Giving Wonder Boy His Break

MANY memories live on, but just in our minds. Seldom do we get the opportunity to see them realised in a more permanent form.

dick lee vernon cornelius wonder boy
Above: Dick Lee and Vernon Cornelius at the premiere of Wonder Boy. Top: Vernon introducing Dick and the rest of the cast at the premiere.

An encounter with Dick Lee in August 1973 has become a journey that has worked its way through the Singapore music scene, its history and emerged as a lesson on  longevity in the entertainment industry.

And to see it all come alive on the big screen, as the film Wonder Boy, is more than mere nostalgia, it’s emotional, moving and a delight for Vernon Cornelius. Dick directs the film which showcases his early years. Vernon, a member of the popular local group, The Quests, played a significant role in launching Dick’s career.

Vernon shares his thoughts about Wonder Boy and also talks about the fateful moment when he met Dick Lee.

Then To Now

I first heard of Wonder Boy in November 2016 when Dick Lee called from Penang to ask permission if he could mention my name, and be portrayed in a movie of his life, as I had played a great role in crafting his beginnings.

When I attended the preview screening, I did so with no reservations but with an open mind, to see what this curious biopic had to reveal.

I was surprisingly stunned by what I saw. The movie set in the early ’70s was accurately depicted with appropriate imagery of those times — background scenes, clothes worn by the cast, even detail of the ‘STB’ symbol on the telephone, types of cars with Singapore registration plates, period school badges worn by students on their uniforms, books and carry-bags, and many other appropriate artefacts showed careful and painstaking effort and accuracy.

The cast and the choice of actors and actresses are excellent, and perfectly chosen for their character portrayals. The characters in the movie are also people who played a huge part in creating the star that Dick Lee is today.

Benjamin Kheng plays Dick Lee in the film.

Lead actor and singer Benjamin Kheng is a great choice, excelling in his role as young Richard Lee. He takes on the role of the young teenager from a rich family, a budding musician and aspiring singer/songwriter with youthful ambition, but also the school’s social outcast with no interest in studies.

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He is talented and joins the school singing group The Wonder Boys, who enters the talent contest for schools, and lost. Home life was difficult with parental objections on his lifestyle, music making and his choice of friends. We see him falling in and out of love, but the soul of his life was his only sister Patricia, who encourages him to follow his heart. She is the closest to him in the family, and when tragedy strikes he is devastated by her loss. In my opinion she was the sweetest person on screen.

Strong Production

Technically, the production must be commended for its great lighting, rustic effects, and especially superb was the movie-editing with smooth, pleasant continuity to this cinematic drama.

The solid sound production delivers the right thump, and gentle mood for those melancholic moments. The soundtrack music by Dr Sydney Tan is impeccable and outstanding.

The drama scenes are very intense, gripping, heart-wrenching, and tear-jerking.

At my first viewing I couldn’t believe myself crying, and at the gala premier again I found myself fighting back tears, and almost everyone in the audience was seen wiping tears.

Director Daniel Yam is renowned for creating and capturing sensitive emotions on the screen, which he did so effectively.

Unusual for Singapore, at the movie’s end the audience broke into applause, and Dick Lee received a standing ovation.

I rate Wonder Boy the best movie Singapore has ever made, and I see it going much further than many other local productions.

The Beginnings

As a member of a popular local band The Quests, we were helped by many in show business. When I became a broadcaster I wanted to give others similar chances. Back then, I was heavily promoting local talent on the airwaves and conducting many local music activities to keep the music scene going.

Dick Lee, Benjamin Kheng, Wonder Boy
Dick Lee and Benjamin Kheng at the announcement of Wonder Boy.

I discovered Dick Lee aged 17, in August 1973 when he turned up for a singing contest I organised and conducted for Rediffusion cable-radio station. This was the era of singer/songwriters like James Taylor and Carol King, so the focus was on original songs, so it was titled Ready, Steady, Folk.

He asked me “Can I take part, I write my own songs”?

“Sure,” I said, “let’s see what you can do!”

He sat on the piano and played. I was stunned. He was good! Then I said “play another song” which he did and I was at loss for words. After the two songs I said to him, “Hey you are really very good, but you can’t take part in this contest because you will lose.”

It was a Folk song contest, and his songs were not folk tunes. So I asked him to be part the show by playing at every stage of the series. “Play one song at show start, and the other song to end the show.”

However for each of the 11 shows, I asked him to write four songs, but only chose two!”

And each week I would run two shows to justify attracting a ‘live’ audience, so he had to compose eight songs a week, of which only four would be used.

Delivering On Demand

This was pretty demanding on a young boy! But he returned every week and delivered new compositions. There were times when I didn’t like the new songs, and I made him repeat and replay the songs I liked — Life Story, Fried Rice Paradise and What Would You Say.

This was one of my efforts in generating local compositions.

In later years he credited me for pushing his writing talent, which made him a prolific writer in the years that followed.

I never imagined he would rise to such heights. Coming from a rich family, money was no problem. To some extent this helped in his rise.

Anyone poorer would not have the financial resources to play and experiment, as Dick had.

Many of his songs were too clever, too advanced because he wrote musically complex songs and many were not melodic charts material. So, not all Dick’s albums were successful.

His best to date is Mad Chinaman. He wrote many national songs because of his connections, but only Home confirms his status as a great artiste.

Dick has persevered through the years because he keeps reinventing himself, experimenting on many levels including creating musicals like Mad Chinaman, Beauty World, Forbidden City.

Wonder Boy is currently playing in cinemas.

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