Miami Vice - Vice is nice, but Versace is better
Mail on Sunday May 26th 1985
The Marielito hitmen wear threads by Armani and machine-pistols by Uzi. The cops wear tans by - Bain de Soleil, silk and linen outfits by Gianni Versace, Nino Cerruti and Verri Uomo, socks by Piattelli and 10mm semi-automatics by Bren. We never see the whites of their Calvin Klein underpants. On Miami Vice it seems a crime not to wear something imported.
In any given week the show's wardrobe mistress scurries around Italy buying clothes. Actually she doesn't have to rush so much now. The designers are approaching her. The other week she spent $100,000 splashing out on suede and wool gabardine to keep Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas dressed to thrill and kill for the television series which has become a marketplace of style on both sides of the Atlantic. *
Miami Vice, which has a visual sheen like top-of-the- < market rock videos, is also a -showcase for the latest § sounds. You've heard the song, seen the video... now the television episode. Even if you're a guest actor who is going to get blown away in the early moments of a programme, don't blame your agent - you're going in style. The show is a weekly explosion of blues and blacks, violets and pastels shimmering in the semi-tropical locations of Miami and South Florida.
The plots usually aren't too bad either. They said Miami Vice was a steal from music videos, the late Sam Peckinpah and Hill Street Blues. But that's borrowing from all the right places. The first two-hour show, which introduced vicemen Don Johnson as Sonny Crockett, seedily charming in his beachbum tan, day's growth, $1,500 suits, $200 espadrilles but no socks, and $6.50 T-shirts, and Philip Michael Thomas as the edgy, expensive clothes-horse Ricardo Tubbs, cost $5 million dollars.
Each episode tops $1 million in production costs, every dollar flashed on the screen to boost the effect of the world's first designer television series. The show has had some middle-brow whipping for its violence but Cagney and Lacey, dropped by the BBC despite an audience of nine million and replaced by Vice with 12 million viewers, had just as much of what the US standard people rate as 'violence'.
Miami is where the Central and South Americas crazily collide with the supposedly 'civilised' North. Everything is multi: multi-million dollar deals for multi-million pounds of dope and armaments in a multi-racial society. It is a sleazy firework of a place, and by filming almost entirely on location the series captures the fast-lane environment.
Anywhere off Interstate 95 before you hit the Florida Keys-a highway exit will take you to a street corner with at least three banks. Tony Yerkovich, the show's producer claims that at least some of them are either involved in or are laundering money from vice operations. 'Thirty per cent of the illegal revenues in the national trade in contraband goes on here. This is a place where it is not unusual for someone to come in ? and put down $65,000 cash to buy a Mercedes.'
Yerkovich, 34, who was an award-winning I producer on Hill Street Blues for three years and earlier wrote for Starsky and Hutch (David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser have both directed Vice episodes) knows his area. For ten years he had been researching and planning a film set in South Florida. 'I didn't impose any parameters on myself except that I can't get away with realistic street language on television and that graphic violence was out.
'It's not just TV's subject matter that lags but \ its visual reflexes. Younger audiences have a much quicker grasp of visual information now. Network TV has such a stodgy narrative pace that < it's almost impossible to stay involved with a show I unless you're doing something a little more interesting in the background, like building a I nuclear warhead.
'What I wanted to reflect was guys working , undercover, taking home $400 a week, who drive confiscated cars and boats, wear confiscated clothes, who live the lifestyle of the high-profile criminals they're pursuing.'
What executive producer Michael Mann wanted was slick and fast contemporary style in clothes, architecture and music. Keyboard player Jan Hammer does the music, landscaping the music every week around rough-cut episodes which are shipped to his farmhouse in upstate New York. But Mann, 41, fast-talking, chain smoking, dominant ('macho man' to the crew when he's pushing hard), broke more rules by feeding the hit parade into the storyline.
A threatening street scene is watched to the sound of the Rolling Stones' 'Miss You'. Cyndi Lauper's 'Girls Just Want To Have Fun' was a little black comedy during a beach sequence in the opening show. Rockwell, Phil Collins, the Tubes, ZZ Top, Prince - they've all reverberated behind the imagery created by fast film editing.
Glenn Frey, formerly of the Eagles, provided more than the pulsating sound for one episode. Mann created a whole show around Prey's song 'Smugglers' Blues'. Then he hired the singer to play a spaced-out pilot.
Today, like the fashion designers before them, record companies and producers are lobbying to air new material on the programme which has proved to be more than what one critic, at first, wrote off as 'a Coppertone Starsky and Hutch1.
Now, most critics and even Florida's powder-blue polyester set concede that Miami Vice might not be nice but it's not dull. It's unlikely ever to be that with Michael Mann at the helm matching every frame to the colour of Crockett's T-shirts ('peach, maybe yellow today') or the exact shade of blue silk on Tubbs's back.
'Style - it's the key to this whole show if we're going to get the feel of the milieu right. If we need to shoot a scene in a sleazy location it's art deco, not some distressed, neighbourhood dump. Not every show on television has to look like it was shot on the Universal back lot.' (Mann's 'look' began in the first show with Crockett and Tubbs stopping their Ferrari beneath a pink and blue neon sign. Beneath the sign is a lighted telephone box. The rest is blacked out.)
We have a colour scheme based on tertiary colours - acid yellow or cobalt blue against shiny black, hot pastels against bright white. I told our art directors [three have been fired so far]: "I don't want any earth colours. I want a mint-green jacket against a peach-coloured wall".'
Mann is eloquent, if harsh, on television's need for style: 'I can't even watch two minutes of a show like The Dukes of Hazzard. It's crude, simplistic, completely antiquated in any real cultural sense - it's yesterday's newspapers. Just look at some of the shows on the air today.
'All the women are walking around as if they were still in the 60s, both in the way they talk as well as the way they look. If network TV doesn't move into the 80s and become more relevant, they are going to lose all their viewers who will be switching to cable.
'Miami is probably the most exciting urban centre in America. Wherever there's so much money floating around you can always be sure there is going to be plenty of action. We can spin off stories from everywhere. I was talking to James Caan,^ho has a place down here, who told me how^ some coke smugglers used a speedboat race as a cover to head out for open seas even with the Coast Guard watching the whole thing.
'We've also had unofficial meetings with real undercover cops and when you have a few beers you hear lots of great stories. Not just about drugs either but money-laundering, bail-bondsmen, prostitution . . .' Mann agrees that there is little moralising on Miami Vice, but disagrees they are exploiting that odd coupling of decadence and luxury from the abuse and profits of drugs.
If you don't want to beat your chest it comes across as entertainment for the 80s. If Bogart, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet were around today maybe this is what they'd be making instead of The Maltese Falcon. Lorre's the freaked-out hitman with the sawn-off shotgun; Greenstreet is the Colombian cocaine kingpin; Bogart's in the white tuxedo, with time going by on his gold, $8,000 Rolex. There are blue skies above, tanned, loose blondes on the beach, fast Ferraris, Porsches and white, always white, Cadillacs, idling, but ready to roll. Despite injuries to the stars - including a flower pot smashing on Philip Michael Thomas's head (six stitches were required), the regular escape of Elvis the 'pet' alligator (the one bow to network TV 'cute' but in later episodes rarely seen or mentioned) into Key Biscayne, and near-misses, like the time a camera crew in a helicopter filming a speedboat chase nearly fell into the Atlantic - Mann's mostly getting what he asks for.
The man chiefly responsible is the Miami-based producer John Nicolella who revels in the nickname 'Captain Chaos'. He says Miami Vice is not difficult to make: 'It's impossible to make. You think we get the look we get just by waking up in the morning?'
They often get it by the clever casting. Early on Gregory Sierra who played the vice cops' boss left the show. He was replaced by Edward James Olmos who looks like a man you don't call Ed and who one critic reckoned spoke through an exorcist. Andy Warhol's outlaw superstar Joe Dal-lesandro appears.
These people don't simply arrive from Tinseltown's Central Casting. But for drug deals going down in strobe-flooded, smoke-hazed clubs full of South American hitmen and ladies of the night, pock-marked faces and crazy eyes do nothing but help heighten the moments.
Prince. Mint green jackets against peach coloured walls. Sheen. Shimmer. Chrome. The Coasters. The Stones. Forget violence. What Miami Vice has to worry about is the gratuitous use of style.
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