There may be an Academy Award for “Best Original Song,” but where’s the love for all the other songs that films so desperately depend on? It’s hard to believe now, but there was once a time when motion pictures weren’t chockablock with Top 40 pop hits. In the past 50 years or so this has become a common practice (some people blame Martin Scorsese, but I think even Scorsese would point a finger more emphatically at Kenneth Anger), and for every movie like The Bounty Hunter that demonstrates little concern for song choice or placement there are plenty of films and television series that put a lot of thought in selecting just the right song for the right moment. Maybe it’s on the nose, maybe it’s ironic, or maybe it’s just jarring and weird, but there’s a lot of mileage to be gained from using a familiar tune in an unfamiliar way.
Why are we even talking about this now? Because “Glee” returned for its second season this week, and boy oh boy, does that show depend on covers for its basic survival… And actually, thus far it’s done a very good job of using existing songs to express new and distinctive sentiments. Our Listicle this week covers these kinds of covers: memorable tunes that are reimagined to tell a different story. What’s your favorite cover song in film history? Most of ours are below.
“Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ In The Rain (dir. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952)
Singin’ In The Rain is almost universally considered “the greatest movie musical of all time,” and it just may be, but not everyone realizes that hardly any of the now-classic tunes from the soundtrack were originally written for the film. Even the title number was originally performed in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, an almost completely forgotten production by anyone’s standards. Most of the songs had suffered similar fates in earlier, less famous films, but “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the exception. Everyone knows and loves Donald O’Connor’s manic and hilarious performance of the song in Singin’ In The Rain, but his co-star Gene Kelly performed it himself just a few years prior in Vincent Minnelli’s impressive but comparatively lackluster film The Pirate. Back then it was called “Be A Clown.”
What’s fascinating about this little bit of trivia is that nobody gave credit to “Be A Clown’s” original composer, the great Cole Porter, even though they were both MGM productions. They’re not exactly the same number, but listen to them closely. Even the changes to the lyrics feel minimal: the purpose of the number is exactly the same. Porter never filed a formal complaint, but maybe that’s because “Make ‘Em Laugh” is clearly the superior version of the song, used in more appropriate context and choreographed with near-infinite superiority. “Make ‘Em Laugh” is one of Singin’ In The Rain’s many highlights. “Be A Clown” was a pretty forgettable number in a pretty forgettable movie. It’s a great song either way, but this here remains one of the prime examples of how to use an existing song to greater effect cinematically than even the original performance.
“Mandy” from “Angel” (created by Joss Whedon & David Greenwalt, 1999-2004)
The second season of “Angel,” the spin-off of the cult hit “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” that some would even argue dwarfed the original series in quality (if only for a couple of seasons), introduced a pretty wonky conceit: A demon named Lorne (the late, great Andy Hallett), who could read people’s pasts, presents and even their futures… but only if they sang karaoke. That’s some pretty silly stuff, but it worked. Why?
Because “Angel” was an uncomfortably dark series when it first aired. Clever, but not particularly “fun.” Obviously, incorporating a plot point that forced the protagonists – and sometimes even the villains – to belt out a few pop hits would lighten up the proceedings a bit. But the real reason why Lorne’s abilities were karaoke-based was also the source of the idea’s dramatic potential: Singing forces one to bare their soul, particularly if they aren’t comfortable expressing their emotions otherwise. Many of the characters on “Angel” could be described as guarded, even in denial of their own feelings, so karaoke, and the ridiculousness thereof, was almost a perfect antidote for both the series’ and its protagonists’ grimness.
The cognitive dissonance between such a jovial pastime and Angel’s inner torment was best illustrated in his performance of “Mandy,” originally performed by Barry Manilow and written by Scott English and Richard Kerr. David Boreanaz’s extreme awkwardness and tone-deaf performance made it a comic wonder, but the eventual revelation of why he would choose such a mawkish number in the first place – the blood of the innocent was a factor – made it a classic.
“Hey Jude” from The Royal Tenenbaums (dir. Wes Anderson, 2001)
The Royal Tenenbaums was only recently unseated by The Fantastic Mr. Fox as my favorite Wes Anderson film. Everything about this movie, from its modern take on The Magnificent Ambersons to the perfectly calibrated camerawork creates the illusion that it is the perfect adaptation of a great novel… that just happens to have never been written.
Wes Anderson begins his movie with an extended prologue that introduces the exceptional lives of his protagonists: the Tenenbaum parents and their wunderkind progeny. It’s a pitch-perfect short film in itself, bringing the characters from figurative riches to figurative rags with a snide sense of humor and profound empathy. Much of the film that follows plays in a similar manner, dipping into amusing cinematic asides and illuminating flashbacks as necessary, so Anderson divides the opening of The Royal Tenenbaums from the rest of the movie through the use of a very clever cover of a very familiar song: “Hey Jude,” credited to John Lennon and Paul McCartney, as covered by Mark Mothersbaugh and the wonderfully-named Mutato Muzika Orchestra.
Fittingly enough the song was originally called “Hey Jules,” and was reportedly composed by McCartney to comfort John Lennon’s son Julian during his parents’ divorce. Divorce, and by extension a family divided, is at the heart of Wes Anderson’s film. This opening of The Royal Tenenbaums does more than simply introduce the Tenenbaums, it illustrates how such an impressive family could fall apart. The rest of the film depicts their long, hard and often very funny path to loving each other again. The Royal Tenenbaums takes the sad song of their lives and damn it, makes it better. The uplifting finale of “Hey Jude” brings the prologue to a fitting end as young Richie Tenenbaum (Amedeo Turturro, son of acclaimed actor John Turturro) releases his pet hawk Mordecai into the air. Like Mordecai, the Tenenbaum children are at this point released into the wild where they will experience many adventures and traumas, but eventually return to the relative safety of their home.
“Young Girl” & “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” from “Glee” (created by Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk & Ryan Murphy, 2009-Present)
As I believe I’ve mentioned above – and discussed in ridiculous detail in my review of the first season of “Glee” on Blu-Ray – “Glee” is a series dependent on cover songs. Sure, these performances are inherent to the concept (that’s what Glee Clubs do, after all) but it’s important not to view it as merely a gimmick. “Glee” is in many respects the ultimate artistic celebration of the artistic works of others. The characters in “Glee” don’t write their own songs, or even pull them out of their collective butts for non-diegetic musical numbers: they perform existing songs and effectively mine those works for their ability to convey the emotions, sentiments and ideas that often elude normal people. For what is the purpose of these tunes, after all, if not to express one’s innermost feelings?
Truth be told, a list of the ten best “Glee” covers probably deserves a Weekly Listicle unto itself. Not that all of them are winners, or even terribly creative (“Jessie’s Girl” and “Bust Your Windows” are ridiculously straightforward, both in performance and intent), but auto-tuning aside many of the 100 or more songs covered during the first season are winners in one way or another. So picking just one for the Listicle is almost an arbitrary exercise, but screw it, the mash-up of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police and “Young Girl” by Gary Puckett & The Union Gap stands out in my head right now.
In “Ballad,” episode 1.10 of “Glee,” the club diva Rachel (Lea Michelle) finally develops a crush on Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison), her Glee Club instructor, after they perform a duet of “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie in class. Schuester, who has previously suffered the indignities and even torture of teenaged stalkers, struggles to come up with the best way to let Rachel down without hurting her feelings and finally comes to the “It Could Only Happen on ‘Glee’” conclusion that the best way to explain the impossibility of her feelings is to sing a mash-up o f “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and “Young Girl,” which probably qualifies as overkill since either song on its own would break the news with equal clarity. What makes the cover clever isn’t so much the choice of songs but Morrison’s performance: Mr. Schuester finds the music so infectious that he can’t help but sing the hell out of the number, causing Rachel, and even the school guidance counselor, to forget the lyrics entirely and fall even more madly in love with the dapper song-and-dance man before them.
Will: So Rachel, do you think you understood the message I was trying to get across with that ballad?
Rachel: Yes. It means I’m very young, and it’s hard for you to stand close to me.
Will: Um, no, um… Emma, would you mind helping me out here? Um, what was the message that you got?
Emma: You’re a very good performer. (To Rachel) – He’s very good.
Jesse Eisenberg singing Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” in The Squid and the Whale (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2005)
The Squid and the Whale is a darkly hilarious, unhappily realistic portrayal of a family’s dissolution, of the battles waged and fought barely beneath the surface of urbane interactions. Director Noah Baumbach, a frequent collaborator and friend of Wes Anderson’s, calls The Squid and the Whale semi-autobiographical, and it’s obvious the material hits close to home. The movie, set in 1986, follows the Berkman clan—father Bernard (Jeff Daniels), mother Joan (Laura Linney), and sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline)—as the pretentious parents divorce and work out their aggression with only the most civilized comportment.
When the Berkman sons choose sides, Walt ends up in Bernard’s camp while Frank grudgingly falls into Joan’s. Bernard is a horridly pompous professor with a penchant for referring to others as “philistines” and referencing Jean-Luc Godard’s famous jump-cuts even as he’s wheeled into an ambulance. Walt, in his immense respect, parrots Bernard’s most deplorable behaviors—and Walt is ten times worse. He refers to “The Metamorphosis” as “Kafkaesque,” and says self-importantly that The Magnificent Ambersons is Welles’s masterpiece instead of Citizen Kane, though he’s never seen it. After sweetly kissing his girlfriend Sophie, he says, “I wish you had fewer freckles on your face.” He adopts Bernard’s misery and self-righteousness, co-opting them for his own purposes.
Bernard’s mannerisms and hauteur aren’t the only things Walt co-opts: in his desire for uniqueness and talent he plays Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” (originally released seven years earlier on The Wall) at the school talent show…and pawns it off as his own. The audience, Joan and Bernard in particular, are simply thrilled and completely clueless. Bernard’s student/girlfriend Lili (a brunette Anna Paquin—no thanks to Sookeh I sometimes forget that’s her natural color) is the only person who recognizes it. The way the song’s origins soar over the heads of the “intelligent” audience is a testament to the complete disconnect between contemporary culture and these overeducated Brooklynites. When done right, pre-released music in film or TV should be used to illustrate a point—and Walt’s version of “Hey You” is a cry for help, a pathetic attempt at individuality, and an illuminating representation of the characters’ detachment from society.
Ethan Hawke singing The Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” in Reality Bites (dir. Ben Stiller, 1994)
A lot of people hate Reality Bites. I’ll admit it’s not a good movie, but when I was 14, it struck exactly the right nerve. The movie is about post-college confusion, about flailing around for a career you may never have and a love you probably won’t find, and separating yourself from your parents for good. Ethan Hawke’s character Troy, a grungy, self-absorbed ass, was like, so indie-licious. I’m still prone to comparing myself to Winona Ryder (sans Saks shoplifting), and I identify more with Lelaina Pierce than most of her other characters. Janeane Garofalo and Steve Zahn dancing to “My Sharona” in a gas station will live forever in my heart. As much as the movie is a dated and silly representation, those aspects of post-collegiate life are very real. Having feelings for your best friend? Also real. Not knowing what to do about it and doing something stupid like sleeping with him? Real.
After Lainie and Troy have a mistaken one-night stand, she goes to his band’s show. Hey, That’s My Bike! is every terrible college band to which we thrashed and splashed Komchatka all over ourselves in basements. Lainie’s maybe-boyfriend, yuppie Michael (Ben Stiller) appears, and Troy busts into a vicious rendition of “Add It Up” by the Violent Femmes, staring Lelaina down the whole time. The lyric “Why can’t I get just one f*@#?” is censored for the sake of PG-13, but, well, everyone knows the song.
Troy is that heartthrob-jerk so many of us had crushes on. And Lelaina, unsure of herself torn and between two men, is the one with whom teenage girls everywhere identified. (Twilight’s Bella Swan fits this archetype as well, although Bella’s insecurity and weakness is far more aggravating.) Music in film should be used to make a point, and while director Stiller’s use is more like a sledgehammer than a wink, sometimes we all need to conked over the head with our mistakes.
“I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” from Across the Universe (dir. Julie Taymor, 2007)
Julie Taymor was originally the director of Broadway show The Lion King (for which she won two Tonys). When she switched mediums from stage to film, she took a baby step, directing an intense, beautifully filmed adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus,” which is widely considered to be the Bard’s most violent and vile play. In 2007 the director made a risky leap with Across the Universe, a musical constructed around the music of The Beatles. As any fanatic will tell you, you don’t f*$@ with The Beatles.
I grew up listening to The Beatles. I’m not what you’d call a fanatic, but they’re a pretty regular occurrence on my iPod. After the well-publicized (though overdramatized) bidding war between Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson over The Beatles’ publishing rights, I started hearing my most beloved songs in commercials, and I was skeptical about Across the Universe. I shouldn’t have been.
The movie tells the story of Jude (Jim Sturgess), a Liverpool expat who relocates to the U.S. to find his long-lost father and ends up in the midst of Vietnam War protests and the hippie movement. Jude befriends Max (Joe Anderson), and soon falls in love with Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Jude and Lucy (of “Hey Jude” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” respectively) are torn apart when Lucy adopts a radical stance on the war and falls in with the wrong crowd. In the midst of all this, we receive faithful, lovely renditions of The Beatles’ poppier songs (“Hold Me Tight” and “Oh! Darling!”), as well as their more dissident, musically adept tunes (“I Am the Walrus” and “Blackbird”). Taymor ascribes innovative, sometimes very literal meanings to old songs, granting them new meaning.
Lucy’s brother and Jude’s friend Max is drafted, and rather than skipping out on the draft altogether he eats a bunch of cotton balls so the X-rays will pick up a growth in his belly. He enters the Draft Office as a familiar guitar riff thrums ominously to the beat of his labored steps. “I Want You!” commands the familiar poster on the Army office wall. Max is shortly fed into a ravenous machine through which recruits are selected for their physical ability. He’s shoved onto a conveyer belt where Army men with rigidly masculinized masks strip him down to his underwear, and delivered to a room where other new recruits line up in their tighty whities. Cubicle walls descend from the ceiling to literally box the recruits in as they’re weighed, measured, tested, and prodded. After the boxes lift again, the dance of the Army men is militarized and stilted; it’s full of rhythmic stomping, saluting, and push-ups. When the lyric “She’s So Heavy” pounds through the speakers, it’s sung by a cadre of stripped-down recruits struggling to heft the Statue of Liberty as they plod on miniature palm trees and helicopters zoom overhead. At the end of the scene, a sergeant (Taymor favorite Harry Lennix) asks Max, “Is there any reason you shouldn’t be in this man’s army, son?” “I’m a cross-dresser and a homosexual pacifist with a spot on my lung?” Max answers. “As long as you don’t have flat feet,” the sergeant responds, stamping a shrink-wrapped Max for shipping.
The sequence makes a bold statement regarding the military and the Vietnam War, and it’s one of the most innovative uses of pre-released music in a film: The Beatles may have been Brits, but as we all know, American freedom is a heavy burden to carry.
”From Her To Eternity” in Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings Of Desire) (dir. Wim Wenders, 1987)
This brooding work by Wim Wenders is a complex meditation on the ups and downs of life in late-80s West Berlin. The story unfolds from the perspective of angels, who roam the city observing and overseeing the lives of mortals. Without the ability to intervene tangibly in the human world, they are not guardian angels but merely witnesses to the human experience – the eyes and ears of the divine, if you will.
Nonetheless, their constant presence among humanity, hearing their thoughts and occasionally sharing their emotions, makes angels curious about the experience of living and dying. The angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) goes so far as to fall in love with a strange and beautiful circus performer. He follows her everywhere he can, struggling with the choice of abandoning immortality in order to be with her.
Damiel rounds a number of surprising corners in his quest for love. I won’t tell you how he ends up, but I will bring the film’s fine musical interlude. At one point Damiel trails Marion, his beloved, into a concert by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Frontman Cave not only puts in a blistering performance of his “From Her To Eternity,” but also plays a little joke on himself in the context of the story.
The angels hear the overlapping thoughts of people near them, like whispers and mutters in a quiet room. Often, these private thoughts are at odds with what they say or do to others. The song begins with the solemn pronouncement, “I’m gonna tell you about a girl.” However, as he takes the microphone to begin, he thinks to himself, quite insistently, that “I’m not gonna tell you about a girl!” Whether he’s sick of the song, or no longer feels that way about that girl, or has some other reason for resenting the song, he creates a second of tension for those privy to his thoughts that he might storm away and leave the song unsung. Then, suddenly, he grimly proclaims alound, “I’m gonna tell you about a girl,” and the song begins.
Aside from this subtle nod to the world-weary performer, this particular song is bitterly poignant because of its title. At this moment, Damiel is indeed weighing the option of “her” against the promise of “eternity.” Is either ultimately attainable for a falling angel?
”The Varsity Drag” / “Dem Dry Bones” in The Ruling Class (dir. Peter Medak, 1972)
The Ruling Class, a monster of a play by the late Peter Barnes, has been hailed as a masterpiece of “anti-naturalism,” and, in the words of Peter O’Toole, “a comedy with tragic relief.” Whatever jargon you may hang on it, the English of it is that The Ruling Class is absolutely nuts! Director Peter Medak, whose dubious body of work includes The Changeling and Species II, made it into one of the weirdest and funniest movies you’ve ever seen with some of Britain’s finest character actors, including O’Toole.
This is as dark as comedy gets. O’Toole plays Jack, the brand new Earl Of Gurney, who suffers from the delusion that he is the risen Christ, the living embodiment of love. He sleeps on a large wooden cross and gallivants merrily about, breaking into song at the most inopportune moments. His first such number is the old ragtime chestnut, “The Varsity Drag,” with which he welcomes the neighbors round, and promptly frightens them away with a birdlike mating dance.
Warning – PLOT SPOILERS
Rather than embracing and perhaps even learning from his benevolent madness, his family plots to marry him off and put him away once he’s sired an heir to the estate. The crackpot doctor hired to certify him instead resorts to radical and violent treatment to cure him, which eventually takes… sort of. Jack’s paranoid delusions shift into a dark pit, out of sight from society, who find him well-adjusted and properly English. The only trouble is that his new assumed identity is that of Jack the Ripper. While his puritanical rants now rouse applause from his peers, his private plan is to rid the world of those who merit his disapproval – what the lady in Misery might call “dirty birds.” Unfortunately, this includes most of his family.
As a dark mirror image of his “Varsity Drag,” Jack demonstrates a troubling vestige of his madness in a sudden, somber chorus of “Dem Dry Bones,” used to illustrate his strong position in favor of torture and capital punishment. The blue bloods lap it up, even as it signals their doom. And that’s the punchline of The Ruling Class – if English nobility were to meet Christ, they’d crucify him. If Jack the Ripper, they’d put him in the House of Lords. These two bits of song illustrate both sides of a very funny, and yet very scary coin.
”Everybody Wants Some!!” in Better Off Dead (dir. Savage Steve Holland, 1985)
Ah, the life of a lonely and eccentric teenager, in all its hilarious misery. Savage Steve Holland, later to become the producer of Saturday morning shows like Eek! The Cat and The Terrible Thunderlizards, brought us the inspired lunacy of Better Off Dead, a high-school spoof that often plays more like a cartoon than a live action film. Lane Meyer (John Cusack) is despondent and suicidal over being dumped by the girl of his eerily obsessive dreams. As successive attempts to kill himself fail, he gradually focuses his attention on winning his girl back instead.
Meanwhile his friends and family are no help at all. His parents are hopeless oddballs, the mailman is a creep, the paperboy is psychotic, and Lane’s best friend (Curtis Armstrong of Revenge Of The Nerds) is forever hopped up on cheap drug substitutes. To escape the demands of his bizarre life, Lane often loses himself in daydreams, which usually ends up getting him in more trouble. At one point his father imposes a job on him, working at a place called “Pig Burger” for a lumbering, foul-tempered ogre of a man (that’s right, kids! It’s Chuck Mitchell from Porky’s!). Rather than concentrate on his work, he lets his brain wander into a musical fantasy of creating a Frankenburger that belts out Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”
Dancing, Van-Halen singing hamburgers are as good an illustration as any of the unpredictable craziness of this movie. Though the burger dance is not the only great musical sequence in the film, it is surely the most memorable. Only a handful of 1980s teen comedies were this wacky – License To Drive comes to mind – but none are as apologetically weird as Better Off Dead.