In the video for his 1983 song, “I Love L.A.,” Randy Newman, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shades, cruises around Los Angeles in a classic Buick convertible.
The video is a valentine to Los Angeles, a collection of quick-cut images — palm trees, pretty girls, the Burrito King in Echo Park — that capture a certain Southern California vibe. It was directed by the singer’s cousin, Tim Newman, who went on to direct memorable videos for ZZ Top’s early ’80s hits “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” and “Legs.”
These days, Tim Newman is 70-something and living in Southfield, a tiny town in westernmost Massachusetts. He’s also lensing another love letter, this time to the Berkshires, a global arts destination — think Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, Mass MoCA, Williamstown Theatre Festival — that relies heavily on performers and patrons. The shutdown hasn’t just been bad for business, it’s been disastrous.
“Back in April,” Newman says, “it was clear the virus was going to [expletive] everything up in a terrible way and I was, like, ‘I wish I could do something.’”
Newman didn’t know what that might be, but then he read a poem, published online by the Berkshire Edge. It was written by his friend and neighbor Michael Brady, and titled “On Learning of the Closure of the Theaters by Government Decree.”
The poem ruminates, obliquely, on an earlier pandemic, the bubonic plague, and its glorious aftermath, when “...a miracle! The golden age. Wondrous plays/ Ripe with Revelation, Surprise and Complication.”
As the area’s arts organizations were being brought to their knees, Brady’s words were hopeful, a reminder of what’s possible.
The poem made an impression. Actors from Barrington Stage Company did a Zoom reading of it, and Newman was moved to make a short film celebrating the region’s creative economy and stressing the need to protect and support it.
“The end of each stanza is ‘the actors always come back,’” he says. “And I thought that could serve as a metaphor for all the arts.”
Newman filmed notable locals reading the poem, among them actress Karen Allen and Shakespeare and Co. Artistic Director Allyn Burrows, and enlisted select arts leaders to speak about their organizations and the challenges they’re facing.
Newman says the goal of the film, which is nearly finished, is simple: Remind everyone not only what a unique place the Berkshires is, but also what’s at stake if its many museums and theaters remain shuttered. (The film will be posted on YouTube and on the arts organizations’ websites.) He didn’t have trouble getting people to participate.
“While the poem is in some ways a cry of the heart, it very much celebrates the resilience of the industry,” says Janis Martinson, executive director of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, which occupies a century-old theater in Great Barrington. “And we know, historically, that a lot of great art comes out of struggle.”
Pamela Tatge, executive and artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow, which canceled its summer dance festival for the first time in 88 years, said the center’s revenues are down by 50 percent, necessitating layoffs and pay cuts.
“We’ve all lost our physical constituencies, and that has a ripple effect on small businesses across Berkshire County,” she says. “This is going to take a long time to recover from.”
Tatge says it’s been gratifying to see Newman start rolling cameras on behalf of the arts.
“We need these institutions because we want to come together — to create, to tell stories, to provoke, to inspire,” she says. “Without these institutions, it’s not as good of a life.
“It’s not a life worth living, I think, without art,” Tatge says.
Allen, who’s perhaps best known for playing Marion Ravenwood in the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” has lived in the Berkshires off and on for three decades, appearing in productions at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Shakespeare and Co., and the Berkshire Theatre Festival, where she’s also directed.
“The pandemic has brought the arts to a screeching halt, and Tim’s film is just sort of saying ‘This has happened before, but the arts will not and cannot die,’” says Allen. “I think him doing this is proof of that.”
In Newman’s 1983 video for ZZ Top’s “Gimme All Your Lovin’,” the band is at a gas station on a desolate stretch of Dust Bowl highway when three lovelies pull up in a red hot rod and seduce the young, awe-struck attendant. It’s ridiculous, but it was a monster hit on MTV and it led Newman to make two more wildly popular videos for the band.
“I’m not a person who talks a lot about himself, but with those videos, I helped take ZZ Top from a successful regional touring band to an international superstar band,” Newman says.
His short film about arts and culture in the Berkshires isn’t likely to change the fortunes of Mass MoCA or the Barrington Stage Company so dramatically. But it might prompt folks, when it’s possible, to pay them a visit.