“Henning” is New England singer-songwriter Henning Ohlenbusch. “The movies” are nine that have stuck with him all these years: Joe Versus the Volcano, The Straight Story, Poltergeist, The Year My Voice Broke, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Logan’s Run, Superbad, Amélie, and Meatballs. This album, a lovely discovery, explores why.
Why are we passionate about the movies we love? Beyond the usual virtues (great direction, performances, etc.) it’s hard even for a critic to explain, and putting it into music would be harder still. Then again, I could easily set my hatred of, say, the Twilight series to a death metal beat. It’s easier to rip apart things than it is to celebrate what moves us. Henning (it seems strange to refer to him as “Ohlenbusch,” so intimate is the connection these songs make) has wisely taken an evocative approach to this album. The songs bear the titles of the movies, but other than that there are few shout-outs to the plots or the characters. He takes one or two strands from each film and unravels his affection for them over the course of each song.
Take, for example, “Poltergeist.” The song begins with an homage to the “white noise” beginning of the film, though there’s no particular dread or ostentation to what follows. (“It’s a relaxed, friendly record,” one of which Henning played almost all the instruments, including “his trusted dark red Guild acoustic guitar,” he says on his site.) It begins affirmatively–”Everything is how it usual is/In the blue-eyed houses of our neighborhood.” he sings, plaintively. But there’s an undercurrent here, which in time unsettles the piece. By the end, doubt has crept in: “Everything is different than it was/In the blue-eyed houses of my neighborhood/Nobody’s acting like they should /In the blue-eyed houses of my neighborhood.” The Freelings would agree.
Most of the movies the album celebrates are comedies, or have comic elements. Henning tends to focus on what’s most wistful about them. Not for him the raunch of “Superbad”: instead the song addresses the romantic anxieties of its mall scenes (“You raise your hand up to the escalator rail/My lungs are full, but I don’t want to exhale/It’s a thought that’s as jarring as the homeroom bells/The next time you see me, I might be someone else”). Melancholy is a prevailing mood. “Logan’s Run” is more explicitly about the movie than most of the songs, but its use of the film’s imagery isn’t heavy-handed. “We’re not allowed to talk about it/We’re not allowed to talk about it,” the song begins, though by the end the darkness has been dispelled.
Wanting to rely on what impressed him most deeply about each movie, Henning purposefully chose not to revisit them before embarking on this album. The strength of those first impressions gives his stab at a “concept album” its resonance; he hasn’t edited himself. And the songs stand alone; you don’t need to have seen The Year My Voice Broke to appreciate the music. There was, however, synergy at work when I listened to “The Straight Story”–hearing it reminded me that I didn’t have the movie in my DVD collection. I do now. Thanks for sharing, Henning–and thumbs up for a beautiful tribute to the movies that moved you, with songs that touch us.
Henning has made some videos to promote his trip through the movies. Here’s Poltergeist, 30 years old this year. Go into the light…