The Pine Cone's fifth story of the week

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'They have it all' -- including some amazing luck

- From South Africa to Mission Ranch, courtesy of 'Invictus'

By PAUL MILLER

Published: November 20, 2009

WHEN CLINT Eastwood’s new movie, “Invictus,” opens Dec. 11, audiences will undoubtedly be inspired by the film’s dramatic and timely tale of racial reconciliation.

And with Eastwood bringing his deft directorial touch to a superstar cast that includes Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, they’ll also be seeing a movie that’s bound to be an Oscar contender.

But as the story of South African President Nelson Mandela and his country’s all-white rugby team — filmed last spring by Eastwood in the country where it happened — unfolds, audiences will also be hearing the movie’s uplifting score, featuring a heretofore unknown a capella singing group from Johannesburg. The group, Overtone, owes its role in the movie, and the possibility of pop stardom, to a bit of incredible luck, and the generosity of Clint Eastwood’s wife, Dina.

“Back in March, we were in Capetown on a two-week engagement, performing our Queen cover show,” said Emile Welman, one of Overtone’s tenors. But the 75-seat-supper-club gig wasn’t exactly the big time, and for all their ambition and talent, the singers had no inkling their careers were about to make a tremendous leap.

“Of course, we’d seen in the newspapers that Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon were in town shooting a film, and on the way to Capetown, we were joking around that maybe we’d meet them,” said Ruan Van Zyl, Overtone’s baritone.

“One day, we saw a film crew on the street outside the theater, and the guys told me, ‘There’s Matt Damon!’” Welman laughed. “But it was just a cereal commercial.”

Meanwhile, as Overtone was having modest success during its Capetown engagement and fantasizing about the possibility of a brief encounter with Hollywood royalty, Dina Eastwood happened to pick up a flyer in the lobby of the hotel where the cast and crew for “Invictus” were staying.

“Melissa [wife of the film’s producer, Rob Lorenz] and I were looking for something to do on a girl’s night out,” Dina said. “I don’t know what I was expecting from a Queen cover show ... not much, probably.”

But in the theater that night, as the seven young men of Overtone began their lyrical harmonizing — which sounds like a cross between Ladysmith Black Mambazo and InSync — Dina Eastwood was enchanted.

“I had never seen anything like them,” she recalled. “They had it all.”

‘Are you starving?’

After the show, Dina Eastwood introduced herself to the boys from Overtone in the theater’s lobby, complimented them on their wonderful show, and offered to buy them dinner. “Are you guys starving artists?” she asked. “Are you hungry?”

“We were shocked, but we knew right away she was for real,” said Eduard Van Rensburg, also a tenor.

And even if the meeting went no further, Dina’s generosity impressed them. “She insisted we all eat,” said Van Zyl.

Dina liked them so much, she also had the idea to book the singers and the entire theater for a special show for a group from Malpaso Productions during a day off from filming.

“I took a chance, and I decided to go for it,” Dina recalled.

Thus, on March 22, a Sunday afternoon, the small theater was packed with tired cast and crew — among them, several of the biggest movie stars in the world.

“We were so nervous, we kept peeking around the curtain while everybody was sitting down,” said beat boxer Valentino Ponsonby. “Morgan Freeman is very tall!”

“Matt Damon had on a baseball cap, and Clint Eastwood was wearing a South African hat,” added Van Zyl.

The boys had cut their show in half for the special performance, deciding to go with only their best Queen hits, and they practiced them like crazy. It all paid off.

“Everyone in the crowd loved our show,” said Ernie Bates, a tenor and the group’s production genius. “Especially Matt Damon. He was smiling all the time.”

After the concert, Damon was the first to ask for a CD, and he wouldn’t take a free one. “He paid 100 rand (about $13), just like anybody,” Bates marveled.

An historic rugby match

The next day, the boys from Overtone went back home to Johannesburg, where they already had a fantastic story to tell their friends and families — many of whom were a bit skeptical. “My father said, ‘Humph. Did you take pictures?’” Ponsonby said. “He didn’t believe we’d met Clint Eastwood.”

But there was even more to come. Welman was keeping in touch with Dina Eastwood by email, and a few weeks later she told him the filming had shifted to Johannesburg, where the final of the South African rugby team’s great triumph in the 1995 World Cup was being recreated at one of the city’s biggest stadiums.

When shooting was ready to start, the Overtone boys headed to the stadium, hoping to get work among 3,000 extras in the stands.

While they were waiting outside a chain-link fence, Dina Eastwood sent a message to a crew member, and the next thing the singers knew, they had prime spots among the crowd, right next to the field.

Dina also sent a message to her husband, while he was directing the stadium scenes: “The Overtone boys are there. Please say, ‘Hi,’ to them. Do you remember who they are?”

In fact, Clint Eastwood remembered a lot more than merely who the members of Overtone were. During the weeks between the special Queen performance and the stadium shoot, Dina had played an Overtone CD in their hotel room — especially an upbeat, inspirational number, “Shosholoza,” which had been a theme during the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

“I played it for him probably 50 times,” Dina said. Even though he kept mum, the song made a big impression on one of Hollywood’s most successful directors.

“He never told me he was going to ask them to record it for the soundtrack,” Dina said.

“We were sitting by the rugby pitch, and during a break, all of a sudden Mr. Eastwood came up to us, and he asked us if we could perform ‘Shosholoza,’ and he wanted us to record it five different ways,” Ponsonby said.

Back in the studio, they also produced a slew of other songs, and on the day filming ended, with the clock at midnight and the Eastwoods’ flight back to the United States leaving in just a few hours, Overtone had the chance to present their work.

“Mr. Eastwood was listening with headphones,” Welman recalled. “He loved everything.”

Incredibly, most of the songs produced by the group were picked by Clint Eastwood for the “Invictus” soundtrack and will be unveiled to the world next month when the film premieres, along with music by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens.

The ‘wheels start turning’

Back home in Pebble Beach in April, Dina Eastwood encouraged the members of Overtone to write more of their own music and improve their harmonies, dance routines and other elements of their show. She even wrote the lyrics to one of the songs on the soundtrack, “9,000 Days,” which pays homage to the amount of time Mandela was imprisoned. (Her husband wrote the music.) And then she decided to help them launch what she thought would be a very promising career.

“The wheels started turning, and I made up my mind I’m going to get this band over here,” she said.

At first, her contacts with industry insiders to try to open doors for Overtone went nowhere. “‘We don’t do boy bands,’ one big-time pop manager said,” Dina recalled.

Nevertheless, she flew the entire group (at her own expense) to California in July, where a few culture shocks awaited.

“We couldn’t believe the portions of food you’re served over here,” Ponsonby said.

“And everything is so clean and well organized,” said baritone Shane Smit.

“And the cars stop for pedestrians!” marveled Bates.

“It’s the humbleness of America that impresses me,” said Van Zyl. “South Africa is so small, and the people think they’re so big. And this place is so big, and the people think they’re small.”

While the group was visiting the magic land of California last summer, Dina Eastwood happened to mention Overtone to veteran Hollywood and Broadway composer Mark Mancina. Among his projects is the Broadway version of “The Lion King.”

“South African music has always been fascinating to me, so I really wanted to meet them.” Mancina said.

He invited Overtone to his private studio near Lake Arrowhead and was immediately impressed. “When they walked in and started doing their repertoire, I couldn’t wait to get them organized and start recording,” Mancina said.

He’s working with them on a new CD, and even produced one of the group’s songs on the “Invictus” soundtrack, “Colorblind,” which he thinks could become a pop hit.

Like Dina Eastwood, he’s been donating his talents to help the group succeed.

“So far, we’re all doing this out of love,” Mancina said.

For Dina, that means paying the bills, taking the young men clothes shopping, and even having them stay at her home or at Mission Ranch, where the entire group gathered Monday for a meeting with The Pine Cone.

Last Saturday, she introduced their performance at a Make A Wish fundraiser at Tehama, where they were a smash hit as $175,000 was raised for the charity.

A few days later, she took them to Los Angeles for tapings of the “Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” and the “Ellen Degeneres Show.” Those appearances will be broadcast to coincide with the Dec. 11 premiere of “Invictus.” (The movie takes its title from the poem Nelson Mandela recited to himself during his 24 years in prison under apartheid.)

And after the movie comes out?

“I think this group could be No. 1 in the United States,” Dina Eastwood said, looking proudly at the members of Overtone, ages 21 to 26, while a stunning view of Carmel Bay filled the window behind them.

“Our parents keep warning us not to count our chickens before they’re hatched,” said Smit.

“But we want to be the best in the world,” added Bates.