' ' Cinema Romantico: Pitch Meeting: Sonic Espionage

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Pitch Meeting: Sonic Espionage

Last year The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the excellent “Say Nothing”, released a fabulous podcast in which he explored the rumor that The Scorpions’ 1990 song “Wind of Change” was, in fact, written by the CIA as covert Cold War propaganda. I will not spoil the end in case you haven’t listened to it and podcasts are your thing, but I can’t recommend it enough. In fact, the other day I was recommending it to my friend John, leading us to envision the whole scenario, dreaming up images of a recording studio deep in the bowels of Central Intelligence, a few agents crowded around a microphone, like one of those Saturday Night Live We Are the World spoofs. That naturally led us even further, to imagining it as a movie. And while Hulu has already landed the rights to adapt “Wind of Change”, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of a straight podcast-to-screen adaptation anyway. No, I was thinking of something else.

I was thinking of a prodigy, one who enlisted in the CIA in his early 20s, a prodigy named Sean White (Kevin Corrigan), nicknamed The Wizard for his unlikely role as Langley’s premiere songwriter, having secretly penned “Wind of Change” by The Scorpions to help fuel the end of the Cold War and “Courtesy of The Red, White and Blue” by Toby Keith to help solidify the Patriot Act. In recent years, though, the Wizard has run out of magic. His attempts to write anti-Hugo Chavez and anti-Raul Castro rock songs for Venezuela and Cuba, respectively, failed to achieve similar success. “Rote,” Sean overhears one operative say at a Langley urinal of his latter day work. Still, when the CIA requests musical intervention in Hong Kong in response to China’s crackdown, CIA Captain Joe Geckle (Matt Malloy) enlists The Wizard nonetheless. “This is your last best chance,” says Geckle. 

Meanwhile, Rebekah Bowlin (Abbi Jacobson), barista at the Langley Starbucks (culled from a Washington Post piece by Emily Wax-Thibodeaux), finds herself commiserating with frequent customer Sean over the coffee shop’s milquetoast choice of music. Taking this to heart, Rebekah convinces her overworked shift manager (Burl Moseley) to let her set up shop one Friday afternoon and provide a little live music. Drawing on her love of Cantopop, she plays a few original songs composed on her synthesizer, one of which Sean overhears as he enters for a shot of espresso to get him through another marathon songwriting session. His ears perk up. “What’s that?” Sean wonders. “That’s Cantopop,” says Rebekah. “Cantopop?” Sean asks. “Some people call it HK-pop,” Rebekah explains. “You know, Hong Kong-pop music.” Realizing the code might have just been cracked, Sean convinces Geckle to enlist Rebekah as his songwriting partner, transforming “Sonic Espionage” into “Music and Lyrics” at the CIA.

Together, Rebekah and Sean compose a Cantopop song of covert democratic propaganda, Free Girl, an ode to Anita Mui’s “Bad Girl.” And, after tryouts within the farm, they enlist junior CIA officer Samantha Xǔ (Angelababy) as their frontwoman. But as the trio records and fine-tunes their track ahead of a Hong Kong music festival secretly put on by the CIA under the guise of being administered by a jailed rock producer Karl Matterhorn (Michael Shannon) seeking a reduced sentence, Geckle begins to fear Samantha Xǔ might be a double agent while the CIA task force commander, Rick Fernstrom (Kurt Russell), overseeing the whole op, who fronts a 70s and 80s rock cover band – The Ruff Ryders – in his everyday life, expresses concern that Sean and Rebekah’s song is not overtly patriotic enough. “I was thinking a cross between Vixen and Uriah Heep,” he says. Rick names himself third songwriter and assumes creative control as Sean explains to Rebekah the need for artistic secret intelligence compromise. Disillusioned, Rebekah returns to Starbucks.

At the festival, just before Samantha takes the stage to sing Rick’s song, she confesses to Sean that she doesn’t think it will help turn the tide. “And ye shall know the truth,” Sean says quoting the CIA’s unofficial motto, “and the truth shall make you free.” Samantha takes the stage and performs their song rather than Rick’s, leading he and Geckle to momentarily believe she is a double agent, seeking to shut down the concert...until they see the crowd react, carried away by the melody and the message. At the Langley Starbucks, Rebekah’s shift manager shows her a clip of Samantha’s performance uploaded to YouTube. “Have you heard of this song?” he asks. “It sounds a lot like one of yours.” “No,” she says, smiling. “Never have.” 

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