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The disaster artists: Buckle up for the first wave of 'corona culture' with Covid-inspired movies, TV, and music

After recovering from the shock of lockdown, the entertainment industry is launching a comeback with a host of Covid-inspired movies, TV programmes and music

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Charli XCX has released a lockdown album

Charli XCX has released a lockdown album

Charli XCX has released a lockdown album

First came the virus, then the shows about the virus. Four months into global lockdown, the entertainment industry, having recovered from the initial shock, is now grappling with Covid-19 and what it means for humanity. Buckle up: the first wave of 'corona culture' TV, movies, albums and novels is incoming.

These will take all shapes and forms. Pop star Charli XCX has already released her 'lockdown' album How I'm Feeling Now - recorded in self-isolation in the Hollywood Hills in March and April.

Lyrically, the record doesn't have much to do with Covid-19 (the focus is Charli's complicated love life), but the LP is steeped in claustrophobia, restlessness and a nostalgia for simpler days. Days you could go to the shops without having to wear a mask, for instance.

Where Charli XCX went, everyone else now follows (though Irish Covid culture has yet to manifest in a meaningful fashion). For TV and film-makers especially, the storytelling potential for the pandemic is rich. There are so many human experiences to explore, so much tragedy, drama and surreality to dig into.

There are challenges too, of course. Charlie XCX didn't have to leave her house to make her record. Indeed, the entire point of How I'm Feeling Now is that she did it under lockdown. By contrast, cinema and TV are collaborative endeavours. There is a certain amount you can do at home. And yet a future where movies consist entirely of actors staring into Zoom cameras would obviously be too grim to bear thinking about. The first to have a crack at operating in what we're going to be calling the 'new normal' for some time to come is Michael Bay. As the director of the Transformer films, Bay will obviously know all about unleashing a terrible plague upon humanity.

However, poorly animated wise-cracking robots will not feature in his forthcoming sci-fi take on Covid-19. Songbird, which is to shoot on the deserted streets of Los Angeles, is set two years in the future. The big idea is that the pandemic has taken a turn for the horrific (really, could it get any worse than it is at the moment?).

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Pandemic movie Songbird

Pandemic movie Songbird

Pandemic movie Songbird

Described as a "hybrid between Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield," the film will focus on an essential worker immune to the virus and employed as a delivery driver. In that capacity, he must cross an unnamed city "divided along class lines" to be with his girlfriend. In his way stands a powerful local family, headed by a villainous matriarch portrayed by Demi Moore.

"Songbird is a story about the resilience of the human spirit and the idea that hope is worth fighting for," says Deadline, which means it is unlikely to be confused with Bay's Transformers franchise which is about the resilience of the Hollywood merchandising machine.

That's quite a broad canvas and so it will be necessary to film on location. But how can you do that bang in the middle of a lockdown? Especially in America where the first and second wave of Covid-19 seem to have merged into one huge, cataclysmic tsunami.

To square that circle, Bay and his crew are rethinking the fundamentals of film-making. Songbird, which has been signed off by all the big Hollywood movie unions, will use "innovative filming techniques and strict social distancing practices" - with actors receiving training in how to stay safe and keep others that way too.

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Michael Bay

Michael Bay

Michael Bay

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More conventional will be Netflix's forthcoming Social Distance, produced by Orange Is The New Black creator Jenji Kohan. The four-part drama is to include "remote work in the talents' homes" - saving the cast from having to run the social distancing gauntlet in public as per the stars of Songbird.

Social Distance will be an ensemble piece about couples wrestling with romance, loneliness and the full spectrum of emotion at a time when being a functioning, feeling human being has never been more testing.

"We are challenging ourselves to do something new: to create and produce virtually so that our cast and crew can stay healthy and safe," say the producers in a statement. "Writers never physically meet during the writing process.

"Our director, Diego Velasco, directs our talent remotely. Our showrunner, Hilary Weisman Graham, runs production from her living room. The cast not only acts, but also films themselves at home. The experience of social distancing is currently universal, but no individual story is the same."

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Jenji Kohan has produced new Netflix series Social Distance

Jenji Kohan has produced new Netflix series Social Distance

Jenji Kohan has produced new Netflix series Social Distance

Covering similar territory will be Love In The Time Of Corona, a mini-series starring The Affair's Nicolette Robinson and featuring "the interwoven stories of people searching for love in the midst of the global pandemic".

Then there are the films and shows that seek to chronicle the history we see unfolding before our eyes. Charles Randolph, Oscar-winning writer of Fox News #MeToo drama Bombshell and financial crisis comedy The Big Short, is writing a screenplay about the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan. "Untitled Wuhan Project" - as it is currently referred to - will film in China (assuming permission is granted) and feature Chinese talent.

"The deeper we dig, the richer the story of Wuhan becomes," Randolph told Deadline. "It's one thing to fight a monster. It's another thing to fight a monster in the dark."

Also racing to retell the events happening in real time is British director Michael Winterbottom. Though perhaps best known for his Trip films with Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, he has a track record in difficult stories, having directed Welcome To Sarajevo as the Balkan conflict was rumbling on.

Winterbottom will, it seems, be taking a more satirical approach with his film about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's handling of Covid-19 and Johnson's own near fatal experience with the virus.

"There are rare moments in history when leaders find their private lives uniquely connected to national events, where personal experience and official role collide in an unusual way. The last few months in the life of the UK prime minister clearly mark one of these moments," said Andrea Scrosati of production company Fremantle.

By the sounds of it, Winterbottom's contribution to corona culture will have its share of bittersweet chuckles. And goodness how we could all do with a laugh at the moment. The real question, though, is whether any of these stabs at processing the pandemic will be of enduring merit. In the years immediately following 9/11 there was an outpouring of art about the attack on the World Trade Centre. Little of it has stood the test of two decades of scrutiny. And that which has tends to have come at the issue from a sideways angle.

For instance, the best novel about 9/11 was agreed to be Cork-born Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which was really about the immigrant experience and life before and after September 11. It didn't confront the subject head-on, but rather refracted the atrocity, distilled it into something more universal.

"From an artistic standpoint, it's best to let tragedy cool before gulping it down and spitting it back into everyone's faces," essayist Sloane Crosley wrote recently. "After all, Don Quixote was published about a century into the Spanish Inquisition. Art should be given a metaphorical berth as wide as the literal one we're giving one another. Right now, we are distracted and anxious beyond measure, but things will settle."

If she is correct, then the definitive Covid-19 novel, movie or TV show is likely to be years, perhaps decades, off. It may be that the person who writes or directs it is today a child, adjusting to a year without school or life without friends or the social interactions the rest of us took for granted growing up.

Michael Bay and his peers will be first out of the traps. The final artistic judgement on Covid-19 and what it portends for us all is, however, surely some time off.


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