A Few Thoughts About Film Songs
by Cary Wong
Part 2: "Welcome to the Dollhouse"
time I talked about some examples of good songs from recent movies,
especially with exciting directors taking a chance on new, up and coming
Animated features, especially from Disney, have always put songs to
good use. It is only recently that movies that don't need songs like "Tarzan"
are bogged down by them. Thank goodness they didn't have any singing T-Rexs
in "Dinosaur." In this recent "Golden Age" of Disney
animation (starting with "The Little Mermaid"), Disney has tapped
into the Broadway songwriting well and has come up with hit after hit.
The Best Picture Oscar nominated "Beauty and the Beast" by Alan
Menkin and Howard Ashman, two theater vets, was so well written that people
actually thought it would make a good Broadway musical (and while it is
still running, it is dismissed by theater enthusiasts as being one of those
live show you catch at Disney World).
"The Lion King" 's successful transfer to stage is due more
to Julie Taymor's dramatic concept and directing than Elton John and Tim
Rice's lame songs, which I find to be the least interesting and least effective
of this period. In fact, they made the one cardinal sin of any Disney animated
movie: do NOT write a love song! Sure, there have been great love songs
in the past, but they were always subtle and had a point in the story ("Kiss
the Girl" from "Mermaid" is a prime example), but to have
such an obvious and unabashedly Top-40 dreak like "Can You Feel the
Love Tonight" accompanying two lions frolicking in the woods was just
too much. The last great song from the traditional Disney machine was "Colors
of the Wind." Composer Stephen Schwartz (of "Godspell" fame)
incorporated complex lyrics and rhymes to actually make a point about the
Broadway composers have great luck in film songs just as classical composers
like John Corligliano and Philip Glass are well respected in the score
circles. Stephen Sondheim, composer of the Pulitizer Prize winning "Sunday
in the Park with George," won an Oscar for "Sooner or Later"
from "Dick Tracy" and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice won for
"You Must Love Me" from "Evita," the only original
movie song from their Tony Award -winning stage show. Both songs were integral
to their respective movies and both were performed ironically enough by
Madonna, who has never gotten a lot of respect in Hollywood, at least not
This success has not transferred well with film composers, who, unless
they're working on a musical, do not make great songwriters. Sure, Alex
North had "Unchained Melody" and James Horner had "My Heart
Will Go On." But what about the awful output of the great John Williams
who has never had one good pop song (although he got many Oscar song nominations
by the Williams-loving Academy). "When You're Alone" from "Hook"
especially with it coming in the middle of the CD is truly the worst example
of his songwriting skills. The most bearable is "Moonlight" from
"Sabrina" and that's because of the jazzy interpretation by Sting.
Jerry Goldsmith's biggest hit single seemed to have been his signature
un-song from "The Omen." Recently film fans have been inquiring
about the theme from "Powder" which showed up on a Sarah Brightman
CD, but not to be found on the original soundtrack. Judging by the curiosity
factor, maybe Goldsmith should let more of melodies be turned into songs.
(By the way, Ms. Brightman's newest CD, La Luna, which comes out this month,
has a song by Ennio Morricone and Alberto Bevilacqua called "La Califfa").
The best movie song of the last decade came with one of the worst title
for a pop song. "God Give Me Strength" from the flop movie "Grace
of My Heart" also had the reputation for being a snob song written
by pop icon Burt Bacharach and pop maverick Elvis Costello (in fact the
whole movie's concept was to create new, yet authentic-feeling 50's and
60's songs with collaborations by older songwriters and newer ones). "Strength"
was by far the standout song, which would forever be stuck in its non-hit
inevitability since the decision was made for Costello to record the song
himself, and that was the version released on the CD. Thank goodness Rhino
Records, in one of its many song compilation finally released the song
from the movie with the original singer. (Hmm, fans preferring the original
to the re-recording, how come that sounds so familiar?). With Kristin Vigard's
vocals (subbing for actress Illeana Douglas), the song has a sincerity
to it and you can see how Dionne Warwick or Darlene Love would have made
it into a big hit in the 60's.
Other great songs from the last few years include "Two Little Sisters"
from "Marvin's Room" with a great, simple song by Carly Simon,
the wonderfully sardonic title song from "Welcome to the Dollhouse"
the catchy title song from "That Thing You Do," Bruce Springsteen's
somber yet darling "Streets of Philadelphia" from "Philadelphia"
and the title song from "Dead Man Walking," and the romantic
and thankfully calm interlude of "Kissing You" from "William
Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet."
This year's output has been pretty slim, with only Madonna's "American
Pie" from "The Next Best Thing" making any impact. And that
was a re-make.
So, instead of just programming out the songs from your next CD purchase,
give the film songs a chance. That's all I'm asking.