1:13 PM CDT, April 19, 2013
In 2011, Nick Bilton of The New York Times asked Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Steve Jobs, an interesting question: "Did he try to control what you wrote in the book?"
"I anticipated that," Isaacson replied. "But he didn't. He kept surprising me by insisting that he wanted no control over the book. … I honestly kept waiting for him to kill the book, but the more we talked and the more I wrote, he kept getting more and more open and more and more emotional. He encouraged me to talk to everyone, even his adversaries."
Jobs' decision not to control what would emerge as the definitive account of his life might not have been up there with the creation of the iPod, which transformed the way this entire planet listens to music, but it was a typically shrewd decision from a master of creative management. Jobs surely knew his hands-off attitude would attract great writers, for great writers hate meddling subjects, and would allow for a moving, imaginative biography. And Aaron Sorkin's upcoming movie for Sony Pictures about Jobs, based on that very biography, is hotly anticipated, especially after Sorkin said last fall that it would consist entirely of three, 30-minutes scenes, each set backstage at one of three world-changing Apple product launches.
Who is not excited to see that? Could Jobs have come up with that himself? Absolutely not. But consider how well that one crucial decision to back away from creative control, exactly the opposite decision from the one Jobs made in his professional life, has worked out for his legacy.
Not only are there now two Jobs movies kicking around (the other, a fraught indie, stars Ashton Kutcher), but last week the comedy website Funny or Die released "iSteve," a satiric, 78-minute Internet movie that is a Jobs biopic poking fun at all the Jobs biopics. "iSteve," Funny or Die affirmed, was "cut entirely on iMovie."
How nice for Apple. How much Jobs would have enjoyed, and profited from, all this. The current Apple executives, who have been watching their stock price plummet, might yet get another Jobs-fueled bounce.
But the Jobs model is very rare. Especially when it comes to figures from the entertainment industry.
Take the very different decision made by Berry Gordy, the father of Motown Records and, like Jobs, a man who revolutionized the music industry. Gordy changed not only what kinds of people listened to what kinds of music, but his famous catalog, when heard as a whole, functions as a collective manifesto of love and unity that surely protected America from innumerable bursts of rage and violence across the years. That was a Jobsian feat of creative revolution.
But instead of standing back and letting someone else write "Motown: The Musical," which opened a few days ago on Broadway, instead of allowing someone to assess what Motown means to the world, Gordy wrote the book himself, basing the musical on a book he'd written. There are great songs in the show — Jobs and Gordy both had a great stable of products — but no meaningful insight whatsoever. It has the opposite problem of the show and movie "Dreamgirls," which had a juicy Motown story but none of the actual songs. "Motown: The Musical" has the actual songs in abundance but not any kind of story we want to hear or that strikes us as true or revealing.
Gordy, apparently a cognoscente of the truth that dramatic heroes need flaws, does suggest that he made his artists so competitive with each other that, when they got better offers from bigger labels, they became competitive with him. But the most telling moment in the show involves an appearance by Gordy's paranoid lawyer, the central presence of whom is indicative of how far off track Gordy wandered. This attorney tells the almighty father of Motown, the genius who found us Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross, the man whose artists provided the soundtracks to America's car rides, love-making, arguments and celebrations for decade after decade, that there are inaccurate perceptions of Gordy out there and that perceptions, unanswered, always become reality.
No doubt they do. But that is what Gordy is worried about? Heavens, that is the defensive message of spin doctors and image consultants. It has nothing to do with what a man's life and work meant to the world. At the end of his life, Jobs saw that very clearly and moved back behind the curtain, letting others spin his life into posthumous gold. Gordy, apparently, still does not see that consideration. He still is trying to contextualize himself.
Gordy is hardly alone in this mistake. Estates can be yet more controlling than individuals. In June, Cirque du Soleil opens its new Michael Jackson show in Las Vegas, an event that would be far more interesting if the Jackson estate had given Cirque's artists the freedom to tell the whole truth about the King of Pop, controversies and all. Cirque's failed "Elvis" show might still be running if the Presley estate had insisted on a full creative accounting of the man, if Elvis' guardians had done what Jobs did: Find the best in the business in storytelling, open up the vaults and their own hearts, minds and terrors, and get completely out of the way; let someone else tell the story.
Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is on record as not much liking "The Social Network," the 2010 movie also written by Sorkin after a book by Ben Mezrich. By most reasonable assessments, Zuckerberg did not come off so well. It is the kind of thing that a public figure's lawyers try to stop from happening. One understands why.
But "The Social Network" did an enormous amount for the popularity of Facebook and, of course, the Zuckerberg brand. It did far more than any authorized anything ever could. More important, it captures the enormity of what Zuckerberg achieved in a way that its subject could never have managed himself. Zuckerberg got lucky.
Perhaps he'll see that later in life. Perhaps Gordy will see the same light. Of course, the singular brilliance of Jobs was that he saw all this as his life came to an end, and by controlling nothing managed to control everything.
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