Reality television meets mixed media

By Patrick Goldstein
Los Angeles Times / April 30, 2009
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HOLLYWOOD - If there is one thing that every studio, network, and cable channel has in common these days, it's being frantically obsessed with finding a compelling pop-culture concept or phenomenon that will spawn a new hit franchise. Although there are obvious exceptions, most franchises end up feeling like they are far more about commerce than art.

But what would happen if you put the franchise reins in the hands of an indie filmmaker, gave him creative control over its content and launch, anchored it in a city's vibrant underground music scene, and turned it into a new media series that would play on multiple platforms?

What you'd have would look a lot like "$5 Cover," a new MTV series that captures the funky groove of the Memphis music scene but with real musicians in virtually all the acting roles, all orchestrated by Craig Brewer, writer-director of the 2005 indie hit "Hustle & Flow."

The show, which launches tomorrow at midnight on MTV's cable channel and on its website,, is a fascinating experiment in new media storytelling, combining the unabashed narcissism of reality TV with the raw, rough edges of indie cinema.

"$5 Cover" isn't typed very easily, perhaps because it has so many separate but complementary components. The main Web component of the series offers 15 digital episodes, each six or seven minutes long, that follow the romantic entanglements and career ups and downs of a group of Memphis musicians. MTV will air a half-hour packaged version of three episodes each week during a five-week run.

The series is accompanied by music videos from the songs performed by the local artists featured in the series' digital episodes. And Brewer teamed up with Memphis Commercial Appeal photographer Alan Spearman to put together mini-documentaries about each of the major artists in the series.

From MTV's point of view, Memphis will be only the first stop on a continuing musical and cultural odyssey.

"For me, local is the new global," says Brewer, who still lives in Memphis and visits Hollywood when working on various film projects.

The series' spice comes from the colorful characters who inhabit the local music scene, including a bewitching stand-up bassist named Amy LaVere, rap impresario Al Kapone, garage band poster girl Clare Grant, and a hip-hop circus ringmaster known as Muck Sticky.

For Brewer, a key to the project was having real local musicians play themselves. "There's a generation of people growing up where do-it-yourself entertainment and amateur acting is commonplace and completely natural," he says. "Everyone knows about reality TV, everyone has a video camera. So you see a lot of films being made now that aren't bound by a script or a schedule. We're just the tip of the iceberg."