CREME DE LA CREME
A "suprisingly inspiring" documentary on
singer Sophie B. Hawkins wows 800 at Tampa's film
By Todd Martinez-Padilla Simmons
|Sophie charmed the crowd at the
International Film Festival in Tampa
TAMPA - The film is over, the enthusiastic
crowd is on its feet, and Sophie B. Hawkins
She and director Gigi Gaston snuck into their
seats shortly after Gaston's acclaimed documentary on
Hawkins, The Cream Will Rise, got underway as
the kick-off film for the Tampa International Gay and
Lesbian Film Festival. Wouldn't you know it: Of 800
patrons, they got seats next to two women who not
only didn't like the movie, they offered a
scene-by-scene commentary of just how bad they
thought it was. So persistent -- and loud -- was
their criticism, Hawkins finally leaned over and
asked the women if they had any idea who was sitting
next to them.
"I don't give a fuck who's sitting next to
us," snarled one, according to Hawkins, who
shares the story from the stage during the
question-and-answer session following the film.
"So it's nice to see you standing."
It's a story not everyone would share. But Hawkins
-- who starts the Q&A by telling the crowd,
"Ask anything you want, anything at all"
and meant it -- isn't just anyone. In fact,
it's doubtful that she's even one person: At any
given moment, there seem to be at least three or four
people battling it out inside.
She squats, she kneels, she dangles her legs off
the stage, she wanders barefoot, microphone in hand,
casually elegant in shredded jeans and hooded
sweatshirt. Her wild mane of thick, wavy blond hair
frames an angular, expressive face, and when her
non-stop voice tumbles out in a throaty torrent, one
understands how it sent "Damn, I Wish I Was Your
Lover" to No. 5 on the Billboard charts in 1992.
Damn, I wish I were her lover. And I'm married. To
"There's just something about her. A lot of
people think that because of the way she looks, she's
had it easy," says Gaston a few hours before the
show. "But she has a big story to tell.
If there's a 10-carat diamond here, I've only told
one carat. I knew that the moment I met her."
In a pop landscape cheek-to-jowl with such female
skyscrapers as Sara Mclachlin, Tori Amos, Madonna and
Alanis Morissette, Hawkins nevertheless towers. An
exceptional musician, a powerful writer and a
supremely confident performer, she is clearly at the
beginning of a career that now seems sure will
encompass film, too. This is all the more remarkable
when you take into account that she is a survivor of
extensive childhood sexual abuse and a family it
would be exceedingly charitable to describe as
dysfunctional, a woman who left home at the age
of 14 to move in with a 40-something musician
boyfriend in New York City. So much in the
traditional sense has already gone wrong. But what
hasn't killed her has, without a doubt, made her
"There were so many obstacles in her life,
many of which I don't understand to this day. I think
there's something bigger there that I haven't
discovered yet," says Gaston. "It's about
overcoming your demons. Most people, including
myself, are held back by them. She's not."
To the contrary, Hawkins' demons probably
deserve writing credits. When she discusses her
work -- which includes the 1996 smash "As I Lay
Me Down," at 67 consecutive weeks the
longest-running single in adult pop chart history --
she makes frequent reference to the pain of creation,
which she calls "a beautiful struggle."
It's gut wrenching, she concedes, but the
appreciation of her fans and the joy of performing
are the rewards that make it worthwhile.
"If we didn't create, what would we
be," Hawkins asks. The answer is something
she has no interest in knowing. Extensively studying
percussion as a teen and beginning to write her own
music, Hawkins began performing around New York at
some of the city's hottest clubs, including CBGB and
the Bitter End. She played with her own bands, with
Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music fame -- even on advertising
jingles, fast building a reputation as a talented
musician and singer. She used the exposure to get her
demo tape (and not just any demo tape; this one had
50 songs) before recording industry reps, and soon,
the big companies were knocking at her door. She
finally signed with Columbia/Sony Music in 1992 and
released Tongues and Tails, which immediately
"Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover" was the
unlikely single that drove the album's success. Not
only did the song feature lyrics about making love
with another woman, but the ethereal, erotic video
Hawkins made to support it (much of which is included
in The Cream) was banned by MTV. She was
forced to record a second version, which looks
something like Amy Grant meets Grunge -- a fact about
which she remains bitter.
"They were fucking wrong," she rants,
invoking the "f" word perhaps a dozen more
times as she describes how taken advantage of she
felt as a young artist. The same thing wouldn't
happen again, one feels sure.
With her second album, Whaler, complete,
and preparations underway for a 1996 tour, she had a
chance meeting with Gaston at a script reading in Los
Angeles. Gaston was already a fan of her music, and
Hawkins invited her to a practice session, "but
only if she promised to stay at least two hours,
because most of my friends would walk out after 10
minutes." Gaston stayed 10 hours and immediately
proposed a "rockumentary" on the upcoming
tour. And while Gaston had "never even shot a
Polaroid before," Hawkins accepted.
The project was more than either bargained for. In
quieter moments away from the manic rehearsal studio,
Hawkins talked about her upbringing and background,
which eventually led to filming at the family home
with her mother, a writer. In the course of those
conversations, her boozy, headcase of a mom reveals
that Sophie B. was abused sexually as a child --
memories of which Hawkins had long repressed.
(Exactly who performed the abuse is a fact that has
been blocked out under threat of litigation; Gaston
uses such sound affects as a door slamming and glass
breaking each time anyone speaks the abuser/s name/s.
Her relationship with her parents today is more
strained than ever: "They don't want to see
me the way I am.")
Hawkins' resulting entry into therapy is dutifully
recorded on film, as is her progress as she begins to
face the past. Gaston asked at several points if she
wanted to shelve the film. Hawkins' response:
"No. How can I?"
"For me, it was fascinating. Subconsciously,
Sophie wanted to know. She's the bravest woman
I've ever met," Gaston says. "If
anything frightens her, she doesn't back away. She
wants to face it and go to the other side."
"I was the one who wanted to quit several
times -- for so many different reasons. I felt I was
incapable of this big a task," Gaston continues.
"There were so many problems, with people
threatening to sue. And Sophie would always find a
way around it."
Perhaps the most surprising fact is that despite
all the pain, Hawkins says she wouldn't trade her
childhood for anything. Those experiences made her
who she is now. Witnessing that "has helped
me accept my childhood, too, and all the things that
happened to me," says Gaston, herself a prodigy
who began riding at the age of 3 and made the 1980
U.S. Olympic equestrian team.
Despite her lack of directorial experience, Gaston
has created a startlingly solid feature in The
Cream. Marked by a dizzying, relentless layering
of images and sound, the film blends interview
footage with fast-paced snippets of Hawkins in the
studio and on stage. The ultimately sympathetic
portrait of Hawkins that emerges doesn't gloss over
the performer's rough spots, however: Interviews with
those who work with her reveal a demanding, sometimes
difficult perfectionist. Says her manager: "When
Sophie is happy, we're all happy. When she's unhappy,
Variety called the film "dark,
surprisingly inspiring," and "unexpectedly
compelling." As in Tampa, The Cream got a
standing ovation last year at its premiere at Los
Angeles Outfest. The early buzz on the film was
strong enough that Imagine Entertainment signed
Gaston for a "mid-six figure" deal last
year: Gaston's Madame Lupescu, the story of a
pre-1940s romance between Romania's King Carol and
Magda Lupescu. Oscar-winning director/producer Sydney
Pollack recently met with Gaston and Hawkins, says
Gaston, and is looking for a project on which the
trio can collaborate.
Which is an entirely logical thing to do. Gaston
and Hawkins love working together, and audiences
adore Sophie B. Fans lined up for more than an
hour at the Tampa Theater for autographs from the
emerging pop diva. Unlike many others in the public
eye, Hawkins took time to engage each one,
personalizing her autographs and making pleasant
And while Hawkins may have been surprised at the
audience reaction to her film, perhaps the most
surprising thing was the time it took in the Q&A
for someone to ask the one question on everyone's
mind: Does Sophie have a girlfriend?
"I wouldn't even call her a girlfriend,"
smiles Hawkins coyly, as she heads toward the stage
curtain, "because we've been living together for