Paula Abdul, the singer and choreographer whose Total Package tour with NKOTB and Boyz II Men starts May 12, breaks down the top five entries in her small-screen catalog — read on to find out about what she caught Keanu Reeves doing on the set of “Rush Rush” and how she scored an invite to Gene Kelly’s house for tea.
“Opposites Attract,” 1989
“When I was 4 years old, I saw Singin’ in the Rain and that changed my life. I fell in love with musicals. I wanted to be Gene Kelly. He was my idol growing up, so when I heard ‘Opposites Attract,’ immediately I thought, ‘I know what I want to do visually: I want to give a present to Gene Kelly. I was inspired by [Kelly] dancing with the animated mouse in Anchors Aweigh. I knew that rap was going to be here to stay, so I wanted to create a hip-hop-style character that was cooler than cool.
After this came out, I sent Gene a note of gratitude. Within three days, my team said, ‘Gene Kelly’s called for you, and he’d like to have you over for tea.’ We became fast friends. And then soon after, I was asked to choreograph the Academy Awards. They were going to have to me do these major musical numbers. And I surprised everyone: I brought Gene Kelly down to rehearsals to critique my dancers. They were fainting and crying. It was the best thing in the world.”
“Straight Up,” 1989
“‘Straight Up’ was a song that my mother actually found. She was working for the late Billy Wilder and she had a young assistant, and she overheard my mom and Mr. Wilder talking about me doing an album. She asked if she could have her boyfriend, who was an aspiring songwriter, submit a song, and my mom said, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’ I was really close to being done with my album, and she said, ‘Oh boy, I don’t know what I’m going to tell my assistant, I just got a demo that’s so bad.’ [Laughs] I came over for dinner that night and she played it for me, and we were laughing because it was like someone singing notes that we’d never heard before. My mom threw it in the trashcan and I dug it out — I said, ‘There’s something really cool about this song.’ She thought I was crazy.
I had to go to the record company to convince them that this was a really cool song. They were looking at me like I was nuts. I said, ‘Look, please let me do this. I’ll do two songs that you want me to do that I’m not that fond of.’ We bartered a deal.
I always believed in ‘Straight Up,’ but [the label] thought it was a B-side record. Then a station in northern California started playing it almost every half-hour. Their sister station was Z100 [in New York] and, all the sudden, I had a massive hit. But it was during the holidays when everything is closed down. I was going, ‘I have to get an MTV video!’
[Director] David Fincher was a film student in his last year and being scouted by everyone, but I got him because I knew his girlfriend. I wanted to tap-dance, and it just came together — very simple. To be perfectly honest with you, I was a little miffed and concerned, because I was already a successful choreographer and I was working with every major artist in the industry and I knew that, okay, this could be my first chance on MTV, and David Fincher wants to do a black-and-white video shot in Super 8? [Laughs] I’m used to seeing artists and their labels spending gazillions of dollars on these hi-tech, glossy videos. But I trusted David, and I understood where he was going. It ended up defining a look and signature of the decade.”
“Cold Hearted,” 1989
“I wanted to thank Bob Fosse for how much he meant to me as a choreographer, so I created my own version of his movie All That Jazz. It was very, very important for the dancing to be so on point and immaculate. It was the hardest dance video I’ve ever done, and every dancer [on set] can attest to that. [Laughs] I was like a drill sergeant.”
“Forever Your Girl,” 1989
“The cool thing about ‘Forever Your Girl’ is I got to do casting with David Fincher, and we cast Elijah Wood in his very first job. I think he was 8, and the cutest thing on earth. He played an executive. We had little kids playing these adult roles — it was very clever and cool. Some of them have gone on to become successful choreographers or working actors. The kids were brilliant. There was one who was only interested in eating cookies from the craft table, so we filmed him eating cookies. We even mocked my ‘Straight Up’ video and had a kid with a cabbie hat and a leather jacket. It was very cute.”
“Rush Rush,” 1991
“We wanted to do Rebel Without a Cause — it’s one of my favorite movies, and I wanted to be the Natalie Wood character. We were auditioning for the James Dean character, and at the time, Keanu Reeves had just done [Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure]. He was a new, cool actor that everyone was starting to talk about.
He was very funny — the funniest part was on the first day of shooting, I go to his trailer and hear loud music playing. The door was slightly open, so I looked inside and he was air-guitaring in his underwear. [Laughs] I don’t think he ever knew that I saw that!”