Friday, May 13, 2011
Happy Birthday, Burt Bacharach!
To me, he's the essence of cool. I could listen to his music 24 hours a day, even if it weren't required of me. Whether his impeccable notes are ringing along with the words of longtime writing partner Hal David or with lyrics provided by wife Carole Bayer Sager (or anyone else), Burt Bacharach's way with an orchestra or even with a simple piano is astoundingly delicate yet powerful enough to brand many of his tunes in our memories forever. His Wikipedia entry says it best: "Bacharach's music is characterized by unusual chord progressions, striking syncopated rhythmic patterns, irregular phrasing, frequent modulation, and odd, changing meters." His songs are supremely challenging for vocalists to tackle for these very reasons.
Yesterday, May 12th 2011, was Bacharach's 83rd birthday and, while a complete overview of his musical output is truly impossible here, a fairly thorough sampling of the music he's provided to the movies is certainly daunting but doable. So here goes:
It wasn't a hit, but it shoulda been. And Burt doesn't even get credit for writing the song! Yet the theme to The Blob (Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr., 58) might very well be his first great movie tune. (It is, of course, sung by The Five Blobs!)
A House is Not a Home (Russell Rouse, 64), was based on the memoir by 1920 NYC bordello madam Polly Adler. A vehicle for Shelley Winters (whom I imagine is well-cast), it's a rarely-screened film with a title song that long ago eclipsed both the novel and the movie in popularity. It's now a bonafide standard; Brook Benton ("Rainy Night in Georgia") was tapped to do the soundtrack version.
It's been ages since I sat through a Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie. Listening to Bacharach's title song for Send Me No Flowers (Norman Jewison, 64) is as close as I've come since I last tried Pillow Talk out again (and was left cold by it). Doris Day does have loads of charm, though, and I like this little number.
Promise Her Anything (Arthur Hiller, 65) was a Warren Beatty/Leslie Caron romantic comedy written by (of all people) William Peter Blatty (who went on to pen the Sonny and Cher movie Good Times before making history as the producer and writer of The Exorcist). The raucous title song is sung by a Mr. Tom Jones.
Of course, we all know this one. Even if you haven't seen 1965's Woody Allen-penned What's New Pussycat? (and there's very little reason you should), you have to admit you've heard this tune before. It garnered Bacharach and David their first Oscar nods. The song is, again, sung by Tom Jones. And here's where we get into the hits:
The following year, Bacharach augmented jazzbo Sonny Rollins' score to Lewis Gilbert's Alfie with two versions of the same song: one by American Cher, played over the closing credits, and the opening version by Brit Cilla Black. Again, Bacharach and David earned Oscar nominations for perhaps their first absolutely powerhouse movie song, sung as an ode to the womanizing lead character, played by Michael Caine in the 1966 original. This clip features Cilla Black recording her vocals (you'll hear the final track), with Burt Bacharach colorfully conducting the orchestra at London's famed Abbey Road studios (the Beatles were likely recording Sgt. Pepper down the hall).
Also from the same year is this sly title song from the Peter Sellers farce After the Fox (Vittorio De Sica, 66). Sellers performs a sneaky spoken-word counterpoint to the vocals, performed by The Hollies. Next to "The Blob," this is perhaps Bacharach/David's weirdest movie tune.
Obviously, in 1967, we are now at the peak of Bacharachosity, with the charts of the day filled with his songs. That year, the composer/producer/conductor/arranger arrived with what is considered by vinyl-loyal audiophiles to be the finest record with which to test your stereo equipment's dynamics: the soundtrack to Casino Royale, the too-chaotic entry into the James Bond sweepstakes (the film has five people, including Woody Allen and Peter Sellers, portraying Ian Fleming's famed U.K. spy). It also sported five directors (including John Huston). It's a freaking mess. However, Bacharach's score remains its golden remnant. This particular YouTube offering first has Dusty Springfield resplendently delivering the movie's Oscar-nominated song "The Look of Love"--still an astounding ballad, and especially in this context. Afterwards, we're treated to an unusual trailer for the film which features Bacharach's snazzy title track with rarely-heard comic lyrics, sung by (I think) Peter Sellers. This is a real treasure!
Just now, looking at the album cover to Bacharach's soundtrack for The April Fools (Stuart Rosenberg, 69), I find I wanna see this movie more than ever. The sight of the arduous Jack Lemmon laying his head on the indifferent Catherine Deneuve's breast makes me wonder what details are contained in this movie. I had to include one instrumental entry in this overview, just to give readers an idea of Bacharach's impeccable arranging and conducting style. This track illustrates exactly what I adore about Bacharach's music: its bouncy, urbane, slightly melancholy pizazz.
There are those who blast the inclusion of Bacharach/David's "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 69). They say it slows the movie down and dates it. I would agree. But I think these attributes add to the film's charm. I love the short-focus photography by Conrad Hall (he won an Oscar for it), and the playful editing (by John C. Howard and Richard C. Meyer). I also think the slapsticking by Paul Newman and Katherine Ross add a humanistic whallop to an already friendly (but deadly) film. Yeah, it's not The Wild Bunch, but not everybody can be Peckinpah. I fault Hill's lovely film not a whit for bending to 1960s tastes in this scene. I include this clip, rather than the full (#1 hit) single, because it spotlights not only B.J. Thomas' throaty vocalizing, but also Bacharach's seamless, rollicking instrumental break. The composer won two Oscars in 1969: one for his song (along with Hal David), but also for his short but very sweet score.
Also from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I have to include the vocal/instrumental break called "South American Getaway." Here, in the movie, Butch, Sundance and Etta Place have migrated to Bolivia after the U.S.A. has become too hot for their bank-robbing ways. This absolutely dazzling track is performed here by an unnamed vocal troupe (and I think it was this track that won Bacharach his second Academy Award of 1969). So, in tribute to these vocalists, I've deemed it necessary to include here a brilliant live performance of "South American Getaway" by a spot-on band called The Swingtones. If you love Bacharach, this is certainly worth watching; they're like the Gold Medal winners of the singing Olympics! By the way, the vocalists here (performing at a 2007 Lincoln Center Bacharach tribute) are, from left to right: David Driver, Chris Anderson, Julian Maile, Sheryl Marshall, Connie Petruk and Jenny Karr. They are superb; I envy them.
All throughout the 1970s, Bacharach still produced Grammy-winning hits like The Carpenters' "Close To You," but moviewise, he coasted comfortably on his many chart hits, which were being used in scads of films well beyond that decade. One of the great sadnesses of his spectacular career was that his one foray into writing an original musical for the movies, Charles Jarrott's 1973 remake of Lost Horizon, tanked badly with both critics and the public. In it, Liv Ullmann, Peter Finch, George Kennedy, Sally Kellerman and Bobby Van star as new arrivals to that bastion of immortality called Shangri-La, with Charles Boyer as the territory's High Lama. The problem with the movie wasn't necessarily the score, but with the film's casting of non-musical talents in the leads, and with Jarrott's grating direction. Working on the project drove a wedge between Bacharach and his lyricist, Hal David, and they never collaborated again afterwards. Still, the film produced a few notable songs, including "Living Together, Growing Together" (covered in a chart hit by the Fifth Dimension) and this number, "The World is A Circle," led by Ullmann. By the way, I think a great movie musical could and should be made from Bacharach/David's Tony-winning Broadway show Promises, Promises, which bore the Dionne Warwick hit "I'll Never Fall In Love Again." In 2010, the production enjoyed an NYC revival with Sean Hayes and Kristin Chenoweth in the leads. Studios could do well in considering adapting Promises, Promises for the screen.
In 1981, upon meeting his future wife, lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, Bacharach re-fired his movie songwriting career in spectacular fashion. His new collaboration with Sager bore gold when the couple, along with Peter Allen and Grammy-winning superstar Christopher Cross, composed "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" for the still inviting Dudley Moore comedy Arthur (Steve Gordon, 81). This is, in my opinion, Bacharach's peak in the 1980s. You can be cynical all you want, but it's a still great song--lilting, romantic, picturesque, and beautifully produced.
This song, co-written by Bacharach/Sager (post-marriage) with Bruce Roberts, was composed for what's widely considered to be one of the first movies to portray homosexuality with more than a modicum of acceptance. Making Love (Arthur Hiller, 82) starred Michael Ontkean as a married man (he's hitched to one of Charlie's Angels no less, in the form of Kate Jackson) who starts up an affair with later Clash of the Titans star Harry Hamlin. The hit song is performed by Roberta Flack, and ushers in a new era for Bacharach's music.
Also in 1982 came the first really notable film by future superstar director Ron Howard, called Night Shift. Cleverly written by comedy pros Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (they went on to write two other Howard comedies, Splash and Parenthood), the film follows the bizarre friendships between nebbish morgue attendant Henry Winkler (then playing WAY against type, after portraying Fonzie on TV's Happy Days for almost a decade), sizzling newcomer Michael Keaton (playing idea-man Bill Blazejowski to goofy-cool perfection) and a band of rudderless prostitutes led by Shelley Long. It's a charming movie, with four Bacharach/Sayer compositions dotting its soundtrack. But the one playing over the final credits, and sung by Rod Stewart, would become a worldwide phenomenon when remade in the mid-80s as an AIDS benefit single by Dionne Warwicke, Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder. Very few people can recall this, but "That's What Friends Are For" is a song originally written for the movies. And the Oscar membership could hardly be bothered with it back in 1982 (even though "If We Were In Love" from the abysmal Luciano Pavarotti train wreck Yes Giorgio got a nomination).
Long after Bacharach's marriage with Sager ended, he produced one last piece of genius that threw back to his 60s output: his collaboration with Elvis Costello (I think they worked on the lyrics and the music equally) for the sideways musical biopic Grace of My Heart (Allison Anders, 1996). In the film, Illeana Douglas plays a Brill Building-era songwriter modeled after Carole King (with a little Carly Simon and Judy Collins thrown in). In the sometimes shaky film's most powerful scene, Douglas' character performs a new composition for a Brian Wilson type, played by a bespectacled Matt Dillon. Douglas lip-synchs to a performance by the remarkable Kristen Vigard. This stands as one of Bacharach's most indelible songs, through and through. Costello and Bacharach went on to collaborate on a fantastic album, called Painted From Memory (on which Costello performs a perfect rendition of this song).
Finally, I thought I'd include the extremely sweet credits sequence for P.J. Hogan's 1997 comedy My Best Friend's Wedding. Hogan is obviously a Bacharach fan herself, because she peppered this romantic comedy with a litany of the composer's tunes. Its pink-tinged opening sequence takes as soundtrack Bacharach's 1964 hit called "Wishin' and Hopin'," originally recorded by Dusty Springfield. Here, it's sung by Diana King and performed on screen by Jennifer Garrett, Kelly Sheerin, Bree Turner, and the extremely cute Raci Alexander. I love this little scene, and even though the arrangement isn't Mr. Bacharach's, I like to think he approved of this gently modulated version. I think this callback to his 60s-era output serves as a fitting end to my tribute.
For me, Burt Bacharach is not only a giant of musicianship. He is a stone-cold shaper of movie history. He will always be one of my most loved artists. Happy birthday, Mr. Bacharach.