCHELL: But here's the other thing...

GROSS: ...And - when you sing it later, and you've also changed some of the melody around, you're kind of almost, like, improvising within the melody in the 2000 version.

MITCHELL: But here's the other thing. It's like I have - you know, Wayne Shorter comes in and plays with me. He's got a tenor, and he's got an alto horn. And depending on the piece of music, he uses the tenor, or he uses the alto horn. So I mean, a lot of the very high end is gone. It's just gone. That happens with opera singers that don't smoke over 50. Opera singers sometimes retire. But I do have this rich alto voice, which is unharmed. You know, I'll never be able to trade guitar licks, you know, to mimic a guitar again, that's - way up in the stratosphere like that. But still, you know, I mean, a lot of people didn't like that little squeaky girl on helium anyway. I mean, it does sound very - it's very suitable for ingenue roles. But I think that the alto horn, if I may use that terminology, you know, brings a different perspective to some of these songs that I frankly like better and so do many other people.

GROSS: Why don't we hear these two versions of "Both Sides Now" back to back just because I think it's really interesting to compare what you do with the song both times? So why don't we give that a listen?



MITCHELL: (Singing) Rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air and feather canyons everywhere - I've looked at clouds that way. But now they only block the sun. They rain and snow on everyone. So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way. I've looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down. And still somehow, it's cloud illusions I recall. I really don't know clouds at all.


MITCHELL: (Singing) Rows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air and feather canyons everywhere - I've looked at clouds that way. But now they only block the sun. They rain and they snow on everyone. So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way. I've looked at clouds from both sides now, from up and down. And still somehow, it's cloud illusions I recall. I really don't know clouds at all.

GROSS: That's Joni Mitchell. We heard the original version of "Both Sides Now" and the 2000 version, which is included on her new anthology, "Dreamland." It always struck me that "Both Sides Now" was the kind of song about, you know, growing older and wiser and therefore seeing things a little differently. And, of course, you wrote the song when you were really pretty darn young (laughter). And the 2000 version of it is when you really are older and wiser. And you're looking - and you're singing that song that you wrote, you know, years ago when you were so much younger. And I was wondering if the song meant something different to you when you recorded it in 2000 than when you first recorded it.

MITCHELL: Well, I wrote the song when I was 21. And I didn't feel that it was a successful version. I was - the interesting thing was that the astrological influence, the main thrust on my daughter was that she has to come to grips with fantasy and reality. It just has to do with the time that she was born. And the early work that I did right after her birth was almost like I was raising her because the meditations that I was doing at 21 were on fantasy in reality, which is my daughter's thing to learn here in this life. That whole song was a meditation on fantasy and reality. It begins with - each verse has a very naive beginning verse, and then the second half of the verse is coming to grips with reality. So - but it took a long time. Theatrically speaking, it was, you know, it was just odd, I think, to be singing that song when I was so young. And the meditation was so big. It seemed like I hardly scratched the surface of it, so I never felt it was really successful.

BIANCULLI: Joni Mitchell speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. Last month, she received the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. She was honored in a concert special televised last week on PBS. In June, Joni Mitchell will perform at the Gorge Amphitheater in Washington State with Brandi Carlile. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "Air," the new movie about the campaign by Nike to sign Michael Jordan. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "Air" tells the behind-the-scenes story of how, in 1984, Nike signed a landmark deal with Michael Jordan. The collaboration led to the hugely successful Air Jordan sneaker line. "Air" is the latest from director Ben Affleck, who appears in the film alongside Matt Damon, Jason Bateman, Chris Tucker and Viola Davis. Our film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: 1980s nostalgia has never been stronger, to judge by two new Hollywood movies about landmark '80s business deals that had a huge cultural and commercial impact. "Tetris," now streaming on Apple TV+, is an amusing but lumbering Cold War thriller about how Nintendo secured the rights to the hugely addictive Soviet-invented video game.

By far the better of the two is Ben Affleck's terrifically enjoyable new movie, "Air." It's an over-the-top love letter to the '80s, kicking off with a montage of the decade's most popular trends and celebrities, from Princess Diana to Cabbage Patch Kids, and cramming its soundtrack with hit artists from Violent Femmes to Cyndi Lauper. It's also an underdog movie in which the underdog is Nike itself, an Oregon-based sneaker company that in 1984 is known more for its running shoes than for its basketball shoes. Alex Convery's blisteringly funny script offers a blow-by-blow dramatization of how Nike managed to outmaneuver powerhouse rivals like Converse and Adidas and sign an NBA rookie named Michael Jordan. Their legendary deal would forever change not only Jordan and Nike's fortunes but also the entire landscape of celebrity endorsements and professional sports.

The story centers on Nike's in-house basketball expert, Sonny Vaccaro, played by Matt Damon with a paunch and a lot of polo shirts and presented here as the mastermind behind the deal. Sonny knows more about the game than anyone at the company, but he also has a gambler's impulsiveness that doesn't always pay off. And so when Sonny proposes that Nike go big and offer all of its annual $250,000 basketball budget to Jordan rather than dividing it among three or four players, his colleagues are skeptical, especially since Jordan is a known Adidas fan. Sonny eventually manages to sway top marketing executive Rob Strasser, played by a very good Jason Bateman. But he has a tougher time convincing Nike's CEO, Phil Knight, played by Affleck himself.


MATT DAMON: (As Sonny Vaccaro) I'm willing to bet my career on Michael Jordan.

BEN AFFLECK: (As Phil Knight) Come on, man.

DAMON: (As Sonny Vaccaro) You asked me what I do here. This is what I do. I find you players, and I f***ing feel it this time. OK, It's risky. When you were selling sneakers out of the back of your Plymouth, that was risky. It took b****. I mean, that's why we're all here. Don't change that now. I mean, if you look at him, if you really look at Jordan like I did, you're going to see exactly what I see.

AFFLECK: (As Phil Knight) Which is what?

DAMON: (As Sonny Vaccaro) The most competitive guy I have ever seen. He is a f***ing killer.

CHANG: When Jordan's agent, a hilariously foul-mouthed Chris Messina, refuses to so much as grant Nike a meeting, the hardheaded Sonny finds another way. He decides to drop in on Jordan's parents, specifically to talk to his mom, Deloris, known to be the guiding hand behind her son's decisions. And so Sonny heads out to the suburbs of Wilmington, N.C., and spends a few minutes with Deloris, played by an unsurprisingly superb Viola Davis. She listens as Sonny explains in persuasive detail why Jordan will be just another athlete at Adidas or Converse, whereas Nike will treat him like the superstar he is.


VIOLA DAVIS: (As Deloris Jordan) What should I ask you?

DAMON: (As Sonny Vaccaro) Ask me why I'm in Wilmington, N.C.

DAVIS: (As Deloris Jordan) Why are you in Wilmington, N.C.?

DAMON: (As Sonny Vaccaro) Because I believe in your son. I believe he's different. And I believe you might be the only person on Earth who knows it. That's why I'm in Wilmington, N.C.

DAVIS: (As Deloris Jordan) Well, Mr. Vaccaro, thank you for coming.

CHANG: Sonny's risky move pays off. Once the Jordans agree to take a formal meeting with Nike, "Air" clicks into place as a kind of comic heist thriller in which Sonny and his colleagues all do their part to help close the deal. That gives the movie some resemblance to Affleck's Oscar-winning "Argo," which also turned a moment in history into breezy yet gripping entertainment. But "Air" is also heavily indebted to the walking and talking workplace dramedies of Aaron Sorkin, full of whip-smart cynicism and earnest speechifying. At one point, Sonny gives a genuinely stirring monologue about the singularity of Michael Jordan's greatness, the kind that leaves even other greats in the dust. He's getting at something here about what it means to leave a lasting legacy and how hard it is for even talented people to pull off.

There's a moving subtext to the scenes between Affleck and Damon, two aging Hollywood golden boys who seem to be contemplating their mortality even as their characters do the same. Even more poignant is the casting of two comedians who rose to fame in the '90s but who haven't been as prominent in the movies since. Marlon Wayans plays the Olympic basketball coach George Raveling, and Chris Tucker plays the Nike executive Howard White. Raveling proves instrumental in making the Nike-Jordan deal happen. So, in his way, does White, as one of the few Black men we see in Nike's upper ranks.

"Air" touches on a lot of ideas, though I do wish it'd dive deeper into some of them, especially when it comes to questions of race, culture and exploitation in the sports and shoe industries. At one point, Bateman's character briefly references Nike's use of sweatshop labor in Asia, though the point is quickly glossed over. And late in the game, Deloris Jordan makes the case for why Michael deserves not just a flat fee but a percentage of the Air Jordan revenues, arguing for athletes and their families to get the compensation they deserve. Her speech makes for one of the movie's most rousing moments, and it's almost enough to make you forget that you've been watching a feature-length Nike commercial, one that's far more entertaining than it has any right to be.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed the new movie "Air," directed by Ben Affleck. On Monday's show, Grammy-, Tony- and Emmy-nominated singer and actor Josh Groban. He's playing Sweeney Todd in a new Broadway revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical about a barber out for revenge. Josh Groban has sold millions of records since he first started performing as a singer when he was 17 years old. I hope you can join us.


JOSH GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Speak to me, friend. Whisper. I'll listen. I know, I know you've been locked out of sight all these years, like me, my friend. Well, I've come home to find you waiting - home, and we're together. And we'll...

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


ANNALEIGH ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Mr. Todd.

GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Now with a sigh...

ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Oh, Mr. Todd. You're...

GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) ...You grow...

JOSH GROBAN AND ANNALEIGH ASHFORD: (As Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, singing) ...Warm in my hand.

GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) My friend.

ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) You've come home.

GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) My clever friend.

ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Always had a fondness for you, I did.

GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Rest now, my friend.

ASHFORD: (As Mrs. Lovett, singing) Never you fear, Mr. Todd.

GROBAN: (As Sweeney Todd, singing) Soon I'll unfold you.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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