Playing by ear: Mari Keiko Gonzalez on her editing journey and cutting legendary moments in music

New York City-based award-winning editor Mari Keiko Gonzalez has cut live performances, concerts, and documentaries for some of the world’s greatest artists, including Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, Tony Bennett, Lauryn Hill, John Legend, Paul Simon, John Mayer, Parliament Funkadelic, Willie Nelson, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, The Weeknd, Billy Porter, Mariah Carey, Carrie Underwood, and Alicia Keys.

Mari’s father is a civil rights attorney who represented the trans activists at The Stonewall Riots, and her mother was a Broadway and television actor, teacher, and playwright. Mari studied at The School of American Ballet and performed in The Nutcracker with Mikhail Baryshnikov at Lincoln Center. She was a champion equestrian who attended The High School of Music and Art, and later went on to study medicine at The University of Pittsburgh. In the early ‘90s, Mari wrote, directed and edited the experimental short films The Love Thang Trilogy, Target, and X-Girl, which focused on identity, sexuality, and race. They screened at film festivals worldwide and remain in permanent collections at Brown University, New York University, UC Berkeley, Yale University, The New York Public Library, among others.

She’s currently editing a four-part docuseries called James Brown: Say It Loud, directed by Deborah Riley Draper and produced by Mick Jagger, Questlove, and Peter Afterman that will be released in 2023.

We sat down to talk with her about editing in the new world and the trials and tribulations of a career in music documentaries and performance.

What drew you to the art of editing in general? How did you end up here?

I kind of fell into it by accident. When I was really young, I was an activist, and so a lot of the communication that we did was visual. So, I started doing these experimental short films about identity and sexuality. I was maybe 21 or 22. I was very young when I had my daughter; I was in college, so I always had a million different jobs. I would take these jobs with corporate television companies with access to equipment so I could do my little videos. They were sort of visual poems and they had educational distribution. I did a lot of film festivals. A lot of my friends who are now Hollywood directors, at the time were so young that they had no money to edit or do anything. So, I just sort of taught myself (this is before any non-linear editing systems were around). I would edit a lot of people’s films and videos—films that were transferred to video. And then I worked as a tape operator at a post-production house in Manhattan. I just wanted to learn everything there was. I really thought it was important to learn the technical side of filmmaking because I didn’t go to film school. So, I became friends with the engineer who built the facility, who was later at Sony Music Studios, and he was like, “Here, read this manual.” So, I learned everything in this analog machine room with all of these guys—it was really wild. But I had four or five different jobs, from working at National Organization for Women selling these luxury tours for the Metropolitan Opera to being the front desk receptionist at this corporate television place, where I ultimately became friends with the creative director and his girlfriend. He could see that, after hours, I was always editing something and he said, “We have this video that we’re doing for this blue-chip financial group—a corporate video. Maybe you want to edit it?” And I was like, “Really? Okay!” So, Alan Rosenthal gave me his shot, and I edited the video, and I remember that the money that I made just in one day was the amount of money that I made in the entire week from all of my jobs, and I was like, “Oh, interesting…” 

All my other friends, who were artists, would always tell me, “You should be an editor. You have such great timing, you’re so good with music.” And I’m like, “Ugh, I’m a director, I would never want to do that, it’s so tedious.” But I started getting all of these editing jobs. I started doing music videos at first. And then when Frank Sinatra passed away, I don’t know how they got my name, but someone at Sony Music Studios called me in to do one of the many short tribute videos for him. And then I just never left.

Mari Keiko Gonzalez working in an offline editing room in 1993.

So, you fell into the music niche just because of circumstance?

Yeah, I got that little Frank Sinatra short video, and then, literally, I started just working at the studio. And the studio was incredible. Unfortunately, it’s no longer there; it should have been a historic landmark. There were so many historic albums that were recorded there and concerts that were shot there. The stories! I was there for a very long time, until their doors closed. I sort of cut my teeth there, as they say. There weren’t that many women at the time who were editors, and I used Avid Media Composer, which had only been out a few years. I had taught myself how to use it very early on, when I was working as a receptionist. Nobody really knew how to use it that well. I started doing multi-camera, which I taught myself when I was at Sony.

There used to be this show on PBS, which was one of the best music shows ever—and I’ve worked on a lot of music shows—called Sessions at West 54th. David Byrne hosted it one year, Chris Douridas hosted it another year, and the final season that I worked on, which was 1999, I believe, John Hyatt hosted it. People would walk by my room and be like, “Oh, who are you?” I was a baby. There were a lot of women or people of color working in support positions, but it was mostly white dudes, much older than me. I was the youngest, I was the only woman, and the only Asian woman. But I got to do everything. Staff editors were like, “Six o’clock, I’ve got to go. Mari, do you want to work on Hard Rock Live? Do you want to work on Divas Live?” I was like, “Okay.” And I just started doing all these concerts. It was an amazing time.

What do you think are some of the unique challenges of editing concerts, performances, and other musical content?

It’s a very, very small group of people, and you sort of get pigeonholed into doing stuff. When I was at Sony, it was like, “Oh, Mari just does music, she doesn’t do documentaries.” We had gotten hired on this Miramax documentary about Russell Crowe’s band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, and they hired me only to do the music, not to do any of the narrative, even though I had done a lot of docs. I ended up doing most of the films for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Then they started dividing things, like, these are the documentary people, and these are the music people, and I was known as the music person. But I can tell the stories; this is really what I do. And now people are like, “Mari, she’s a documentary editor.” I’m like, “No!” But I still have people who call me who have known me for 20 years. They all work with the same people. I did the last Destiny Child’s World Tour, and the woman who was the head of production at Sony ended up forming her own company, so I did a lot of stuff for her, and now she runs Beyonce’s company, Parkwood. Once you work with a big artist, people just will call you. Ten years later, they’re like, “Hey Mari, can you do Tony Bennett’s variety show?” By the way, we did the Gaga-Tony Bennett at Radio City remotely.  If we were using Evercast, we wouldn’t have had the problems we were having. We were trying to use Zoom and Jump, and it was just a disaster. I said to my assistant, let’s just export this and put it in something else. I just can’t. None of those things ever work.

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So, tell me about using Evercast. You used it just on the Country Music Awards, right?

I did, and I’m definitely going to recommend it for the next. I did the Country Music Television Awards, and CMT Storytellers: Brooks & Dunn, which is a beautiful show. It’s kind of like “behind the song.” You’re talking about the song, then they perform, they talk, they perform. It’s so fun and very intimate; it feels like you’re in a small club or someone’s living room. So, both of those we did on Evercast. CMT said “Well, we know you didn’t work on Evercast last year, but that’s how all the directors and executives are watching everything in the control room in Nashville now.” And I was like, “Okay, I’ve never used it.” But I just worked with the director, Lauren Quinn, who I’ve also known for many years, and it was great because it was really like she was with me. They would just load everything onto the server in Nashville, and then I was remoted in through their VPN. When we wanted to collaborate, Lauren and I would just go into our Evercast room and work for hours. I was surprised at how seamless and bug-free it was. She could see my timeline in Avid, I could play multi-cam, and jump around. And it looked and sounded great. I was streaming from New York: each of Ki Pros, each of the eight cameras, plus the line cut and other materials, too. And I didn’t have the media locally either—the media was in Nashville—but we were playing it through Evercast. Lauren was in New Jersey, sometimes in Nashville at her hotel, one time she might have been in Vegas. She was in different places every time. And when we would do the big watch-downs with editing, I could stop and fix stuff. It was great to be able to use that for both of the shows, for the pre-tapes and then also for Storytellers. The CMT Music Awards aired on April 11th, which was a Monday on CBS, and then Wednesday, the Storytellers show aired.

And all pre-taped?

The CMT Awards is a live show, but the Judds’ and Carrie Underwood’s performances were taped in Nashville and Vegas respectively, and loaded onto the server. And then Storytellers was also pre-recorded with an audience.

So how far in advance are you getting that? If it’s airing on a Monday, when are you getting the tapes?

I was editing the performances maybe three weeks out, but we were changing stuff that Saturday and Sunday—getting final mixes, tweaks, things they had to add, and then feeding it to the truck so they could load it in. Every time I had to add something, we would just jump in the Evercast room and make sure everyone was good with it—or if we had any visual effects that I needed to put on, same thing. It was great. 

Screen shot of the bin containing all of the pre-taped performances edited remotely on Evercast for the 2022 CMT Music Awards.

So, I know you’re working on a pretty cool docuseries right now. Are you able to talk about that?

Sure. I’m working on this docu-series on James Brown for A&E called James Brown: Say It Loud. It’s been great. I’m the only editor, and it’s four parts, four hours, so I’m doing everything. It’s heavy archival, graphics, music. Mick Jagger and Questlove are producing it with Peter Afterman and their companies. We’re also all in different places: LA, Atlanta, New York, and our post facility is in North Carolina.

It must be amazing seeing all that old footage.

It is. You know, surprisingly, there’s not a lot. He was around in the ‘50s, but the first televised performance wasn’t until 1964, I think—the T.A.M.I. Show—which actually the Rolling Stones were on, too. They weren’t really filming before that. I’m actually working on the section now where we’re talking about what’s now called the Chitlin’ Circuit. People think it’s all these juke joints, but they’re actually these huge theaters that were part of it in the South, the Midwest, and the Northeast. I think the Chitlin’ Circuit ended in the ‘60s, and there’s no footage from that because nobody had cameras.

And the Apollo Theater, I imagine, was big.

We have a lot of stuff from the Apollo. I think he’s performed more at the Apollo than any other artist, actually. He recorded a live album there actually, much to the dismay of his label. They were like, “What do you mean you’re recording a live album? No.” And he’s like, “That’s part of my sound and who I am. My show is the live show.” The album is just insane.

I’m sure! Okay, so when can we see the series?

I think it’s airing next Spring, around what would have been his birthday. He’d be 90 next year.

Mari’s home editing space in New York City working on James Brown: Say It Loud! in 2022

What are your thoughts on working remotely and your vision of the future?

You know, I really loved going into the facility and seeing people every day, but honestly, you can get so much more work done remotely. I think I’m just more efficient because people aren’t coming in and hanging out. Nobody has any etiquette, they just come in and start talking while you’re working—not that people in your home don’t do that when you’re working at home! But for film and TV anyway, I just can’t see it going back to the way it was again. You think about how much money they’re going to save without the brick-and-mortar, especially in New York. The rents are exorbitant—you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on rent. I don’t think I’ve ever been so busy as I have these past two years because I can work in all these different time zones. I don’t have to be in Nashville, I don’t have to be in LA, I can be wherever; everybody can be wherever. I don’t think that it’s going to go back. I think people are really happy. I mean, some directors and producers say they want to sit knee-to-knee with you, but they really don’t. I’m not a fan of being on the computer all the time, I like to sit with people and be in nature sometimes also. But if you can work efficiently remotely and you have tools that help you do that, then why not do it? You can have a great product, productions can save a lot of money, and then you can also have a better quality of life because you can get things done quicker. But for the times we can’t be in person, Evercast is the only way I would do it. Not to throw anybody under the bus, but I hate Zoom. It never works. You can’t play anything through there. It’s funny, we were on a Zoom call with an animator and he was trying to share some cell frames and these really short things, and the whole call was spent trying to figure the tech stuff out, and he ended up just emailing us later on. I just do not have the patience for that. I wouldn’t waste my time doing Jump or Zoom. If you want to access my desktop and look at something and poke around, Jump is fine. But we’re not going to be editing and working on that. When we started using Evercast, I was like, “Wait, what is this? It’s just easy. It’s clear.”

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