Recently, a song was played on the radio entitled “Merry Go ’Round,” by up-and-coming country singer Kacey Musgraves, and it reminded me of the kinds of songs that used to be featured on movie soundtracks in my youth. In these films, there was usually a sequence where the song played over a piece of action as a character is traveling or making stops or having a lovers’ rendezvous and the lyrics usually commented on the action, either directly or obliquely. The songs that came to mind right away were the following: “Everybody’s Talkin’” performed by Nilsson in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969), “Come Saturday Morning,” performed by the Sandpipers in THE STERILE CUCKOO (1969), and “I Got a Name,” performed by Jim Croce in THE LAST AMERICAN HERO (1973).
Offhand, I couldn’t recall for certain if these were simply theme songs performed over the opening credits or actual song interludes inserted into the film’s narrative. I thought about it some more and then remembered, of course, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), which was definitely a song interlude, played over comic antics by Butch (Paul Newman) on a bicycle as he cavorts with the woman in his life, Ella Place (Katharine Ross) around a farmhouse, and definitely was not a theme song (nor did it have much to do with the narrative). I also remembered the line, “Tomorrow is the song I sing/Yesterday don’t mean a thing,” from a song performed in Sam Peckinpah’s THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE (1970). I then went through my lists of movies seen in the late 1960s and early ’70s and remembered quite a few more songs, some of which were theme songs or end songs and some of which were used as interludes. These are the ones I remembered:
THE GRADUATE (1967): “Mrs. Robinson” and other Simon and Garfunkel songs used in the film;
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967): the title song performed by Ray Charles;
BARBARELLA (1968): “An Angel is Love” and other songs heard in the film;
THE WILD BUNCH (1969): “La Golondrina,” performed in Spanish by a chorus as the villagers bid goodbye to the title outlaws;
MACKENNA’S GOLD (1969): “Ol’ Turkey Buzzard” performed by Jose Feliciano;
TRUE GRIT (1969): title song performed by one of the movie’s stars, Glen Campbell;
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969): “We Have All the Time in the World” sung by Louis Armstrong over a lovers’ montage;
EASY RIDER (1969): “Born to Be Wild” performed by Steppenwolf, plus numerous other songs by different artists;
THE APRIL FOOLS (1969): title song performed by Dionne Warwick;
LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS (1970): “For All We Know,” performed by the Carpenters over a wedding sequence;
KELLY’S HEROES (1970): “Burning Bridges,” performed by the Mike Curb Congregation;
M*A*S*H (1970): “Suicide is Painless,” used over the opening credits and then sung by a character later in the movie;
SHAFT (1971): title song written and performed by Isaac Hayes;
SUPERFLY (1972): “Freddie’s Dead,” one of several songs written and performed by Curtis Mayfield in the movie;
POCKET MONEY (1972): title song written and performed by Carole King;
PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (1973): “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” one of several songs written and performed by Bob Dylan, who appears in the movie but doesn’t sing on camera;
THE LONG GOODBYE (1973): title song written by John Williams and Johnny Mercer;
EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973): “A Man and a Train,” performed by Marty Robbins.
Some movies used pre-existing songs. Martin Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS (1973) used lots of rock ‘n’ roll classics including “Be My Baby,” by the Ronettes, heard over the credits, and, in a memorable drunken lope through a barroom by Harvey Keitel, “Rubber Biscuit” by the Chips. The corny “love-in”-style ending of BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE (1969) featured numerous strangers in Las Vegas getting in line to hug each other to the tune of Jackie DeShannon’s “What the World Needs Now is Love.” Some films featured songs that were actually being sung on-camera, as we saw in COOGAN’S BLUFF (1968), when Coogan (Clint Eastwood) enters a Greenwich Village disco and is treated to the song, “Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel,” performed by the Pigeon-Toed Orange Peels, a group I suspect was created solely for the film.
In VANISHING POINT (1971), Kowalski (Barry Newman), the driver trying to outrace pursuing troopers from Denver to San Francisco, stops at a desert hippie festival to hear Delaney & Bonnie & Friends sing “You Got to Believe.” In COOL HAND LUKE (1967), Paul Newman, playing an inmate in a prison cell, strums the guitar and sings “Plastic Jesus” in one scene. (According to IMDB, Harry Dean Stanton sings three songs in the film, although I don’t remember those.)
When I looked at the list of films, it struck me that they were all from 1967-1973, with a larger number from 1969 than any other year. What also struck me was the wide range of genres represented, with a good number of westerns, matched by counterculture “youth” films of the era, as well as crime dramas, sci-fi, war movies and romantic comedies. I then tabulated a list of soundtrack albums from these films that I’d acquired in those years and came up with these:
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
THE WILD BUNCH
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE
PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID
I also acquired albums that had collections of songs that included some of the other numbers cited above, including a Dionne Warwick album of movie theme songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
When I tried to think of later Hollywood movies with memorable songs and song interludes, I came up blank and I knew there must be dozens. Why didn’t I remember them? Were the songs too different? Were they used in a less memorable way? Was it a practice that fell out of favor after the early 1970s? Did I just not respond to pop music in later eras? Most importantly, was I just more musically impressionable in 1967-1973?
It turns out that I actually could recall numerous song interludes in later films, except that they were either Hong Kong action films from the late 1980s and early ’90s or anime from the ’80s and ’90s. A CHINESE GHOST STORY, THE KILLER, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA, SWORDSMAN II, SWORDSMAN III: THE EAST IS RED, MOON WARRIORS, and BLADE OF FURY were among the Hong Kong films I remembered for their songs. Anime titles include MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM III, KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE, MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM F91, PORCO ROSSO, TENCHI MUYO IN LOVE, SLAYERS, PRINCESS MONONOKE, and ADOLESCENCE OF UTENA, to name a few. Not to mention the extraordinarily creative use of the John Denver song, “Country Road” in WHISPER OF THE HEART (1994). The song sequences in the Asian films were, of course, a little different from the westerns and counterculture movies of the early 1970s. In BLADE OF FURY (1993), the song we hear early in the film is an upbeat appeal to pride and nationalism sung by a male chorus over a montage sequence of Chinese men running together and training in kung fu in order to fight and kill Japanese invaders. The famous Wong Fei Hung theme is sung by a male chorus over a similar scene of kung fu students training on a beach in ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA. Then, of course, there’s Corey Yuen’s SO CLOSE (2001), which uses the Carpenters’ “Close to You” in a very clever way during the opening action sequence. (Which brings us back full circle to 1970 and the Carpenters’ song used in LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS.)
(Pictured: A CHINESE GHOST STORY, PRINCESS MONONOKE, GHOST IN THE SHELL)
So I asked around to see if friends, family members and people on the internet could remember similar song sequences. The 1980s had them; I just didn’t recall them at first myself: ROCKY III and IV, GHOSTBUSTERS, FLASHDANCE, TOP GUN, to name a few. Others named sequences in the 1990s and 2000s from such films as LOCK-UP, SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY, NOTTING HILL, DONNIE DARKO, LOVE ACTUALLY, VANILLA SKY, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, and VALENTINE’S DAY, none of which I’ve seen. My daughter cited CLUELESS and THE FIFTH ELEMENT, both of which I saw with her, but didn’t remember the songs.
There were other movie songs from the earlier era that I’d forgotten about and was reminded of by other friends who remembered the era. One friend remembered songs by The Association performed in GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, also from that key year of 1969. Two separate friends remembered “Trouble Man,” by Marvin Gaye, from the blaxploitation classic of the same title, from 1972. I’d seen both films back then. On my own, I remembered more, including such disparate songs as “Green Slime” from the Japanese monster movie of that title, also 1969 (and which I wrote about here on April 22, 2012); “Across 110th Street,” sung by Bobby Womack in the 1973 crime thriller of that title; and “Vamos a matar, compañeros,” from the Ennio Morricone score for COMPAÑEROS (1970), an Italian western which I saw on a triple bill with TROUBLE MAN and one other movie back in 1972. In fact, quite a number of Ennio Morricone movies from that era featured memorable songs, although COMPAÑEROS was the only one of these that I saw in a theater. (I wrote about Morricone here on Nov. 10, 2012.) I discovered the others on television or home video years later and they include:
GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS (1963)
A PISTOL FOR RINGO (1965)
THE RETURN OF RINGO (1965)
THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966)
DANGER: DIABOLIK (1968)
MACHINE GUN MCCAIN (1969)
SACCO AND VANZETTI (1971)
The fact remains that I genuinely liked a lot of the songs from that initial period and remembered some of them quite well, even the ones that I hadn’t heard in a long time. The lyrics had a certain level of poetry to them, as evidenced by these lines from “I Got a Name”:
Like the pine trees linin’ the windin’ road
I’ve got a name, I’ve got a name
Like the singin’ bird and the croakin’ toad
I’ve got a name, I’ve got a name
And I carry it with me like my daddy did
But I’m livin’ the dream that he kept hid
Movin’ me down the highway
Rollin’ me down the highway
Movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by
Or these from “Everybody’s Talkin’”:
Everybody’s talkin’ at me
I don’t hear a word they’re saying
Only the echoes of my mind
People stopping staring
I can’t see their faces
Only the shadows of their eyes
I’m going where the sun keeps shining
Thru’ the pouring rain
Going where the weather suits my clothes
Backing off of the North East wind
Sailing on a summer breeze
Skippin’ over the ocean like a stone
The lyrics offer vivid visual imagery, something I think the aforementioned Kacey Musgraves song shares with them. The songs boasted catchy melodies and usually played over scenes of people moving or traveling in some way past picturesque location landscapes–out west, down south, or along the streets of New York. There was a languid feel, a sense of life being lived and places as they existed in real life and not in Hollywood studios. It was all part of the general movement away from big-budget studio-created formula entertainments.
I watched MIDNIGHT COWBOY, EASY RIDER, SHAFT, and ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE again for this piece. In MIDNIGHT COWBOY, “Everybody’s Talkin’” is heard over the opening credits as the naïve Joe Buck (Jon Voight) leaves Texas, walking out on his dishwashing job, all spruced up in a brand new cowboy outfit, and gets on a bus headed for New York, where he hopes to strike it rich as a stud, a male whore for rich women. We hear pieces of the song three more times in the film, including a sequence showing him walking down Fifth Avenue and getting the lay of the land, so to speak, as he eyes potential clients or, more like it, as he stalks his prey, generally to awkward results. He’s shot with a long lens amidst Midtown Manhattan crowds in several shots.
The song gives an upbeat feel to a sad story of a man who tries to make it as a hustler but keeps getting out-hustled by much craftier characters until he winds up in a symbiotic relationship with one of them, a loser named Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who can’t pass a pay phone (remember those?) without flipping the coin return to see if a dime comes out. Their alliance gets stronger as their circumstances get more miserable, enabling them to eventually plan an escape to sunnier climes. Other songs in the film include the eerily beautiful “Old Man Willow,” performed by Elephants Memory and heard in the background at a Warhol Factory-style party in Greenwich Village after the two have received an unlikely invitation. (Various Warhol entourage members make cameo appearances in this scene, including Viva.) I remember this song being my favorite on the soundtrack album, even moreso than “Everybody’s Talkin.’”
In EASY RIDER, the songs play over assorted scenes of the two protagonists, Wyatt and Billy, riding their motorcycles across the west after a big drug sale that has enabled them to live easy for a while. They have the means to escape but their circumstances are often just as troubling as those facing the protagonists of MIDNIGHT COWBOY. Some of the more effective songs include: “I Wasn’t Born to Follow” (the Byrds), “The Weight” (The Band), “Don’t Bogart Me” (The Fraternity of Man), and “If Six Were Nine” (the Jimi Hendrix Experience), all played as the two ride their cycles towards their destination of New Orleans and the impending Mardi Gras. Even though the songs in the film were all written prior to and independent of the film’s conception, their lyrics tend to comment on the action or on the emotional and psychological states of their characters. Only one song, “The Ballad of Easy Rider,” written by Bob Dylan and put to music by Roger McGuinn, who sings it, was actually composed for the film and Dennis Hopper tells the story of how that came to pass on the audio commentary on the DVD.
SHAFT is notable for its theme song which has a very long musical intro before the famous lyrics are heard, sung by the film’s composer, Isaac Hayes (“They say this cat Shaft is a bad mutha–/Shut yo’ mouth/But I’m talkin’ ’bout Shaft”). But there’s another song in the film at about the 28-minute mark. Called “Soulsville” and also sung by Hayes, it describes the tribulations of the Harlem poor as it plays over a sequence showing private eye John Shaft walking the streets of Harlem on a cold day and questioning various residents as he searches for the whereabouts of an elusive militant named Ben Buford in relation to a case he’s working on. It’s a beautifully shot sequence and the song works perfectly in it.
ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is one of only two James Bond films (the other being DR. NO) that doesn’t have a theme song. Its credits sequence is scored entirely by a John Barry instrumental. However, about 35 minutes in, as Bond (George Lazenby) and Tracy Draco (Diana Rigg) cavort in a lovers’ montage, the song, “We Have All the Time in the World,” written for the film, plays on the soundtrack. It could have been a corny sequence, with its telephoto lens shots of the lovers on horseback, in a garden, shopping at boutiques together, etc. But it’s sung by Louis Armstrong, whose great raspy voice reveals a warm and tender quality that might not have been so evident in a traditional crooner’s delivery. It greatly enhances the sequence and was an unexpected and quite brilliant choice on the part of the music supervisor. I remember being quite moved by it when I first saw it back in 1969.
There’s another song later in the film, “Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown?,” a very pleasant children’s ditty, also written for the film, and sung first by a children’s chorus as Bond, in disguise as a Scottish genealogist, arrives in Switzerland by train. The song is later reprised by a female soloist, Nina, backed by the children’s chorus, during a winter carnival where Bond is desperately trying to flee Blofeld (Telly Savalas) and his pursuing minions by trying to lose himself in the crowd, leading to an unexpected reunion with Tracy. It’s a charming song and it provides an interesting counterpoint to the intrigue and chasing going on in the middle of an otherwise festive occasion. And its singer, credited only as Nina, turns out to be none other than Nina van Pallandt, before she became notorious for her involvement in the famous Clifford Irving Howard Hughes biography hoax. (She also turns up in an acting role in THE LONG GOODBYE.)
I haven’t even addressed any of the music business angles that might have influenced the way music was used in these films and the issue of soundtrack albums as marketing tools. I’m only interested here in how the music is used and the effect on the finished film and why I remember certain songs and interludes and not others.
I’ll give the next-to-last word to my nephew, Christopher, who has a more intricate relationship to contemporary pop music than I do.
The way we consume music and movies has changed. I’ve received music and movies as gifts but I haven’t purchased any in many years. When you can have any song or movie on your TV, phone, or device, at the blink of an eye it makes these forms of art less impactful and meaningful to our culture. It used to mean something to own books, music, and movies. Your collection meant something to your friends and to yourself. Now, with the equivalent of infinity books, music, and movies at your fingertips at any time it becomes less meaningful to the consumer and our culture. So it may appear that music isn’t being used the same way because people aren’t talking about them or playing them on the radio or being bought but I don’t feel like it was a characteristic of an era.
If I’m reading him correctly, the music stood out more for me back then because there wasn’t so much for it to compete with.
Still, I find it remarkable how much music was part of the fabric of movies back then–in so many different varieties. For instance, I’m amazed at the number of original move musicals I saw in one two-year period from 1963-65: BEACH PARTY, HOOTENANNY HOOT, MUSCLE BEACH PARTY, ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, MARY POPPINS and HELP!, not to mention a couple of animated features with songs: THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET and SWORD IN THE STONE. And look at the talent involved: the Beatles, Julie Andrews, Johnny Cash, Frankie & Annette, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, Little Stevie Wonder, Bing Crosby and the Rat Pack! This is in addition to multiple viewings of a Broadway adaptation, WEST SIDE STORY. So movies and music were intricately intertwined for me back then in a way I haven’t experienced since.
Finally, here are some YouTube excerpts of relevant clips mentioned above:
MIDNIGHT COWBOY (“Everybody’s Talkin'” starts at 1:03):
EASY RIDER (“I Wasn’t Born to Follow”):
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”):
MEAN STREETS (“Rubber Biscuit”):