01.23.85 THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE


The following interview appeared in a January 1985 issue of The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper...

'No victim of rock' - Sting finds success in acting career...

"I was awake all night, worrying about everything from A to Z," says Sting, 33, his famous blond hair slicked back and tinted the color of tea. "I have a difficult scene with Meryl today. She shoots me."

Sting, the former Gordon Matthew Sumner, leader of British rock group The Police, awaited his fate in the soundstage of London's Elstree Studio, where he was filming his last scene with Meryl Streep in "Plenty." Based on David Hare's highly acclaimed play of 1982, "Plenty" stars Streep as Susan Traherne, a self-destructive World War II resistance member, while Sting plays the supporting role of Mick, a working-class black marketeer whom Streep asks to father her child.

For any actor, the role of Mick would be a plum. For a rock star, it would seem to be a coup. For Sting, however, it is part of a master plan that includes movie stardom.

"Suddenly, everyone is trying to do a movie with Sting," says Keith Addis, executive producer of "The Bride," a new treatment of "The Bride of Frankenstein," starring Sting. "When he read for the part of the doctor in `Bride,' he blew us away. He's got this incredible, instinctual appeal. He's not what you would expect from a rock star. He's articulate and terribly, terribly bright."

Sting appears in the million science-fiction epic "Dune," the film version of the Frank Herbert cult classic, directed by David Lynch, who also directed "The Elephant Man" and "Eraserhead."

Those who search for Sting's spiky blond head amid the special effects, the florid sets and a cast that includes Jose Ferrer, Linda Hunt and Silvana Mangano, may find themselves perplexed, though not completely unsatisfied. All told, Sting, in the character of the villainous Feyd Rautha, is on the screen for about five minutes, most memorably in a scene in which, wearing a leather jockstrap, he steps out of a steam bath, stretches and flattens his stomach.

"Plenty" is scheduled to open in movie theaters next October. "The Bride," starring Sting and Jennifer Beals, is to open nationally in June.

Sting's growing list of film credits represents a departure because his movies have little to do with rock. Sting exemplifies a new, complex breed of rock star, one who, rather than die by rock 'n' roll in the manner of, say, Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix, or even live by it in the gritty, street-smart manner of Bruce Springsteen, has an ironic, even detached, approach to popular music. This type of star, at the same time, has a dilettante's ability to shift from one medium to another, serious and successful in each.

"I have no intention of becoming a victim of the whole rock myth," Sting says. "The mistake that people always make about music groups," he contends, "is they assume that if you're successful, the group becomes a way of life. For me, the band is only a tool in which I express my ideas, not a way of life. As soon as it becomes limited in expressing my ideas, then it's over."

Sting is working on a new album that he is hesitant to call a solo album, although the two other members of The Police will not appear with him, and the group has not played together for nearly a year. Rather than settling for astronomic success as a rock star, Sting is diversifying, marketing that inimitable quality he has called "presence."

Sting is one of the most iridescent rock performers on the scene today: at once youthful and old, angelic and demonic, intellectual and sensual, erudite and crass, his singing voice alternately plaintive and rasping.

His successes in the music field have been noteworthy, with some critics hailing The Police as the most important music group to appear since the Beatles.

In 1983, The Police won two Grammy Awards for their fifth album, 'Synchronicity'. The deceptively saccharine ballad 'Every Breath You Take', written by Sting, won formal honors as Best New Song of the Year and informal honors as the song heard most often on beaches around the world. Sting won, as well, a Grammy for his instrumental rock performance that served as part of the sound track for the film "Brimstone and Treacle," in which he starred. And The Police's rock concert at Shea Stadium topped the attendance figures set a decade earlier by the Beatles. Since 1977, The Police have sold more than 40 million records.

At the same time, Sting has developed a screen persona that openly trades on the covert hostility he projects, though in "Plenty," his seventh film, he plays against type. "This is the first film where I get to make love to a woman," he says.

In "Brimstone and Treacle," for example, an eccentric, low-budget picture, he played a weird young man who accosts strangers on the street while pretending to be a long-lost friend. Before that he had minor parts in several small films, including "Radio On," and a silent part in "Quadrophenia."

For the music business in general, and for Sting in particular, 1976 was a watershed year. Sting met Stewart Copeland, a young American drummer who was beginning a new band called The Police. That was the year that punk music began to surface in England.

Copeland already had a guitarist, Henri Padovani, when he heard Sting's Last Exit group in a Newcastle pub. He was looking for a bass player to make The Police a trio. Copeland, in "Sting," a biography by Barney Cohen, was impressed with Sting's "fantastic presence" and "enormous potential." They met, and the love-hate relationship that has provided much of The Police's creative momentum began.

The Police were punk as long as punk was fashionable, and the punk wave was short-lived. It scared America. Nobody knew how to market it. Radio stations wouldn't pick it up. Worse, the bands themselves suffered terrible growth pains. They couldn't develop quickly or fully enough. Many of them simply broke up after brief and passionate lives together. The Sex Pistols, for example, dissolved during their first American tour.

While punk was coming apart in 1977, The Police were constructing a musical identity of their own. Andy Summers, a guitarist who had played with a number of bands since the mid-1960s, including Eric Burdon and the Animals, took the place of Padovani. Copeland's brother Miles became the group's manager and Stewart moved the band toward reggae, the Jamaican pop music whose eccentric, sensual rhythms were already being adapted by other British groups. It was a move that was to influence the work of The Police tremendously.

By 1978, Sting had written 'Roxanne', a reggae-tinged song about a prostitute. Banned by the BBC it became a sensation.

The executives at A&M record company liked 'Roxanne' and agreed to release The Police's first album, 'Outlandos d'Amour'. But Copeland had a request. "My whole thing about becoming a success in the rock business is that you don't do it by spending money. `Outlandos' cost 00 to make. Time is the essential ingredient for penetrating the marketplace. So I went to A&M and said, `If you put this out, I'll ask for no advance. All I want is your support with advertisements, and I want it released in America. We'll go on tour, but we'll fund it ourselves.'

"We spent a year in ignominious obscurity," says Sting. "But Miles' idea was that without the advance that other rock groups normally get, we would never be in the position of having to pay anyone back if we bombed. We asked, instead, for higher royalties. And since the tour was structured by us, we were always the headliners, another of Miles' rules."

The Police kept at it, and it worked. "Our first album sold 500,000. 'Roxanne' was a hit," says Sting. "I knew we had arrived when I was lying in bed in my hotel room one morning and the window washer outside was whistling 'Roxanne'. I thought, 'Wow, that's market penetration!'"

Between 1978 and 1983, The Police consolidated their position as one of the biggest bands in the rock world. They went on a tour of 37 cities in 20 countries. Sting began to relish performing to large audiences. By 1983, 'Synchronicity', The Police's fifth album was released. 'Synchronicity' was filled with references to Carl Jung, its very title derived from Jung's idea of a collective unconscious.

But if Sting imbues his lyrics with Jungian symbolism, his music sometimes seems disproportionately lightweight. "The music in 'Every Breath You Take', like a lot of my music, is calculatedly light. But the song is quite deceiving," he continues. "The lyrics seem to simper. 'Every breath you take, every move you make, I'll be watching you.' It sounds as if I'm pining for my lost love, but I'm really filled with anger at having been abandoned, and I'm tracking her every move. Instead o f beating people over the head with an idea, I think it's better to get people comfortable, and then you start beating them with the message of how sad you are."

If The Police have managed to stay together, it has not been without a number of well-publicized upheavals. They have not played together for 10 months now. And the other two members of the group will not discuss Sting.

"At this point, the group is not at all important, although it would not be accurate to say that we're defunct," says Sting. "It's a sabbatical. When we feel like working again with each other, we will. On my new album, I've written a couple of songs that have been influenced by Kurt Weill. I'm working with a full orchestra on those, and that wouldn't be suitable for The Police."

Miles Copeland agrees with Sting's assessment. "In terms of the future, the group doesn't plan to be working together until 1986. There'll be a studio album at the beginning of that year, and a live album at the end. We'll let the other bands play themselves out and then come back on top."

But Sting has his sights on something other than singing and acting. "What I'd really like to try at least once is directing," he says. "I watch my directors very carefully."

In preparation for that role, Sting bought the screen rights to "Gormenghast," the second volume of a Gothic literary trilogy by Mervyn Peake that achieved cult status in the late 1960s. This month, BBC radio will present a two-day, three-hour broadcast of his adaptation.

Sting is not alone among rock stars in nursing cinematic ambitions. Thanks in part to the popularity of MTV and the proliferation of rock videos, rock 'n' roll and movies are beginning to merge. Films like "Flashdance" and "Footloose," with their underdeveloped plot lines and overbearing sound tracks, are coming to resemble rock videos, while rock videos, with their increasingly elaborate scenarios, are starting to look more and more like feature films. As the dividing line between film and music blurs, more rock performers are tempted to ignore boundaries altogether.

For Sting and others, rock 'n' roll is no longer the be-all and end-all but simply one medium among many to manipulate. Yet the best rock 'n' roll, like the best of any art form, has been produced by performers who feel an absolute commitment to it, who believe, however naively, that rock possesses an almost redemptive power for themselves and for their fans.

"Of course, Sting is an incredibly talented songwriter," says Lisa Robinson, a syndicated rock columnist. "But it's strange. When the Beatles came along they affected an entire generation in terms of dress and politics. Everyone grew his hair and changed clothes. Sting has not affected people that way. I hate to say this, but Khas become enormously successful because he is safe and knows how to sell."

© The San Francsico Chronicle by John Duka
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