Exit Music (For a Film): The Pogues, “Old Main Drag”

Written by Exit Music, Music

Apocalypse NowLike many students, I was assigned to read Tom Stoppard’s existential classic Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead during my junior year of high school. I’ve always hated reading plays – in my opinion the only people who should be reading a play are the actors and the scarf-wearing, latte-sipping, pretentious jerk that is directing it (I’m kidding, of course). The magic of a good play is in its performance, not its text. But something about the conceit of taking two minor characters from Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet and giving them their own story to tell really struck a chord with me, and I enjoyed it immensely. To a certain degree, Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho follows the same path.

The Film: My Own Private Idaho

The Song: “The Old Main Drag”

The Artist: The Pogues

Countless adaptations of William Shakespeare’s stories have been turned into teenage dramas and committed to the screen. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) took The Taming of the Shrew and brought it to Seattle, featuring a ruggedly charming Heath Ledger as Petruchio and a young Julia Stiles as Katherine. “O” (filmed in 1999 but not released until 2001 due to similarities between events in the film and the Columbine massacre) was based on Othello but set at a private school in South Carolina, featuring Mekhi Phifer as Othello and a slightly older Julia Stiles as Desdemona. And Scotland, PA(2001) took the story of Macbeth and moved it to rural Pennsylvania, using James LeGros and Julia Stiles as Joe and Pat McBeth, and substituting a fast food restaurant called Duncan’s Café for Dunsinane Castle.

Despite relying on Shakespeare’s plays for their plots, few of these adaptations have attempted to preserve the bard’s original dialogue in their new settings. The most memorable attempt was Baz Luhrmann’s vividly redrawn William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (1996), which used the appeal of its stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Julia Stiles to introduce Shakespeare’s classic tale to the MTV generation. Michael Almereyda turned the Kingdom of Denmark into Wall Street in the film version of Hamlet (2000), which featured Ethan Hawke as Hamlet and Julia Stiles as Ophelia. And in My Own Private Idaho, director Gun Van Sant relied on the text of King Henry IV as an inspiration for several of the primary characters and borrows a number of lines of dialogue from the original text. Van Sant cleverly avoids having to cast Julia Stiles as the love interest by focusing the romantic subplot his film on an unrequited attraction between gay hustlers (River Phoenix as Mike Waters and Keanu Reeves as Scotty Favor), and the majority of the story takes place in the city of Portland.

I’ve always felt that Keanu Reeves has been unfairly maligned as an actor. I’m not about to suggest that he’s more talented than, say, Ian McKellan, but Kenneth Branagh, who takes his Shakespeare very seriously, thought enough of Reeves’ abilities to cast him as the villain Don John in the 1993 film production of Much Ado About Nothing. And while Reeves was, of course, assailed for his wooden performance, the ill treatment he received at the hands of critics seemed to be more a product of Pavlovian conditioning than anything else. While Reeves doesn’t really bring more to the character of Scotty Favor than an actor such as Skeet Ulrich or Casper Van Dien would, there’s no doubt that pairing a mediocre actor such as Reeves with an incredibly gifted performer like River Phoenix will accentuate the weaker actor’s faults. In reflection of the fact that Reeves doesn’t bring My Own Private Idaho to a screeching halt, it’s probably fair to say this is the best dramatic work he’s ever done.

It’s worth noting that Van Sant only uses Shakespearean dialogue when Scott and his “street tutor” Pigeon Bob (William Richert) are interacting. In this way, Idaho is very similar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead — both exist as an extension of the original story, and both elevate minor characters from the original into the forefront of the new story. The character of Scott Favor is a representation of Henry V, Prince of Wales, who is one of the central characters in the King Henry plays. “Hal” as he is often referred to, has fallen into wasteful living in the companionship of Sir John Falstaff, who is the basis for the character of Pigeon Bob in Idaho. In addition to Falstaff, Hal has three streetwise companions Poins, Bardolf, and Peto. While it’s not clear which (if any) of these characters Mike Waters is based on, it’s clear that the action in Idaho takes place beyond the boundaries of the original story while preserving its framework, much as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did.

“The Old Main Drag,” from The Pogues’ 1985 album Rum Sodomy & the Lash, tells a similar story to that of the movie, that of a drug-addicted hustler in London and the rapid collapse of his existence. It’s wonderfully fitting for the end of My Own Private Idaho because we know that the narcoleptic Mike is also too fragile to survive for long for in this world (and sadly, neither was River Phoenix, for that matter). Idaho gives us a small glimmer of hope at the end, as the helpless Mike is carried off by a faceless Samaritan, but it’s difficult to imagine that the future holds much happiness for his tragic character, who has ultimately been abandoned by essentially everyone he’s met, including his best friend and own family.

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