Selling your artistic soul: Halston or Sparks

Kevin Brianton. Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

Alias Nick Beal (1949) was a clear example of a man selling his soul to gain power and influence. Image courtesy of emovieposter.

Halston (Netflix) looks to be an ultramodern series as it delves into the high-powered world of New York fashion. However, it has mythical echoes that link back for centuries. Roy Halston Frowick was an American fashion designer who courted fame and fortune in the 1960s and 1970s. His design’s brand name was Halston, and it was noted for its minimal or clean look. Halston charts his rise and fall as a celebrated designer after he rose to fame when Jackie Kennedy wore one of his hats for the JFK Presidential inauguration in 1961.

Halston is based on a biography of the life and work of the fashion designer by Stephen Gaines called Simply Halston.[1] Halston would work closely with the New York rich list and Hollywood and Broadway celebrities to further cement his reputation. In 1973, Halston sold his high-profile design company to Norton Simon Industries, and the business relationship began well when he created a successful fragrance.

The company then produced a wide range of merchandise bearing the brand name. However, Halston began to use drugs, and his work slipped over the years. Norton Simon was taken over, and the Halston division was re-sold. His new corporate masters grew tired of his erratic work habits and lack of concern for profits. He was eventually banished as a designer from the company that bore his name. Halston remained a wealthy man, but he lost control of his designs – and his name – in the process.

Halston poster (Netflix)

In one key scene in Halston, the designer decides to sign over his firm to a corporate backer. It made great financial sense, as he sold his name for a “hundred million dollars.” He could not buy it back again. Change the word “name” to “soul,” and it is clear that Halston has an old-fashioned morality tale at its core. These stories began in the seventh century when Saint Theophilus the Penitent or Theophilus of Adana took the deadly bargain to become a bishop.

These stories have re-emerged at different times through the centuries. The idea of a person choosing to sell their soul for material reward has also been written at various times by Marlowe, Goethe, Wilde and many others.[2] The same idea occasionally appeared in American cinema. Alias Nick Beal (1949) was a clear example of a man selling his soul to gain power and influence. It can also be seen in films such as Faust (1929), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941),  and Angel on My Shoulder (1946), which all had the theme of a man selling his soul for some form of reward.

A world away from the international fashion scene in New York is a documentary, The Sparks Brothers, which had its cinematic release in January 2021. The documentary film focuses on Ron and Russell Mael, who formed the band Sparks. It is a different success story, as, in contrast to Halston, the Mael Brothers are unlikely ever to sell out. They approach their music with great glee and a wicked sense of humor. Their “very best of sparks” album has a mere 56 songs.

The documentary is directed by Edgar Wright, who is also an unashamed fan of the musicians. The film focuses on the two brothers who formed the Los Angeles-based band when they were young, and the musicians continued making albums and going on tours for the next 50 years. The brothers were the core of this even though their bands formed and reformed several times over the years.

Over five decades, Sparks have constantly been reinventing themselves with a stream of musical ideas. To achieve this level of success and creativity over a long period, the brothers showed a strong and unrelenting work ethic. An interviewee says the brothers worked six or seven days a week for a few years to produce music for little or no return. Even when going well, the vast majority of their work – a total of 25 albums over 50 years – had only limited success. Every so often, they produced an album or a single that had a stronger resonance in the marketplace, but it is clear that the music is their main concern.

It would be naïve to say that the brothers ignore the business side of the equation – they are not artists suffering in a garret. The brothers appear to have a successful lifestyle – but it is certainly not on the same extravagant level as Halston with his New York apartments and first-class flights to Europe. The pair concentrate on the music they have created, and the band has developed tremendous respect throughout the music industry. In comparison to Halston, the brothers show that artistic success does not need to be self-destructive. The only drug issue for the brothers appears to be coffee. According to one interviewee, they go to the same coffee shop each day as a regular break from work – and they work almost every day.

On almost every level, the two works show different approaches to fame and success. In the 21st century, people may not sell their souls, but they can lose their integrity. Ron and Russell Mael appear to be characters from a Horatio Alger novel who get to the top by hard work, perseverance and talent, while Halston is depcited as more of a self-destructive genius. Even so, the artists have some similarities as they all come from relatively humble origins and worked their way up employingtheir abilites. These works provide two takes on the American dream and what compromises you should make to succeed.

[1] Stephen Gaines, Simply Halston, Independently published, 19 May 2021.

[2] Hedges, Inez. Framing Faust: Twentieth-Century Cultural Struggles. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006. Accessed July 13, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

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