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Failing to succeed: Culture stars who flopped their way to the top


They say you learn more from failure than you do from success. There are some mistakes you can’t afford to make, but creatively, folly is often the lifeblood of advancement. And there are plenty of stars who have dusted themselves down from flops to go on and prove that the old fable of failing to succeed holds more than a grain of truth.

While some artists seem to fall on their feet and never stumble, a lot of the greats kept swinging away and happened upon success the hard way. If anything this is proof that success in itself is not the aim because you can find yourself reaching for something shiny and the creativity falters to reveal all that glitters is not gold. Then when you embrace the setback and. one at things with a sense of humility and greater artistic control, things fall into place and success comes by proxy from a job well done.

Whether you’re fresh from disappointing exam results or a pensioner who just claimed the wooden spoon at the art contest, fear not because the stars below had their drab days of defeat too. Let the lessons they learned be one’s that you can share in too because you learn from mistakes, but it is always better to learn from someone else’s.

Culture stars who flopped their way to the top:

David Bowie

David Bowie is the proverbial disaster artist. However, in many ways, his flops tell you more about him as an artist than his fame. Now the term ‘influencer’ is riddled with all the connotations of social media, but when David Bowie was trying to burst through onto the scene, pop culture had barely been around long enough for people to even grasp the notion.

In the beginning, Bowie wanted more than anything to be an architect of change in some way and everything else was secondary. He merely wanted to be an influential figure. He once stated: “I suppose for me as an artist it wasn’t always just about expressing my work; I really wanted, more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture I was living in.” Whether through music, his understandably short-lived multimedia mime act or some other means, Bowie was more concerned with “becoming” rather than “being”.

It says an awful lot about his creative intent that despite being desperate to reverberate influence, he thought that a multi-media mime act might be the engine of art to propel him to that position. This, in truth, is what made him a true icon. He wasn’t afraid to go against the grain. He was reinventing his own world, and changing ours in the process, whether that be by dabbling in the stratosphere and welcoming us into his wonderful imaginative oeuvre or through his daring statements—they are all one and the same. Unlike modern influencers, he was a vehicle for progressive change and not someone merely clamouring aboard. 

In 2003, he reflected on this very notion and opined: “However arrogant and ambitious I think we were in my generation, I think the idea was that if you do something really good, you’ll become famous. The emphasis on fame itself is something new.” Adding: “Now, it’s to be famous you do what it takes, which is not the same thing at all. And it will leave many new artists with this empty feeling.”

A mime act was never going to be a vehicle for success and in retrospect probably hammered that point home to our hero, but instil in him that true expression is founded on individualism. The problem with that can be summed up with the following Bob Dylan quote: “All I can do is be me, whoever that is.”

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Francis Ford Coppola

Filmmaking is a rare creative realm. In most artistic works it is generally considered that a state of ‘flow’ is essential to produce a coherent work of originality and quality. Neuroscientists and the likes have studied this cathartic phenomenon and many artists have basked in its enchanting quality. This free state of a seamless creative windfall is entirely foreign to Francis Ford Coppola whose successes have come at a staggering cost that would encourage most of us to simply give up the ghost and enquire about openings at the local dole office. 

Coppola’s contemporary, Werner Herzog, once said, “I would travel down to Hell and wrestle a film away from the devil if it was necessary.” It would seem that Coppola already had Satan’s address and was a regular in his wrestling ring. His troubled path began with his first film, an act of creative whoredom that Coppola embarked upon merely to get a leg-up in the industry. It was a softcore comedy film called Tonight for Sure in 1962. 

This beginning was a necessary evil at the time. In a reverse of the current climate, amid the artistic boom of the era, you had to graduate from commercially inclined small-budget independents if you wanted the chance to be an artistic auteur with a bottomless pit of cash making art. Roger Corman, the man dubbed ‘The Pope of Pop Cinema’, was a director and producer who doled out ultra-cheap flix that featured sex or violence every ten minutes as a golden rule.

He would frequently hire promising first-time directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Jonathan Demme and allow them the chance to showcase their skills. He once told Ron Howard: “If you do a good job on this movie, you’ll never have to work for me again.” This was everything Coppola wanted, so he was happy to hang up his own creative beliefs for a payday and a start in the industry with a remake of the nudie film Wide Open Spaces.

While these projects might have been creatively unrewarding, they hardened Coppola’s backbone so that when he got his shot at art, he was determined not to budge one iota on his intent. He might have butted heads with every producer and film house under the sun but his stunning results meant that they eventually loosened the reins on him. The message his career imparts is that it isn’t about having the perfect filmography; if you have a handful of cheap flops to your name but eventually arrive at Apocalypse Now, who cares?

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Stephen King

In 1974 Stephen King was in the gutter and things weren’t looking up. He hoped that Carrie would be his debut novel that would launch his career. Ultimately, it was. In fact, it launched the biggest literary career of modern times. However, it was initially rejected over 30 times.

Despondent and downhearted King thought about giving up, but his wife encouraged him to keep trying and his persistence bore fruit. One fateful day Bill Thompson at Doubleday publishers sent King the following telegram: “CONGRATULATIONS. CARRIE OFFICIALLY A DOUBLEDAY BOOK. IS $2500 ADVANCE OKAY? THE FUTURE LIES AHEAD. LOVE, BILL.”

It was okay and since then he has sold over 350 million books. And perhaps the most insightful element of all is that many consider the frequently panned and rejected debut pitch to be among his finest works.

King was evidently acting on a good idea, it’s just that others weren’t on the same page just yet. As Nick Cave once said, “To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all because the worth of the idea never becomes apparent until you do it. Sometimes this idea can be the smallest thing in the world, a little flame that you hunch over and cup with your hand and pray will not be extinguished by all the storm that howls about it. If you can hold on to that flame great things can be constructed around it that are massive and powerful and world-changing – all held up by the tiniest of ideas.”

There are literally hundreds of other stars you could add to this list. All of whom flopped their way to success, and of their initial follies held up by the tiniest of ideas that became a flame.

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