[ Godsends ]

Elton John to the rescue

Part One

Listening to the sermon in church one winter’s Sunday, I heard a statistic that so horrified me I barely remembered another thing from the message: that 55% of all homeless people in my town of Atlanta were women and children.

I had no idea. My image of homeless people was, sadly, the typical, misinformed cliché – male, substance abuser, chronic drifter. But women and children making up more than half of a lost population without a place to call home? Who knew?

I felt a divine calling to somehow get the word out. I kept thinking how, if others also knew this awful fact, we’d all be far less accepting of the notion that homelessness was truly a choice, a way of life. We’d want to make a difference, to help them get off the streets, back on their feet and safe from harm – which, for women, often meant violent relationships.

As an advertising writer, my mind immediately turned to creating a TV spot that would run as a public service announcement (PSA) on local TV stations. I’d round up the help of friends and colleagues in the business. They’d donate their time and talents and the technical resources of their companies.

Things began to fall into place quickly. The statistic I'd heard in church had come from the Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, so I approached them about running the PSA on their behalf. They were on board from the get-go.

A well-connected producer friend of mine stepped up to the plate and worked her magic. She enlisted her brother, a talented photographer, to shoot the footage. Another member of the family would portray a young homeless mom. We didn’t even need to search for children to appear in the spot, as our real-life mom had a young baby and toddler of her own.

One of Atlanta’s best film editors agreed without hesitation to create a moving drama from the reams of footage and stills. A local music house that scored commercials and produced albums agreed to write and record the music track for the spot – hurrah!

All of these fine people would work for free. The only out-of-pocket expenses would be for the film and developing – a cost I was glad to pony up.

Surely our mission was blessed.

As for the script idea, it came quickly to me. A series of stark black and white shots would show a day in the grim life of a homeless woman and her children.

Because most shelters are open only at night, many homeless people must stay on the move during the day. So the spot would follow our mom and kids as they trudged through an urban wasteland of endless sidewalks, shabby buildings and city parks. The spot would end with an appeal to help families like these by helping the Task Force for the Homeless.

It was still winter when we began shooting. My hope was for a quick turnaround, so the spot could air while the need for cold-weather assistance to the homeless was still at its most dire.

Almost immediately we had equipment problems. One of the vintage cameras we’d selected, because of the interesting look it created, kept jamming. We’d get a few shots and then it would clutch. Once we located replacement equipment and resumed our shoot, there were new gremlins.

Thankfully, the weather cooperated – as did the baby and toddler, although we had our challenges getting these sunny-faced kids to adopt anything near the demeanor of weary kids at risk. But eventually we burned enough footage to build the :30 spot.

The film lab soon called with a problem: much of the film had been scratched in the faulty camera. Should they even develop it? Well, there wasn't a reshoot in our future. So I decided to take whatever we got and make lemonade from lemons. The scratches would just have to be considered an appropriate visual effect, given our subject matter.

Our editor carved time from his booked-solid schedule to valiantly put together an amazing rough-cut from the grab bags of film I handed him.

Now it was time for the music guys to do their thing… the last key step in bringing the spot into the world.

The weeks ticked by. Two… three… four… five... and no music. These guys were busy... and over-extended with paying clients. Periodically they’d reiterate their commitment to the project… ask for my continued patience… and then go back “under the radar.”

The spot sat idle, a digital ghost on the editor’s computer. The cold weather so brutal to homeless people gave way to spring.

Months passed and still no music. Privately, I lost my attitude of peace, love and understanding. Didn’t these people know or care they were holding up something that really mattered in the scheme of things? Couldn’t they at least have the courtesy to bow out if they were just too darn busy… or had lost interest… or both?

I lowered my expectations. Maybe we’d just have to resort to a “canned” track, which is basically background music that can be bought relatively inexpensively. But it’s rare to find a canned track that’s basically more than “audio wallpaper” – which was certainly not what this spot deserved. And sorting through and listening to the thousands in existence would require unfettered time and access to a music library, which I didn’t have.

So I prayed for another heavenly assist as Danica, my producer friend, went to Plan B. She compiled a list of suitable pop songs from artists with whom she had connections, including Collective Soul and Elton John. Wow!

The song, “House,” from Elton John’s album, Made in England, was perfect. When played against the rough cut of the spot, it was absolutely spine-tingling.

Maybe the delay had been meant to be all along – because something better had been waiting in the wings?

There is, however, a catch to using copyrighted music in commercials. Unless the parties who own the rights to a song agree to waive their rights to royalties, the only way you can legally use their music is to pay them the going rate. And that can be a staggering sum. Especially when the artist's name is Elton John.

Dear God, I prayed, please please let Elton say Yes! Let him say we can use the track – and that we can use it for free! Just think how many people will look up at the TV to see the spot when they hear his famous voice! Just think how many donations we can inspire people to give and how many homeless families we can help!

Given his reputation for generously supporting a range of good causes, and since he calls Atlanta home, we had reason to hope Elton would say yes. And given my producer’s connections, we felt we’d hear back soon – whatever his answer was.

We didn’t.

Part Two

Having been through this get-your-hopes-up dance with many other commercials in my career, I had known all along that getting the OK to use music by a star as huge as Elton John (paid or unpaid) was a very long shot indeed.

I must admit, though, I kept hoping that God would pull the strings and make it happen. It seemed so little to ask of Him, and for such a good cause! And hadn't He put all the right people in place so far?

But still there was no word from Elton John's people -- nor the local music guys.

The dog days of summer dragged by. The Task Force PSA had become a casualty of hectic careers and missed connections. I alternated between resignation, serene faith in the wisdom of the Almighty and just plain stewing about it.

I tried to encourage myself with the thought that God hadn't put my backside in that pew on that particular service on that particular Sunday just so this would all hit a dead end.

Maybe we needed to contact another artist on our list of pop musicians?, I wondered. But when I went back and listened to their tracks, not a one worked well with our spot. And I hadn't heard another possibility that even came close to Elton's.

I kept busy with work. Fall rolled around. Soon it would be the holiday season. Even if someone did surface with a decent track, getting a free PSA slot on a TV station during the high season of advertising would be scarcer than hen's teeth.

I began to avoid even checking in with the local music company. I knew the answer, I rationalized, so why bug them? They'd call me if they had something for me to hear.

Sometimes I'd try to take a more enlightened approach to this black hole I was in. Maybe this was a divine test of faith? Well, if so, I was failing miserably. Or maybe this was a specific step in my spiritual growth? But what? And why would God use this as a lesson for me, since it was at the expense of a cause much greater than my own?

I just couldn't understand what was going on. But this much was obvious: the situation was completely out of my hands. Even so, my ego wouldn't let me concede it.

But the day came that I had to. By then, it was the New Year -- almost twelve months since I'd heard the sermon that had started me on this quest. And the PSA was still marooned, somewhere on a back-up hard drive.

I remember I had just left yet another one of my periodic phone messages with the local music guys. I was burning with disappointment and frustration about the unreturned phone calls and still nonexistent music track. The more I thought about it, the bigger the snit I worked myself into.

Standing in the living room of my house, I threw up my arms in utter defeat. I glared heavenward and railed, "Okay! OKAY! YOU do it! --YOU do it!"

I gave the whole thing to the Almighty. I didn't feel at peace, to be honest -- just beat down. Mind you, I wasn't exactly laying the project at His feet with reverence. More like dumping it and having a pity party.

The great news is, the pity party met a fast demise.

The next day, Danica called. "Elton John said yes! We can use the track. For free." She went on to say that the reason we hadn't heard back for so long was because Elton John had changed management companies. Our request had been caught in an administrative backlog. Once it had surfaced, Sir Elton had immediately said yes. No strings attached.

I felt the touch of God's hand weighing on my heart. I was full of joy and thanksgiving and, at the same time, felt chastened.

All I'd had to do was truly turn over control to Him, our Source. In this way, my ego had been taken out of the picture, my expectations and resentments made irrelevant -- which they should have been all along. I'd had to be shown (and how long it had taken for me to get it!) that it was solely about the higher purpose.

Within days, the Elton John track was laid to picture and mixed -- by the same music house originally pegged to write the score. The final cut was dramatic and touching.

The broadcast-ready dubs (copies) of the finished spot were made gratis at a kind colleague's facility. I delivered each reel to local TV stations with a silent prayer that God would bless them.

In the end, it had been the perfect outcome. Everything had come together just in time for the spot to run during the dead of winter, when the need to help the homeless find their way off the streets is most urgent.

What happened as a result of the spot running on Atlanta TV? I simply don't know. I never learned whether the Task Force received incremental contributions, if homeless people learned they could turn to the Task Force, or if newly concerned citizens volunteered their time to the cause.

For a while I wrestled with this uncertainty, wondering if what we had done had made a difference or been a pointless exercise.

But the day came when I saw that I already had my answer: give up your expectations and trust the process, because Providence is at work. It had happened before and it would happen again, without end.

Barrett B.

Atlanta, GA