Kevin Smith Makes No Claims to Knowing Music, but He's a Tastemaker Anyway
Given the varied pop culture terrain liberally explored throughout Kevin Smith's nine films — comic book legend Stan Lee doling out relationship advice in Mallrats, cracks about Con Air in Dogma, a wacky Scooby-Doo homage in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, ubiquitous Star Wars references sprinkled throughout his oeuvre — it's a bit conspicuous that there isn't much about music in any of those movies. The appearance of Morris Day and The Time at the end of Jay and Silent Bob is one of few notably awesome exceptions. Apparently there's a good reason for that.
"My musical tastes are reputably deplorable," Smith says via telephone from New Jersey. "My iPod tells a very embarrassing story."
Embarrassing is subjective, especially for a guy prone to disclosing on his SModcast podcast excruciatingly intimate details of sexual encounters with his wife. He has well-thought-out reasons for what he likes, even if it isn't hip.
Kevin Smith is scheduled to appear Saturday, April 10 at the Orpheum Theatre.
"I'm a huge Sting fan," he says. "I always thought Sting was kind of cool, not only because he started the Police and shit, or because he knows how to have a tantric orgasm — but because his lyrics sound like they were written by an English teacher, which he used to be."
As someone who interacts extensively with his fickle fans — through Twitter, through his message board, through his live Q&As (he's coming to Phoenix on April 10), Smith is unfazed when folks give him a hard time for his KEZ-worthy playlist.
"People jump on you when you say you like Sting and shit, like it's some kind of metrosexual crime or something," says Smith, just as potty-mouthed in person as you would expect from the dialogue of his movies. "I've taken shit for liking the Commodores, but I don't take too much shit for liking the Commodores because people can't give you shit, because they're black, and they don't want to sound racist."
While Smith readily admits to not being the biggest music fan, even saying that he "can't stand" going to live shows because "you can never hear the lyrics," there is one obvious place where he does get to play tastemaker (successfully!): the soundtracks of his films.
"Basically I just go to my iPod and pull the tunes I listen to the most, and they wind up in the movie," he says. "Any time you see the movie you're kind of hearing what's on my iPod, what I'm spinning."
And there have been some memorable uses of music in his body of work, from Stroke 9's otherwise forgettable "Kick Some Ass" playing in Jay and Silent Bob (as the title characters exact revenge on their online detractors) to New Edition's "Candy Girl" accompanying the Salma Hayek strip scene in Dogma or the main characters gleefully dancing on the rooftop to "ABC" in Clerks II.
"I think, hands down, the best combo of my visuals and a chosen song was in Zack and Miri [Make a Porno] when we used that Pixies song 'Hey,'" Smiths says. "That whole sequence when Miri's kind of testing Zack, suggests he fucks that other girl."
Though Smith will never challenge Cameron Crowe to a music trivia contest, he's living like a rock star in one way: taking a tour bus to his latest appearances. This has less to do with living a decadent lifestyle and much more to do with avoiding air travel — specifically the much-publicized incident in February when he reportedly was removed from a Southwest flight because a crew member told the director that he was, essentially, too fat to fly.
The incident clearly upset Smith, who went on to lash out against the airline on his Twitter account. And the SModcast. And for about 20 uninterrupted minutes on the phone with New Times. He's irritated not only at what happened to him but also at what he perceives as inconsistencies in Southwest's policies regarding exactly how fat you have to be to occupy two seats. Smith was able to put both armrests down, in keeping with their policy.
"These people are fucking gross. They're too cowardly to stand behind a policy, to create a policy, because they don't want to alienate a customer base," Smith says, with palpable contempt in his voice. "But instead they'll alienate people in person, or in my case, alienate you and lie about it."
This rancor isn't keeping Smith from moving ahead with work on his 10th film, Red State, or his spring speaking tour. He's been to Phoenix once before, for a test screening of Jersey Girl, when a couple of teenage girls walked out of the movie after the masturbation-discussion scene (keep in mind that's his most family-friendly film). He was surprised to learn Arizona is a red state.
"I thought, 'Phoenix is hot, people wear less clothing, so they'd be less inhibited and less conservative,'" he says. "Or maybe it's the opposite — since people are wearing less clothing, they feel the need to be the morality police."
Smith's live Q&As started in 1994 while he was promoting his first movie, the iconic ballad of underachievers: Clerks. After becoming comfortable with the format, he simply showed up at colleges for Q&As. Eventually, the discussions broadened from movies to whatever anyone wanted to talk about.
Last year, Smith was able to do a Q&A at Carnegie Hall ("That got my dick hard," he says), and selling out Carnegie caught the notice of theaters across the country. Not that geography has much of an impact on the shows.
"The questions are so similar, that's the beautiful thing," Smith says. "By the time someone asks me, 'What was it like to work with Bruce Willis?' 400 people have asked me that, and I've had the chance to shape and shape and shape and hone the story down to laser-sharp science."
He worked with Willis in February's Cop Out, another highlight of an already eventful 2010, full of speaking gigs and feuds with airlines. A buddy cop comedy co-starring Tracy Morgan, it was the first movie Smith directed that wasn't his screenplay. Despite a critical drubbing (currently sitting at 31 out of a possible 100 on Metacritic), it's been Smith's highest-grossing film yet, making $43 million. Not only did that make the harsh reviews ("phoned-in, gutless piece of hack work," wrote A.O. Scott in the New York Times) easier to take, it changed his perception on the general usefulness of movie critics.
"Film criticism is completely democratized now," Smith says. "Anybody can do it. Showing the movies free to the critics? Fuck 'em! Let 'em pay like everybody else. It makes no sense, this system. And I say that good or bad . . . Why are you better than the dude on Twitter?"
Smith continues to dabble in comic books, writing a 12-issue Batman series titled The Widening Gyre. He's dealt with criticism there, too — mainly accusations that the series' artist, Walt Flanagan, wouldn't have gotten the job if he wasn't one of Smith's best friends. Given the crowd of devotees apt to attend his Phoenix show, it's probably review-proof. Unless the review is of his iPod, in which case fans can give him shit about liking the Commodores.
Not too much, though.
That would be racist.
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