Saturday, March 1, 2014

RIP RICHARD "RIC" MENELLO (August 20, 1952 – March 1, 2013)

RIP RICHARD 'RIC' MENELLO, who passed exactly a year ago today on March 1, 2013.

This photo was taken by Jeffrey Price.

I recently wrote this piece - published January 2, 2014 - on the video he directed for Def Jam Recordings' first rap superstar L.L. Cool J -- GOING BACK TO CALI 

Here are stills of some of the Venice shots in Menello's 1988 GOING BACK TO CALI video, filmed in black and white as a tip of the hat to Orson Welles, one of his cinematic heroes, who had shot TOUCH OF EVIL at Venice Beach 30 years earlier.

....but Menello also co-created the videos for THE BEASTIE BOYS' two biggest hits- FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT (TO PARTY) and NO SLEEP TILL BROOKLYN - with ADAM DUBIN. 

Scroll down below to read the uncut version of this article.

[Ric even played the angry dad in FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT and the comical, anti-rap stage manager/Beasties foil at the beginning of the NO SLEEP video (and that's Adam Dubin in the gorilla suit making off with the hot video at the end).]

Here is Adam Dubin and Ric Menello together in New York City in Feb. 2013 a month before Ric Menello passed away...exactly a year ago today.

Ric also wrote the screenplay for TOUGHER THAN LEATHER, the aborted Beastie Boys movie SCARED STUPID and aborted Beasties MTV show with the same name.

Most recently, he co-wrote two James Gray movies TWO LOVERS and THE IMMIGRANT.

Here's a website devoted to his memory and legacy by Ric Menello by his cousin,
 Vincent Giordano, Menello's cousin and then-president of Def Jam Pictures. Stay tuned to, as Giordano plans to upload a lot of memories and works related to Ric Menello in the months to come.



‘Going Back to Cali’…Revisited

Why did 20-year-old L.L. Cool J film an artsy black-and-white rap video on Venice Beach? Two words: Ric Menello

By Michael Aushenker

Twenty-six years ago, a 20-year-old L.L. Cool J was on top of the world.
The first rap act to blow up on Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons’ Def Jam Recordings, “Uncle L” already had two hit albums under his belt. He had paved the way for Def Jam to almost single-handedly explode rap into the mainstream with follow-up acts Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. While a fierce master of the battle rap, he had already created a new subgenre, the rap ballad, with his hit single “I Need Love” and embodied the rapper as rock star in his signature Kangol hat, Adidas track suit and gold dookies.
So why was he on the Venice boardwalk shooting an artsy black-and-white video for his next single, “Going Back to Cali,” dressed down without his medallions?
Two words: Ric Menello.

Going Back to the Welles

Released in 1988, “Going Back to Cali” was not your typical rap video. Then again, this was not your typical rap song.
Produced by Rubin, “Cali”—with its lazy opening scratches, grinding mid-tempo turntable, horny brass breaks, and climactic, winding saxophone solo—went against the grain of faster-paced, adrenaline-rush rap topping the charts at the time. Musically alluring, the lyrics, with typical Cool J braggadocio, recounted a tidy little morality tale of sorts, in which Ladies Love Cool J (a.k.a. James Todd Smith of Jamaica, Queens) delivers his cynical view of vacuous Los Angeles as he cruises around in his pimped-out black Corvette convertible, encountering Sunset Boulevard strippers and impossibly vapid sunbathing beach girls (“Her bikini - small; heels – tall. She said/she liked/the ocean.”) The East Coast rapper ultimately rejects the trappings of Southern California, sniffing, “Hmm. I don’t think so.”
Originally released by Def Jam on the “Less Than Zero” movie soundtrack in 1987, the song was released in 1988 as a single, ahead of its inclusion on Cool J’s third album, 1989’s “Walking With a Panther.” That’s when Def Jam enlisted Richard “Ric” Menello, who had a hand in myriad Def Jam projects, including co-directing videos for the Beastie Boys’ two biggest singles and scripting the Run-DMC feature film vehicle “Tougher Than Leather,” to direct the video for “Going Back to Cali.”
The bulk of the “Cali” video shows Cool J driving a convertible Corvette around the Venice area, intercut with a worm’s eye view of Beatnik-artsy Caucasian women making mechanical dance moves. The video begins and ends on Venice Beach itself. At one point, there is a quasi-surreal profile of the rapper in the foreground while a brunette grinds away in the background, all shot at the archways that today preface Mao’s Chinese Kitchen. The angle is looking south on Pacific toward the intersection at Windward.
One quick shot shows the pride of Queens’ Farmers Boulevard flush against a street sign that reads “Speedway.” Another scene, in which Cool J plays a round of blackjack on the patio of a Googie-style (now-defunct) Pioneer Chicken outlet in Hollywood, reveals Def Jam svengali Rubin in a cameo. Cut to a sax player jamming in what appears to be a Venice alleyway before Cool J drives off into the sunset down the Venice Boardwalk path.
Atmospheric and artsy, director Menello shot the video in black and white as a tribute to one of his cinematic idols, Orson Welles. In fact, the reason the video is loosely divided between two locations – around Venice Beach and atop the Griffith Observatory- is because two of Menello’s favorite films were Welles’ “Touch of Evil” and Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” shot at those respective locales.
“I know he was excited to shoot in Venice because one of his favorite films was shot there, ‘Touch of Evil,’” Dubin said.
The “Going Back to Cali” shoot came with some embedded anniversary symbolism. Welles had shot on that very Venice Boardwalk 30 years prior to Menello’s video. In the 1958 late-Welles classic film noir, featuring Charlton Heston as a drug enforcement official south of the border, the movie opens with one of the most famous single takes in cinematic history; a carefully choreographed, three-minute-and-20-second tracking shot with Venice Beach doubling for a Mexican border town. Welles’ shot caught the eastward view along Windward at Ocean Front Walk, with the St. Marks, a hotel torn down in the 1960s next to a restaurant with a “chop suey” sign (today, Danny’s Venice restaurant).

Ill Communication

In today’s post-modern music scene in which genres are easily mashed-up and crossed over, it is easy to forget how segregated music and music fans were during the Reagan years as well as the pressures of the Tipper Gore-led PMRC on rap and metal acts that eventually led to parents’ advisory labels on CDs. Rubin’s vision to graft rock and metal elements onto rap finally broke the color barrier when Run-DMC and especially the Rubin-produced “Licensed to Ill,” starring rap’s first legitimate white superstars, the Beastie Boys, catapulted rap music into the suburbs and across middle America. “Licensed” became the first-ever rap album to top Billboard’s charts and held that position for a month, selling 4-million units at the time (the album, a fixture on Billboard’s catalogue charts, eventually crossed the diamond mark). Even though Run-DMC denounced drugs and espoused education in their lyrics, violence made their concerts a liability while the Beastie Boys became reviled across the Bible Belt because of their onstage antics and props.
Vinny Giordano, who ran Def Pictures, the motion picture arm of Def Jam, for Rubin and Simmons, was one of the producers on “Tougher Than Leather,” the Run-DMC feature film vehicle directed by Rubin and scripted by Menello. He is also Menello’s cousin.
“I remember when Ric told me Rick Rubin wanted to meet me to start up the production company,” Giordano recalled. “I was like, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’
A graduate of New York University’s prestigious film school program, Menello had lingered at the campus a decade later as a front desk guard at Weinstein Hall, the very dormitory from which student Rubin, with outsider Simmons’ help, had launched Def Jam Recordings. Dubin was also an NYU student, and Rubin and Dubin bonded with the gregarious Menello over their shared love of movies. The garrulous Menello was known for his encyclopedic knowledge of movies, from classic Hollywood film noir to the Nouvelle Vague, ‘70s auteurs and Asian cinema. As Menello got sucked in deeper into helping Rubin realize his vision in the entertainment industry, naturally he thought of his cousin when pressed to find someone who could help run Def Jam’s motion picture unit.
“I had my own production company and I met him and it was insane,” Giordano said. “He had a small apartment at the time above a photo studio and it smelled of photographic fluid. I was getting a damn contact high. There were single line phones strung all over the place maybe five of them. I went to sit in this damn chair and my ass went through the bottom of it and hit a fucking ringing phone. The ringing didn't bother Rick, he just kept talking calmly and I asked if I should answer one of these phones because its driving me crazy and he said, ‘No, just let them ring.’ He told me all about his big deal with Sony and the rap music explosion, but not before he held up the new Metallica record ‘Master of Puppets’ and told me this was the future.
“I was a bit confused. I called Menello and told him, ‘You guys are on your own!’ Both Ric and Rick kept calling me, driving me nuts, because Menello said Rick now offered to hire him if I did start the company to do the film and the videos, so I felt, if it would benefit him, I would do a hit and run, do the job and get back out!
“But it never works that way in the end.”
In addition to writing “Tougher Than Leather,” a Blaxploitation-style Run-DMC movie Rubin directed which bombed upon its belated 1988 release (“We all try to forget ‘Tougher Than Leather’ so I've erased it from my memory banks,” Giordano said, half-joking). Menello wrote a screenplay for an aborted haunted house comedy called “Scared Stupid” poised to be the Beastie Boys’ feature film vehicle; their “Hard Day’s Night.”
“It was an updated of classic Abbot and Costello,” said Dubin, who has read the script. “One of their uncles dies and leaves them the house. They go to the house and these gangsters are trying to get rid of them.”
According to Giordano, there was also “an alternate script for ‘Scared Stupid’ by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and Tom Cushman, which they created to try to push as well.” 
 “’Scared Stupid’ was a long process,” Giordano continued. “Ric wrote the first script and Russell helped us get a deal with New Line Cinema. Rick Rubin was opposed to it because he wanted to control it and do it for a low budget (but not with him directing). Rick would not accept any plan or anything as we all tried to talk to him.
“They finally brought in Shep Gordon and we did the final budget and tried to broker a deal where Rick Rubin got a huge salary and a huge budget to do the soundtrack.
Because of internal cash flow problems at Def Jam, the Beastie Boys had not been paid their royalties on the mega-selling “Licensed to Ill,” and closing this deal on a Beasties movie with New Line would have solved the issue of remuneration.
“But Rick said no and the deal died,” Giordano said.
In the months just prior to the release of “Licensed to Ill” that fall of 1986, MTV exhibited interest in a TV show (also titled “Scared Stupid”) featuring the Beasties that would combine two shows the music network was airing reruns of: “The Monkees” and the British series “The Young Ones.” Menello worked on that project as well.
“The Beastie Boys thought it was funny pilot script,” Dubin recalled.
Ultimately, the TV show and Menello’s feature film screenplay were never produced because “the Beasties took off” and the band would soon embark on its “Together Forever” tour with Run-DMC.

‘Party’ Time!

After the first single on “Licensed to Ill” blew up on the radio, Rubin needed a video for MTV.
Rubin had set the tone for Menello and Dubin’s Beastie Boys videos with the clip he directed for “She’s On It,” a pre-“Licensed to Ill” song in the “Licensed” style from the soundtrack of the 1985 movie “Krush Groove” (which Simmons produced, loosely based on the Def Jam story).
“They did that in the summer,” Dubin recalled of the “She’s On It” video. “If Rick Rubin had not been making ‘Tougher Than Leather’ and wasn’t up to his eyeballs, I think he would’ve directed the video.
He may have underestimated how immersed he would be in making the movie.”
Also, Dubin adds, “He thought anybody could make a music video. He wasn’t that impressed with the genre.”
So Rubin gave Menello the assignment to shoot the video—on a miniscule $40,000 budget--for the first single off of “Licensed to Ill”: “(You Gotta) Fight for your Right (to Party).”
Fearing the technical aspects of shooting the video, Menello enlisted Dubin to co-direct it with him.
“He gets Menello,” Dubin recalled. “Menello was too nervous to do it himself, he asks me. He couldn’t produce the video, he couldn’t get it done. I’m not a great producer, but I’ll produce anything if I could direct. Within the space of a few months, I became a director.”  
After getting input from the Beastie Boys at Mike D.’s apartment, Menello and Dubin were set to build their comedic video around a storyline in which the Beastie Boys crash a pair of nerds’ party and cause much mayhem.
“Ric said, ‘Let’s make it like the party at ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’” Dubin said they decided. “Ric said, ‘Come over, we’ll watch ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’  we’ll eat, and then we’ll write the gags.’”
Dubin went over to Menello’s family home, where he lived, and where Menello’s mother, Lucille, very much the quintessential Italian mother, made a pasta meal that could feed an army.
“There’s enough food on the table, surely there must be other people coming over,” said Dubin, whose fears were confirmed: it was just for the two of them. “You’re eating, you’re stuffed. Even if you didn’t want more, you ate a second helping.”
Menello, who had spent large portions of his disposable income on laserdiscs, pulled out the 1961 Blake Edwards comedy classic.
“We watch the movie, and then we sit and write,” Dubin recalled. “As we’re writing all the gags, we’re also storyboarding it out on 5” x 7” cards.”
The video, which culled a lot of Beasties friends and associates at the home of Venice photographer Sunny Bak, was shot across Thanksgiving Weekend of 1986.
“Saturday was a break from filming ‘Tougher Than Leather,’” Dubin recalled, “and Rick was available.” A few days after the two-day shoot, “the thing was due at MTV.”
On the video set, “Rick Rubin was solidly in charge,” Dubin recalled. “It was merely an extension of what he was dealing with in the dorm room. He was confident. He had reason to be. I didn’t have to deal from anyone from Columbia. I was totally insulated.”
Looking back, he and Menello lucked out, given they had shot each scene to match each line. “We never did shoot full coverage of the song,” Dubin said. “We made a good video under difficult circumstances. But we had a lot of heart. You had this hit song. It showed the world who the Beastie Boys were.” 

‘Brooklyn’ Bound

With the career-making success of the “Fight For Your Right” video, Rubin re-teamed Dubin and Menello to shoot the video for the next Beasties single, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” under different circumstances.
Shot at The World, a hip hop club on Houston Street, “No Sleep,” a spoof of the then-popular glam metal scene, was way more ambitious than its predecessor.
“We didn’t have a ton more money [about $65,000],” Dubin said, but there were way more suits hanging around the set.
“On that shoot, we had people from the MTV,” Dubin remembered. “There were a whole bunch of people that I don’t know from Columbia, some A&R people. It’s still a Def Jam thing but somehow there were more people. Suddenly, the Beastie Boys mattered.”
Dubin and Menello insisted on the video’s intro, in which a concert promoter, played by Menello, rejects the Beasties from playing a concert because their “band” is a vinyl record. So the Beasties return disguised as glam metal rockers and Menello shoos them out to the stage. Hilarity ensues.
“We knew it had to make it a gag fest,” he said.
The video was shot in January of 1987 – “just short of them going on that ‘Together Forever’ tour [with Run-DMC],” Dubin said.
For Dubin, who went on to begin a long association with speed metal kings Metallica (he directed the video for the group’s first power ballad, “Nothing Else Matters”), “I’m always indebted to Rick and to Ric Menello and the Beastie Boys for letting me be a part of their world at one key juncture.”
What was not realized at the time was that the relationship between Def Jam and its biggest act was irrevocably damaged after Rubin’s failure to greenlight “Scared Stupid” and pay the Beastie Boys money due on “Licensed to Ill.” After their touring, the Beastie Boys would never make another album for Def Jam again, famously leaving the label and New York for California, where they signed with Capitol Records and embarked on 1989’s hip hop masterpiece, “Paul’s Boutique.”
“When we started out,” Dubin recalled, “it wasn’t a lot of people around. Just these guys making this happen. We were just friends. We would hang out and Adam Horovitz was there and we would go out to eat.
“At some point, it got bigger and all these people came into it. That had to happen. And then it was over. It got so big, so fast.”

“Cali” Dreamin’

Now confident enough to direct on his own, Ric Menello directed a slew of videos solo: MC Lyte, Slick Rick, and Cool J’s “Going Back to Cali.”
“That’s him on his own,” Dubin said of the latter. “He kind of did it the way he did it. He’s trying to be Welles, who he could also do a flawless imitation of. He was kind of an amazing guy for that stuff.”
Recalled Giordano, “I did the prep work on the video with Ric going through his storyboards and helping him order the shots but was not in L.A. on the shoot. Rick and Ric went out for that but I was in touch throughout with Ric.
“I remember I was the one who dealt with the problems when the mother of the underage girl dancing on the top of the phone booth  had her lawyer contact us to have the shots removed from the video. So I had to delicately find a solution to that without altering the video too much.”
In a 2011 interview with NPR, Rubin reflected on the making of the “Cali” video.
“I had a strong feeling of how L.L. should look in the video,” he said. “This was at a time when rappers all wore a lot of gold jewelry. And I was very insistent that L.L. not wear any jewelry. And it was a really contentious issue. And I remember him calling Russell and saying, ‘Russell! Rick doesn't want me to wear jewelry in the video!’ and ‘I can't do this!’ and Russell, to his credit, said ‘No, listen to Rick, do what he says.’ And it ended up being a really special video.
“I tried to explain to him at the time, like ‘the reason you don't want to wear jewelry is because everyone's wearing jewelry,’” Rubin told NPR. “And it's much more interesting when everybody's wearing jewelry for you not to. And he was like, ‘How are people going to know I'm successful if I'm not wearing jewelry?’ And I said, ‘Because you're so successful, you don't need jewelry!’”
The rapper also weighed in on making the song for an Entertainment Weekly “Behind the Songs” article:
“This was a strange one. I went out of my comfort zone,” Cool J said. “It's funny, because Rick Rubin always hated 'I Need Love,' and there was a time when I hated 'Going Back to Cali.' It ended up being something really special, but it took me a minute, it really did.”
For Menello, “Going Back to Cali” signaled a graduation of sorts as a video director who yearned to create cinema. Just as his dream to make feature films finally began to come together, life circumstances, unfortunately, began to intervene. After his father died in the mid-1990s, Menello followed by his mother to New Jersey until she died in 2007, then he returned back to his native Brooklyn. In Ditmus Park, “he knew everybody,” Dubin said. “We walked down the street. There’d be hardcore African-American guys. They’d be like, ‘What’s up, Ric?’”
In the last decade, Menello got closer to his dream as a screenwriting partner of filmmaker James Gray (“The Yards”). With Gray, Menello collaborated on two movies starring Joaquin Phoenix: 2008’s “Two Lovers” and 2013’s “The Immigrant.”
Unfortunately, Menello never lived to see the release of the latter film. On March 1, Menello died of a heart attack at the age of 60.
“He had time for people,” Dubin said. “He would read screenplays for people. He did exactly what he did at the front desk of that dorm.”
“Menello was a one of a kind,” Giordano said. “In terms of films, there are few with his breath and scope. He was unfortunately misunderstood and misused.”

Don’t Call It a Comeback

The quirky “Going Back to Cali” (no relation to an identically titled mid-1990s cut by Notorious B.I.G.) proved a hit song for L.L. Cool J, peaking at #31 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1988, with arguably Cool J’s most hardcore banger, “Jack the Ripper” (a definitive shot at rival Kool Moe Dee) on the B-side.
It also became a prelude to Cool J’s first turbulence as an entertainer since he entered the business at age 16.
In hindsight, the “Cali” single closed the curtains on Cool J at his most youthfully primal and hardcore. The rapper’s street credibility had already begun to erode after the release of the mushy “I Need Love” and the album “Walking with a Panther,” which wallowed in a materialism, invited a backlash from sectors of the African-American community. For a brief, soul-crushing spell, Cool J became the poster boy for repugnant rapper decadence.
However, by 1990, his first blush of failure had reignited the battle rapper in Cool J. “Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been around for years,” the rapper spat on “Mama Said Knock You Out,” the chart-topping title track from his hit fourth album, which went on to sell more than two-million albums and pave the way for a successful career in music, film and television that continues through today.
Now, at 46, a resident of Studio City and the star of the hit show “NCIS: L.A.,” Cool J remains a popular and versatile entertainer as well as a grounded family man. Evidently, the rap star, a long way from that shoot on the Venice Boardwalk, may want to reconsider the lyrics of his old hit: “Going back to Cali? Hmm. I think so.”

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