Theodor Herzl, the Austro-Hungarian journalist wrote in his book, “Altneuland,” “If you will it, it is no dream,” It helped to grow the modern Zionist movement.
Now, over a century later, another son of Hungary, Scott Samuel “Scooter” Braun, is leading a new movement, under the phrase, “Never Say Never” (or “Never Say Never-3D”). His movement, however, is the promotion of Justin Bieber, a homeland for pre-teens and others worldwide. Never Say Never opens in North America on February 11.
Justin Bieber is a phenomenon. Only 16 years of age, he was discovered by Scooter Braun, 29, on youtube.com four years ago, plucked from his small town in Ontario, flown to Atlanta, and transformed into a worldwide music superstar.
“Never Say Never 3D” is a biopic that follows the life of Justin Bieber over the course of a year as he prepares for a major concert at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. The film is directed by Jon M. Chu, a USC grad who gained fame as the director of Step Up 2, The LXD, and Step Up 3D. As a student filmmaker, Chu received the Dore Schary Award from the Anti-Defamation League.Bieber is not Jewish, and there are no overtly “Jewish” scenes in the film. Scooter Braun, however, is Jewish; and Bieber is seen reciting the “Shema” prayer in Hebrew prior to the big concert, but the sound is drowned out, and only the most astute listener would be able to figure out what is being said. This scene actually ended up on the “cutting room floor,” but was reinserted into the film at the request of Justin’s mother.
Asked how the Shema became part of Bieber’s pre-concert repertoire, Braun said that Justin and some members of the crew began to form a prayer circle before concerts. Bieber’s mother, Pattie Mallette, is a single parent and a devout evangelical Christian. She would lead the prayers, which would end, “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Scooter, an alumnus of Camp Ramah, along with Bieber’s music director, Dan Kanter, are Jewish; and they decided to add in their own prayer to the circles, the Shema.
By their third pre-concert prayer circle, Justin added his voice to Braun’s and Kanter’s prayer as well. Shocked, Braun asked Justin how he knew the Shema.
Justin replied that he had looked it up online and memorized it. Justin felt that if it was something that Jesus would have said, he wanted to say it as well. It would also connect him more to his manager. Braun, one of the teen idol’s de facto parents and father figures, explained to him what the prayer meant, the oneness of the Lord, and its centrality to modern Jewish worship. Thus began the tradition of Justin reciting the Shema prior to going on stage. (Of course, one can quibble and argue that in the year zero CE, prayer books were not in use and the order of personal prayers differed from the modern selections and patterns. But who am I to quibble?)Scott Braun grew up in Greenwich, CT, the son of two dentists. His paternal grandparents, Hungarian Jews, are survivors of several Nazi death camps. His grandfather survived Dachau and Mauthausen; Scott’s grandmother survived Auschwitz, which she entered at age 14. Scott’s father, Dr. Ervin Braun, was born in Budapest after the war, and fled as a young child with his parents to America in 1956, just days before the Soviets literally rolled in. Growing up in NYC, Ervin longed for the suburbs of Connecticut; so when the chance for a practice opened up there, he and his wife, Dr. Susan Schlussel Braun, fled the city for Fairfield County. Scott’s parents raised him and his two siblings, as well as two additional children that they sponsored and adopted from Mozambique. Dr. Braun, a sports fanatic, built a basketball facility in the family’s yard, and their house became the place for teens to congregate and play.
Scott Braun, full of focused energy, became a starter for a local basketball team in high school, spent many weekends on the road at away games, and even played a season for Emory University. He can therefore empathize slightly with Justin’s life on the road, living out of hotel rooms. At age 14, Braun made an extraordinary short film about Hungarian Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, which came in third place in a national competition. His grandmother sent it to Steven Spielberg, who sent Scott a nice note, forwarded it to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, and even recalled the film a decade later when Spielberg met Justin and Scooter at a U.S. White House event. The note is framed and continues to reside on Scott’s wall.
At Emory University, Scott started producing very popular dance parties in Atlanta; they became so popular that national musicians and celebrities began showing up. It was there that he became Scooter. For street “cred,” he said he was from Queens (where his father was raised), and not from the bordertowns of Darien and Westport. So So Def Recordings hired him to produce its events, and by his junior year, Braun left school to produce parties fulltime.But these were means to an end… that being management and entertainment. Music leaders P. Diddy started as a promoter, as did Lyor Cohen, the North American Chairman and CEO of Recorded Music for the Warner Music Group. So at age 24, Scooter quit the party production business, and decided to sign a musician. He found an inexperienced raw Jewish rapper, Asher Roth, on Myspace and signed and developed him. And, then, using youtube, Scooter started searching for a young cute male who could sing romantic songs that would appeal to preteens, teens, and their mothers. It was that solo boy band niche that was ripe for development – think Donny Osmond with more hipness.
Scooter realized that more teens watched youtube than listened to radio, so he focused on the internet. Someone fortuitously forwarded a Bieber video to Scooter via email. That’s when he saw Justin Bieber’s videos, many of him singing Christian songs (the film opens with one of his first youtube videos).
In Justin Bieber, Scooter had found his holy grail. Scooter called Justin’s local school board to find him; he called his Justin’s relatives; he called obsessively, until Justin’s mother called Scooter to stop. What was supposed to be a call to tell this intense Scooter guy to “quit it” became a nearly three hour conversation between mother and potential manager. Mallette did not see her son as a pop singer, she dreamed of him becoming a singer of Christian songs (of course, who is to say that he can’t have a second career of Christian music once he gets taller and his hair style changes).
Scooter convinced them to fly to Atlanta at Scooter’s expense. Neither Justin nor his mother had ever flown before. But Justin’s mother prayed on it and decided to trust this pushy 26 year old Jewish kid. Bieber signed a contract with to Raymond Braun Media Group (RBMG), a joint venture between Braun and Usher (Raymond), and then to a recording contract with Island Records. And he didn’t even have a show on Nickleodeon. He was an unknown, except to the kids who already followed him on his YouTube channel with only 70,000 views. In less than two years, Bieber was a household name.Never Say Never is 100 minutes of screaming female fans, Bieber home movies, scenes from backstage, lots of flipping of coifed hair, in 3D, and some concert footage. The film is produced by produced by Scooter Braun, Justin Bieber, Antonio Reid, Usher Raymond IV (Justin’s musical mentor), Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz (of Top Chef and Project Runway fame). The more interesting story though is that of Braun, whose backstory is unique and whose intensity is infectious. The New York Times compared him to a young Rob Morrow (from Northern Exposure).
Justin Bieber is scheduled to perform in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park on April 14 (A place Herzl never made it to). A pre-Pesach audience of 50,000 is expected. The demand for concert tickets was so great, it crashed Leann’s (Israeli ticket broker) online site last month. It crashed within minutes of the sale going live. Ticket prices start at $60 USD.
Bieber, who is an evangelical Christian is excited to visit Israel and Bethlehem, and he is considering staying for a few extra days in Israel so that he could attend a Pesach Seder. And why not? Braun’s sister is a med student in Israel; I am sure she, her friends, and the Bieber entourage can plan a seder for the evening of April 18, and Justin doesn’t have to be in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia and Jakarta, Indonesia, until later in the week.
Never say Never?
If You Will It?