DETROIT - When a man loves a city, he's got to make a movie about it. At least that's the case for Michael Bolton, whose latest passion project is a documentary about Detroit and its potential for resurgence.
The Grammy-winning singer has been spreading an excess of good cheer in his hip new holiday commercials for Honda. But that's nothing compared to his feelings for the Motor City.
"We are in love with the people we have met in Detroit," he says. "It's literally turned into a lovefest."
Over the past four decades, Bolton has sold more than 50 million albums and singles worldwide. His lengthy career as a singer has spanned the sincerity of his chart-topping ballads like "Love Is a Wonderful Thing" and the self-parody of his guest role as Captain Jack Sparrow in a well-known "Saturday Night Live" digital short by Andy Samberg's the Lonely Planet group.
But during a recent phone interview, the 60-year-old crooner doesn't want to talk about his hits. He'd rather focus on the documentary that he hopes will spread the message that Detroit is poised for a comeback.
Where others see a bankrupt city on its knees, he sees a city where the entrepreneurial spirit is thriving, particularly real estate mogul Dan Gilbert's revitalization plans.
Bolton's project arose from his 2013 album, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough: A Tribute To Hitsville, U.S.A.," which came out in February. A love letter to the Motown music he's loved since he was a kid of 9 or 10 growing up in Connecticut, it contains classics from the Detroit-grown empire like "Tracks of My Tears" and "Nowhere to Run."
"All the feel-good the country needed was coming out of Detroit," he says of the Motown era.
Bolton and his production company team had planned to make a video about Hitsville USA as a companion to the album. But after getting permission to shoot at the Motown Museum on West Grand Boulevard, they started getting phone calls "about this building that's going on in the center of Detroit and a guy named Dan Gilbert and Quicken Loans."
As Bolton explains, the focus of the project shifted to the entire city as he and his manager and executive producer of the film, Christina Kline, became captivated with Gilbert's plans to revive the downtown area and spread the progress outward.
He was given access to film behind the scenes with Gilbert. "We went up to the planning rooms. We saw the walls full of stores they're planning, the restaurants they're planning, how many square feet. Everything had been taken into consideration, the demographic, the appeal of downtown."
On the day of his phone interview, Bolton was preparing to see a 90-minute version of hundreds of hours of footage shot during several trips to Detroit. In addition to the time spent with Gilbert and his brain trust, that footage includes "a fascinating interview" with Aretha Franklin as well as moments like Bolton performing live with Smokey Robinson and talking to other music luminaries.
Bolton hopes to add other stars to that list, such as Bob Seger, whom he opened for in 1983. He also wants to visit Michigan Motion Picture Studios in Pontiac to talk about the upcoming Batman / Superman movie that will film in metro Detroit, an opportunity he says is tremendous.
As a producer and executive producer of the project. Bolton says he's had a hands-on role, making at least four trips to Detroit for filming. "It's been much more in-depth than I originally intended, but I'm grateful for that."
The film will speak to what he describes as his roots as a kid from a middle class family where the American dream was at the core of their belief system.
It also taps into broader concerns he's had about the fate of the cities he saw while crisscrossing the heartland on his tours. "I'm seeing things in Iowa that I've just seen in Nebraska or in Southern states, where windows are boarded up, and there's three generations of successful family business people and now they can't afford to keep their doors open. It's painful to see."
Bolton says the 2008 recession hit urban centers like an economic tsunami. "Believe me, Detroit is not alone," he says.
He's eyeing September 2014 as a possible premiere date, either on television or possibly in a theatrical release. Although he didn't set out to bring the movie to theaters, he's had three or four companies express interest in buying the film for global distribution.
"If it goes theatrical and winds ups being able to raise money, we're going to wind up coming back to Detroit to do some events for whatever the heart of Detroit is at that time, which probably from what I can see is going to be at-risk youth and music programs for young people."
Bolton makes it clear that he's in this for the long-term. "Not only are we not going to be finished once the movie comes out, but we're going to be looking at trying to help the process of growth."
Detroit has plenty of local cheerleaders. Now it has a new adopted son ready to show the city some love and tenderness.
Says Bolton: "I got quite a lesson being there. When I left there, I became like, I'm waving the Detroit banner. I want it to come back. I want it to succeed. I want it to be the pinnacle. I want it to be the poster child of what the American dream has always been meant to be."