With the iconic Hollywood sign at sunset as a backdrop, two of the stars of “Westside,” Netflix’s first music reality series (arriving November 9) — and arguably its most experimental and ambitious show to date — describe their real lives as aspiring stars. Meta enough?
“What I love about ‘Westside’ is that it’s the first of its kind,” says Pia Toscano, who may be the most recognizable cast member, having placed ninth on season 10 of “American Idol.” “I’m finally able to tell my story and peel back those layers and write and collaborate with other incredible artists [on the show]. But we weren’t competing with each other, so there was this camaraderie — we became a tight-knit family. We really grew and learned from each other. It wasn’t like: Who’s going to win this week? And who’s going to get voted off?”
“I don’t necessarily consider this a reality show,” adds Sean Patrick Murray, one of the eight other cast members and co-creator of “Westside.” (These two have already come up with a nickname for themselves: SePia. Get it?) “Pia’s not trying to be a reality star from this. I’m not trying to become an Instagram influencer. We’re all musicians, and we allowed cameras to access our lives. Our goal is to share our music and tell our stories. We’re all just trying to be the best versions of ourselves.”
Indeed, “Westside” is hardly your typical unscripted show. Pageantry doesn’t factor, rather, we see the hopefuls at their worst — confronting performance anxiety, alcoholism and drug abuse — in a way that feels at once fresh, gritty and undeniably authentic. “I struggled with my career,” admits Toscano. “As you can see on the show, I went from being a household name and touring and having a record deal to losing it all — very quickly. People would attack my physical appearance on social media and rip me to shreds, from my weight to my features. They called me Gonzo! I felt so defeated. I felt ugly. I felt like I was a has-been who had let my family down. I had to deal with rejection and failure and going back home and singing with a wedding band.”
All this may sound somewhat depressing but, in fact, it makes for highly watchable entertainment. “When we first started the unscripted initiative here almost two years ago, like everyone at Netflix, we were encouraged to take risks, innovate, find the most exciting projects out there and support that creative vision of our producing partners,” says Jenn Levy, director of unscripted originals and acquisitions for the streaming giant. “’Westside’ came along and checked all of those boxes. It was like nothing we had ever seen before and we thought it was just a heck of an idea. And so we decided to jump in with Love [Productions] and Madwood [Studios] and the whole team.”
As Kevin Bartel, one of Westside’s co-creators and executive producers, who heads up Love Productions USA and is Executive Vice President of the company that is best known for “The Great British Bake Off,” recalls: “Our initial, knee-jerk reaction to that was: Does the world need another one of those shows? … But in meeting what ultimately became the cast of the ‘Westside,’ there was something really interesting about a group of twenty-somethings that are pursuing their passions on a daily basis despite all the adversity that they encounter daily.” (For the record, the cast ranges in age from 20 to 32; Toscano, for instance, recently turned 30.) “We started to dig deeper to get to know and understand their relationships and their fears — and the decisions they were making that were impacting their lives. These are really captivating individuals. And the breakthrough moment for us was: ‘Well, wait a second. What if we could turn the genre on its head and really make this about the people?’ If you fall in love with the people, you’re going to fall in love with their music.”
The music plays a co-starring role in “Westside.” As Levy explains: “We collaborated with some of the best and the brightest in the music industry along with the cast to write and produce music that’s inspired by the storylines in the show. And then we weaved those [songs] into the narrative of every episode that then elevates and further illustrates the storylines.”
Enter: Executive Music Producer James Diener, an industry veteran who previously served in senior executive roles at A&M/Octone Records and RCA and currently co-manages several acts including Avril Lavigne and The Struts. “The vision for music for this show had never been done before, which is one of the reasons I was interested,” he says. “You have an unscripted show where all of the characters are coming into place dynamically in real time, and then you’ve got 25-30 multi-platinum, Grammy-winning writers and producers writing individual songs to sync into the show.”
Among the top-tier songwriter/s and producers recruited to write for the cast were Diane Warren (Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”), Johan Carlsson (Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman”), Philip Lawrence (Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”) and Mutt Lange (“arguably the most successful record producer ever and he never does anything,” says Diener). Ryan Tedder may have been in the middle of producing Paul McCartney, finishing up a U2 album, working with Katy Perry and launching his own television show on NBC, but he found time to contribute, too. “A tremendous amount of original material needed to be composed, recorded with the cast, produced, and then integrated into the show,” says Diener. “All that work, which is basically the equivalent of — let’s call it A&R-ing and producing a double studio album — in about five or six months.” Diener has since signed on to manage six of the nine cast members. Warner Bros. Records is releasing the “Westside” album and has an option to pick up any of the singers for additional music. In addition, music videos shot by the likes of Diane Martel and Sophie Mueller give a visual sheen to the songs and are integrated into the episodes.
If “Glee” comes to mind, Levy doesn’t deny the nod but also points to shows like “The Hills” and “The Real World” only “a lot edgier and extremely raw.” Adds Bartel: “We took a documentary approach. It allowed for them to live their real lives — and that’s uncensored, so they’re dealing with super-heavy stuff.”
As a recovering alcoholic, cast member James Byous dealt with his demons on camera. In one scene, he’s shown snorting cocaine in a dark alley. During the course of production, he struggled with crippling depression as well as substance abuse. “I had been drinking in the mornings, and I remember feeling spiritually devoid, just empty,” Byous tells Variety. “I had it in my head: What did I get myself into? I was kind of down about it, like, ‘I don’t want to be on a reality show.’ I remember thinking the only way out of this was to off myself.” The real-life episode motivated him to attend an A.A. meeting, which proved to be a turning point in his life as well as his music career.
“In no way does ‘Westside’ resemble ‘American Idol’ or ‘The Voice’ or anything like that,” says Netlix’s Levy. Adds Bartel: “In my opinion, the reason we haven’t seen a ‘Voice’ star break out and become a pop sensation, a country sensation, a hip-hop sensation, is because that show is completely driven by the four people in the [judges’] chairs and not the people competing.”
That roadmap, along with a willingness by the cast to bear all, gives an unvarnished view of the struggle for stardom while also offering a visually stunning presentation to “make your connection to the characters as deep as possible,” says Levy.
Adds Bartel: “It’ll be interesting to see their relationships evolve as people get to know them and who pops and who doesn’t pop because as you know the music industry can also be cruel. Look, I think they’re all nine stars but we’ll see what happens when these episodes go live.”
Who’s Who in “Westside”
Caitlin Ary, 29
Returning to her native L.A. from Las Vegas, she’s the polyamorous friend of fellow castmates Byous and Murray who struggles with self-doubt and suffered a recent miscarriage.
James Byous, 29
When not busking in Hollywood — his trademark song: “I’m a Bad Motherfucker” — the singer-songwriter works in construction and battles dependence on drugs and alcohol.
Leo Gallo, 32
The oldest cast member was in a ’90s boy band called Youth Asylum, which signed to Quincy Jones’ label. Today, his chronic pot smoking is an attempt to numb himself from a family trauma.
Arika Gluck, 20
Born and raised in South-Central L.A., she shot her first commercial for Welch’s grape juice at age 4. Today, the aspiring rapper’s lyrics address an abusive mother.
Alexandra Kay, 27
“Lexi,” the token wide-eyed, small-town girl, who hails from farm country in Illinois, battles loneliness while trying to find herself in the big city and still appeal to a Christian, country fanbase.
Austin Kolbe, 24
Arrogant, androgynous, narcissistic and averse to criticism, the token “Westside” villain is a former teen runaway who’s all about letting his freak flag fly (preferably in high heels).
Sean Patrick Murray, 31
“Putting the right talent together is a talent within itself,” says the series co-creator, who is also producing the cast’s debut show, “Naked,” at 1 Oak on the Sunset Strip.
Pia Toscano, 30
Jennifer Lopez invited the “Idol” alum to sing backup for her live show, but anxiety and insecurities linger along with online bullies as Toscano tries to find a work-life balance.
Taz Zavala, 29
“I look Asian but I’m definitely Mexican,” says the San Fernando Valley native. In and out of girl groups growing up, she struggles with self-esteem, binge-drinking and a disapproving mother.