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Dolby's 'Hyperactive' World Expands To Films

March 16, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

SAN FRANCISCO — A sexy female rock band, Cherry Bomb, is on stage at a punk-rock club where the audience is so unruly that a chain-link fence has been set up to protect the musicians from flying beer bottles.

But no one is watching the four women. All eyes are turned to the back of the room where a three-foot duck is wobbling along the top of the bar. The duck, named Howard, stops when he gets to a shifty-looking dude who has apparently been bad-mouthing him.

Pow!

Howard, who is wearing a sport shirt and suspenders, decks the bad guy with a single left hook.

Zap!

He then takes a bottle from the bartender and breaks it on the head of a cohort of the man who just got KOd. The second guy goes down and the crowd goes wild.

I don't know about the band, but this is obviously a very special duck.

You'll be able to see Howard, suspenders and all, this summer in a movie called, quite simply, "Howard the Duck."

George ("Star Wars") Lucas is executive producer of the film, which makes the project a big deal. There's added interest in the film world because the director, Willard Huyck, and producer, Gloria Katz, co-wrote the screenplay for "American Graffiti." And there's also the mystery concerning the duck.

The production company wants to keep Howard under wraps until the projectors start rolling in theaters. The idea is that the duck will be more "magical" if it isn't dissected ahead of time by the press. No photos, please was the rule on the set at Mabuhay Gardens, the rock club used for the bar scene.

Reporters at the normally closed set are asked to say no more about Howard than the facts: Howard is 37 inches high, walks and talks, and comments--in the comically philosophical fashion of Woody Allen--on the traits of modern man.

From what I saw, there wasn't a lot more to say about him. He looks like a big duck.

Of more interest to pop music fans is the man behind the bar--the one who handed Howard the breakaway whiskey bottle. He's Thomas Dolby, who is rapidly becoming a man-of-all-talents in the pop world.

Dolby, who first gained wide pop attention in 1983, is the architect of the wacky but wonderfully danceable synthesizer hit "She Blinded Me With Science" and the equally spirited "Hyperactive." But he doesn't mind being upstaged for the moment by a duck. He's got his eye on even bigger game.

A man of unusual confidence and ambition, Dolby is doing the bartender role just for fun. He's mainly here to write and supervise the music for the film, which eventually has Howard getting together with Cherry Bomb. But Dolby's already looking ahead to writing and directing his own film.

"I'm enjoying myself these days because I don't feel any pressure to make decisions based on what I think will be good for my career," Dolby said, sitting in a Chinese restaurant around the corner from the rock club in San Francisco's colorful North Beach area. "I feel free to pursue what seems like the biggest challenges.

"If you look back, I've always taken the path that is unfamiliar to me and which will stretch me. Had I stopped in one of the fields in which I worked, I probably could have risen to the top of that field and made a fortune--several times over . . . first as synthesizer player, then as a songwriter, producer, video director, possibly even as a film score artist. But where I am headed eventually is making my own music, incorporating all those things."

As the bartender, Dolby looked like a cross between a modern-day punk and an old-fashioned beatnik in his black beret, dark wraparound glasses, pencil-thin mustache and crucifix earrings. Out of the makeup and costume, he looked more like an eager grad student than a pop star.

In his first Capitol album, "The Golden Age of Wireless," Dolby, the son of a British archeologist, showed evidence of genuine songwriting skills--something rather rare among the synthesizer brigade, which was more known for quirky, upbeat textures than classic values of melody and lyrics.

"The odd thing is I hate most synthesizer music, because it is a bit cold and because I was terrified that perhaps I wasn't reaching the right kind of audience . . . that people had been scared off by the hype of that image of me as the electronic wizard," he said. "That's why I tried to steer it in the other direction on the second album and open myself up to songs. . . . "

And, sure enough, Dolby demonstrated in his second album, "The Flat Earth," such a gift for composition and production that Joni Mitchell asked him to produce her "Dog Eat Dog" album and Quincy Jones invited him to write the score for the film "Fever Pitch."

Besides writing the score for "Howard the Duck," Dolby wrote songs for the band (whose lead singer is played by Lea Thompson, the hero's mother in "Back to the Future"), and served as the resident rock expert, advising on everything from costume to set design.

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