October 31, 2014

Star-Studded Topanga Rockumentary to Benefit Young Adults with Autism

 

While chronicling three decades of America’s most iconic musicians and their music that flourished in mid- to late-century Topanga, filmmakers will work side by side with young autistic adults and teach them the trade.

PHOTO BY ANNEMARIE DONKIN MESSENGER © 2014

Star-Studded <i>Topanga</i> Rockumentary to Benefit Young Adults with Autism

The producers, editors and writers of the rockumentary Topanga are, from left, editor Brian Carter, Producer Matt Prine, Associate Producer Tom Mitchell, Robby Krieger, Impressario George Paige and writer John Hartman.

On February 27, Robby Krieger of the legendary rock group, The Doors, joined a roster of Rock ‘n’ Roll music greats at a fundraiser to raise money for young adults with autism and announce the upcoming production of a feature-length “rockumentary” entitled Topanga, about the culture of Topanga Canyon during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s as experienced through the music of the time. The documentary, which will be filmed in Topanga, is especially unique in that it will follow a model of employment integration for young adults with autism who will work side by side with industry professionals during production.

Music industry heavyweights, impresario George Paige—veteran producer of numerous award-winning documentaries including The Doors: Dance on Fire (HBO/Universal Studios), Michael Jackson The Legend Continues (CBS/Showtime) and the mini-series Motown (Showtime)—will produce the film.

PHOTO BY ANNEMARIE DONKIN MESSENGER © 2014

Star-Studded <i>Topanga</i> Rockumentary to Benefit Young Adults with Autism

From left, impresario and producer George Paige, artist Norton Wisdom and legendary guitarist Robby Krieger of the Doors helped raise money for the film, Topanga.

“When I first came out here, my first impression of California was Topanga and the music of Topanga Canyon,” Paige said. “What an untold story!”

That in itself would be enough, but when Paige mentioned the film to Barbara Hollander of Autism Unites, she suggested bringing young adults with autism into the project and create a template to train them in the skills of film producing. After that conversation, Paige called Krieger, who simply said, “I’m in.”

Long-time Topangan, John Hartman—author, educator, music industry expert and former drummer for the Doobie Brothers—will write the script. He also announced that Linda Ronstadt has agreed to narrate the film.

Hartman, who lived in Topanga during the ‘70s, says, “Topanga isn’t a place; it’s a mindset. It has no real appellation. The Native Americans, who used Topanga beach as their gathering place, knew about this spiritual vortex that goes from Malibu to Palos Verdes. I feel the presence of the Native American spirit when I’m here.”

Musing about writing the script, Hartman allows a tiny peek into his thinking: “The oldest musical instrument, made from the hollow wing of a vulture, is 40,000 years old. Our picture may start out with that idea.”

Everyone is over the moon about the project, which will be two films: the rockumentary, Topanga, and a behind-the-scenes “making of” film. The fundraiser was the first step in the project with Topangan Tom Mitchell filming.

Buzz Tarlow, President of the Topanga Historical Society, and his wife Terry Marks-Tarlow, an artist and psychotherapist, are active supporters in the autism community.

“The Historical Society will be delighted to help make the project happen by giving access to our photographic archives on the musical history of Topanga," Tarlow said.

The documentary will be shot in Topanga and, while you don’t have to live in Topanga to be part of it, a number of Topangans have already signed on, among them, Matt Prine, currently producing a film, Malibu Clout, and its editor, Brian Carter.

Prine was the catalyst that reinvigorated Paige’s interest in Topanga when he gave him a book about Topanga.

“I became enraptured with Topanga beach and the “Cosmic Children,” who lived there,” says Paige. “We’ve been embraced by Topanga. It’s a hidden, spiritual paradise. The thing about Topanga is that the hills are close together and they hug you. I think that’s where a lot of the creativity comes from.”

THE FUNDRAISER

Susan Osborne, Director of Autism Unites, explained how their program uses the “art of connection” to bring young people with autism in on the film to help them make real connections and learn about the industry. The organization has developed a social integration model to help them achieve a quality of life filled with friends, meaningful employment and the ability to become important members of their communities.

“When connections are positive, we are filled with joy and the ability to accomplish our goals in life,” she said.

The event was held at the beautiful Brentwood home of Les Joseph, who, many years ago, volunteered with Autism Unites to be matched with Osborne’s son, Jacob “Jake” Levy, when he was six. “I was a therapist and a teacher at the time. It took a long time to connect, but we’re still together,” said Joseph.

The room was buzzing with anticipation as acclaimed performance artist Norton Wisdom set up his easel next to the band where he would create an original masterpiece during Krieger’s performance. It was later auctioned.

Before picking up his own guitar, Krieger presented a guitar that he donated and autographed for the live auction. Other live auction items featured Krieger's own artwork; autographed drumheads by master percussionist and Oud player Hani Naser; and die-hard Doors fans bid to play a jam session on guitar, maracas or tambourine with Robby and Hani. Signature Events arranged a silent auction.

PHOTO BY ANNEMARIE DONKIN MESSENGER © 2014

Star-Studded <i>Topanga</i> Rockumentary to Benefit Young Adults with Autism

Rex Lewis, 19, who has been featured three times on “60 Minutes” played a Bach partita and a medley of “Imagine,” “What a Wonderful World” with a little Mozart.

Performing between sets was 19-year-old Rex Lewis, the blind musical savant that Lesley Stahl, host of “60 Minutes,” has been following since he was seven years-old. He played the presto movement from a Bach partita, a piece he described “as kind of crazy with each hand doing its own thing.” He then played and sang a medley of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” and “a little Mozart in the middle” that he performed at the home of Vice President Joe Biden.

Poet Michael C. Ford added his voice to the evening. He won a Grammy in 1986 for his debut spoken word album, “Language Commando.” One of the great poets of our generation, he has collaborated with members of The Door's John Densmore and Ray Manzarek.

Steve Mohan whose passion is performing, singing and acting, sang the classic Chicago blues song, “Back Door Man,” and Arman Khodaei, program director for Empower Autism Now and subject of the documentary Autism in Love, spoke of his desire to see everyone involved in the autism community and beyond to accept, understand, and communicate through a place of true connection.

Khodaei was accompanied by Valeriya Velyka, an aspiring architect and community activist. She has played an important part in two of Autism Unites’ productions, most recently, in Beautiful, a documentary about the “Match A Friend” program, where they met.

The performances by these young people garnered a different kind of goosebumps, the kind you get when you know you’re in the presence of people with inordinate courage, talent and the ability to overcome insurmountable obstacles.

Levy and Mohan, who will be attending Los Angeles Vocational Academy of the Arts, presented awards to the performers at the end of the evening.

The artwork for the award was done by a gifted artist, Florentina, 17, who was “born and forgotten” in Romania, adopted by an American family and overcame extreme autism.

PARENTS AS MOVERS, SHAKERS AND HEROES

Parents of autistic children represented the many grassroots organizations that abound for those with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and were eager to share their experiences.

Among them was Rex Lewis’ mother, Cathleen Lewis, who manages the many fundraisers, television appearances and motivational events she attends with Rex.

“It was hard living with blindness and autism,” she said. “The world was a scary place for him until he met Mozart and that little piano. It was his first voice where he had none and his safe place where he could grow and develop away from the world that was chaotic. Piano for him is an island of genius in a sea of disability.”

Rex graduated from Malibu High School last year and continues his education at Performing Arts Studio West in Inglewood, which provides hands-on individualized training, career management and on-location support for performers with developmental disabilities working in film, television and commercials. This year, he established the Rex and Friends Charitable Foundation (rexandfriends.org), a non-profit organization that offers music education and music therapy to blind and/or autistic people in Southern California.

Elaine Hall is the founder and president of The Miracle Project and a guest lecturer at Cal State Northridge. “Rehearsing for Life” is a program that provides life skills activities, such as job interviews, going on a date, etc., in a small laboratory setting where they can practice.

“We have non-verbal students who type to connect and type lyrics on an iPod,” said Hall. “Until now, most of the programs have been for early intervention. Now they’re growing up and we need to make something happen for our kids. By using creativity, we help teens and young adults find their passion and their voice. My son, Neil, discovered he loves gardening and now works as an organic gardener.” The Miracle Project works with the Help Group in Sherman Oaks and Step by Step in Santa Monica. (Elaine@themiracleproject.org)

Emily Iland of Camino Cinema, made BeSafeTheMovie.com to help autistic kids deal with police.

“We’ve trained 40,000 police about kids with autism to teach them that when these kids put their hands in their pockets it’s not because they’re going for a weapon,” she said. (661-297-4205; emily@besafethemovie.com; )

More inspiration came from Dee McVicker (deemcv@grassrootsco.com), who described young adults with autism as “one of our country’s most abundant resources.” She cited the Oscar-nominated movie American Hustle that brought in three young men and a woman with high-functioning autism to work on visual effects for the film as part of their training at Exceptional Minds vocational school (exceptionalmindsstudio.org) in Sherman Oaks.

PHOTO BY ANNEMARIE DONKIN MESSENGER © 2014

Star-Studded <i>Topanga</i> Rockumentary to Benefit Young Adults with Autism

Legendary Doors guitarist Robby Krieger shows off a guitar that he signed which was then auctioned off for charity on Feb. 27

Topanga is a collaboration of The Los Angeles Vocational Academy of the Arts (LAVAArts), a new employment training model for young adults with autism; Autism Spectrum Integrated Services (ASIS), a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to helping adults with autism connect to their communities and the workplace; Robby Krieger; George Paige and his company, GPA Entertainment, Inc.; and John Hartman.