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Slack-key guitar flavors ‘Descendants’ soundtrack


When he began filming "The Descendants," Alexander Payne said he wanted to direct a film that captured the soul of Hawaii.

It was no idle comment. By the time the cameras rolled in March last year, the Oscar-winning filmmaker had already spent several months living in Honolulu, driving down side streets and soaking up cultural touch points.

But now, as Payne wrestles with the editing of the film, he’s tapping into another Hawaiian vein. He’s weaving slack-key guitar into the soundtrack.

Although the film is far from finished, both Jeff Peterson, a 2011 Grammy Award nominee, and Keola Beamer have recorded music for "The Descendants," and music by the late Gabby Pahinui has also been discussed.

Payne, along with music editor Richard Ford and music supervisor Dondi Bastone, were in Honolulu recently to supervise Peterson’s recording session at Avex Studios in Hawaii Kai. It was going so well that Payne asked Peterson to compose additional music on the spot.

"They let me watch two scenes and just react and compose," Peterson said. "It worked really well. I was really inspired. I love that challenge."

"The Descendants" is based on the acclaimed first novel by local author Kaui Hart Hemmings. It stars George Clooney as the descendant of a 19th-century Hawaiian princess and a haole banker who finds himself dealing with his dying, comatose wife and the fallout from her infidelity.

Peterson isn’t sure how much of his music will make it into the final cut of the film, but he’s convinced that Hawaiian music as a whole will benefit from the exposure.

"I think it will get the music out to a whole new audience," he said. "This music has a lot of depth to it and they spent a year researching Hawaiian music before they decided what they wanted to use."

Jay Junker, a University of Hawaii ethnomusicologist serving as a music consultant for the film, said the music coordinators have "a definite affection for Hawaiian music."

"I was impressed at how sensitive they were to the music and the artists," he said.

And slack-key guitar music appears to be a perfect way to score an authentic sense of place.

"Since the 1970s, slack-key has been a very potent emblem of Hawaii," Junker said. "I think it just rose out of the grass-roots culture and really became part of the commercial world without seeming to be tainted by commercialism. It was really seen by people to be the people’s music."

MAUI COUNTY officials took their case for a film studio to a Golden Globes Awards viewing party hosted by Relativity Media, the West Hollywood production and investment company that has been involved in billions of dollars in film financing.

Ryan Kavanaugh, chief executive officer of Relativity, invited Mayor Alan Arakawa and even offered to send his private jet. Instead, Managing Director Keith Regan and his wife, attorney Lynn Araki-Regan, paid their own way to attend Kavanaugh’s party last week so they could measure interest in establishing a Maui studio and possibly meet potential investors.

"Kavanaugh has a home on Maui and he is involved," Regan said. "He wants to create opportunities for the locals here in this industry."

The reaction among the 15-plus people he talked to was positive. "Of all the people I spoke to, not one of them had a negative comment," he said.

But the county still needs to find outside money.

"We have no budget for this," Regan said.

Of course, no Hollywood party would be complete without stars, and Regan has proof. Check his Facebook page to see him with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas.

HONOLULU WAS also represented in Hollywood over the same weekend when Mayor Peter Carlisle and film commissioner Walea Constantinau met with production executives at CBS, ABC, NBC and Walt Disney Pictures to reinforce the city’s support for the industry.

They also attended the 16th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards along with local visitor industry officials and hotel execs. Seated in an area where celebrities sign autographs for charities, the Honolulu contingent got important face time with some of Hollywood’s biggest players.

"The Critics’ Choice Movie Awards puts us in the room with some of the most influential people in the film industry, which we need to start looking at in the same way we go after the meetings and conventions market," said Mike Wilkins, director of sales and marketing for Turtle Bay Resort.

AND that’s a wrap.

Mike Gordon is the Star-Advertiser’s film and television writer. His "Outtakes" column appears Sundays. E-mail him at


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