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Jason Bentley on His New Podcast “The Backstory”

The Art of Curation

Jan 08, 2021 Web Exclusive
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Musician and composer Terence Blanchard (BlackkKlansman, Malcolm X) and playwright-screenwriter Kemp Powers (Soul, Star Trek) worked together on the hotly-anticipated, Regina King-directed movie One Night In Miami—but the two mavericks had never met in person or really spoken to each other until The Backstory, the new podcast hosted by ex-KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic host, Jason Bentley. Thanks to COVID they reveal to Bentley, that beyond a music spotting conference call for One Night In Miami, this was their first opportunity to have a meaningful conversation.

Blanchard’s adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s memoir Fire Shut Up In My Bones for The Metropolitan Opera’s new season is the first opera to ever be directed by an African American in The Met’s 137 year history. In a first for Pixar, Soul, their latest animated film, features a Black lead—middle-school teacher and jazz musician Joe Gardiner. If the character rings true in its nuance, it’s because Powers, a Brooklynite and jazz aficionado, was brought in as a writer in 2018. He then went on take a bigger role as co-director, and be the first-ever African American to direct a Pixar film.

The episode goes on to cover pertinent topics such as staying true to one’s passions in the face of adversity and Hollywood’s ongoing diversity challenges without being preachy. There is a relaxed camaraderie between the two guests and their host as they discuss One Night In Miami, which centers around a real life meeting between four titans of Black American culture—Mohammad Ali (still known at the time as Cassius Clay), Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown—on the night that a 22-year-old Ali beat reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Lister. The next morning, Ali would announce that he was in the Nation of Islam, and his moniker change would follow.

The movie is based on research that Kemp collated over his 17-year career as a journalist, which he then parlayed into a career as a playwright, developing the story into a play of the same name. Blanchard, who is also a celebrated jazz trumpeter and Spike Lee’s go-to film composer, was invited to do the soundtrack.

After last year’s summer of discontent in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the themes discussed here resonate with the times. And hearing two Black men at the top of their game—erudite in their ideas about art, family and creativity—speak with such openness and joy, is revelatory.

A collaboration with 101 Studios and Soho House, The Backstory brings together distinguished guests from different fields and leaves Bentley to expertly flesh out the connective tissue that binds them—executed perfectly in the Blanchard-Kemp episode.

The first episode—featuring actor Kristen Bell (The Good Place, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) and organizational psychologist Adam Grant (author of New York Times Bestseller, Think Again) discussing post-traumatic growth (particularly useful in these times) and parenting—was a good primer to the format but didn’t zing with the same resonance.

Episode two featuring Rosalind Chao (Joy Luck Club) and Justin H Min (Umbrella Academy) saw the two actors, generationally separated by three decades, reflect on what strides have been made in Hollywood in terms of Asian-American representation. Both guests are polite to a fault but don’t fail at providing insight to the issue based on their individual experiences.

The third episode presents director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters) and comedian Margaret Cho (All American Girl). Bentley describes each as committed to elevating minority voices in the media using very different means. Feig has dedicated his career to finding great roles for women. He’s always been a proponent of the Inclusion Rider; he launched an incubator for female directors in 2018; and is a longtime collaborator of Melissa McCarthy’s. Cho grew up in San Francisco surrounded by the LGBTQ community—her parents ran a gay bookshop in the Castro—identifies as bi-sexual. As one of the first queer, Asian Americans in comedy, she continues to push against the grain in her standup and in life.

The most recent episode with Blanchard and Kemp dropped earlier this week and is the most enjoyable so far. As a listener you are now familiar with the flow of the format while Bentley has clearly hit his stride as host. Perhaps, the central theme of music also helped animate Bentley, who had served as KCRW’s Music Director for a decade. He admits: “Directors and comedians are not in my wheelhouse… so it’s been an interesting challenge for me.”

Having also served as Music Supervisor for The Matrix franchise and TRON: Legacy—where Bentley was crucial in getting the reclusive Daft Punk duo to compose the film score—one might have expected him to indulge in that line of questioning. Instead of talking soundtracks exclusively, Bentley uses his limited time to delve deep, getting them to share intimate, personal stories that are utterly surprising.

“I’m so proud of that episode. It’s my favorite of the lot,” he says, before stating he’s aware that he isn’t supposed to pick favorites. Part of what makes that conversation illuminating are nuggets like Blanchard’s revelation that it was his father who was enamored with opera. It was a passion that Blanchard never shared in his youth, as he was trying to forge his own identity.

Blanchard goes on to explain that he grew up loving jazz in a family of classical musicians who loved spiritual music. He found it strange that his father was a baritone opera singer. When they all got together to rehearse Blanchard recalls: “I thought they were the weirdest dudes on the planet because I’d never seen Black men singing opera right!” Sadly, it speaks to the racism in the arts and the African American experience in general but coming from Blanchard, it was a touching observation of his relationship with his father and opera—that has come full circle.

I mention to Bentley how joyful that moment is for a listener, as Blanchard debunks stereotypes and expands the idea of creative Black men in his personal anecdote. “I know,” Bentley laughs, “It was wonderful.”

He adds: “I think for me it speaks to the power of stories and their ability to change people’s views and perceptions of the world. I think with Kemp and Terence, they both speak to the power of human stories and representing those ideas to the benefit of society… these are little ways you can advance the conversation and make a difference.”

There are four remaining episodes—including a pairing of actor Kevin Costner with producer T Bone Burnett, before Series 1 concludes. “I really feel like I’m getting a hang of it,” Bentley says referring to the show’s multi-guests format. When Soho House and 101 Studios had first brought up the format a few years ago he was skeptical. A Film and TV company headed by David Glasser, 101 Studios was launched early last year. Its various projects include cable TV show Yellowstone and films The Current War and Burden. They’ve been instrumental in booking guests for The Backstory, which Bentley admits he would not have been able to get on his own as an independent producer.

“Initially, I felt that the multi-guests format was going to be unnecessarily difficult,” he explains. “I was so much more familiar with the one-to-one conversations and I also felt like it kind of eliminated some opportunities: ‘What if there was someone we could get one-on-one and that was an important deep dive, let’s just do that!’ But Soho House and 101 really stuck to their guns.”

“Now, in retrospect, I think that they’re right. I really have come to enjoy the uniqueness of the format…that’s become a strength,” adds Bentley.

Refreshingly, The Backstory manages to cut through the noise and stand apart in a saturated podcast space, increasingly populated with larger, network production teams dolling out cookie-cutter shows. “I think it comes through the curation of the guests,” Bentley explains. “You know, finding two guests from different areas with different experiences, not necessarily on the same project at the time, and finding that common ground is when things get interesting. And also distinct from the other podcasts that are out there. I think curation is really the key word.”

The art of curation is a skill that Bentley perfected in his public media role as KCRW’s Music Director where he had a hand in either uncovering, launching or nurturing the careers of countless bands and solo artists from Adele to Phoenix and The National.

“You’ve got to step outside yourself a little bit in that process if you are a responsible music director,” he explains of the role that he gave 110 percent and excelled at. “You have to appreciate that it’s not about you entirely. You’re trying to represent a format or an idea of a station—and that’s programming. Music programming is creating a language that people can understand through patterns and repetition, and support…by programming an artist.”

He adds: “There’s a lot of stuff that wouldn’t necessarily appeal to me personally on my own…. But having an understanding that this is an important artist and you should…support and play—so there’s that responsibility that comes with the job. And I think I became good at that.”

Bentley reveals that curation is having a point of view and putting that out there. “There’s so many ideas and so much music and so many films, it’s like just presenting a set of ideas that might make sense together,’” he says trying to divulge his secret sauce.

He regards himself as naturally inquisitive but stops at describing himself as a “people person.” He continues: “I am very interested in people’s journeys. It’s about putting these ideas together, it’s a skills set that I think speaks to just curation of popular culture, I’ve always been interested in the underground and subcultures; and music is so related to that. But also when I visit cities, I’m looking at the graffiti on the walls. I’m trying to find the secret message? What’s the conversation on the street?”

Thankfully, Bentley plugs listeners directly to the right conversations in culture with The Backstory, pointing us to what shows we should be watching right now—and to be hip to its creators and the inspiring lived-in experiences that inform them.


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