Michael Bolton is trying to save Detroit. Yes, that Michael Bolton.
The singer is putting the finishing touches on a documentary about the work being done to revive the Motor City
On a recent afternoon, Michael Bolton — yes, that Michael Bolton — walks down Michigan Avenue showing off the city he has grown to love. A cameraman tails him, which might be why the singer, without the nuclear hair of his “When a Man Loves a Woman” heyday, can’t avoid being noticed.
A fan leans in for a hug. A cop on a horse invites him to visit the stable. A bald man who sings in a Bolton tribute band asks for a selfie.
Above: Michael Bolton tours the newly renovated Detroit Institute of Music Education.
Click to play: See Michael Bolton’s cinematic serenade to Detroit.
“It’s $22.50,” Bolton says, smiling. “You got PayPal?”
He walks on. The stroll is not meant for autograph seekers. Bolton is in Detroit for his latest project, and it’s a doozy. The pop singer, whose booming voice has kept the mom-jeans intelligentsia mesmerized since roughly 1987, is making a documentary about the city’s attempt to dig itself out of disaster. Bolton has spent three years and $250,000 of his own money in the hopes of recasting how the public views Detroit.
“This,” he says, “is one of the greatest comeback stories in American history.”
Michael Bolton making a documentary about Detroit?
“He’s probably one of the last people I would have expected to do it,” says Aaron Foley, a local writer and Detroit native.
The Web site Deadline Detroit was less polite. Another “parachute celebrity,” it bristled, mocking the project through a series of snide links to glossy 1980s Bolton videos.
But the still-untitled documentary, which Bolton is hosting and directing with his manager, Christina Kline, will premiere Oct. 2 at the city’s historic Fox Theatre and then hit the film festival circuit. The project has sparked considerable interest since Bolton began conducting interviews with everyone from Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson to Mayor Mike Duggan and Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert.
“I’ll reserve judgment until I see it,” he says. “Come on in. Do your thing. What have you got, brother?”
Gilbert, the billionaire Detroit native who also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers, goes further. He’s impressed by Bolton’s approach.
“Look, to have somebody of his stature reach out and tell the story, the way it is and not just tell ruin porn, showing the same six burned-out shops, I like that,” says Gilbert. “He’s going to show what happened, where this city was and then all the great things happening.”
On his walk, Bolton is joined by Bruce Schwartz, Gilbert’s “relocation ambassador,” essentially a guide, recruiter and civic cheerleader featured in the film. They head to Campus Martius Park, a small square meant to serve as a central meeting place, with an ice rink in the winter and picnic area during warmer months. They stop at the Roasting Plant, an upscale coffee house. Next, they walk across the street to what Bolton views as another symbol of the city’s revival: The Compuware tower, where Gilbert moved Quicken Loans, the country’s second-largest mortgage broker, in 2012. Gilbert, for Bolton, is one of the city’s heroes, buying and renovating buildings throughout the downtown. Inside the company’s offices, Bolton shows off a sprawling model of the city, pointing out fashion designer John Varvatos’s new flagship store. That evening, Bolton will be one of the boldface names, along with supermodel Kate Upton, rocker Alice Cooper and Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, at the store’s opening-night bash.
Still in the Quicken Loans office, Bolton wanders over to the basketball court Gilbert has installed among the cubicles. He doesn’t look 62, scooting across the parquet floor, scarf and all, throwing in soft hooks and 12-footers. Employees gather in a landing above, taking pictures and cheering each swish because, well, Michael Bolton is shooting hoops in the office.
Back out on the sidewalk, Bolton is asked whether filming in this part of Detroit — the high-rises, the execs, the best place to get an almond milk latte — presents too rosy a portrait.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever going to sweep the blight and issues of security under the carpet,” he says. “But the reality is that the people who have come through, who have also used up a lot of valuable time, wind up going and covering only the tough stuff about the city. There are great things going on now.”
Clockwise from top left: A construction worker takes a break in Capitol Park Historic District in downtown Detroit in April; downtown buzzes behind the Monument to Joe Louis, which is one of Bolton’s favorite attractions in the city; Brent Palaian, 26, and Cynthia Bishara, 24, watch the sunset from the William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor.
Maybe this documentary shouldn’t come as such a surprise. Bolton is famous for his pop career, but he has also recorded opera, been the executive producer for a documentary about domestic violence and shown a willingness to take creative chances, even when it means poking fun at his own image.
The documentary was sparked by Bolton’s decision to make an album of Motown songs three years ago.
He had grown up on the music of Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and played gigs in Detroit for 25 years. But this time, coming to visit the city that had inspired his record, he was drawn into the battle to recover from what would become the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. He also met Gilbert and Schwartz.
Kline had taken cameras along simply to document Bolton’s Motown visit. Soon, the two realized they had a bigger story to tell, of the developers, entrepreneurs and regular people working on a Detroit revival.
“All of these journalists and interested parties have come in and presented themselves as people interested in the truth and in reality, [but] they’re just coming around and bludgeoning Detroit,” says Bolton. “Why aren’t people covering the great stories, the promising stories?”
Bolton, despite years of success, also feels deeply connected to the people struggling in Detroit. After all, he knows what it’s like to have your rent checks bounce, to wonder how to feed the children. Bolton only finished a year of high school, leaving his home town of New Haven, Conn., in the late 1960s to become a rock star. But solo albums and records with his ’70s band Blackjack flopped. One day, in the early ’80s, he got a call from a local booking agent. Too much snow. The weekend’s gigs were canceled.
“I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, that means there’s no money this week and having a sit-down with my wife and talking about how dinner was going to be managed over the next few nights,” he says. “Frozen Brussels sprouts. I think they were three for a dollar.”
Bolton’s struggles ended in 1982 when CBS Songs signed him to a songwriting deal. Hits for Laura Branigan, Cher and Kiss followed. His own singing career took off in 1985 and, by the early 1990s, he says, he had earned enough to never worry about money again.
Success, though, did not bring him peace. His lone marriage ended in 1991 and even as he cradled awards, Bolton found himself under attack, savaged by critics who called his music overwrought, pop fluff and mocked his hair. Bolton fought back. “A bunch of no-talent chimpanzees,” he said backstage at the Grammys one year.
“They were always making fun of him for his hair or being cheesy,” says songwriter Diane Warren, a friend who worked closely with Bolton in the 1980s. “What they forget was what an amazing singer he is and that the songs were great. That’s why he sold 50 million records.”
Sorry, it’s actually 60 million and counting. Keep in mind that Taylor Swift, today’s most popular pop star, is at 17 million. Then, in the late ’90s, Bolton faced a new challenge. That’s when the mature white male songwriter ceased to exist.
“It wasn’t just us,” says Bolton’s friend Richard Marx, who had his own string of top-10 hits in the late 1980s.
“It was Bryan Adams, Billy Joel, John Mellencamp. I looked and said, ‘I’ve had a good 10 years’ run. I can’t complain.’ What Michael did is he took his time and tried all kinds of records. Every time we’d get together for dinner or have a couple of tequilas, the main order of business was, ‘We’re not just going to quit, to fade away. We’re going to try different things and see what works.’ ”
By 2009, Bolton had cut his cascading hair and taken a giant step into what modern entertainment wonks call “rebranding.” He hired Kline, a Georgetown graduate in her 30s who grew up on Radiohead and U2 and had never managed an artist before. Kline helped Bolton reach a new audience by revealing a side he usually kept private.
Sometime in 2010, then-“Saturday Night Live” star Andy Samberg approached Bolton about collaborating with his spoof rap group, the Lonely Island, for their song and video “Jack Sparrow.” As the title suggests, Bolton played Johnny Depp’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” character as well as Forrest Gump and Al Pacino’s Tony Montana from “Scarface.” He even threw on a dress to do Erin Brockovich. “Jack Sparrow” went viral after its 2011 premiere on SNL. Soon, Bolton was doing comic Honda commercials, an intentionally corny American Greetings video birthday card and, just recently, a musical bit on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.”
“Maybe those young boys and those guys who were captivated for Jack Sparrow weren’t necessarily waiting around to see when the next album’s coming out,” says Kline, “but they are interested when they see Michael’s name attached to something that’s comedic in a space they can navigate.”
Earlier this year, Bolton also agreed to act in a spoof video of the 1999 film “Office Space.”
In the sketch, Bolton played David Herman who had played a character named Michael Bolton in “Office Space.” In that movie, Herman’s character is tormented by the constant questions of whether he’s related to the singer or, he calls him, that “no-talent ass clown.”
In this remake, Bolton, with glasses and a short-sleeve, button-down-shirt, plays Herman. At one point, a colleague asks why he doesn’t just go by Mike instead of Michael.
“No way,” says Bolton, not breaking character. “Why should I change? He’s the one that sucks.”
Clockwise from top left: Bolton greets writer Mitch Albom before interviewing him at a Detroit radio station in 2014 (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post); Bolton interviews Ford’s William Clay Ford Jr. at the company headquarters in Dearborn, Mich., in 2014 (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post); Bolton exits the Motown Museum in 2015; Andrew Lemanek, left, is an employee at a Detroit interior design firm featured in the documentary; Antea Shelton, middle left, teaches a songwriting class at the Detroit Institute of Music Education.
The laptop is open, and the rough cut of the doc is playing. Bolton is sitting at his dining-room table in Westport, Conn. He bought the house after his marriage dissolved so his three daughters, now all in their 30s, would have a place to stay. Bolton’s mother and brother also lived nearby. As the cut plays, Bolton is beaming. There he is, as the host, walking into Motown’s famed Studio A, leaning his head against the acoustic panels and looking like a kid handed a soft serve with the chocolate shell. There’s Aretha Franklin, on camera, talking about Detroit.
“Wait,” Bolton says, leaning forward in his chair. “It gets better in 10 seconds.”
And it does, as Franklin, decades younger and now in black-and-white, kicks into the break. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”
The dining-room table is covered: A pitch for a reality show, a glossy photo to be signed for a woman with terminal cancer, a DVD of “Whiplash,” a photo book showing burned-out homes in Detroit, a AAA card under his birth name, Bolotin, which he’s never legally changed.
Downstairs, Bolton’s walls are plastered with platinum records. Reaching into a box, Bolton picks out a framed picture of himself, in the hair days, next to a then-unknown Mariah Carey. He’s singing at a record industry convention. She’s waiting.
“[Tommy] Mottola asked me if I would do him a favor,” Bolton says, invoking the name of the legendary record exec. “’We’re breaking in his new artist, and can you let her come up and sing with you?’ ”
Bolton isn’t a name dropper necessarily. It’s just that he has worked with, hung with and known so many big names. He’s written with Bob Dylan and Lady Gaga, sung with Ray Charles and Pavarotti, chilled with Bill Clinton.
Bolton, still fit and with those piercing blue eyes, admits he’s insecure about aging. He has five grandchildren and is relieved the ones old enough to speak call him “G Pa,” not grandpa. He is not ready to slow down.
“My grandfather was a plumber from Ukraine and Kiev,” Bolton says. “He worked pretty close to the time he passed away. He said, ‘When you stop working, you die.’ And I tend to agree. I can’t imagine slowing down or retiring. When someone uses the word retiring, that’s the last thing I think about. I think about expansion.”
Clockwise from top: Bolton takes a photo with fans during a packed VIP event for the opening of fashion designer John Varvatos’s flagship store in Detroit in April; Bolton chats with fellow singer Alice Cooper on the black carpet during the event; Bolton, right, shoots hoops while visiting the Compuware headquarters building.
In Detroit, the Varvatos bash is getting started. Near the red carpet, Bolton’s greeted with a shout and man hug from Chrysler chief marketing officer Olivier François, the man behind the company’s high-profile ads with Dylan, Clint Eastwood and Eminem.
François is in Bolton’s doc, along with a slate of Detroit figures both famous (Francis Ford Coppola and car company heir Bill Ford) and not so famous, including General Motors workers, local teachers and high school students. He admits what surprised him most about Bolton is not what he asked him on camera, but what he didn’t ask for: money to make the film.
“I couldn’t believe it,” says François. “Because so many people reach out to me looking for an endorsement deal or commercial deal or some kind of deal.”
The party organizers hustle Bolton to the carpet to pose for photos with Varvatos and Alice Cooper, that night’s entertainment. As cameras flash, the singers, out of earshot, talk about their great passion — golf.
“Took my son to Pebble Beach and Spyglass,” Cooper says.
“How did he do on Spyglass?”
“Great,” Cooper says. “He killed it.”
A TV reporter asks Bolton about the documentary.
“Our coverage is about the rebuilding and rebirth of Detroit,” he says. “It’s an awesome story.”
Detroiter Aaron Foley said he wonders what will happen when Bolton finishes his film. So many have come to Detroit, made something and headed out.
“I won’t hold it against Michael Bolton if he leaves,” says Foley. “Because he wouldn’t be the first.”
Bolton said he doesn’t plan to abandon the city. He also is going to wait to talk about his plans — for now.
“I don’t want to be perceived as someone passing through Detroit, doing this tribute to Motown and then stumbling upon Dan Gilbert and all these other people, and that I saw some business opportunity,” he says. “But I can promise this: I’m not going to disappear from Detroit.”
Bolton walks through downtown Detroit in April.