After logging 18 years on some of the most recognizable commercials to come out of LA, director Mark Schimmel got an offer for the type of job that he had dreamed about since getting into the business.
Although it had no budget, lacked the proper city shooting permits and required him to fill in for the shorthanded crew, he describes the resulting four-and-a-half minute short, “Sweet Home Chicago,” as “a great opportunity.”
“Sweet Home Chicago” was originally written and recorded by blues musician Robert Johnson in 1936.
Schimmel’s version of the song is a medley and a montage of almost 20 local musicians singing and playing the tune in 10 different locations throughout the city. Among the artists was Chicago’s Crystal Bowersox, the runner-up on the ninth season of “American idol.”
Completed as a pro bono promotion for nonprofit Chicago Street Musicians, “Sweet Home Chicago” was originally presented to Schimmel by a client looking for volunteers.
“I was on a project for Discover Card,” he remembers. “My client reached out to me and said ‘we’d like to do a video. Would you recommend a few students?’”
As an adjunct professor at Columbia College, Schimmel considered the request to be nothing out of the ordinary. But when the client actually described the job and added, “We purchased the rights to ‘Sweet Home Chicago,’” he jumped at the chance himself.
“I volunteered to help and we went out and did it in one day.”
The day started downtown at 5 a.m. with “a camera on somebody’s lap, sound equipment in the trunk and no hair and makeup.” It went on to include an abrupt eviction from one locale and a covert take on another while members of the crew distracted a police officer who was asking about a permit.
“I felt like we were chasing the sun because we didn’t have any lights,” Schimmel recalls. “It was a long day.”
It was also just the beginning.
Since the tight schedule required him to focus on the performers, he went back on his own with a video camera to “shoot the street stuff on Michigan Avenue.”
When it came time to edit, he encountered another challenge.
“Every vocal and instrument was tracked,” Schimmel explained. “I tried to cut it for about a month. When I realized I couldn’t do it, I asked Gary Fry to put together an audio track” and he did.
“Sweet Home Chicago” earned a Cinema/Chicago Intercom Certificate of Merit. But for Schimmel, a Chicago native who sincerely wonders why “people want to take a jet out to LA,” the chance to work in the city he loves was a reward in itself.
“It was more about capturing the soul of the street,” he says. “God bless these artists who are willing to get out there and open a case and play no matter what kind of weather.”