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Tuesday, June 20, 2000

Artist's Journey catapults riders into psychedelic world of music

by John Zebrowski
Seattle Times staff reporter

Look at the diagram of EMP. Most of it makes sense. There are the galleries, a restaurant and bar, the gift shop. Sound Lab hints at what it could be, as does Sky Church. But Artist's Journey? The name in no way describes what's really inside.

Could be because any name would leave people unprepared for what they'll encounter in the sky-blue part of EMP. Here's what it is: Part ride, part narrative, a swirling, moving, jump-back-in-time exploration, pop music ancients storytelling, Hollywood special-effects flying, super video-screened, strapped-into-your-seat block party. You got a better name?

This is the experience part of EMP, the part museum creators hope will leave people speechless and fighting to get back in. Mixing the kind of video-screen motion ride found at places such as Universal Studios (think Back To the Future) with some of the best special-effects designers in Hollywood, Artist's Journey promises to be nothing like the cool quiet of the galleries. Expect noise, expensive, intense effects and a feeling that you're being sucked into a "worm hole," into outer space.

"There's nothing dry and educational about this," said Michael Caldwell, who produced the movie part of the ride for Paul Allen's Clear Blue Sky Productions. "We had to make it fun. It has to live up to the energy of the music it's representing."

What it's representing is funk, that hot, sexy, grooving into your nether-regions music, capable of inspiring a riot of passion and hours of sweaty, get-down dancing. For the first few years, Artist's Journey will be the home of "Funk Blast," a 20-minute experience of music, words and effects designed to illuminate people on what "The Funk" is.

EMP co-founder Jody Patton picked funk music for the ride because so much of today's music is derived from it. She left it up to everyone else to make it all work.

How do you explain something that includes a character called the Archangel of Funk, a swirling, psychedelic outer space you fly through, and enough special effects to sink an ocean liner? Slowly. We begin by walking into the Artist's Journey lobby, where video screens play interviews with funk legends such as Bootsie Collins, Maceo Parker and Peewee Ellis. Next, we enter a room (there's 38 of us) filled with performances filmed at the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, including Herbie Hancock, Chaka Kahn, Dr. John and the Gap Band. They play for two musical novices trying to get "The Funk," while we're all being lead by the Archangel.

The boys need help and after the quick concert, they're sucked through a worm hole in the stage (stay with me) and brought to a deserted city street, where a billboard of James Brown comes alive. Sound weird? It is. Fortunately, we've all moved into another room, with a huge curving screen, where we've been strapped into seats on a platform that shimmies, shivers and moves up and down. Just like James Brown.

If there's one thing that will have people buzzing, it's the sight of James Brown, shuffling and splitting to "Sex Machine," the ride's final part. Spinning and kicking at a colorful block party, he's in rare form. He's sweating, grimacing, his eyebrows moving higher and higher. He feels good.

He should. He's young - and clearly, Soul Brother No. 1.

We're not watching archival footage of the man. No, this is today, filmed at the Paramount Studios only a few months before. But it's clearly James Brown, age 30 or so. He exists, just not in the real world.

Digital Domain, the company that did the effects for "Titanic" and "Terminator 2," created a younger version of James Brown so realistic it's frightening. As part of the ride, people are supposed to feel like they're dancing along, taken on a journey meant to enlighten and inspire.

"This whole thing is taking effects to the ultimate extreme," said Digital Domain's Bob Hoffman. "It'll create an experience no one has even imagined before."

And in the process, we all get a lesson in "The Funk." For at the end, our two young travelers "get it," some secret message provided by the Godfather of Soul. What is it? Top secret, Caldwell said. One hint: It's not very sexy.

"This is for a general audience," he said.

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