Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Music Box: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Edition

As most of you know by now, music has always been a huge part of my life. When I think about which albums were most meaningful to me growing up, my first response is to name a few by my favorite bands, like Blondie, the Pretenders and the Style Council. Yet despite my artist-focused and radio-shy way of thinking, when I think a little harder about the albums that played the biggest role in my youth -- or, if you will, acted as the "soundtrack" of my childhood, many of them were just that: soundtracks, featuring a wide array of styles and contributors. (Perhaps my way of listening to the radio?) Having grown up in a fairly average middle-class environment without much contact with my extended family, I wasn't exposed to much in the way of arts. So to make up for the classical-music-loving grandmother or opera-enthusiast uncle I never had, movies offered me an entree into a world I knew nothing about. Here are some of the soundtracks (in no particular order) that touched me most and why.

Say what you will about his last 20 films, I'm forever indebted to Woody Allen for his work in the '70s and '80s, and for introducing me to the magic of George Gershwin AND the New York Philharmonic on the soundtrack of his classic 1979 film, "Manhattan" (Is there anything better than the fireworks of "Rhapsody in Blue," the beauty of "Someone to Watch Over Me" or tenderness of "I've Got a Crush on You"?) One of my fondest memories is of me and my mom redecorating my bedroom on West Kiva back in 1987. I'd just seen "Less Than Zero" (my favorite book of '85) at the movies and wanted my room to look just like Blair's cool "loft" in the film. This fun new Swedish furniture store called Bova had just opened on Alma School Road near our house (this was WAY BEFORE I'd ever seen an IKEA), and my mom let me pick out anything I wanted. (I wanted everything.) Back in my room, there was tons of work to be done taking down the zillions of posters and photos of all my favorite bands I had plastered all over my walls. As we patched the holes and painted the walls -- two white, two gray "accent" walls = tres modern! -- I put the only album on that I thought my mom wouldn't object to (she could only take so much KajaGooGoo, after all) . For the next week, we listened to the "Manhattan" soundtrack, sides 1 and 2, over and over and over until the room was complete. To this day, every time the opening notes begin to play I remember those days and nights with my mom, laughing, talking and painting. I can't remember ever being happier.

The same year I re-did my bedroom, Cher swept the nation off its feet with her Oscar-winning performance in "Moonstruck." Norman Jewison's touching film is still one of my all-time favorites (Olympia Dukakis forever!), but it was the soundtrack that inspired my friends and me to have these incredible "Moonstruck" parties that year that rank high on my list of college memories.

The whole gang -- which usually consisted of me, my boyfriend Derek, Greg, David, Tim, Tina, Nana and whoever else was big in our lives on any given week -- would gather at my "way cool" and "older" friend Kurt Davidson's condo near on North 38th Street in Phoenix (not Mesa or Tempe, but the BIG city -- oh, and he was all of 24!) where we'd boil up a huge pot of spaghetti, make a salad and drink way too many bottles of cheap Chianti and laugh the night away while blasting the "Moonstruck" soundtrack nonstop all night.

While the crowd favorite was always Dean Martin's "That's Amore," the sublime "Gettin' Ready" was always mine. And the introduction it gave me to opera with its excerpts from Puccini's "La Boheme" made me feel so worldly and sophisticated, kind of like Loretta going to Lincoln Center for the first time. OK, so it's 20-some years later and I live in Manhattan now and I've still never actually been to the opera. I am, however, a regular at Don Giovanni's, where I often eat a lot of spaghetti, drink way too much cheap Chianti and laugh a lot with my friends and lovers.

In 1988, my friends and I went to see Alan Rudolph's "The Moderns." Keith Carradine starred as a struggling American artist living in Paris in the 1920s who becomes mixed up in a plot to forge paintings. I think I went to see it mainly because I'd heard Kevin J. O'Connor played Hemingway in it and I'd fallen in love with him after seeing him in a black turtleneck in "Peggy Sue Got Married." ("The Sun Also Rises" is my favorite book and for a while in college I thought moving to Europe was the answer to all my "problems.") I liked the film a lot, but it was trumpeter/composer Mark Isham's seductive soundtrack that really won me over. Jim Emerson describes Isham's score, mostly performed by a sort of hotel cocktail ensemble dubbed "L'Orchestre Moderne," as evoking the ghosts of Django Reinhardt and Edith Piaf along with images of tinkling chandeliers and smoky bistros. The moody main theme, "Les Modernes," which features violin and Isham's muted trumpet, instantly establishes a haunting, foggy atmosphere you can't wait to get lost in. To this day, if it's a rainy afternoon and you're wondering what's playing at my house, odds are safe that it's "The Moderns."

"Grease": Olivia Newton-John. John Travolta. Sock hop. I was an 11-year-old queer. You figure it out. "Xanadu": Olivia Newton-John. ELO. Roller skating.. I was a 13-year-old queer. You figure it out.

In terms of which soundtrack I've played more than any other, there's no question the award would go to "Hannah and Her Sisters." Just like the film, the music evokes so many wonderful memories for me -- old friends, holiday dinners, the romance of New York City -- and was responsible for introducing me to many new geniuses, from Harry James and Dick Hyman (who is the star of the "Moonstruck" soundtrack), Bach and Basie, Cole Porter, and most of all, the inimitable Rogers and Hart. (Screw you, Hammerstein!)

The first soundtrack we bought in the early days of the New Wave explosion was this expensive "import" for a film called "Party Party." That was back in '83 and I still have never seen the film. But the soundtrack contains a number of my favorite -- and most rare -- songs by some of the best artists of that era. Bananarama turn the Sex Pistols' punk anthem "No Feelings" into pure pop perfection. Altered Images make Del Shannon's "Little Town Flirt" sound truly believable, and this is where Midge Ure's memorable cover of Bowie's "Man Who Sold the World" first appeared.

Even though I was a huge "Sixteen Candles" and "Breakfast Club" fan, and both had great music in them, it was the soundtrack to John Hughes' "Pretty in Pink" that I really connected with. (But then again, didn't everyone?) More than two decades later it still plays like a "best of" the 1980s: "If You Leave" by OMD, "Left of Center" by Suzanne Vega, "Shellshock" by New Order, "Bring on the Dancing Horses" by Echo and the Bunnymen and "Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want" by the Smiths are just a few of the songs. (You had me at OMD.) I probably would have been more into the "Valley Girl" soundtrack, a film that came out a mere three years earlier -- but three REALLY BIG years -- only it didn't actually come out until 1994. But with a lineup that includes the Plimsouls, Josie Cotton, the Payolas, the Psychedelic Furs, the Flirts and Modern English, it was well worth the wait.

After taking home the Oscar for her work on Mike Nichols' "Working Girl" (did you know she stole "Arioso" by Bach on that one?!!), Carly Simon wrote a score for Nora Ephron's film "This Is My Life" that still makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. Sure, I'm a sucker for a mother-child story. But the weaving of "Love of My Life" through the whole thing plus the wholly original "Easy on the Eyes" and shoulda-been holiday classic, "The Night Before Christmas," just makes me wonder why this wasn't the Broadway classic starring Marsha Mason it should have been.

Although most of the songs had already appeared on Simon and Garfunkel's earlier albums, "The Graduate"is one of my all-time favorite films. And "Mrs. Robinson" is certainly one of the all-time best soundtrack contributions.

Susan Seidelman's "Desperately Seeking Susan" sealed the deal for my moving to New York. And Thomas Newman's perfect score certainly helped. Enough said. (Oh, other than the fact that my friend and I DID IT it way better.)

When I saw this delightful little film called "Bagdad Cafe"with my first boyfriend, Derek, at the artsy cinema in Scottsdale back in 1988, I was swept away. Jevetta Steele's "Calling You" still takes me back to that more innocent time, when spelling "Bagdad" like it sounded was good enough because it wasn't a dateline city.

I never saw "Absolute Beginners," Julien Temple's rock musical based on the Colin MacInness' book of the same name. But the film's Euro-jazz collection of songs -- including "Have You Ever Had It Blue?" by the Style Council, "Killer Blow" by Sade and David Bowie's title track (which I not-so-secretly believe to be his finest song to date) -- are all must-haves.

Like I said, I'm sorry I wasn't a theater queen back in the cradle (I sure could have used a gay uncle.) But with the exception of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," Madonna's film version was the FIRST time I heard the famous "Evita" soundtrack in its entirety and, sorry to say this, Patti, I fell head over heels IN LOVE with it and can sing EVERY SINGLE WORD (and breath) of it with the best of you queens of a certain age. (She can sing, boys! She can really sing!!!!)

"Leaving Las Vegas": Sting's take on three standards -- "Angel Eyes," "My One and Only Love" and "It's a Lonesome Old Town" -- performed with just a piano and acoustic bass as accompaniment is truly breathtaking. "Married to the Mob": Debbie Harry's shoulda-been-a-hit cover of the Castaways' "Liar Liar" and Chris Isaak's best (and littlest known) song, "Suspicion of Love" on the soundtrack of Jonathan Demme's 1988 film still give me goose bumps.

  • Read all Music Box posts HERE.

    Listen to these songs
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    Get your blog's here.
  • 6 comments:

    the greg said...

    Just wanted to add a few glaring omissions, honey!

    Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
    Hairspray
    Boys on the Side
    When Harry Met Sally
    Radio Days
    Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
    Metropolitan
    She's Having a Baby
    Clueless

    Danny in WeHo said...

    Kenneth!
    It seems we had a lot of the same appreciation for the same soundtracks! Others that played big in my youth:
    THE LOST BOYS
    SOMETHING WILD
    BREAKFAST CLUB
    WHEN HARRY MET SALLY
    FRIGHT NIGHT
    PRETTY WOMAN
    PLATOON
    DICK TRACY (Not Madonna's Breathless-though it was fun)
    FLASHDANCE (So cheesy fun , now)

    off the beaten path:
    STARSTRUCK
    DOGS IN SPACE
    LETTER TO BREZHNEV

    The one with the biggest emotional attachment is THE MAMBO KINGS. My college friends and I would get up Sunday mornings after funning all night and make french toast (with Amaretto or Hazelnut flavored coffee creamer instead of milk)while this was playing all morning.
    FUN TIMES!

    Danny in WeHo said...

    ...and STREETS OF FIRE

    Kenneth Walsh said...

    Greg -- I could only include so many! Good picks, though.

    Danny -- I LOVE "Streets of Fire." Of course, with Marie McKee doing "Never Be You," how could I not?

    paula o said...

    OMG! The Moderns is my all time favorite movie -- the costumes, the music. I even went to see Mark Isham live when I was in L.A. just because I love that movie so much!

    stotan40 said...

    All good stuff!

    What about the soundtrack to Times Square!

    Great, movie! You have to check it out.

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