When I checked off the tags for this post, they were 'music' and then 'television." I also wished I had a tag for "reality television." Because Sonny & Cher were early music-television and reality-tv before its time. And reality TV with all its baggage of falsehoods. "Seemingly real" is what it is. And the more real it seems, the better its reenactors are.
Cher Scholar is suffering, dear friends, Cher chickadees and zombies. This is a high Cher tide and I'm so woefully behind with it. This whole year has been quite a shit show. First my department reorganized and the work seemed insurmountable. Then I hit a season of traveling that won't end until the end of July. And on top of all that, I'm spending the majority of my free time preparing the new book of poems, which involves endless rounds of editing, cover design work with an art designer, getting my photo done in a tintype theme, and taking care of all the business aspects of the book.
Meanwhile, Cher is out there with concerts, planned tours, a Broadway show, TV docs, a new album in the works, a new movie and new publicity around all that. So much stuff I would love to indulge in and can't fully. So, so frustrating.
But I will drop everything for a Cher documentary. And one came on last Sunday on the Reelz channel. I wasn't expecting much. It's the Reelz channel after all, full of shows like "Autopsy: [enter celebrity name]. Salacious and thin shows that seem exploitative.
This was the first documentary on Cher that sprung for re-enactments, which was very funny. And reinforced for me why Cher and Sonny re-enactments always fail, and fail for all the same reasons. Bad impersonations. Bad outfits.
Let's start with the clothes. Seemingly a simple and innocuous thing. However, with Sonny & Cher these things are crucial. All of their cool cred was tied up in their clothes. You could say this is true for any music personality or band. The only difference between rock outfits and pop outfits is that rock singers try to play it off as authentic and organic and pop singers freely admit to using the device. The clothes on these impersonators, as in all Sonny & Cher re-enactments, looked cheap and ill-fitting. Save up all the money you would spend on a set and put it into the outfits. In comparison to these impersonators, you can see just how good Sonny & Cher looked.
The second issue is the faulty impersonations themselves. This is more complicated. Why is Cher, and surprisingly Sonny, so hard to impersonate well? They always cast for a 60s Cher and then expect her to be able to pull of 70s, 80s, 90s, etc. Cher. It's never been done. Not even professional Cher impersonators try this very often. And this is why the new Broadway show on Cher has split them up.
And then there's Sonny: he's always cast as a doofus. Just compare the Sonny re-enactor to the photos of Sonny in the documentary. The serious, competitive, intense Sonny staring back at us bears no relation to the impersonated buffoony Sonny, which tries to cast his TV persona (admitted dim) into their private scenes. The problem is the enactments are always cartoony, a caricature of the TV show characters.
Maybe I'm just overly sensitive to a celebrity I know more about. Maybe all impersonations are bad everywhere. But I think the difficulty in impersonating Sonny or Cher (and often the discomfort we sometimes feel watching it) proves how multifaceted Sonny and Cher are as performers and people. This goes against the common critique of them since day one, that they are shallow and fluffy. But the problem of impersonation exposes problems in that theory.
The show also had some great new talking heads:
- Don Peake, their guitarist during the Wrecking Crew days
- Michel Rubini who was part of the Wrecking Crew and worked with Sonny & Cher into the 70s doing arrangement work and playing the piano and harpsichord
- Cher biographers Randy Taraborrelli and Josiah Howard
- Sonny's ex-wife and wife-after-Cher, Susie Coelho. Say what you want about Susie Coelho but she always provides eloquent, even-handed commentary and she has a unique perspective on Sonny right after he broke professionally with Cher.
- Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour producer Allan Blye
- Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour hairdresser Gary Chowen - hairdressers, they know stuff.
I learned a few new things too. I didn't know, for instance, that Cher's unhappiness around their TV show was anything more than the quality of the music they were singing or the conditions of overwork. That Cher called herself Queen of a Mediocre Medium and wanted to be as big as the Rolling Stones is surprising. What boy-girl duet could ever have a shot at beating a rock band? It's inconceivable. But if anybody could have make a couple duo look cool, maybe it would have been Cher. But is she even that all-powerful?
The show also provided good commentary on what changing Cher's look and sound might mean to her soul, and her ability to grow out of Sonny, and how Sonny was smart enough to be aware of this. I was also surprised Cher offered to stay in the act for a deal of 50/50. We all know Sonny thought Cher's career would tailspin without his guidance. And we all know how wrong he was. Gary Chowen's comments were good reinforcements around the idea of Cher’s growing up and standing up for herself. This is fresh new narrative that makes mince meat of the idea that Cher outgrew Sonny for ambition.
Chowen also illustrates an iconic irony about Cher when he comments how private Sonny and Cher were around their relationship struggles. Here they were pretending to be a reality-TV like open book onstage and in interviews, but that was all smoke and mirrors, not just their relationship status, but the entire facade of being candid performers to begin with. It was a fake intimacy Sonny had cultivated since their early days. And it's the same fake-frankness, or rather the "strategic frankness that distracts " which you can see Cher practicing even today.
Inexplicably, the show kept calling David Geffen’s LA club On the Rox. On the Rox was the private lounge on top of his club, The Roxy. There's the club and the lounge within the club.
Check Reelz channel for future listings. Here's the trailer.