The Business of Screenwriting: If it ain’t got no soul, it ain’t gonna sell

The time the legendary musician Taj Mahal laid words of wisdom on me.

It’s 1979. After getting my M.Div. degree from Yale, I take a year off before pursuing my doctorate (at least that’s what I thought at the time). Long story short, I have found my way to Aspen, Colorado where I’m playing music for a living as part of the duo Myers & O’Flynn. That’s Myers as in me. And O’Flynn as in Pat Flynn, who would later go on to perform with one the greatest collection of musical talents ever: The New Grass Revival featuring Pat, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck and John Cowan.

But not this night. Tonight Myers & O’Flynn has performed at the Paradise Theater in Aspen, opening for Taj Mahal.

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The one and only Taj Mahal.

Myers & O’Flynn did really well, even getting an encore, unusual for warm-up acts. And now we sit taking in Taj’s set. It’s just him. His guitar. Banjo. Occasional harmonica. Standing on stage, singing and talking. Like he’s in your living room. And here’s the thing: He’s got the entire room completely in the palm of his hands.

How do you do it?

That’s the dumb question I ask him as we’re backstage after the show, Taj kindly putting up with the fawning of a couple of white boys.

He talks about the music, how you don’t just sing a song, you gotta be the song.

It’s not just your voice, it’s your whole damn body. It’s everything you are. You gotta put it all out there.

He leans forward, his eyes flicking back and forth between us, and says:

If it ain’t got no soul, it ain’t gonna sell.

Cut to years later. I’m meeting with a producer on an idea they have. It’s a broad comedy. As I’m pitching my take, it’s like I’m standing outside myself. I’m trying my hardest to generate enthusiasm for the story, but I know as the words burble of my mouth… I’m just not feeling it.

I don’t land the gig. No surprise. I had convinced myself that I connected with the material, but after the fact, I can see it was my wallet speaking. My soul was saying otherwise. While I was busy pitching, it was off someplace else.

I trudge out of that meeting and make a decision: No more broad comedies for me. At least for awhile. I have to rediscover what it is that turns me on creatively.

Get in touch with my soul… and write that.

Want to see soul in action? Here is Taj backed up by a band singing one of his favorites “Queen Bee”:

Want to see Myers & O’Flynn? Here we are from the 1979 Telluride Bluegrass Festival:

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

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