Donna De Lory has had a fabulous career in music. Aside her own solo career, she's been in and out of Madonna's creative world for decades. Here she answers questions about her new solo record, recording with Madonna and the highlights from her thirty year career.
It must have been great growing up in such a musical family. Did you always know you would end up in the music business?
Yes!!! All I ever wanted to do was sing. It’s really all I knew from being around my father and so many great musical artists growing up.
You were only in your early twenties when you went on board the Who's That Girl tour. Do you remember your first meeting with Madonna? Did you gel straight away?
I had to audition for her and felt intimidated by her strong personality at first. I was nervous because I wanted the job so bad. When I got called to the rehearsal stage and we sang together, I knew our voices were magic and I had a good chance at getting the job. We always had a very professional relationship with a lot of respect for each others' talent.
Musically, I think that's a really great tour. There's a tightness to it. Was it hard work on that tour to keep it so good musically in the face of the mass hysteria?
We rehearsed so much and I loved every minute of it. I was so strong with my dancing and singing so it was not hard. The very first night in Japan I was nervous and thought, maybe I can’t do this... but after the first few bars of music I felt, ah, I was made for this!
How did it compare being a solo artist, when you had your first singles and albums out in the late 80s and early 90s? Was it a more fulfilling experience for you in some ways?
There was so much more responsibility on me to have success and have a hit record right away. It was fulfilling to know I was stepping out as an artist because I know that was what I always wanted to be. Actually what I always dreamed of being was a singer in a band like Stevie Nicks. I had so much more respect for Madonna when I went to tour with her in 1994 after I had released my solo album. It was nice to support her while she made all of the decisions and I just got to sing, dance and dress up in some amazing costumes and have so much fun with the audience.
I think Like A Prayer is Madonna's best album as a whole. What were some of your personal highlights from singing on the album?
I love Cherish and love to hear the way our voices blend on that song.
I'm Breathless is very underrated in my view. Was it fun to work on that one?
Yes because the music was so different, sounds from a different era. The vocal harmonies and style reminded me of old big band records of my mom's that I would listen to as a kid.
It doesn't get any more iconic than Vogue. What are your thoughts on that video and song now? It must have been a great experience.
I love that video! We were all so close and doing such great work. I think we were there around the clock for 2 days straight. I remember how strong that fan was as we danced. We all knew when we got the perfect take. It was a peak memory of my life.
Everyone must ask you mostly about the Blond Ambition tour. Does it often feel like a surreal memory, the sheer scale and iconic status of that tour?
It feels like a dream then I can watch some footage and remember all of the work that went into making that such a spectacle. We were dancing on the world! My daughter who is 16 said to me that she watched "Truth or Dare” and she loved it and could watch it over and over again!
1992 was a big year because you had your first solo record out and you sang on Erotica. How did those two experiences differ?
I spent months on my record writing and recording with different people. There were so many songs that I had written when I got my deal but we had to go with the ones the producers thought would be singles. Once again, it was always inspiring to me what a great songwriter Madonna was and how she would always take a different direction changing her sound. She had gotten to a place in her career then where she could do whatever music she wanted to do. It was refreshing to go work on Erotica to see what music Madonna was making and to be a musician and lend my voice and ideas to it along with Niki Haris who I still work with. Niki and I had a lot of fun singing on that album. Check out our version of Madonna’s Rain...
Out of your own solo albums, which do you like the best and feel the warmest towards? (People ask me this question about my own albums, so I know it's hard to choose.)
The Unchanging because it is a good mix of my artistry, song writing and love for world sacred music.
Bedtime Stories is, at the minute, my personal favourite Madonna album. Was that a good album to be a part of? How did you work your singing parts out on the album with Madonna?
We always started with her ideas then when she heard us sing our parts they could change and expand into something else. Niki and I always wanted to add more harmonies.
You then sang on her Nothing Really Matters single. How much input did you have on it and do you remember the recording well?
Yes, I loved the track and loved working with William Orbit - what a sweetheart and genius. When I first heard the track in the studio, I was blown away by the sounds they created together...
I often feel like the Girlie Show tour gets overlooked. Musically it's really tight. Did you enjoy this tour?
I loved that tour…. Amazing live band. Niki and I were featured in many numbers and that was exciting; it kept us very busy. I loved that version of Vogue.
I really like your The Unchanging album. There are so many varied sounds and vibes on that album. (I love the George Harrison cover.) Was that an enjoyable record to make?
Yes, I loved the recording process with Co-Producer Mac Quayle on a few tracks. He is such an amazing talent and we had so much fun in the studio in his home in Topanga not far from my house. It was also a highlight to travel to Woodstock NY to record with Tony Levin who is Peter Gabriel’s bass player. Peter is my favourite artist. I would love to sing with him one day. I just covered one of his songs, In Your Eyes in another band that I am in called La Machine De Reve.
Your new album is Here in Heaven. It's full of great songs. The production is brilliant too. How was it making this and are you enjoying the feedback from listeners? (I've been listening to it this week and I think it's brilliant.)
Thank you for the great compliment! I love to hear how people feel about the songs from the new album. I have made two videos for Listen and Piano Man and am planning my next one for the song Heaven Remix. This will involve more dancing and fun colourful costumes with an Eastern flare. I am also releasing new remixes every couple of months and plan to do limited edition vinyl as well.
Visit Donna's website for more info on her music:
My new book is out now, a surreal illustrated novella.
BLURB: Watching the Tracks is an illustrated novella by Chris Wade with ideas by Linzi Napier. The story follows Mike, a drifter who's made his way to a small town in England where he will board a train, for reasons he is not quite sure but will soon find out. While travelling he encounters a series of mysterious, nameless characters who reveal their own back stories, though none of them are quite what they seem. This surreal odyssey tells its tale through words and illustrations, revealing new layers as it heads towards its climax.
You can order my book here:
Making a film about Orson Welles is a daunting task. First you have to ask yourself what area of his life and work you are going to cover. Theatre? Radio? Film? His persona? His private life? He's an endlessly rich subject, a gift to any documenter of history. But there are even more important considerations when climbing such a formidable mountain. You also have to ask yourself why. Why make another documentary about a man who's had so many made about him in the past, both while he was alive and posthumously? Why not focus on someone else, someone less sung and praised, an obscure figure that rarely gets singled out? Well the answer to that question, for me at least, is that I am endlessly fascinated by Orson Welles, the man and the artist, the real person and the romanticised figure. I adore his work, yes, but there is a lot more to it than that. I love watching his movies, but I also enjoy reading about him, hearing him speak and learning as much as I can about his marvelous life. Why wouldn't I want to spend some time documenting such a fascinating man?
When I finally plucked up the courage to approach the man in documentary, I realised that the main contacts I had were all men who had met Welles when they were young, which seemed vital to me. Two of them saw Welles as a father-like figure; and he in turn viewed them as sons he never had. For Dorian Bond, Welles' assistant in the sixties and author of a wonderful memoir of his time with him ('Me and Mr Welles', History Press), Welles was a fantastical father who wished to pass on his wisdom, show Dorian the many wonders of the world as they whisked around Europe together, working on exotic film projects that never saw completion. Dorian was kind enough to speak to me for the film and his memories are heart-warming, enlightening and evocative. When he speaks about Welles, I am instantly transported back to the sixties, filming The Merchant of Venice, dining in Harry's Bar, living the life of a movie renegade.
I also spoke to Norman Eshley, who played the young sailor in Welles' spellbinding The Immortal Story, back in the sixties. Again, Norman simply took me back, so much so that I left the interview feeling like I understood Welles and his latter day modus operandi more than before. Then of course there was the essential phone call to filmmaker Henry Jaglom, who was a very important friend to Welles in the last decade or so of his life. They worked on films together, dined endlessly, and Henry even acted as a kind of agent to attempt to raise funds for Orson's cinematic visions.
Deciding to focus on the sixties onward (while also providing a back story for those who need reminding of the classic films and defining moments), I got a very personal insight into Welles' magical and exciting world, with all its ups and downs, its excitements and frustrations. It was one of the most extraordinary and enjoyable projects I have had the pleasure to take on, and I need to thank Henry, Norman and especially Dorian for their kindness and willingness to share such treasured memories.
Get the DVD here:
Here is an interview I did a couple of years ago (I think) with Gloria Norris, who was assistant to Woody Allen on three movies. I thought her insights were fascinating. They come from my book, WOODY ALLEN ON SCREEN, which can be bought from Amazon and other online stores. The Q and A is below...
Gloria was Woody's personal assistant on Stardust Memories, Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and Zelig. Here she discusses with me the making of these films, and of being close to Woody on three seminal movies.
What were you doing before working for Woody?
I was working on Raging Bull immediately before working for Woody. (And, yes, that film is one of my favourites too.)
How did you get the job as his assistant?
Woody’s previous assistant left and I heard through the grapevine that he was interviewing a few people to replace her.
Do you recall your first meeting with him?
The interview was, in typical Woody fashion, quite brief. I met with him and the producer, Bobby Greenhut. We talked about what it was like working for Scorsese, when he’d be hiring someone, very basic stuff. Woody is able to make decisions pretty quickly about who he wants to hire.
What kind of work were you doing on Stardust Memories?
I was on the set every day during shooting and in the cutting room and mix, etc. during post. I was often the intermediary between Woody and the crew and cast, funnelling information and issues back and forth. Woody solicited my opinions and feedback on a myriad of things.
Do you have any stand out memories from that film?
We shot for a few months without seeing any dailies because Gordon Willis was trying to find a lab that could process the black and white footage to his satisfaction. That was very challenging. Labs weren’t doing black and white much any more (Manhattan being one exception) and it took a lot of Gordon’s finessing to get the process to where he was happy with it. When we finally got to see the dailies, it was a marathon viewing. Woody, as is widely known, likes to reshoot quite a bit, and Stardust was no exception. However, in this case, it was magnified. Having not been able to look at footage and adjust as he went along, there were a considerable number of scenes, including the hot air balloons, which he wanted to reshoot. The shoot, consequently, went on much longer than originally planned.
One of the standout memories was in preproduction, we had these red cards printed up that we could pass out to any stranger we saw with an interesting look, inviting them to an open casting call. Woody was looking for people with unusual faces, and we weren’t going to find them just by calling in SAG extras. So, we really cast a wide net. It got you to really look at people on the streets of NY, on the subway, in restaurants, in a new way. Surprisingly, people were pretty receptive, even though the red cards didn’t mention Woody’s name. It was a different time and people weren’t quite as guarded. They actually showed up!
This was one of Woody's most criticised films but also one of his favourites. Was he especially impassioned at all during its creation?
It was a difficult shoot, because of the processing issues I mentioned. But Woody is pretty unflappable on the set, no matter what is going on. Some of the specific criticism the film received was a surprise to him. I don’t think he expected the level of vitriol, the way people took it as a personal affront. Yes, I know for a long time he said it was one of his films that he liked the most. I don’t know how he feels about it now. For me, it was and remains one of my favourites. I think the film really has a lot of complexity to it and gets richer and richer with repeated viewings. And, I think the film in general has become more liked over time.
You then worked on Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy with Woody. The mood must have been a lot lighter...
The mood didn’t seem that different on Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. I wouldn’t say it was lighter. The tone of a film doesn’t necessarily dictate the tone while making it. I do think the crew enjoyed being at that bucolic location, and being at the same location day after day makes things a lot easier, you’re not loading in and out, which is hard work. There was a lot of down time, as Gordon Willis was waiting for the light. A few days, it never was right, and we’d just turn around and go back to the city. Woody famously hates the country so he was always glad to get out of there.
What was a bit difficult was the fact that some of us were working 7 days a week, shooting Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy during the week, and then prepping Zelig on the weekends, scouting, etc. There was only a one-week separation between finishing shooting Sex Comedy and starting shooting Zelig. Essentially, they were shot back to back.
Zelig is one of his most complex pieces. What kind of work did you have to do for Woody on this film?
On Zelig we watched a lot of documentaries as research. I love docs, and Woody likes them too, so that was quite a lot of fun. Another thing, there were a lot of make-up tests. It was difficult to transform Woody’s appearance believably—it would be so easy now with CGI, but it was a big challenge back then!
This was another intense and demanding film. What was Woody like during its creation?
Again, Woody was pretty much the same on this shoot. He doesn’t shout or act out in the way some directors do. In addition, so many of the crew were the same from film to film, so there was a continuity, a fluidity to the process each time that made it sometimes seem like one continuous shoot, with breaks in between to edit. There was such familiarity, such a shorthand between Woody and Gordy (Willis), and that was something to behold. In my opinion, it was one of the most amazing director/cinematographer collaborations in the history of film. As far as Zelig goes, one of the biggest difficulties, other than the supreme challenge of believably recreating old footage and sound, was shooting on the streets of NY during a really cold winter. None of us—including Woody—enjoyed that aspect of the shoot!
How do you think of those three films now, looking back?
Whenever I come upon one of those three films on TV, if I start watching them, I can’t turn them off. I think they’re all great. But, of those three, Stardust is still my favourite.
What are some of your favourite memories of working on set with Woody?
Watching how scenes were choreographed was amazing, and really influenced my own work as a filmmaker to this day. Many times a scene would be entirely done in one moving shot—an incredible challenge for the cast and crew, but a powerful way to cover a scene. It is so totally antithetical to how most material is filmed, with tons of coverage. It’s a brave and beautiful way to shoot. Of course, great editing is a wonder to behold too, but I don’t think any other director so frequently chose to cover scenes all in one shot the way Woody has. Watching Charlotte Rampling, take after take, just silently look into the camera for a few minutes while Louis Armstrong’s Stardust played, was breathtaking.
How did he compare with the likes of De Palma and Scorsese as a man in control of the set? They are two of my other favourite directors I might add...
De Palma spends a lot of time in preproduction doing storyboards, similar to Hitchcock. Thus, a lot of the creative work is already done once shooting begins. With Marty, who came from an editing background, a lot of footage was shot and the film really comes to life in the editing. With Woody, the on set process, with scenes done in one shot, was where a lot of the creative magic happened.
You can get the book WOODY ALLEN ON SCREEN from Amazon...
This post is a sample from Chris Wade's book BUSTER KEATON: THE LATER YEARS, available on Amazon now...
One thing that was unavoidable for Keaton, one of the last remaining silent film stars not only still working, but totally reachable and accessible, was that he would find himself, quite frequently in fact, referencing his own rich and iconic past. As the decades went on, the silent comedy era grew in reverence, and by the mid 1950s, while most of Buster’s classic films were some thirty odd years old, they were firm classics. The silent era was so long ago that it was open for pastiche and parody, not to mention affectionate tribute. Not only that, it was pretty easy for modern filmmakers and TV producers to authentically reproduce the feel and look of the era, even more so when one of its most well known icons was still around, and readily employable.
Of course, Buster didn’t mind self referencing his own legacy at all; in fact, he was often more than happy to, at least it seemed that way. After all, he was proud of that work, and spoke fondly, though modestly, of it in various latter day interviews. He had played a crumpled up parody of himself in Sunset Boulevard (a ghost from the past, a has-been, a waxwork),but there were other times where he got to affectionately reproduce the vibe of his golden years, given free reign to move his well known persona into another era and a whole new medium. He was no longer the maker, the director or the conjurer of illusions, but he could doff his flat hat to the days when he was.
One of the more respectful self-referencing credits (this one being close to self examination even) came in 1955 with a little known TV special called Silent Partner. Made for the Screen Director’s Playhouse series, and produced by Hal Roach Studios, Silent Partner not only gave Keaton a chance to don his trademark outfit, but also perform a more dramatic role with a fair amount of pathos.
The film begins on Oscar night, as the stars hob-nob and natter as a cheesy TV reporter informs us it’s the busiest Oscar night in years. Meanwhile, faded old silent film actor Kelsey Dutton (Buster Keaton) arrives in his favourite bar where the drinkers and the bar man speak of the fakeness of Hollywood. “A bunch of hoke,” says one customer. A rather glum Buster sits by the bar. The barman switches on the TV to watch the Oscar ceremony (Buster doesn’t care either way if he turns the television on or not), and a bunch of rowdy drinkers come in with a sports trophy, all ready to mock the phony award shindig.
On comes Bob Hope, presenting a “new award” for a respected figure, a movie mogul who has given so much to the motion picture industry. Mr Bale, the respected producer, takes the statuette, steps up to the microphone, and begins a rambling speech. Unexpectedly, he dedicates his award to Kelsey, who covers his face in embarrassment back in the bar. There is then a nicely (and authentically) shot flashback to Dutton’s first film role, a chaotic scene involving a ladder and Dutton attempting to save a girl from a house fire. The following scenes illustrate Dutton’s natural comic ability, cutting back to the Oscar speech speaking of the decline of Dutton’s popularity when the sound era arrived. Now it becomes painfully clear that Buster's own career is being referred to,
When he finishes his speech, the drinkers mock the ceremony, and say they’ve never heard of Kelsey Dutton. An ageing customer says Dutton was the biggest star in Hollywood, unaware that she is standing right beside him. The self-deprecating Dutton does not tell the drinkers he is in fact the star, in true Keaton style being a man with no ego. The ceremony continues, and we are shown more footage of Dutton’s classic silent films, with Buster donning a wig for the younger sequences. When the woman in the bar starts to realise Dutton is in the room with her, it takes a completely different turn. All of a sudden the cynicism for the shallowness of the movie world disappears, and Dutton becomes the focal point of the night. When the angriest of the macho drinkers attempts to rough Dutton up, he turns on him and humiliates the half wit. In walks the movie mogul, just at the right moment, to pick up Dutton and take him next door to the ceremony, where they are all eagerly awaiting his arrival. There he will be celebrated as a hero, while the producer hopes to rescue Dutton's flagging career.
Though The Silent Partner is a fun and entertaining quickie, it also has its fair share of sad irony. Buster is playing a variation of himself here, a silent legend long forgotten and tossed aside by Hollywood. There were other ironies too. He just happened to be playing this character, a very Buster creation, on a TV lot owned by Hal Roach, the very man who had led the likes of Laurel and Hardy through the silent glory years. Keaton is excellent in his role, but the silent segments do his legacy little justice. In reality, Keaton’s vintage classics were more surreal, much more sophisticated and accomplished than Dutton's. Still, the Dutton scenes are fun and accurate, but only to lesser silent comics, not reflecting the genius of Keaton. The saddest part of it all, of course, is the end, where the movie mogul expresses his gratefulness, and also his regret that the man responsible for his own current status as a respected Hollywood producer, showered with money, praise and awards, is all down to him. If it were not for this forgotten man, the producer suggests, he wouldn’t be where he is. Finally showing his gratitude for the man killed by the arrival of the sound era, he promises to revitalise his career. In reality, Hollywood had spat Keaton out, and wouldn’t let him near a starring role in a feature film. Guest roles and cameo bit parts were fine, but none of these Hollywood producers trusted Keaton to direct or star in a picture all of his own. The irony cannot have been lost on Keaton, and this egoless genius must have seen how apt it was that he was playing a character in such a predicament on a creaky low budget TV stage.
Still, despite these negative aspects and slightly tragicomic elements, The Silent Partner is one of the best things Keaton did in this era. And to be fair, the sudden appreciation the producer shows him, and promises Hollywood will too, did kind of come true, in a fashion at least. In 1960, he was given an honorary Oscar, a nod of respect to a man who had helped make the movie industry what it was. They would never give him another chance, but could at least pat him on the back and say “Well done, you did good.” Buster was touched by the Oscar, and though they had done him wrong in the past, he was big enough to accept it and move on ahead with the rest of his career; not in Hollywood mind you, but on the small screen and the world of independent film. The Silent Partner silently walked away from Hollywood, taking the hint.