The ubiquity of the soundtrack album has rarely flagged over the six decades since the introduction of the long-playing record. Kelly Stitzelâ€™s treasure-trove column Soundtrack Saturday brilliantly documents the height of the music and film industriesâ€™ cross-marketing efforts during the â€™80s and early â€™90s; more recently, the trend toward music placement on the tube has resulted in every self-respecting television drama coughing up the occasional album of well-placed pop songs that punctuate climactic scenes or just provide background noise for the plot machinations of the Gossip Girl, the boys at the Bada Bing!, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
With soundtracks having long since proven their value both as keepsakes of, and more recently as advertisements for, films both cherished and forgotten, itâ€™s surprising when a movie that prominently features music fails to produce an aural as well as a visual document. I was reminded of this last week during a brief bombardment of Jeff Goldblum appearances — first live (well, taped) and in person on The Colbert Report, comically taking President Obama to task for his callous extermination of one of Goldblumâ€™s musca domestica brethren …
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Murder in the White House – Jeff Goldblum|
… and then as a non sequitur in Robert Cassâ€™s hallucinatory introduction to Fridayâ€™s Bootleg City column. For my own media-addled brain, any Goldblum reference immediately brings to mind my favorite of his movies, the mostly forgotten but genuinely delightful trifle The Tall Guy, from 1989. It was the first film written by Richard Curtis, who was already a legend of British television for his authorship of the Blackadder series and Not the Nine Oâ€™Clock News, and who would go on to write a series of veddy British rom-coms with steadily diminishing returns, from Four Weddings and a Funeral (yay!) to Notting Hill (bleah) to Love, Actually (ugh!).
The Tall Guy stars Goldblum as an awkward American actor spinning his wheels as the West End straight man for a mean-spirited, wildly popular funnyman (Rowan Atkinson). Inspired by his quirky romance with a way-too-sensible nurse (Emma Thompson, in her first major film role), he abandons his meal ticket and takes the lead in a wacked-out musical based on The Elephant Man.
The film is blissfully free of trademark Curtis dialogue clunkers like â€œIs it still raining? I hadnâ€™t noticedâ€ and â€œIâ€™m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.â€ Instead, its centerpiece — apart from perhaps the silliest sex scene in modern film history — is a montage of highlights from the aforementioned musical within the film, Elephant! Hereâ€™s a snippet of the opening number:
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And hereâ€™s the closing number:
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In between, the musicalâ€™s Andrew Lloyd Webber parody features a wrenching ballad titled â€œLooks Like Heâ€™ll Be Packing His Trunk.â€ Itâ€™s all brilliantly rendered, knee-slapping stuff, which makes it all the more peculiar that The Tall Guy never spawned a soundtrack album. Itâ€™s really too bad, especially considering that the film gave new life to Madnessâ€™s early-â€™80s rendition of â€œIt Must Be Love.â€
Most likely, no soundtrack was released for The Tall Guy because the film never made much of an impact at the U.S. box office (it debuted here almost 18 months after opening in the UK). Such wasn’t exactly the case with another film whose songs never saw release, Tim Robbinsâ€™s political satire Bob Roberts. Released in 1992, but based on a character Robbins had created for a Saturday Night Live short in ’86, the film portrayed a right-wing folksinger-millionaireâ€™s quest for a U.S. Senate seat representing Pennsylvania. Robertsâ€™s fictional campaign rally/concerts feature a style of politicking and attract an assortment of angry white supporters that eerily presaged the real-life Republican National Convention of â€™92 — the film opened just a few weeks afterward — and the congressional campaigns of two years later.
Robbins famously refused to release a soundtrack for Bob Roberts, worried that actual right-wing politicians or activists might use his satirical songs for their own purposes. I always thought this reasoning was ridiculously flawed, for a couple of reasons: First, what was to stop any listener who chose to do so from transcribing and then replicating Robbinsâ€™s performances, with or without a CD from which to copy them? And second, even if he had released a soundtrack album, his liberal politics were well enough known that Republicans were hardly likely to try to exploit his performances.
Besides, who couldnâ€™t have foretold in 1992 that someday every American would be able to watch this on his computer with the click of a button?
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And somebody must have given permission for postpunk band the Vandals to record “Complain” for their 1999 album The Vandals Play Really Bad Original Country Tunes….
Going off on a bit of a tangent, Iâ€™d like to finish this column by whining about a film from the same time period that was accompanied by a soundtrack — one thatâ€™s still available, albeit used — yet has never been released on DVD in this country: the British comic romance Hear My Song, from 1991. The directing debut of Peter Chelsom (whose most recent credit is another musical comedy — The Hannah Montana Movie), Hear My Song is the tale of a Liverpool nightclub impresario (Adrian Dunbar) who’s kept himself afloat by conning customers into paying to hear impersonators like Franc Cinatra, but who makes a last-ditch effort to save his club and impress his girl (Tara Fitzgerald) by talking the great Irish tenor Josef Locke (Ned Beatty) out of his self-imposed tax exile for one more gig.
The film is based on the true story of Locke, who fled England for Ireland in the late â€™50s at the height of his career to escape the taxman. Beatty doesnâ€™t appear until halfway through the film, but he leaves an indelible impression as a schlumpy guy whoâ€™s a ladykiller nonetheless because of the dulcet tones that emerge from his purty mouth. His voice comes as a revelation the first time we hear it â€¦
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â€¦ and triumphs through the seeming adversity of the filmâ€™s climax:
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Word on the street is that Hear My Song will finally receive a DVD release — in the UK — late next month. Can a U.S. release be far behind? And if not, then why the hell not?