Note: This was originally posted as part of The Dissolve commentariat’s tribute to Nathan Rabin. The idea was to continue some of the columns he started before he was unceremoniously bounced. Thanks, Nathan, for being the most consistently entertaining and insightful pop culture writer working today, and apologies in advance for the pale facsimile that follows.
Mutations explores some of the lesser-known variations of familiar characters from movies.
It’s not unusual for actors to have side gigs in bands or musical vanity projects. There’s a veritable laundry list of examples, which range from the upper tiers of the arguably acceptable (Zooey Deschanel’s She and Him, Steve Martin’s bluegrass labor of love Steve Martin and The Steep Canyon Rangers) to the lower, less celebrated rungs, where Corey Feldman’s Truth Movement and Steven Seagal & Thunderbox reside.
It’s rarer for such a project, from an actor at the height of his celebrity, to score a single that hits #5 on the Billboard Charts and sells worldwide, despite one of the more perplexing videos you’re likely to encounter, featuring the presence of a shredding Dweezil Zappa, a bicycle gang, and what seems to be an homage to Antonioni (or possibly, in one scene, the Worldwide Wrestling Federation crossed with Full Metal Jacket – there’s a lot going on here).
I’m referring, of course, to Don Johnson’s 1986 smash hit “Heartbeat”, the single of his eponymous debut.
Though Sonny Crocket wouldn’t appear on film for another 20 years, and even then in the form of Colin Farrell in Michael Mann’s version of Miami Vice, I’m counting it for our purposes here.
In any case, two years after the small-screen Miami Vice premiered, and at the very height of Johnson’s fame, his record lit up the charts like some sort of pastel-clad Floridian cop sparking a Lucky Strike in a Ferrari and/or speedboat. In a gushing L.A. Times piece from late August of that year – saddled with the distinctively defensive-sounding title, “Don Johnson: Yes, He Can Really Sing” – he revealed that he “wanted the record to be modern, tough rock,” but acknowledged that his TV celebrity might lead audiences to think he wasn’t the real thing. (The Pepsi commercials probably didn’t help, as well as the questionable use of the word “tough”).
In 1986, it didn’t matter. After years of, by all accounts, drug-fueled bouncing around the scene — including associations with Andy Warhol (who designed the cover of Interview magazine featuring him that year) and a string of TV movies and curious cinematic outings, including 1971’s acid-western Zachariah, which I really need to see — Johnson was on top of the world. Miami Vice was a veritable cultural phenomenon, and he was generally regarded as an iconic star. What else does one do but record an album?
In context, it’s not too surprising; MTV hit the air in ’81, but this still marks the dawn of the video age, and Miami Vice was nothing if not MTV-ready. And precedents had been set, from often unlikely sources — only a year prior, even the Chicago Bears were awkwardly rapping about their Super Bowl Championship, to the apparent delight of millions who always wanted to hear Walter Peyton dubiously proclaim, “We’re not doing this because we’re greedy / The Bears are doing it to feed the needy.” Hell, Johnson’s co-star Philip Michael Seymour beat him to the punch with 1985’s ill-fated Living The Book Of My Life — it failed to sell, just another sidekick indignity for Tubbs. On the other end of the spectrum, Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” hit #2 on the charts. The people, it seemed, wanted their actors to sing, at least occasionally. So sing they did.
Unlike Murphy’s amiably goofball anthem or Philip Michael Seymour’s self-conscious odes to Miami, Johnson’s Heartbeat aimed for legitimacy. It featured songs penned by Tom Petty, Bob Seger, and Bonnie Raitt, and featured not only Dweezil Zappa but Stevie Ray Vaughan. Such was Johnson’s mysterious power in 1986, when heartfelt ballads paired with inscrutable, possibly insane images of war, protest, and Don Johnson apparently body-slamming a child were, for some reason, in vogue.
Audience desire and right-place-right-time alignments of the stars coincided for “Heartbeat” the song, though the video is never less than ridiculous. And the ridiculousness comes early and often.
Directed by John Nicolella (who helmed many episodes of Miami Vice and would later produce Johnson’s comeback series, Nash Bridges, not to mention directing Vanishing Son I through 4, a China-set TV-movie franchise I somehow missed out on, presumably because I was doing literally anything else), it tells a convoluted story that only gets stranger the more you look.
We are first introduced to Johnson’s filmmaker persona, a documentarian (I think). He covers some sort of street protest, which is most notable for being completely without context and for how many times one guy in a terrifying mask walks through the frame. Is Johnson trying to capture the “heartbeat of the streets,” as the lyrics would have it? Perhaps, but he’s then teleported to a war zone. Was it a war protest? Was the man in the mask a spectre of omnipresent militarism? What’s clear is that there is, as Dweezil’s father Frank would have it, trouble every day. Don Johnson: Filmmaker is capturing it, while he empties his heart about a woman who has scorned him.
More questions arise: Is this the same woman who he captures on film at the protest, and then again later, standing unperturbed in front of a burning car? Or later still, staring at him intently before tying what seems to be pantyhose over her face (which, for the record, is not a good technique for protection during riots)? It’s hard to say. But Nolella and Johnson seem to be going for a juxtaposition between the images he’s capturing, his own psychology, and the world outside. It’s like Blow-Up, basically, if Antonioni had included lines such as “Everybody tells me how / I can beat the odds for now / I´ve been standing by the fire / I just can´t feel the heat,” and if Blow-Up were terrible.
From here, the video just gets stranger. Johnson’s filmmaker persona rescues a child in the war zone by hurling him past a stone barricade. But the force with which he accomplishes this rescue is unintentionally comic; I hope to God there was a mattress back there or something. Back on the stage – weirdly reminiscent of Pat Benatar’s set-up in the much better “Invincible” (the theme to the immeasurably awesome The Legend of Billie Jean) or even Depeche Mode’s set-up in the “Just Can’t Get Enough” video – he emotes wildly while dancers perform what has to be the laziest choreography of 1986, aptly described on Grantland as “the electric slide done without an ounce of emotion.” The contrast is disconcerting.
Why would Don Johnson make this? It would be easy to say “money,” and you’d rarely go wrong with that guess. “Hubris” would also be a stock answer. But maybe he also profoundly wanted to sing songs, and was using his newfound fame to achieve this (fairly awful) end. In that L.A. Times article, Johnson traces his attraction to show business to singing harmony in the church choir, and then to R&B, Elvis, and The Beatles: even as he transitioned to acting, and copious drug and alcohol abuse, “music … remained a personal passion.” But the success of Miami Vice opened a door: Goldberg remarks, “The great thing we have going for us in Don, aside from the fact that he genuinely can sing, is that ‘Miami Vice’ has a credibility with record buyers that normally TV shows don’t have.”
And let it be said, Johnson can sing well enough, I guess. In the sense that, absent the visuals, it sounds like every song you ever heard from 1986. But why Miami Vice lent credibility to the project remains puzzling, as evidenced by Johnson’s amiably dorky-uncle-like appearance on the MTV Music Awards to promote the record, while also introducing 5 much, much better songs. (For the record, they are: Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill”; Aretha Franklin, “Freedom Of Love”; Whitney Houston, “How Will I Know?”; Grace Jones, “Slave To The Rhythm”; and Tina Turner, “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” Whitney won.)
I can only attribute it to the particularly 1980’s combination of sex appeal, outlandish fashions, badboy chic, and the curious notion that “someone we enjoy doing one thing will probably also be enjoyable doing another thing.” Oh, and cocaine. Probably cocaine, too. Don may have been sober at this point, but whoever planned and orchestrated the intro scene of the Chrystler Building shot like a phallic, ascending space shuttle assuredly was not.
But here’s another, perhaps too literal thought – maybe Johnson really wanted to be a director. In the L.A. Times article, we’re told, “Goldberg … recalled flying East a few weeks ago with Johnson when the actor fell asleep for two hours. ‘When he got up, he looked at me and said, ‘My God, the only thing I dreamed about was camera angles.’ ”
And indeed, Johnson’s credited on IMDB with the “idea” for the video, and that idea is for him to be behind the camera (and later at an editing table, for good measure). What if Don Johnson’s singing career – bizarrely successful for a year, anyway – was a Trojan Horse for his desire to be taken more seriously as a visual artist? And what if he chose the worst possible, most lucrative way of realizing this dream? The “Heartbeat” video then becomes significantly more poignant. Its failures – which we could also describe as “its components” – might point to a different drive the man never found an appropriate outlet for.
I was too young at the time to really get into Miami Vice, and don’t particularly recall listening to Don Johnson’s attempted crossover records. (His follow-up, Let It Roll, failed to chart domestically but did well in Germany, to the surprise of very few. The compilation The Essential Don Johnson, based on these two records and released by Sony in 1997, quickly vanished, despite its hopeful title.)
But reading up on him now for this piece, I tend to think there might be something to that. He’s a guy who hung out in art scenes, scrambled for a decade to get into film or television, and went through what Dewey Cox would call “a dark fucking period.” And then, at the very top of the mountain, he decided he wanted to pursue a childhood dream of success in the music industry, and be taken seriously as an artist, not just a lavender-shirted object of lust.
But when he tried, and succeeded past all expectations, he cast himself in his hit song’s video as a filmmaker on location, getting gritty footage, and also a lonely man desperate for a woman he doesn’t even know, and also a man with an impressive child-throwing arm. Is it a sad story about being lonely at the top, or just a shitty song that inexplicably features Dweezil Zappa? In any case, it’s a weird entry on the Billboard charts, a weird video that is all the more confounding for the song’s popularity, and a time capsule from a deeply weird age, when seemingly every celebrity in movies, television, and football either wanted or was required to sing their heart out.