To be honest, the fact that I picked “My Eyes Adored You” as the title song for this post is more because of a slight personal connection I have to the song than it is anything else. I could just have easily chosen songs such as “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night!)”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” and many others. While the Jersey Boys musical tells the story of 1960s supergroup, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, it is mainly an excuse to create a play out of their musical catalogue of hits. In this way, Jersey Boys shares a lot in common with another Broadway hit, Momma Mia (which, as many of you know, showcased ABBA’s entire roster of hit songs in the guise of a romantic comedy storyline). But, thinking that the story of Jersey Boys is just like Momma Mia would be wrong. In fact, the two stories couldn’t be more different. The mere fact that actor Joe Pesci plays an integral part…in real life as well as on screen…tells you all that you may need to know that something is up with Jersey Boys. So, without further delay, here is the story of one of Broadway’s most popular and enduring hits, Jersey Boys.
With the emergence of the Fab Four over in England, American record executives were searching high and low for their own version of singing quartets. As luck would have it, four guys from New Jersey were meeting up and realizing that they shared a common love of singing and of four-part harmonies. These four young men were named Tommy Devito, Frank Valli, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi. While these four young men could sing and ended up having a string of #1 hit songs, their fame only went so far; especially when compared to groups like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys. The reason for that was because many of those involved in the group had well known ties to organized crime. In fact, Tommy Devito had already spent time in prison prior to becoming a singer in The Four Seasons (which is what the band was originally known as). Not only that but, Devito ended up racking up huge gambling debts as the 1960s unfolded. The debts got so high that eventually, the remaining members of the band had to approach a New Jersey-based Godfather and ask to cut a deal. Needless to say, cutting a deal with the Mafia rarely works out in anyone’s favour and that remains true of The Four Seasons who spent the remainder of their career working to pay off Devito’s gambling debts.
The structure of the storyline for Jersey Boys is broken into four quarters. Each quarter represents one phase of their career and each is told from the perspective of a different member of the band. The musical starts off with Devito talking about how the band came together and how the early days of their success unfolded. The second chapter of the story is told by Bob Gaudio (who actually wrote the entire musical). He tells of the back stories behind some of the biggest hits they had. For example, as fame came to the band, they toured constantly which caused the marriage of Frankie Valli and his first wife, Mary, to fracture. This led to the song, “My Eyes Adored You”. Part Three is told by Nick Massi and involves how Tommy Devito began getting into trouble with his gambling and how that affected the rest of the guys in the band. Massi describes how the band was forced to negotiate with a mobster and how that caused Devito to have to be hidden away for awhile so as to keep him from gambling anymore. Part Four is told by Frankie Valli, himself. He describes how the band changed focus by placing him as the star (in the same way that Motown put Diana Ross in front of her partners in The Supremes). He tells of how they finally managed to pay off the debts that they owed but at the price of his second marriage failing, his daughter succumbing to a drug overdose and the band agreeing to part ways and break up. The musical concludes with their manager, Bob Crewe, describing what it was like, years later, for The Four Seasons to be inducted into The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and how it came to be that the four original members reunited for one final performance.
The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is quite the story. My personal connection to their work is not nearly as dramatic but it exists in my memories just the same so here goes. When I was in Grade 7, I attended my very first school dance. As one might expect, it was an awkward affair. I was never a wild party animal to begin with so the prospect of having to navigate these uncharted social waters filled me with dread. I wore tight polyester pants and a red flowery, Hawaiian silky shirt because my mother insisted that I “dress up” because that was what people of her generation did when they went to a dance. So, there I was, pimply-faced, overdressed and terrified to ask any of the girls to dance. The thing I remember most about the evening was that, for whatever reason, out of all the record albums available to our DJ that night, we had only one slow dance song. That song was “My Eyes Adored You” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Once the slow dances began and my friends started figuring out that slow dancing was the reason we were all here that night, “My Eyes Adored You” must have been played a dozen times at least! It may be a sweet song sung by Frank Valli’s about his first love but for me, I will always be taken right back to that night in our classroom dancehall at Brookside Street Elementary School where, true to my introverted nature, I was scared to be there and couldn’t wait for the night to be over.
The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons became Jersey Boys which, in turn, went on to win numerous Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Jersey Boys continues to be performed all over the world. Presently, it is holding court in The West End in London, England. Here is an interesting tidbit of note that shows how Art can imitate life…in real life, Tommy Devito was introduced to Bob Gaudio by actor (and fellow New Jerseyite), Joe Pesci. One of the movie characters that Pesci is best known for is from the movie, Goodfellas, where he played a mobster known as….you guessed it…Tommy Devito!
A final small personal connection for me comes in the form of a story about my mother-in-law. When iPod Shuffle players first came out my father-in-law asked us to order one for her as a birthday present because she liked to listen to music while going for walks. Once the gift was given, my mother-in-law asked to have some of her favourite songs placed on her new Shuffle. The first CD that she gave me to download was the soundtrack to Jersey Boys. She knew all of the lyrics by heart. But more importantly, she and my father-in-law both know how to dance and love to do so in front of my daughters. Unfortunately, I am still no better today than I was in Grade 7 however, if “My Eyes Adored You” were to be played, at least I would have a slow dance partner to have and to hold and that’s all that truly matters to me.
The link to the video for the song, “My Eyes Adored You” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons can be found here. ***Lyrics version can be found here.
The link to the video for the trailer for the musical, Jersey Boys can be found here. The trailer for the movie can be found here.
The link to the official website for the musical Jersey Boys can be found here.
These are the stories behind the most memorable songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.
Today we are going to do something a little bit different. Instead of choosing one song and focusing on it and the impact that it had on a given movie or musical, we are going to discuss how director Quentin Tarentino uses music to create a stylistic environment for his movie characters to live in. Tarentino has become known as much for how his movies “sound” as he has for how his movies “look”. For him, the musical soundtrack adds layers of detail and meaning in very much the same way as the set design, the cinematography or the fashion choices do. So, in this post, we are going to examine how Quentin Tarentino used music…some of it well known and some of it more under-the-radar, as it were…to create the world of Pulp Fiction.
For anyone who has not watched Pulp Fiction already, here is a brief synopsis of the plot. Before I even begin with that, it is important to note that one of the things that made Pulp Fiction very interesting to watch was that Tarentino’s story involves three interconnected storylines that all house characters who weave in and out of each storyline in differing combinations. The stories are not told in chronological order so there is some piecing together of the puzzle that is required in order to understand what is happening and why as the movie rolls along. However, one of the reasons why Quentin Tarentino won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay is how he always manages to ensure that all scenes and all characters behave in ways that are true to their own individual story arc, even though they may be involved with different characters, in different scenes and in and out of chronological order. The construction of this film is fascinating to me.
In any case, the three story arcs are as follows:
1- A crime boss (played by Ving Rhames) demands that a washed up boxer (Bruce Willis) throw his next boxing match. Willis accepts the bribe money and agrees to throw the fight so that Rhames can place a big bet and make lots of money. However, Willis ends up accidentally winning the fight via knockout and decides to flee with the crime boss’ cash. Needless to say, Rhames vows revenge. So, story arc #1 is about the relationship between Willis and Rhames that plays out all throughout the movie.
2- Story Arc #2 involves two hit men (Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta) who work for Rhames. We follow them for a day as they conduct their business which involves eating breakfast in a diner that is being robbed, stopping by an apartment to retrieve a briefcase belonging to Rhames that had been stolen by petty thieves. *(This scene has become one of the most iconic in recent Hollywood history. The “Royale with cheese” scene helped make Jackson the star he is today. You can view that complete scene here. Warning: lots of violence and profanity…but, in the context of the movie as a whole, it all works). The ramifications of that apartment visit play out over the course of the movie and cause both men to re-evaluate what it is that they are doing with their lives.
3- Story arc #3 involves Travolta’s character performing another duty for his crime boss, Rhames. In this case, Rhames has asked Travolta to entertain his wife for an evening while Rhames is at the big boxing match. (Rhames’ wife is played by Uma Thurman). Needless to say, taking the sexually aggressive wife of his boss out on a date places Travolta’s character is a precarious situation. There is much chemistry between the two and much of what ends up happening after the two return home after their evening on the town fuels the remainder of the movie’s plot; especially for Travolta’s character.
All three story arcs resolve themselves at the end of the movie. Part of the fun with Pulp Fiction was re-watching the movie and figuring out how seamlessly all of the interconnected parts fit together even if you didn’t realize it the first time around. Critics have hailed Pulp Fiction as being Tarentino’s masterpiece and one of the best films of the last half century. I don’t disagree. There is a lot of good acting, good writing and excellent story structure going on in this movie. One of the things that ties it all together is the music so let’s take a closer look at that.
When we talk about the way Quentin Tarentino uses music in his films, it is instructive to make a quick comparison to another famous, successful film that was released around the same time…Forrest Gump. Like Pulp Fiction,Forrest Gump is a period piece, meaning that it is set in a certain time period, with the music, costumes, set design and cultural references all being reflective of that period. Forrest Gump takes place in the 1960s in America.The soundtrack for this movie contains many recognizable hits from that time period. As such, many music critics have stated that there are no surprises in the soundtrack. Everything is as expected. For some, that is a strength. For others, they tale the view of only playing the popular, safe songs is a bit of a musical cliche. Tarentino has never been one to settle for cliched responses when more interesting choices exist. So, in all of his movies, he has developed a pattern of choosing music that the cool kids would have listened to; some of it well known and some of it more of an underground variety. His musical choices end up giving his films a cultural cache that other directors just can’t match. So, here are a selection of songs from the soundtrack of the movie, Pulp Fiction. In each case, I will briefly talk about the original artist who recorded the song and then I will talk about the scene in the movie in which the song was played and why Tarentino opted to do what he did by pairing that song with that particular scene. Buckle up! Here we go!
Neil Diamond wrote this song as a very young man. It was placed on his second album. Diamond says that he wrote this song specifically for the girls that he noticed were starting to come to his shows. He may have been just a young man at the time but Diamond already recognized that his music held a certain power over impressional young girls…a power that he was happy to exploit. This song was one of his early hits that helped establish him as a major player on the music scene in America.
In the movie, this song plays as Travolta and Thurman have returned home from their night on the town. While Travolta is in the bathroom trying to buy some time so he can figure out how to make a graceful exit without offending his boss’ wife, she is dancing to this song in her living room while wearing Travolta’s coat. Wearing a guy’s coat/shirt is usually a turn-on so we all know where this scene is headed…until Thurman starts fishing around in the coat pocket and makes a discovery that changes the entire course of the rest of the movie.
Tarentino has taken a song written by a guy who has all of the power and is using it to attract women and uses it to switch positions and make clear that it is Thurman who is calling the shots in this sexually-charged situation. In writing class, newbie writers are always instructed to create scenes by showing and not telling all of the details. In this scene, Tarentino uses music to do the talking and establish the parameters for each character without either of them having to actually say what they are thinking out loud.
*(You can watch the scene by clicking on the link found in the song title above).
“Let’s Stay Together” comes from the album of the same name. It was Al Green’s biggest selling single of his career and has come to define much of who he was as a person and as a performer. It is a classic, beautiful song that describes the importance of standing by one another through good times and bad. It is a life message that has helped many a couple over the years.
In the movie, this song plays in its’ entirety in the background of one of the first scenes in the movie. It is the scene in which the crime boss (Rhames) is meeting with Willis’ character and instructing him to throw his upcoming match. For most of the scene, we only see Willis as he listens silently to Rhames telling him how it is going to go. The power dynamic is clear. Rhames does all of the talking and Willis meeking accepts Rhames’ decision. It is also clear that neither man really likes or respects the other. But, for Willis, it is what it is and he feels as if he has no choice in the matter which, by extension, also describes how he views his life as a whole at that moment in time.
Tarentino uses this song as a bit of foreshadowing. As this scene plays out we, the audience, have no idea how inextricably linked both characters will become over the course of the film. Like the song says, they will have good times and bad and, for better or worse, will end up together in a way neither man could have foreseen in this initial scene. For me, this scene really captures the essence of why Pulp Fiction is such an epic movie. At first blush, this scene seems fairly straightforward but, once the movie is over and we all know what happened, to watch this scene again with wiser eyes is a revelation. There is actually so much going on here that you don’t notice at first but upon further review, the attention to detail is simply incredible!
This song was Chuck Berry’s last hit in the 1960s. He wrote it after completing time in jail for violating The Mann Act. This law was passed to deal with the problem of human trafficking and essentially made it illegal to take minors across state lines without permission from the child’s parents. In Berry’s case, I do not know if sexual liberties were in play or if he was targetted because he was a black man and/or a celebrity but, he was charged with taking a fourteen year old Mexican girl from Mexico and placing her to work in a night club in St. Louis, where he was from. Many of Berry’s songs prior to his incarceration had sexual elements to them but, after being released, his first song…”You Can Never Tell”…is a wholesome song about a couple finding true love and making their relationship work.
In the movie, this song is used during a classic scene that shows Tarentino’s love for nostalgia. It is the famous Jack Rabbit Slims’ dance contest scene with Thurman and Travolta early on in their date night experience. Tarentino uses this scene to pay homage to the 1960s and 70s. Jack Rabbit Slims is a diner that specializes in recreating the world of the 1960/70s. The host of the dance contest is a man playing Ed Sullivan. The dance contest trophy will be presented by someone playing Marilyn Monroe. When “Sullivan” calls for dance contestants, Thurman enthusiastically volunteers. When Travolta politely declines, Thurman reminds him, in no uncertain terms, that he is to do her bidding because of who her husband is. The power dynamic is set in stone. When they danced, they were supposed to be dancing the Twist. While it starts out that way, the duo end up dancing in almost a dozen different, easily recognizable styles that serve as a real tip of the hat to the era of the 1960s, as well as solidifying the unspoken chemistry that the couple possesses. By the end of the dance, it is plain to see that, as the song states, you never can tell when the right one will come along.
I have profiled this song in a previous post which you can read here.
Dick Dale was one of the originators of the “Surf Sound” of the 1960s. He was a pioneering guitar player and remains to this day as one of the most influential musicians of his era.
In the movie, Quentin Tarentino uses this song over the opening credits. It is an instrumental number but it immediately helps create an association for the viewer that this movie is taking place in the 1960s in a time where pulp fiction magazines and dime store detective novels were a thing. “Misirlou” is one of those classic Tarentino song choices because it is something that insiders know well and Tarentino is nothing if not a cultural touchstone geek.
This is our final song choice of this post. For a while in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, there were many people who felt that British singer Dusty Springfield was set to become the next big thing. But, while she had a huge hit with “Son Of A Preacher Man”, Springfield never really reached the lofty heights in America that many felt were waiting for her. Thus, she stands as one of those under-the-radar cool choices that Tarentino loves to make. Dusty Springfield had a soulful sound to her voice. This song was a bit of a controversial choice during the day because of the subject matter which describes a young girl falling in love with the son of a preacher. At the time, religious leaders were not often mentioned as being the source of sexual attraction but this song does that, albeit with the preacher’s son. Just the same, there was a bit of a forbidden-fruit element to “Son Of A Preacher Man” when it first aired.
Tarentino uses this song again with Travolta and Thurman. It plays as Travolta first shows up at his boss’ house to pick up his wife for their date. The song plays as Thurman watches Travolta via security cameras. She speaks to him via an intercom. It is clear, once again, that Thurman is controlling the situation. The song also helps establish the dangerous tightrope that Travolta is being forced to walk as he goes through with this date.
Overall, the way in which Quentin Tarentino uses music to add layers of meaning to the stories he is telling on screen has become one of his defining characteristics. He is one of my favourite directors. I like so many of his movies such as Reservoir Dogs, Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and From Dusk Till Dawn, just to name a few. He is such a great writer and creator of scenes. But, as much as I admire him for his writing skills, I also love the way he uses music to make his stories better. Hopefully you feel likewise. If you have a favourite Tarentino scene or movie please feel free to let me know in the comments below. Thanks for reading my words. Have a great day.
The link to the trailer to the movie, Pulp Fiction can be found here.
The link to the official website for Neil Diamond can be found here.
The link to the official website for Urge Overkill can be found here.
The link to the official website for Al Green can be found here.
The link to the official website for Chuck Berry can be found here.
The link to the official website for Dusty Springfield can be found here.
These are the stories behind the most memorable songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.
The movie, Philadelphia, was released in the early 1990s. It starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington as the two main characters. The soundtrack to the movie contained original work by the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. That so many heavy hitters from their respective industries were involved in this movie project speaks to the larger intent behind which the movie was made in the first place. Director Jonathan Demme wanted to make a movie that would take a ground-level look at the AIDS crisis in America. Demme knew that the story of a Gay man dying of AIDS would be a tough sell for certain segments of the population so he enlisted people to support his project such as Springsteen, Washington, Young and Hanks who, he felt, would be a big enough draw based on name recognition alone to reach as broad an audience with his message as possible. That message included important information about how AIDS was actually transmitted and how much homophobia came into play in further exacerbating this painful life experience for so many Americans. Philadelphia went on to be nominated for several Academy Awards including wins for Best Actor for Hanks and Best Song for Springsteen.
The plot of Philadelphia unfolds just as the AIDS epidemic had begun to play out in America. In the 1980s, AIDS was sweeping through the US. It was a disease that was considered by some as God’s punishment against homosexuals because, for the most part, those who were contracting AIDS were Gay men. As such, in addition to the fear of an unknown disease that many Americans faced, there was the added element of homophobia that was thrown into the mix. The result of this was that those who contracted AIDS suffered physically, as the disease ravaged their bodies but, as well, they suffered emotionally and mentally due to a campaign of ostracization that took place all across the US. For many AIDS patients, during a time in their lives when they were most in need of compassion and companionship, many found themselves the object of panic and disgust. In the end, many AIDS patients died alone and lonely.
In the movie, Tom Hanks played a young Gay lawyer who contracts AIDS. All throughout this career at the law firm he was working at, he hid his sexual orientation from his employers and colleagues. Then, one day a lesion appears on his forehead. A colleague accuses Hanks of having AIDS because he associated the one lesion with the disease. Not long after this incident at work, Hanks is fired for “incompetence”. Hanks believes he was fired because of his sexual orientation and because of AIDS so he decides to sue the law firm for wrongful dismissal. As Hanks begins assembling his court case, we begin to see some of the obstacles that AIDS patients faced at the time. For starters, no lawyer is willing to take on his case because they are all afraid of catching AIDS just by being with him. Hanks eventually asks Denzel Washington’s character, a fellow lawyer, for help. Washington refuses because he is fearful of getting too close. But then, a few days later, Washington sees Hanks in a law library as he attempts to conduct some research into his case. Washington watches as those around Hanks all move away from him and how Hanks is urged to work in an isolated room, away from public view. Denzel Washington’s character recognizes discrimination at play because he, himself, had experienced it as a black man in America. So, Denzel Washington agrees to represent Hanks in his suit. Needless to say, the journey of discovery that Denzel Washington takes as he learns about how AIDS is actually transmitted is the journey of discovery that Director Jonathan Demme was hoping all of America would take. In the end, Washington and Hanks become close friends and we all get to see the humanity at play as Tom Hanks progresses through the various stages of this terrible disease. Humanizing Aids sufferers, helping to destigmatize those who contracted AIDS, as well as homosexuality, in general were all part of why Philadelphia was made in the first place.
The soundtrack to this movie is stellar. In addition to the songs written by Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, there is music from Peter Gabriel, Sade, Indigo Girls, Maria Callas and even one hit wonders, The Spin Doctors! As with most movies, the music involved adds another layer of meaning to the story. In the specific case of the Bruce Springtsteen song, “The Streets of Philadelphia”, the story is that Demme asked Springsteen to contribute a song that would act as the opening of the film. At first, Springsteen was reluctant to do so because he had not had much experience scoring films but he agreed to at least give it a try. Springsteen’s version of a try was the song, “The Streets of Philadelphia”. In this song, Springsteen casts himself in the role of the AIDS sufferer. He describes the effects of AIDS on his body…how his clothes don’t fit him anymore because he is losing weight, how his appearance is changing and, as a result, is making him “unrecognizable to himself” but mostly, Springsteen describes how alone he feels as the rest of society distances itself from him in his hour of greatest need. Demme is on record as saying that when Springsteen submitted his “rough draft” of the song, he and his wife listened to it and cried. That rough draft was kept and is the track that was recorded and put onto the film’s soundtrack album. Not only did Bruce Springsteen win the Academy Award for Best Song but, “The Streets of Philadelphia” also won four Grammy Awards for Springsteen, too.
If you have seen Philadelphia then you know that it is a movie that is not easy to watch all of the way through. But, sometimes it is important for the general public to be asked to keep watching and to not turn away. As unpleasant as the death process can be and as ugly as racism and homophobia can also be, if we are ever to become a more empathetic and tolerant society then, watching movies such as Philadelphia is a must. There are many who point to Philadelphia as a turning point in the public battle against AIDS. After watching such respected actors as Hanks and Washington on screen and listening to such respected musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, the tone of the public discourse surrounding AIDS changed for the better. AIDS victims were less isolated and feared, it became easier to raise much needed funds for research and it suddenly became a badge of honour to participate in AIDS marches and to wear “ribbons” of support while in public. But, as we know, there are diseases of the medical kind and diseases of the spiritual kind and the battle remains ongoing. Sometimes, the most important direct action we can take is to be brave and not look away.
The link to the video for the song, “The Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Philadelphia” by Neil Young can be found here.
***This song plays over the closing scene in the movie which is the wake of Tom Hanks’ character. For my money, this is one of the best closing scenes of any movie. I always bawl whenever I watch it. It is devastating!Neil Young’s haunting song is perfect.
The link to the video for the trailer to the movie, Philadelphia can be found here.
For more information about ongoing efforts to cure Aids in Canada, the link to the official website for Canadian AIDS Society can be found here.
The stories behind the most memorable songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.
In 1900, Frank Baum published a children’s novel entitled, The Wizard of Oz. In the century and a bit that has followed, The Wizard of Oz has gone on to become one of the most highly regarded and bestselling children’s novels of all time. By now, the characters are all fairly familiar with Dorothy and her dog, Toto arriving in Oz because of a tornado only to encounter munchkins, a scarecrow, a cowardly lion and a tin man, along with several witches and the Wizard of Oz, himself. The ruby red slippers that Dorothy finds and that the Wicked Witch of the West covets have taken their places among the most iconic movie props in Hollywood history. When Frank Baum published his book, his story was built upon a foundation of advice for children. This advice centered upon such fundamental things as always believing in yourself and staying true to your friends. But, as time has progressed, The Wizard of Oz book came to symbolize something else…something more grown up in nature. In time, adults came to realize that Frank Baum was also making a political statement with his book. That statement had to do with the nature of politics and of governing and how, as citizens, you shouldn’t always believe what you are being told by your leaders because what you are being told is not always the truth. The Wizard of Oz became a bestselling book. Then, it became an award-winning movie starring Judy Garland as Dorothy. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the story of Oz became a musical. This post is about that musical, which came to be called Wicked and how the appearance of truth can be deceptive, as Frank Baum had postulated over a century ago.
The musical, Wicked, is based upon a 1995 book by author Gregory Maguire called, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. In his book, Maguire tells the familiar Oz story from the perspective of Elphaba (the real name of the Wicked Witch of the West). Maguire’s ability to present the story from the point of view of one of literature’s most famous villains is an important one because it allows us to understand the need for critical thinking with regard to our history and the stories about our lives that we all believe to be true. One of the great truisms regarding our civilization is that its history is written by the victors. A simple example of this in Canada is how, for so many high school students, Canadian history has come to be stories of how people like Champlain and Cartier sailed across the ocean from Europe and conquered the land now known as Canada. Not much is ever said about the perspective of the Indigenous Peoples of this land who would, not surprisingly, take a much different and dimmer view of Champlain and these other explorers and colonizers. So, it has come to be accepted that those in power get to create the narrative by which we view ourselves and those around us who share our stories. Believe me when I tell you that there are whole libraries filled with books about the impact of our cultural stories on the lives of marginalized groups in our society. For the sake of a specific example, I present the story of Wicked.
Wicked’s storyline begins before the arrival of Dorothy and Toto in the Land of Oz. It starts out with the story of a woman who has an affair during which she gleefully drinks a green elixir. Out of this romantic tryst a baby girl is born. However, she was born with green skin. Needless to say, the colour of her skin has a big impact on how she is viewed by others and how she comes to view herself. The baby girl is named Elphaba. As she grows up, she comes in contact with another girl named Galinda. Galinda is everything that Elphaba feels she is not: she is cute, she is socially popular and all of the adults seem to dote upon her. As Elphaba and Galinda grow up together, the world of politics enters their lives in the form of an organized campaign to cage and imprison animals. In the Land of Oz, many animals are endowed with human-like qualities. In Wicked, one of Elphaba’s favourite professors is a goat who, one day, informs the class that his time as their teacher is drawing to a close because of new laws being passed against animals who can speak aloud. Not long after hearing this news, Elphaba’s teacher is replaced. This new teacher starts her first lesson by parading a caged lion cub in front of the class. The lesson being given is all about power and superiority but, to Elphaba, what she sees horrifies her. In her anger, she discovers that she has the ability to cast a spell. In doing so, she is able to put everyone in her class to sleep while she frees the lion cub. But, by doing so, Elphaba comes to the attention of the headmistress of her school who agrees to instruct her in the art of sorcery. Not long after, Elphaba asks that Galinda also be given the same lessons. Elphaba does this in the hope that she and Galinda can become true friends. Galinda agrees but does not view Elphaba with gratitude. Instead, as a “thank you”, she gifts Elphaba with a pointy black hat for her to wear at a party they are all going to. When Elphaba shows up wearing her stylish new hat, she finds herself mocked and ridiculed…which is the first step toward creating her identity as a black-hatted wicked witch. In time, the headmistress tells Elphaba that she believes in her and thinks she is ready to take her concerns about animal rights to the great Wizard of Oz, himself. Elphaba is thrilled and nervous, at the same time. Upon arrival in the Wizard’s palace, Elphaba and Galinda (who has accompanied her) discover what we all know about the Wizard of Oz and that he is just a puffed up phony with no real magical powers nor legal authority. This disillusionment causes Elphaba and Galinda both to see their world differently. Elphaba dedicates herself to opposing the Wizard’s regime and becoming someone who refuses to “play by the rules” that govern her and society. Thus, she becomes a rebel.
At this stage in the musical, Idina Menzel (who played Elphaba) and Kristin Chenoweth (who plays Galinda) sing the song, “Defying Gravity”. This song is designed to be a show-stopper and is packed with many moments in which Menzel, in particular, gets to show off her vocal range. The song depicts a pivotal moment in the lives of both characters. In it, Elphaba declares herself a free person and promises to go out into the world on her own terms. She offers a seat on her broom to her “friend” Galinda but Galinda turns her down and allows Elphaba to defy gravity and fly away. This song ends Act #1. As Act #2 unfolds, we see that Glinda, the Good Witch, as she is now called, has become the public face of those in charge of the Land of Oz. Meanwhile, Elphaba has fled to the west to Munchkinland and is being called The Wicked Witch of the West by those in charge. There are love stories interwoven within this storyline and other plot developments, too. But, everything else that happens in Act #2 leads us to the climax of the story. Because you know the book, you know what happens in the end. Wicked does not alter the ending. But now, because the story of Oz has been told from a different perspective, we are left to wonder if the death of Elphaba is actually the cause for celebration that it has always been portrayed. Wicked asks us, as an audience, to revisit our preconceived ideas about what we believe to be true and re-examine if, in fact, the truth is real. Wicked leads us to question whether Elphaba was actually ever really wicked in the first place and whether her characterization as such was simply a political move by those in power to cause public opinion to sway against someone that they may have viewed as a threat. Conversely, was Glinda the Good Witch actually the good person she was always portrayed as being?
When I was still a teacher, I often led the children through a unit on Fairy Tales. I always found Fairy Tales to be a great way to introduce the elements of story writing to young children. Most Fairy Tales have well-defined beginnings, middles and ends. Most Fairy Tales have well-defined “good” and “evil” characters, too. However, a great thing used to happen as this unit moved along. As we made lists of the various characters who populated these stories, we would divide them up into charts of “good” and “evil” characters. At that point, I would help the kids describe the character traits that helped to make a character “good” or “evil”. If I did my job properly, at some point during this discussion, the kids would realize that most fairy tales are sexist as all get out. Almost all of the heroic characters are Princes and Kings. Almost all the helpless characters in need of being saved are beautiful females. Almost all of the truly nasty characters are strong women. Again, if I played my cards correctly, without having to say anything myself, one of the girls in the class would raise her hand and say, “Hey! Wait a minute!” because she was seeing these stories for what they were for the first time in her life. Because I took the kids through this unit, I always went out of my way to have books in the classroom in which some of the heroes were female (such as Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch or even Hansel and Gretel) or were Black-skinned or that had male characters in non-masculine roles and so on. Unfortunately, our world is far more complex and nuanced than many wish for it to be. But, our discomfort at having our life stories revealed to be false is no reason not to become critical thinkers. Whether it is school curriculum or the leadlines in our local newspapers, on TV or online, it behooves us to question what we are being told by those in positions of authority. As Frank Baum stated over a century ago, be a good friend to others, believe in the strength of your own character and always be willing to pull back the curtain on those in power. That’s what the Wizard of Oz was about. That’s what the musical, Wicked is about. Like it or not, that is what life is about, too.
The link to the video for the song, “Defying Gravity” from the musical, Wicked can be found here.
The link to the official website for the musical, Wicked can be found here.
The stories behind the greatest songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.
Juno is a terrific movie. However, you needn’t take my word for that. Juno was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture (it lost to No Country For Old Men …no shame in that), Best Actress (*Elliot Page), Best Writing and Best Original Screenplay (which it won). The movie ended up in the Top Ten year end lists of over forty different magazines and entertainment websites for 2007. The soundtrack for Juno went to #1, making it the first movie soundtrack to do that since the soundtrack to the film Dreamgirls made it all the way to the top a few years earlier. Yet, despite all of the accolades and accomplishments that Juno has earned along the way there is still the very clear sense that Juno is somewhat of an under-rated movie. If you get that sense as well, then that would make the producers and stars of Juno happy because making a movie with big ideals that played like a small budget Indie flick was exactly what they were going for. Here is the story of how they did it and why the song “Anyone Else But You” by Kimya Dawson is the perfect symbol for Juno’s success.
Juno was directed by Canadian Jason Reitman. It starred Canadian actors Elliott Page and Michael Cera. The movie was filmed on location in Vancouver. For all intents and purposes, Juno is a Canadian movie. Not surprisingly, Juno looks like a Canadian movie. If you have watched any number of Canadian movies such as The Sweet Hereafter starring Sarah Polley, Margaret’s Museum starring Helena Bonham Carter or The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz starring Richard Dreyfuss you will know that it is fair to say that Canadian movies have a well-earned reputation for focussing on character and language and nuance, rather than big time special effects and flashy cinematography. Juno maintains that tradition very well. It is all about the tremendous acting performances of its cast (that also included Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Allison Janney and J. K. Simmons) and the razor-sharp writing of award-winning playwright Diablo Cody. Juno is a movie lover’s movie and to this day is lauded for the warmth of its storyline and the realistic “feel” of the emotions at play throughout the story.
The plot of Juno is fairly simple. It involves two teens that may or may not be in a relationship having a sexual encounter that results in an unplanned pregnancy. The whole movie pivots upon Page’s character and how the issue of being pregnant in high school is dealt with. One of the things about Juno that resonates highly with most viewers is how down-to-earth the characters all seem to be and how realistically the plot unfolds. Without giving away the ending of the movie, the most important part of the story is that Page’s character is the one who gathers all of the necessary information needed to make a big personal decision and is supported all the way by those surrounding him. It is Page’s character who, in the end, decides to keep the baby and raise it as his own/have the baby and put it up for adoption/have an abortion….you’ll have to watch the movie to see which of those choices is the one Page went with. But, the point is that the person who is pregnant gets to call the shots. All throughout the movie, it is made to seem normal that the pregnant person would be the one in charge of all aspects of this experience. To some viewers, that this is the case plays as something revolutionary in terms of feminist characters on screen. However, in Juno, there are no grand speeches from any soapboxes or pulpits. In the end, it all seems like a very real situation being handled by very real, flawed, ordinary everyday people who each have the others’ best interests at heart.
One of the ways that director Jason Reitman managed to create such a mood was through the judicious use of music. While several big name artists appear on the Juno soundtrack, such as The Kinks and Sonic Youth, the main contributor to the soundtrack is a person named Kimya Dawson. Dawson is one half of a musical duo called The Moldy Peaches. The Moldy Peaches are now defunct, but, in the early 2000s, they had carved quite a reputation for themselves as an anti-Folk Folk duo. Much of the acclaim heaped upon The Moldy Peaches in Indie circles was the result of Dawson’s quirky singing style. To say that Kimya Dawson is an unpolished singer is not an insult. In fact, it had become The Moldy Peaches’ calling card. So, when Jason Reitman was searching for the right musical tone for his simple, small movie, he thought of Dawson. Kimya Dawson submitted over 200 songs for Reitman’s consideration. Reitman picked almost a half dozen. Of those songs, the one entitled “Anyone Else But You” is the one that really sets the tone for the film. There are two versions of “Anyone Else But You”…one that Dawson sings in her typical awkward manner and one that appears in the movie with Page and Cera singing to each other. The version with Cera and Page was released as a single from the soundtrack and made it into the Top Ten, selling several million copies along the way. Kimya Dawson’s version garnered lots of attention by association and has gone on to be her best selling single by far. Overall, the song is quirky and humble and simple and filled with meaning because it seems to come straight from the heart…just like the storyline to Juno does, as well.
Below, I will give you links to both versions of “Anyone Else But You” so that you can enjoy both ways the song is presented. I will also give you a link to the movie trailer. If you have not watched Juno, then I suggest watching the trailer first in order to give you a sense of why the song works so well. Furthermore, if you haven’t watched Juno yet then consider this post your invitation to do so. It is a sweet, sweet movie that possesses some of the best writing and acting you are ever going to see. I highly recommend it! If you have seen the movie, then by all means, share your opinion of it in the comment box below. I look forward to reading what you have to say.
The link to the video for the movie trailer for the film “Juno” can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Anyone Else But You” as used in the film “Juno” can be found here.
The link to the video for the song, “Anyone Else But You” by Kimya Dawson can be found here. ***The lyric version of the song can be found here.
The stories behind the world’s greatest classical compositions…Composition 12/50.
***Editor’s Note: most classical works are fine to stand on their own when it comes to the telling of the story of how that piece of music came to be. But, today’s work is one whose story cannot be told without also discussing the cultural impact that it had as the centrepiece of a famous Hollywood movie. So, for the first time since I started creating the posts for the Keepin’ It Classy and the Stars for Stage and Screen series, we are having a crossover edition. This post will appear on the checklists for each series, as well as on the Spotify playlists for each series, too.
In the 1970s, one of the most well-respected movie directors in Hollywood was a man named Blake Edwards. Edwards won many awards for his filmmaking: most notably for the classic series of comedic films starring Peter Sellers that were known as the Pink Panther movies. Blake Edwards grew up in a household steeped in the traditions of Vaudeville and of filmmaking in the black and white silent era. Thus, many of his formative influences were people who frequented his very own home such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. When Blake Edwards began producing his own films, slapstick comedy was often a feature. Because of his success in Hollywood, Edwards was able to attract A-list actors to work on his projects. So, when it was announced in 1978 that Edwards was making a new movie starring Julie Andrews and Dudley Moore, the excitement level within the film industry was real. Everyone expected the movie to do well. In 1979 the movie was released in theatres and quickly became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon. That movie was called “10”. The cultural phenomenon came in the form of an unknown actress and model named Bo Derek. This is the story of why Bo Derek was always more than just a pretty face.
The plot of “10” is fairly straightforward on the surface. It involves Dudley Moore and Julie Andrews being a couple who have reached middle age together. Dudley Moore is starting to tire of the love life he and Andrews share, and as a result his eyes begin to roam. For the most part, this involves using a telescope to spy on his neighbours as they enjoy their own intimate acts. However, one day while driving his car, Moore finds himself at a red light. As he glances over into the car beside him at the light, he sees that in the back seat sits a bride on her way to her wedding. The first time Moore sees the bride’s face is the first time we, as an audience, meet Bo Derek. Blake Edwards deliberately cast a complete unknown in the role because he wanted the reaction of the audience when seeing her face in that car to be pure and unsullied by any previous baggage she may have carried over from other roles in other movies. So, we see what Moore sees as he sees it. What Dudley saw was a flawlessly beautiful female face. Bo Derek was truly beautiful. In the movie, seeing her took Moore’s breath away. She became a fantasy that he just had to have become real. In pursuit of finding her, much physical comedy ensues. When Moore finally winds up next to her on a couch in her home, he is very quick to realize that the predator has become the prey and she has all of the power in this situation. He suddenly feels weak and inadequate. This is brought home when it is revealed by Derek’s character that she and her new husband have “an understanding” and that she is free to indulge her own fantasies whenever the opportunity arises. Then Derek asks him if he has ever “done it” to Ravel’s Bolero? Moore responds with an terrified gulp.
After “10” was released, there was some debate as to whether or not the movie made a feminist statement by having Bo Derek so confidently take charge and pursue her own sources of personal pleasure, or, as has so often been the case in Hollywood, was Edwards simply objectifying Derek and making a hit movie based solely upon her looks? Blake Edwards countered that he was always intent on making a movie that honoured strong women. He backed up his claim by telling reporters that his vision for making “10” came to him after learning of the story behind how Maurice Ravel came to make “Bolero”. This is that story.
Maurice Ravel was a French composer. He was most noted for being a composer of music for ballet. Ravel was always keenly interested in the relationship between sound and movement, and therefore he created his compositions with the end goal of his music accompanying some form of dance. Because of his reputation for creating ballet scores, Ravel was approached by a woman named Ida Rubenstein in the hopes that he would create an original work for her to dance to on stage. Ravel was excited for the commission because Rubenstein was a well known figure in the international world of dance in the early 1900s. Rubenstein was a Jewish woman who was born in Russia at the turn of the century. Her family was fairly wealthy, which afforded Rubenstein the opportunity to indulge her artistic fantasies. So, she decided to become a ballerina. The unfortunate thing was that Rubenstein was never professionally trained. So, when she appeared on stage in Russia and attempted to dance in productions her lack of training exposed her as an amateur, and she became the subject of mockery in the dance world. However, Rubenstein was never one to shrink away from challenges. If she couldn’t dance in ballet productions with the premier ballet companies, then she would create her own ballets and write roles suited for her talents. Thus, Rubenstein became a player in the world of staging original ballets. But, more than that, Ida Rubenstein balked at being told that female roles had to conform to social expectations and that, as a result, she should only dance in demure roles. Because she controlled her own means of production, Rubenstein created roles for herself that often involved nudity and/or sexually-suggestive scenes. Her willingness to pose nude in public caused a scandal during the early 1900s. So, when she approached Ravel to commission some music for her latest ballet, Ravel was very aware of who Rubenstein was and the type of movement-inducing music that would please his new client.
“Bolero” is a term that is used to describe a form of couples dance that originated in Spain and Portugal. In many ways, it is a distant relative of flamenco dancing. The main difference is that bolero-style dancing is done at a much slower and more sensuous rate. Ravel’s “Bolero” composition is unique among works judged as being among the best of its genre because it is limited to only one movement. As we have seen in other posts in the Keepin’ It Classy series, most classical compositions are composed of between three to five movements. In classical music, a musical movement serves a purpose in the storytelling arc created by the composer depending on where it is placed in the overall structure of the composition. It is very rare for any classical work to have only one movement, especially one movement that comprises a fifteen-minute work. But, that is what Ravel created and presented to Rubenstein, who, in turn, loved it! The reason that Ravel’s “Bolero” was a perfect match for Rubenstein’s erotic style of performing is that the composition is built in a way that simulates love making…to put it bluntly. There are many who compare “Bolero” to the rock n’ roll classic “Stairway To Heaven”. In both cases, the songs are said to be structured so as to simulate sexual intercourse. They both start slowly and repeat themselves over and over, slowly building in intensity until climaxing in a crescendo of sound near the end, at which time, a slow, relaxed coda closes out each song. For Rubenstein, she knew exactly what Ravel had created and was happy to apply her brand of sensuality on stage. The end result of all of this is that Ravel’s “Bolero” gained a reputation as being the “sexiest” classical composition of all time.
Which brings us back to producer Blake Edwards. He was well aware of the background story behind “Bolero” and worked to create a fictional storyline around it. He always knew that he wanted someone in his movie who would be able to possess the irresistible beauty and sexual confidence of an Ida Rubenstein. That woman turned out to be Bo Derek. Until the end of his life, Blake Edwards always maintained that Bo Derek’s character was the strongest female role he ever created in any film he produced. As for composer Maurice Ravel, he completed “Bolero” in the 1920s and as part of his sales agreement with Ida Rubenstein was able to retain a composer’s credit on his work. Copyright laws had become standard policy by those days for composers. Consequently, when Blake Edwards licensed “Bolero” for his movie, “10”, he did so with a piece of music not yet in the public domain. As is true of almost all movies which are built upon a musical foundation, the soundtrack to the movie “10” sold millions of copies which, in turn earned millions of dollars for Maurice Ravel’s estate…a windfall his heirs continue to enjoy to this very day.
The link to the video of a live performance of “Bolero” by Maurice Ravel can be found here.
The link to the official movie trailer for the film “10” can be found here.
The link to the official website for my hometown classical music radio station, Classical 103.1, can be found here.
The stories behind the greatest songs from Hollywood movies and Broadway musicals.
For over 800 years, The Kingdom of Siam sat alone at the head of The Gulf of Thailand, located between the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea in Asia. The citizens of Siam lived under a form of rule known as Dynastic rule. This meant that the King of Siam and all successors came from the same family line. A King ruled with absolute authority, setting laws by royal proclamation. A King ruled until death, at which time his eldest son would automatically assume the throne and all the authority that came with it. It was all very well organized and all very patriarchal.
One of Siam’s proudest claims to fame was that they could boast of being the only Asiatic country never to have been occupied by colonizing forces. The British Empire was well entrenched in neighbouring India, with the French occupying Vietnam and Cambodia on Siam’s eastren flank. In the middle of it all sat Siam. Because of its geographic position amid all of these colonized nations, Siam often found itself at the centre of international political intrigue as nations (particularly England, France and China) threatened and cajoled Siam in equal measure, attempting to gain access into the region. It was against this historical backdrop that the musical The King and I was based.
The King and I was a Broadway musical written by the famed duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The musical debuted on Broadway in 1951…a mere six years after the end of WWII. As you may know, World War II concluded with the surrender of Japan after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In those pre-Internet days, many North Americans knew little about the countries that constituted the Asian continent. But, because of the War being fresh in the minds of everyone, interest in Asian culture grew, and therefore many movies were produced and books written about Asia. Some of them were based upon fact but many were not. Into this environment strode Rogers and Hammerstein with their musical The King and I, which was, as they declared, inspired by real events.
The real events that Rodgers and Hammerstein referred to were contained in a novel called Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which, in turn, was inspired by the memoirs of a woman named Anna Leonowens, who was an English governess brought into Siam by King Mongkut in the 1860s. As mentioned earlier, in the real world, Siam found itself pitted against rival nations, all of whom wished to exert their influence over the region. King Mongkut was a pragmatic ruler. He understood that a political balancing act was necessary in order for Siam to retain its sense of independence as a Kingdom. So, one of the decrees he issued was that members of the Royal Court, along with every government official, had to be fluent in English. The reason for this was that English was the accepted language of international trade. King Mongkut speculated that one of the ways he could keep foreign powers at bay was through a series of competing trade agreements that, at their core, mandated Siam be in control of their own affairs, resources, ports of entry and so on. As part of the King’s decree, teachers of English became in high demand. Anna Leonowens was one of those teachers who came to Siam at the behest of the King. Her memoirs were one of the world’s first peeks inside of the secretive Kingdom. One of the shocking things that her memoirs revealed was that the King of Siam practised polygamy. The truth of Anna Leonowens job was that she was to instruct King Mongkut’s 82(!) children in English language studies. As it turned out, King Mongkut had numerous “wives” who, in reality, were young women given to the King as “gifts” in exchange for favourable rulings or as payments for debts that had been incurred. This form of sexual slavery left a bitter taste in the mouth of Anna Leonowens. One of those inspired to turn her memoirs into a story was Margaret Landon who wrote her novel Anna and the King of Siam, upon which Rodgers and Hammerstein based much of the story that forms their musical, The King and I. The whole aspect of polygamy and slavery came to form the critical dramatic core of the musical and is what today’s song choices are all about.
The main characters of The King and I were the King, played by Yul Brynner (in a role that earned him a Tony Award for Best Actor, as well as an Oscar for Best Actor when the musical was made into a Hollywood movie a few years later) and Anna, the governess, played by an actress named Gertrude Lawrence. While these roles provided the dramatic structure to the play, as a whole, it was the introduction of two lesser characters that gave this play its heart. Tuptim is a beautiful young Asian woman who arrived at the Royal Court as a “gift” for the King, just as Anna arrived as a teacher. Tuptim becomes one of the King’s many wives and, as such, falls under the terms of the decree that says she must learn to speak English. This brings Tuptim and Anna together. While Anna is teaching Tuptim and the others, she notices that a young man named Lun Tha has taken a shine to Tuptim and has fallen in love with her. Needless to say, seeking to start a romantic relationship with a wife of the King is not usually a wise decision. But Anna, who has taken a strong stand with the King against the practice of having concubines, decides to stay silent when it comes to the budding romance between Tuptim and Lun Tha, and so she becomes a willing co-conspirator. The song “We Kiss In a Shadow” is sung between Tuptim and Lun Tha as they acknowledge the futility of their forbidden love.
Anna decides to take a more proactive stance against the King’s policy when a political opportunity arises. Word of the King’s harem has leaked out beyond the borders of Siam and is being used by the English as, perhaps, providing them with cause to invade the country and take it over in order to end this “barbaric” practice and restore decency to the country. An English government representative is set to arrive to “inspect” the Kingdom for traces of indecency. The King seeks advice from Anna as to how best to put on a proper public welcome for this English official. Anna gives advice that includes hosting a banquet that serves English food, and, for entertainment, puts on a play based upon a book she has loaned to Tuptim who, in turn, has created an English language play that will be performed. The book Anna has given to Tuptim is a real book about slavery called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. The King is unfamiliar with the book but is delighted with the idea of showcasing his wives speaking proper English to this official, so he agrees to Anna’s idea. All the while, Lun Tha and Tuptim have agreed to use the play as a diversion that will provide them with the chance to escape together and live out the life they have been dreaming of ever since they first met. It is while making these plans that they sing “I Have Dreamed” to each other.
So, the official shows up. The banquet is held. The play proceeds, and, as it does, the King realizes what the play is about and rages against the public humiliation he has had to endure. Just as he calls for Tuptim’s head, he is informed that she and Lun Tha are missing. At this moment, their plan becomes clear to the King, as does Anna’s role in helping bring it to fruition. If you have not seen the musical nor the movie, I will spare you the details as to what happens next. However, I will say that the musical ends with the King on his deathbed. As his heart beats for the final time, he asks for Anna to be brought to him so that he can seek forgiveness from her for how he has acted and for the decisions/laws he had made that angered her so much along the way. As they meet for the last time, the song “Something Wonderful” plays in the background. This song first appears in act 1 and is sung by the King’s “head wife”, who sings it to Anna as she tries to justify the King’s polygamy laws by saying that, in his heart, he actually was a good man. The use of this song as the play closes speaks to the nature of history and how often it is re-written to suit a particular narrative which is, after all, what The King and I is really about.
In the real world upon which this musical is based, when King Mongkut lay on his deathbed seeking absolution, one of the promises he made was to issue a final decree. That decree was that as his son’s first act as the new king, he would end the policy of “Kowtowing”, or blind obedience, that had guided the politics of Siam for centuries. While this may have brought King Mongkut a certain amount of emotional relief, his act opened the door just enough to empower those who held politically opposing views. As a result, the last century has seen Siam fall victim to coup after coup. Eventually, after one military coup, the new leader decreed that Siam was to be no more, and from that day forth, the region has been called Thailand, which, quite literally, means the land of the Thai. The Thai people form a majority of the population as far as ethnicity goes. Whereas Siam recognized all ethnic groups under the rule of a dynastic king, the new military government officially declared the majority Thai as the official ruling class, with all others falling under their thumb. As you read these words, official history books in Thailand state that the country of Thailand has always existed, going back over eight centuries. This proves one of the most basic truisms regarding the notion of history…those in power get to tell the story. As George Orwell so aptly said in his seminal book, 1984 … “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future”.
History matters, folks. But, what matters even more is viewing history with a critical eye.
The songs chosen for this post all play a critical role in advancing the moral heart of the musical. They first came to my attention way back in the 1980s…not through having watched the musical or the movie, but because I bought a CD from the Columbia House Record Club. Because of how the Columbia House Record Club worked, it was possible to buy a number of CDs at very little initial cost, and so it became a way for me to indulge myself as I moved through various phases in my musical education. I have written here before about Radiohead, Catherine Wheel and about opera, too, all being pivotal moments in my life as a music lover because of Columbia House. Therefore, it should not be surprising that I had a Broadway musical phase, too. One of the CDs I bought from Columbia House Record Club at that time was Barbra Streisand’s terrific Broadway album. On this album, Streisand sings a whole host of standards using that beautiful voice to make each song uniquely her own. With The King and I, she put together a medley of all three songs mentioned in this post. For me, I cannot hear any of these songs except in her voice. So, in the links below, I will link to her version of these songs that she sang in medley form. If you wish to view characters from the musical perform these songs, then I know YouTube has many videos for you to look at.
The link to the video for the songs “We Kiss in a Shadow/I Have Dreamed/Something Wonderful” as sung by Barbra Streisand from her Broadway album can be found here.
The link to the official website for the musical The King and I can be found here.
The Stars of Stage and Screen: The stories behind some of the best song ever to appear in Hollywood or Broadway musicals.
I was twelve years old in 1976. That was the year that I bought my first album with my own money. It was called, Have You Never Been Mellow? by an Australian singer named Olivia Newton John. On our local radio station, they were playing a song of hers called “Please Mr., Please”. To my pre-teen ears, her voice sounded angelic and sweet. In those days before the Internet became a thing, I did not know what Olivia Newton John looked like. I only knew what I heard on the radio. That changed one day when I found myself in the record aisle of our KMart department store. Sitting there waiting for me to buy it was her new album. That was the very first time I ever saw her face. I didn’t know it at the time but seeing that album cover was the start of a lifelong attraction to “faces”. Hers was perfect. I couldn’t believe how beautiful I thought she was. As I held that album in my hands, I was developing my very first celebrity crush. For twelve year old me, Olivia Newton John was certainly worth emptying my piggy bank for.
In 1977, Saturday Night Fever was released in theatres. Like many, I was captivated by the light show, the pounding disco beats and, most of all, by the dance moves being performed by John Travolta on screen. Not having grown up in the age of dance movie musicals starring the likes of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers, Saturday Night Fever was my first taste of an entire movie that was seemingly built upon a foundation of dancing. My exposure to that movie coincided with me attending my very first school dance. I was thirteen years old. I had visions of wearing the same silk suits as John Travolta and his friends all did. In truth, that first dance was a dud. Our teachers only had a limited supply of records so they played “My Eyes Adored You” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons again and again. I was too shy to ask the girl of my desires to slow dance so I spent the night standing around in a red polyester shirt and too tight pants. It was awkwardness and coolness on a collision course. But, at least I was at a dance. The music was loud. There were lights, of a sort. It was the beginning of a love affair for me with loud music in public settings.
As many of you are aware, Hollywood tends to chase its own tail when it comes to replicating success. Saturday Night Fever set box office records. The soundtrack album became one of the biggest selling albums of all time. The movie made a star out of John Travolta. So, when it came to deciding what his next starring vehicle should be, it didn’t surprise anyone that John Travolta was cast in another musical. In the late 1970s, movie musicals were the big trend in Hollywood. It was announced that the movie, Grease, would star Travolta opposite my girl, Olivia Newton John. I couldn’t have been more excited. In interviews that I saw on TV, Olivia Newton John presented as being the fresh-faced, innocent, girl-next-door type that I had always imagined her to be. I was fifteen years old when Grease premiered in theatres. It did so to positive reviews, quickly becoming one of the most popular movies of the year. Olivia Newton John was nominated for a Grammy Award for a song called “Hopelessly Devoted to You”. The soundtrack album went on to be the biggest selling live action music soundtrack in history (until topped by Les Miz several decades later). Needless to say, when the time came for me to finally watch this movie, I was pumped! Great music awaited! Superb dancing was on tap. And best of all, I was going to be able to watch my favourite celebrity on the planet on screen for an hour or two, which in those days, seemed like eternity. So, I grabbed my popcorn and my ice cold pop and settled into my seat at the Triple Cinemas in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Let the movie begin!
Grease is a musical that was originally a stage production that had its premiere in Chicago. The success it achieved on stage there, and then on Broadway, convinced producers that it would translate well on screen. The plot involved two characters (Danny/Travolta and Sandy/Newton John) who had had a summer fling and who were now, unbeknownst to each other, returning to the same high school for their senior year. The movie opened with each character discussing their summer romance with their friends. Travolta, who had adopted a more sophisticated demeanour at summer camp, returned to school as the greasy leader of a gang of guys whose only interest was in learning if Travolta had gotten “lucky” with this girl he had met. Olivia Newton John, on the other hand, clutched her school books to her chest and waxed nostalgic as she recounted to her girlfriends how dreamy her summer love had been. Obviously, the two summer lovers meet up again at school and the movie rests upon whether the two can rekindle their romance in this new setting, especially since John Travolta’s character has revealed himself to be something other than the man Olivia Newton John had fallen in love with. For the first three quarters of the movie, I watched sweet, innocent, soft-speaking Sandy wrestle with her desire for Danny against the pragmatism of her understanding that, as a greasy gang leader, Danny was not the sort of boy she thought she would find herself ending up with. I was cheering Olivia Newton John on all throughout this decision-making process, secretly urging her to drop Travolta and pick me instead! But then, the song “You’re the One That I Want” began to play and Olivia Newton John announced her decision by ditching her “nice girl” clothes and donning tight leather instead. I was crushed! As Olivia Newton John announced that she was “open for business”, so to speak, and John Travolta’s eyes bulged out of his head, my heart cratered. My sweet crush had turned into a bad girl. Audiences went wild. The song “You’re the One That I Want” went straight to #1 on the charts and ended up selling over four million copies as a single. The message couldn’t have been any clearer…sweet girls get their hearts broken but girls that “put out” were the real stars of the show.
As a boy who always preferred Mary Ann to Ginger on Gilligan’s Island, Olivia Newton John’s on screen transformation ended my celebrity crush. She capitalized on her newfound success by releasing a series of albums that all employed sexual innuendos such as, “Physical”, “Tied Up” and “Make a Move On Me”. I don’t want to say that I was a naive teenage boy but I was. Watching Grease was one of the very first moments when I started to realize how the world worked for women and how much of their value in society was linked to their sexuality. The leering nature of Travolta’s Danny character when he believes that he is going to get lucky after all has always sickened me. I wish this was not the way of the world. But, as much as I was disappointed when Olivia Newton John appeared all leather clad and ready to play, my admiration for her as a real person increased as I learned more about her own life and the causes she supported and believed in. She has become an animal rights activist and is an outspoken cancer survivor. Olivia Newton John remains a very popular figure in the entertainment world and has eased into respected elder statesperson status with much grace and aplomb. The funny part of it all for me is that she has done it all despite the misogyny of a world filled with men like John Travolta’s character, Danny Zucko, as well as a world filled with judgey types like me who freely cast opinions from the safety of our keyboards. Perhaps all the men of the world…me included…should simply keep our mouths shut and enjoy the music.
The link to the video for the song “You’re the One That I Want” by Olivia Newton John and John Travolta from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the film Grease can be found here. *A link to the lyrics version can be found here.
The link to the trailer for the film Grease can be found here.
It isn’t easy to live in the continental United States and exist in your own bubble of sorts, but prior to 1990, that was essentially true of the region known as the Pacific Northwest. The most populated city in the area would have been Seattle, Washington. Seattle’s closest big city neighbour is actually Vancouver, British Columbia, across the border into Canada. Prior to 1990, the Pacific Northwest region of the US was known more for its wilderness and hiking trails and, oh yes, a volcano named Mount St. Helens! If you traveled there it was definitely a destination journey, meaning that you wanted to go specifically there. It was a boutique location, for sure. Consequently, if you happened to live there, you did so in a very tight knit community. Seattle, in particular, was insulated from much of what was happening elsewhere across the States. This sense of relative isolation allowed the local Arts scene to incubate, free of scrutiny from the outside world. Thus, when local band Nirvana released “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the outside world sat up and took notice. This song is credited with launching the Grunge music movement and creating what music journalists dubbed “The Seattle Scene”. But, truth be told, Seattle, Washington had been a hotbed for great music long before the region was “discovered” by the rest of the country. Bands such as Bikini Kill, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, Screaming Trees and many more were all well established on the local music circuit by the time Nirvana came out with the Nevermind album. Once Nirvana went supernova, as it were, the world descended on Seattle and that quiet sense of purity that characterized the music scene there was gone forever. If you happen to ever hear someone being interviewed who was in Seattle prior to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, they always lament the loss of privacy that came with being discovered. To get a sense of what it was like to live in Seattle just before Grunge exploded isn’t easy. However, we are lucky that there was a movie made there in 1992 by director Cameron Crowe that did a pretty good job of capturing the fashion, the music, the club scene and the sense of community that existed in the Arts world in Seattle. That movie was called Singles. This is the story of that movie, the impactful soundtrack that accompanied it and the mega-hit TV show that was inspired because of it.
Singles was a movie that starred Bridget Fonda, Matt Dillon, Kyra Sedgewick and a host of characters from around Seattle such as the members of Pearl Jam, Chris Cornell and the members of Soundgarden, director Tim Burton and many others. The movie is basically a romantic comedy of sorts that uses, as its setting, the world of Seattle’s Arts scene as it existed just before “Teen Spirit” took off. Throughout much of the movie, songs by Seattle bands can be heard playing in the background, or else whole scenes will take place in a club or at a concert with real bands on stage. One scene was even shot at the real gravesite of legendary rocker…and Seattle resident…Jimi Hendrix. As such, Singles was always more than a mere movie. It was a film that intentionally captured a moment in cultural history while it was all still relatively innocent and pure. To call Singles a time capsule would be very accurate.
What makes Singles such a memorable movie is the soundtrack. The movie is crammed with great tunes by a ton of artists and bands who, at the time, were only really known in Seattle or on the college radio circuit. The whole soundtrack is packed with hits and/or performances from Seattle artists/bands that we consider to be huge today such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Paul Westerberg (formerly of The Replacements), Mudhoney, Mother Love Bone and The Smashing Pumpkins, along with familiar names such as Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart (who perform as The Lovemongers on this soundtrack, covering a Led Zeppelin tune called “The Battle of Evermore”) and Seattle’s most famous pre-Grunge son, Jimi Hendrix, too. What makes the Singles soundtrack unique in movie history is that at the time of its release, all of the tunes were original releases. Taking that one step further, all of these bands/artists would, in time, become big stars on the national stage, but for this soundtrack, they all submitted original work. It is almost as if some cool Seattle insider made a mixtape of the best music around at the time and released it for the world to discover. From everything I have read about this movie, I believe that those musicians who agreed to take part all did so because they believed in Cameron Crowe’s vision for how the Arts community was going to be portrayed. It was also important to them that the movie have a timelessness to it so that it wouldn’t appear dated a few years after release. The Singles soundtrack has achieved that aim. It is still one of the very best movie soundtracks that I have ever heard. I owned it back in my Columbia Record Club days and I still like all of the artists and bands who contributed to it to this very day. Don’t read too much into the fact that I chose “State of Love and Trust” by Pearl Jam to represent this movie. I could have chosen almost any of the songs in this soundtrack and it would have been a good choice. I picked “State of Love and Trust” simply because it is a good tune and I own it and like it. Simple.
As for the movie itself, Singles never won any awards for the quality of the story being told. However, when it was released, the story of young, single, attractive twenty-somethings living near each other, growing into adulthood together, searching for love and a life lived with purpose resonated with audiences. For me, I always thought that Bridget Fonda’s character was super cute. She had a “look” that Cameron Crowe insisted that she naturally had and that somehow managed to perfectly capture that sense of fashion that was popular in Seattle at the time. This is an important note because once the movie was released, many who saw it wanted the storylines from the movie to continue on in the form of a TV show. Cameron Crowe was offered the chance to take Singles and serialize it for television but he declined, stating that he felt he had captured the spirit of Seattle perfectly in the film and didn’t wish to dilute that by having to make the story fit a national perspective. However, not long after declining the chance to take Singles to TV, a new show debuted on NBC called Friends. That show involved a group of young, attractive single twenty-somethings who all lived near each other, growing into adulthood, searching for love and a life lived with purpose. One of the stars of the show was Jennifer Aniston who, like Bridget Fonda, became known for her sense of style. I felt that “Rachel” was pretty cute at times, too. The producers of Friends insist that their show had nothing to do with Singles, but their denials are more rooted in a desire to avoid ever being sued by Crowe for a share of the profits the show has accrued over the years.
In any case, Singles is a movie that may have not ever been an Oscar-calibre story, but the cultural impact it had on the world of music and television is unquestioned. If you have never watched Singles before, please feel free to do so. It will be like unearthing a cultural time capsule. The trailer I am enclosing is really corny and low-budget, but, at least, it will introduce you to the characters. When you see it, try and figure out who inspired the various Friends characters on TV. Overall, I love Singles for the music…and for Bridget Fonda’s character. The soundtrack is outstanding. I hope that you will give it a chance, too.
The link to the video for the song “State of Love and Trust” by Pearl Jam can be found here. ***The lyrics video can be found here.
The link to the official movie trailer for Singles can be found here.
The link to a YouTube playlist for the entire movie soundtrack of Singles can be found here.
The link to the official website for Seattle, Washington can be found here.
Casablanca was released in 1942. It starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Henreid. It is universally regarded as being one of the top films ever produced in Hollywood. The song “As Time Goes By” was recently ranked by the American Film Institute as being the second most memorable movie song of all time (just behind “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz). Casablanca went on to win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. To say that this movie made major stars of Bogart and Bergman is an understatement. Their on-screen chemistry and movie storyline of star-crossed lovers helped make Casablanca one of Hollywood’s first great romantic blockbusters. But, truth be told, Casablanca is a war movie. It was made during war time for a very specific reason and made under certain absolute restrictions. Making movies during wartime was (and still is) different than doing so during times of peace. As this post will show, the old saw about “life imitating art” was very true in 1942.
World War II officially broke out in 1939. For the first half of the war, the Allied countries were back on their heels as Germany swiftly conquered country after country in Europe. One of the biggest prizes for Germany was when France surrendered and German forces occupied Paris and the surrounding French countryside. The only thing that stood between German control of all of western Europe was England. But there is a truism that seems to exist regardless of where in the world wars are fought. It is that although a country may be defeated in battle, it is never truly beaten as long as there are enough people to form an army of resistance. Resistance fighters may be small in number but their constant harassment of an invading army does wonders for the morale of the vanquished citizens and serves to remind them that their country lives on despite the colour of the flag flying atop important buildings nearby. So, by the time Casablanca was filmed and released in 1942, much of Europe was under Nazi occupation. Organized resistance movements existed in France, Poland, Holland and Czechoslovakia. But, at the same time, the organizational operations of conquered cities needed to continue so the German government installed puppet regimes in all conquered countries. The people who agreed to cooperate with the Germans became known as collaborators. Many collaborators were seen as traitors by ordinary citizens, as well as by resistance fighters. However, for those who opted to cooperate, they viewed their decision as being a pragmatic one that offered them the best chance of surviving the war intact. So it was into this nuanced context that the movie Casablanca was written, filmed and released to the world.
In the movie, Humphrey Bogart’s character owns a nightclub called Rick’s Café Americain. This club is a transit hub for all sorts of characters such as actual Nazi officers, French collaborators, resistance fighters, as well as ordinary citizens all trying to keep their heads above water. One of the things that Casablanca did that helped elevate it to the top of movies set during wartime was in how it showed the intricate web of politics that was constantly at play all throughout the war. Many war-themed movies seemed fixated on battles and soldiers and sacrifice and valour on the battlefield. Hollywood studios were actually tasked by the government to produce movies that helped with war time recruitment by creating heroic characters who defeated tyranny against all odds. Many of these movies were made under the auspices of the American Armed Forces and starred actors who had enlisted such as Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan, Rod Taylor, Jimmy Stewart and so on. These “morale” movies were also created to help ensure that public opinion tipped in favour of government policies when it came to the United States’ initial neutrality, and then their entrance into the war as a combatant. The final role that many of these movies played was in the creation of villains. As many have noted, perhaps none more forcefully than George Orwell in 1984, the creation of an “enemy” supplies much of the fuel to any nation’s war machine, and so there were many movies created and released during WWII that demonized German and Japanese soldiers as being heartless and evil. But, Casablanca seemed to present a more subtle view of the many moving pieces involved in the on-going conflict in Europe, and for that reason, it seemed to resonate more with many viewers. That having been said, Casablanca was released just as Allied forces were set to invade North Africa in an attempt to liberate Morocco (where Casablanca is located) from Nazi rule so, timing also played a huge part in the success of this movie.
The plotline of Casablanca revolves around the somewhat shady character of Rick, as played by Humphrey Bogart. He is the owner of the club but he is also someone who trades in a form of currency called secrets. Rick knows who the players all are and moves among them all like a chameleon, being who each needs him to appear to be. The story moves forward once Rick becomes in possession of two “travel documents” which allow the bearers to travel freely throughout the occupied territories. These documents are priceless to those seeking to flee from the Nazis: especially, for people who are Jewish. Consequently, whoever controls these documents can name their price, whether that price is in terms of money, jewels, property or sexual favours. Rick’s world is unfolding as usual until one day when a woman and man walk into the club. The woman is Ingrid Bergman. The man is her husband, Lazlo, who is a Czech resistance fighter. The two are happily married. However, as she enters the club, she sees Rick and immediately is taken back to a time when she knew Rick previously. Her reaction to seeing him again is to approach the piano player, Sam (as played by Dooley Wilson) and ask for a special song to be sung. That song is “As Time Goes By”. The playing of this song serves an important purpose in the movie. It acts much the same way the old Greek Chorus used to in the early days of drama. Back then, the Chorus was a group of characters whose role was to add commentary to help the audience understand what was transpiring on stage. In Casablanca, “As Time Goes By” serves to help the audience understand that Bergman and Bogart’s characters were not, in fact, meeting for the first time. Furthermore, in a previous place and time, they were very much in love. Suddenly, with the playing of one simple song, a complex love triangle erupts amid all of the political maneuverings that were already afoot in Rick’s Café Americain.
I won’t spoil the movie by saying any more in case there are readers who haven’t watched Casablanca and may wish to do so. However, I will comment on one final aspect of making this movie during wartime in 1942. I do not think it is breaking the “spoiler alert” code by stating that movies made during WWII in the US were not permitted to have overly sympathetic German characters. That is true of Casablanca, too. The US needed to have enemies for political reasons, so, as much as the screenwriters tried to create slightly more nuanced characters, it is not hard to watch this movie and know who to root for. But, in addition to adhering to guidelines regarding the characterization of Germans, the folks who wrote the screenplay also had to navigate around rules that existed regarding morality. For that reason, as much as it may have been obvious that Bogart and Bergman’s characters had been sexually intimate in their previous encounters, no mention of them being lovers was permitted because she was a married woman in the movie. Even in the song, “As Time Goes By”, the line, “and when two lovers woo” is quickly followed by, “they still say I love you” because it gave the appearance that the song was about a married couple, as opposed to two singles hooking up for an illicit encounter. If you have watched the movie or if you intend to, the manner in which the writers twist themselves into pretzels to maintain the integrity of a female character who was, obviously, a lover to two different men, is something to behold and very indicative of the times in which the movie was made.
Casablanca is a war movie like no other. The politics of living in wartime are laid bare for all to see. As well, the nature of the term personal sacrifice, which usually refers to soldiers on the battlefield in most war movies, is presented in a very humanistic manner here. Audiences became invested in the resolution of the love triangle amid the dangerous atmosphere of war. Lives definitely change as a result of everyone coming together in Rick’s Café Americain during the German occupation. Because, even in wartime, “you must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, the fundamental things apply, as time goes by”.
The link to the video for the song “As Time Goes By” from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the film Casablanca can be found here.
The link to the trailer for the movie Casablanca can be found here.