DVD RELEASE 'Miami Vice' retains its cool
A cop show had never been so downright stylish. Or loud. Music and story lines merged seamlessly in the show.
By RANDY A. SALAS
"Miami Vice" isn't just part of TV history. It's a fashionable artifact of pop culture with a sassy attitude and a rock 'n' roll beat.
Style was just as important as substance for the '80s TV show once dubbed "MTV Cops" and "Dade County Fast Lane."
"When I did the pilot for 'Miami Vice,' I really thought I was able to do something really special cinematically," said Thomas Carter, who directed the two-hour movie that started the series, whose first season has just arrived on DVD (Universal, $59.98).
"I really felt like I was doing something on a visual level and on a storytelling level that was different than what I had seen on television before that. Before, television had largely existed on dialogue, which it still largely does," Carter said by phone from his Hollywood office.
"But the employment of visual techniques and sound design and production design being part of the essential nature of a show, that was different."
The dynamic duo
Don Johnson starred in the looky "Miami Vice" as Detective Sonny Crockett, with Philip Michael Thomas as his partner, Detective Ricardo Tubbs. Against a palette drawn from the pastels of Miami Beach's art-deco hotels, they drove fast cars past hot women -- or was it hot cars and fast women? -- while wearing trendy duds that sparked a fashion frenzy.
"We really pushed it with fashion," said Carter, whose film "Coach Carter" is in theaters now. "There was such an infusion of money in Miami at that time -- much of it drug money -- but it was the confluence of cultures from South America, North America and Central America coming together in this one place. There was so much energy happening that it lent itself to the visual energy -- production design, fashion and music."
Ah, yes, the music. "Miami Vice" was such a sensation that even its percussive, electronic instrumental theme became a worldwide hit, including reaching No. 1 on the U.S. pop chart.
How did it happen?
"It was something that was initially just totally inexplicable," its composer, Jan Hammer, said by phone about the theme song's success, "simply because it was not something that you could describe as a hummable TV ditty or anything like what had come before. If you compared it to 'Peter Gunn,' which was the only other instrumental TV theme to reach No. 1, my theme was much more something that was pushing the edge of electronica at the time. It was to see how far we could take it.
"And it really clicked," he added. "For some reason, the whole package just really worked. What was nice is that it wasn't just that theme; there was also 'Crockett's Theme,' which was a huge hit worldwide."
Hammer, who composed the original scores for more than 90 "Miami Vice" episodes, recently recorded updated versions of the two themes as well as 13 previously unreleased tracks from the show, for a CD called "The Best of Miami Vice" (www.janhammer.com).
But the music of "Miami Vice" encompassed much more than Hammer's infectious compositions. Pop and rock songs were woven into the very fabric of the show, often advancing the story, not to create highfalutin music videos.
None epitomized that more than Carter's signature use of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" in the pilot movie, "Brother's Keeper."
Getting in touch
Mentally adrift after being betrayed by a partner, Crockett drives along Miami's dark streets in a Ferrari as the song plays, the city's sights reflected in the car's hood and windshield. He stops the car at a pay phone and calls his ex-wife.
"It was real, wasn't it?" he asks her.
"Yeah, it was," she replies. "You bet it was."
The setup for those lines was contrived by Carter to express something lacking in the script, a way to drive home the point that Crockett had been undercover for so long that he had lost touch with reality and needed to be grounded again.
Much of what made "Miami Vice" tick is covered superficially in a half-hour's worth of archival interviews on the three-disc set. They are the only extras, although the series' integral music, including songs by artists such as U2, Peter Gabriel and Glenn Frey, has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound.
"There are moments in the history of our culture where something really is on a cutting edge of a cultural style and sensibility, whether it's jazz or whatever," Carter said. "... I think anytime you find those seminal moments, they last. People always want to go back to them and revisit them, because there is something eternally cool about them. I think that's true of the whole 'Miami Vice' phenomenon."
Hammer agreed that the best word to describe the show is "cool."
"It was not TV," he said. "It was 'Miami Vice.'"