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A Few Thoughts About Film Songs

by Cary Wong

Part 2: "Welcome to the Dollhouse"

Last time I talked about some examples of good songs from recent movies, especially with exciting directors taking a chance on new, up and coming talents.

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 environment.

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 her acting.

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.

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