A singer steps up to the microphone.
The spotlight shines brightly, mercifully blinding the view of the crowd. A roomful of eyes is watching the performer's every movement, and gesture.
The music begins. The pulse quickens. The singer's eyes are fixed on the video monitor, waiting for the lyrics to materialize on screen ...
This is the world of Karaoke, where anyone can be a star for three minutes and twenty seconds.
Director/producer Bruce Paltrow discovered the Duets (2000) screenplay when it was submitted to his production company by screenwriter John Byrum. Paltrow and Byrum had been friends since the early '70s, when both were struggling to carve out writing careers in Hollywood.
Paltrow was very impressed with the originality of the story. "It's a unique story - very funny, yet very serious," he says. "It's about three pairs of people - three duets - all of whom are searching to find something missing from their lives, and their paths converge."
When producer Kevin Jones first read the script he was not previously familiar with the world of Karaoke. He found the depiction of its inhabitants to be highly engaging. "It's a fascinating glimpse at the people who inhabit Karaoke bars-what they're looking for and how they behave," he explains.
The genesis of the project began one night when writer/producer Byrum went down to the bar of a hotel where he was staying, and they were having a Karaoke contest. He was amazed at how seriously the contestants treated the competition. "These folks were trying to be as good as they could be, without trying to get a record contract. They just wanted to go up on stage and sing."
After that experience, Byrum returned home and within two weeks, he had written the first draft of Duets (2000)
Coincidentally, director Paltrow already had a passing familiarity with Karaoke from an episode of "Homicide: Life on the Street" that he had directed a couple of years earlier. He knew it could be the perfect backdrop for this character-driven story. Since its introduction into the United States in 1988, the Karaoke phenomenon has gradually swept across the country, spreading from the Midwestern hotel bar scene to some of the trendiest nightspots in New York and Los Angeles.
The director had also been looking for an opportunity to work with his daughter, actress Gwyneth Paltrow, and felt that she would be perfect in the role of Liv, a third-generation Las Vegas showgirl whose mother's untimely death brings about an unexpected reunion with her long-lost father.
Miss Paltrow, who won both the Academy Award® and the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her role in Shakespeare in Love (1998) has amassed an impressive list of credits since her breakthrough performance in the 1993 drama Flesh and Bone (1993). Among her most memorable recent credits are Emma (1996), Sliding Doors (1998), Perfect Murder, A (1998), Se7en (1995) and Talented Mr. Ripley, The (1999).
"It's hard to believe, but five years ago I gave the script to Gwyneth, and she loved it," says director/producer Paltrow.
The actress recalls, "When I first read the script, I thought that it was very clever and unique. The world of Karaoke is a really interesting subculture, and it's one that hasn't been explored yet in a cinematic context. I was really excited about the idea of getting to play one of these people who is utterly into Karaoke.
"I see Liv as a very sweet, kind of underdeveloped person," Paltrow says of her character. "She's led a very strange kind of sheltered life with her mother in Las Vegas. She's a showgirl, so in one way she's seen a lot of the world. Yet somehow she's still very innocent."
To portray Liv's long-estranged father, Ricky Dean, the filmmakers had a considerable challenge to cast the role of a seasoned Karaoke hustler. "It was the toughest role to cast because first of all, we needed an actor who was willing to admit that he was old enough to be Gwyneth's father," says director Paltrow with no small degree of irony.
He adds, "But we also needed an actor who could sing well enough to be convincing as a successful Karaoke con artist. Our casting director, Francine Maisler, was the one who first suggested Huey Lewis, and I thought, 'She's a genius.'"
Lewis is the leader of the rock 'n' roll band Huey Lewis & The News, which dominated American music charts in the '80s with a string of number one hits. Over the years, he has also branched out into acting, appearing in the films Back to the Future (1985) and Short Cuts (1993)
Lewis was thrilled to be offered a role that seemed tailor-made for him. "I had been wanting to find a role that I could really sink my teeth into, but it's hard for a singer to get real actors' parts.
"First and foremost, Ricky's a singer," Lewis continues. "Now, he's a Karaoke singer, but maybe twenty years ago, he was a real singer. It's pretty hard to afford a band anymore, so he sings where he can and he hustles when he can. Singing is all he knows, and that's his life
The last thing Ricky wants is to be saddled with his newfound paternal duties, but Liv has other plans. Says Gwyneth Paltrow, "Liv just wants to stay with him and tries everything she can to get him to stick around. She's kind of looking for a part of her identity, that in some way, knowing who he is will make her a whole person."
Despite his initial reluctance, Ricky agrees to take Liv on the road with him, working the Karaoke circuit. For the first time in either of their lives, a bond begins to form.
"Ricky is a transient guy," says Lewis. "He just goes from Karaoke bar to Karaoke bar, and he doesn't regret anything about the way he's lived his life until he meets his daughter. Then he realizes that there's a part of him that's been missing all along."
Actress Maria Bello was cast in the role of Suzi, a sexy and determined small-town girl who dreams of traveling to Hollywood to become a singing star. Bello, who most recently starred in the films Coyote Ugly (2000) Payback (1999) and Permanent Midnight (1998), was a popular cast member on the television drama series "ER."
Bello says of her character, "She thinks she's a great singer, but she's stuck in a small town. She realizes she must follow her dream and go to California."
Bello could well relate to Suzi's pursuit of a better life. "It reminded me of my days waitressing in New York City when I thought, 'One day, I'm going to be an actress. I'm not going to have to sling hash anymore.'"
Director Bruce Paltrow recalls that Bello beat out a number of talented actresses to land the part. "She's just wonderful. The actress playing Suzi had to be fearless. There is a strong sexuality about her character - it's a metaphor for her power. I needed an actress who could be insouciant and confident - defiant. Maria was all of that."
While making her way across the country by bus, Suzi crosses paths with Billy Hannon, a seemingly lost soul who has just discovered that his girlfriend is having an affair with his partner in the taxi business.
Paltrow cast Scott Speedman, a Canadian-born actor who has recently become known to television audiences from the popular series "Felicity." The director explains what Speedman brought to the character of Billy. "Scott has a genuine sweetness and sensitivity. It was important for his character to demonstrate a sense of loss and determination to understand the meaning and purpose of his life. Scotty delivered the texture that was needed."
Speedman was attracted to the character's quest for his inner truth. "He's at that age where he's searching for something, but he's not on the path as much as he wants to be. He doesn't want to do anything but drive a cab and learn about people. The movie starts for him at the moment that everything has come crashing down on him. It's at the middle of all this turmoil that Suzi comes into his life like a whirlwind."
At first, says Speedman, "They are a pair of opposites. Billy is this pure, innocent kid on a search for harmony and happiness, and at first, Suzi takes advantage of him and manipulates him into driving her to California. In his mind, she's a dirty fast-talking lady whom he's trying to teach."
Bello echoes the description of their awkward chemistry. "Suzi thinks Billy's just a straight loser guy, and he thinks she's a crazy, wild girl. Eventually, they do get to understand that they really don't need to be judging each other-that there's value in the way that both of them look at life. They really come to a mutual respect for each other."
Andre Braugher and Paul Giamatti-as unlikely a duo as would ever be found portray the final "duet".
Giamatti portrays Todd Woods, a traveling salesman with enough frequent flier miles to earn him several trips around the globe. Giamatti, who gave an unforgettable performance as Pig Vomit in Howard Stern's Private Parts (1997), has also appeared in films including Saving Private Ryan (1998), Truman Show, The (1998) and the acclaimed telefilm Winchell.
"Todd is a vice president of a real-estate development corporation and his day-to-day life is lived in hotel rooms across America. He doesn't get to stay at home very much at all - he's just pushing himself from place to place, from meeting to meeting, trying to be as successful as he can. Ultimately, it's a deadening existence," Giamatti explains.
Says director Paltrow, "Todd is your quintessential white, middle class, college-educated male with the perfect nuclear family living in a tract housing development. Reggie grew up in the inner city. He's a recidivist who has been in and out of prison since he was a boy. These two come together, and realize that they're, in fact, the same. Both are trapped by the system that they were born into, and each has dreams of being something other than what they are."
For each of the six characters, it is the seductive charm of Karaoke that propels their stories forward. Says actress Maria Bello, "I think that somewhere in people, they always have a dream to be an entertainer. Karaoke gives them that chance to be in the spotlight for a second, to be the star. I think that people love that."
Producer Kevin Jones adds, "Karaoke is one of the most supportive environments that I've ever been in. People aren't sitting there waiting to criticize your ability, unlike in the professional world. Everybody's looking to boost you up-they want you to sing so you can share in the experience. The shared experience of putting yourself out there, with a group of people, brings you closer."
Huey Lewis observes, "The thing about Karaoke is that everybody sings to the same tracks. So you notice instantly the disparity between the good singers and the bad ones. I think that's rather refreshing in today's show business climate where most of what we hear is pre-recorded and sweetened. This is real life here, and I think that's part of the appeal."
Andre Braugher was surprised to discover the extent to which the world of Karaoke actually existed. "I didn't realize that there was a subculture attached to it-that people do it every week and that there are contests. People train and do shows, and such, like with ballroom dancing. There's big money involved."
According to Bruce Paltrow, Karaoke is a metaphor for the six characters' courage to step out of the shadows of life and stand up and risk failure in uncharted waters. "I think all of us in some way have been socially engineered to conform to an ideal. To shake off those expectations and pursue something off the beaten track - that's bravery."
Principal photography began on location in the Las Vegas area. After a few days shooting exteriors, the production company relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia for the remainder of the eight-week shooting schedule.
Production designer Sharon Seymour had the task of creating a cross-country American landscape all within an hour's drive from Vancouver. She explains, "We always had this idea that we wanted to create an experience of what contemporary America has become-from gas stations, hotels, and convenience stores."
Over the course of the 40-day shooting schedule, Seymour's crew built and/or dressed nearly 50 different locations, representing several different states and geographical regions.
At the heart of Duets (2000), without a doubt, are the seven different Karaoke bars that are featured in the film. Explains Seymour, "The Karaoke bars had to be very vibrant, colorful and alive. We're pointing out the homogenization of America, but at the same time, I wanted the bars not to feel homogenized.
"Each of the bars needed to have a very specific look," Seymour continues. "That would have taken time anywhere, but it took a lot longer to find bars with a regional flavor in the Vancouver are. I probably looked at more than 100 bars to select the seven that we filmed in. I had a lot of research of actual Karaoke bars, and most of them aren't half as interesting, or as exciting as what we created for the movie. We wanted people to say, 'Yeah, this is the place to be a star for five minutes.'"
Costume designer Mary Claire Hannan also had the task of creating several different regional looks, working closely with the hundreds of background actors in the Karaoke bar scenes. She recalls, "It's a challenge to go to Vancouver and try to make a place look like New Mexico or Oklahoma, or the six other states that the movie takes place in. So we had a huge supply of stock clothes, and I worked with every single extra to make sure they were dressed appropriately."
Seymour concludes, "We worked really hard to find visually interesting locations. For some things that could have been pretty dull. The strongest things you can do with production design is reinforce the story, and create a background that makes you believe the characters. I feel that was achieved."