Motion Picture Soundtrack: “Free Bird”

Written by Motion Picture Soundtrack

There was an episode of television’s Friday Night Lights when a new character plays in his first game and forces a game-changing fumble. The lead-up sequence is unabashedly manipulative, as an unseen announcer criticizes Coach Taylor’s inflexible play calling and repeatedly exhorts the Panthers’ need for a big play. I remember remarking, out loud, “this is so predictable!” And yet, despite my awareness of how shamelessly Peter Berg was jerking the puppet strings of my heart, I couldn’t help but feel a swelling of excitement when Santiago burst through a blocker and leveled the quarterback with a blindside hit, sending the ball tumbling into the hands of a teammate and changing the momentum in the Panthers’ favor.

No movie has ever made me feel both so wonderfully uplifted and so deeply cynical at the same time as Forrest Gump (1994). The film itself is the feel-good story of the twentieth century, taking us on a tour of many of most significant events of the sixties and seventies, each punctuated by a digitally recreated appearance by Forrest and one of his homespun sayings. It’s pretty difficult to resist his good nature and simple charm, and there are plenty of scenes where I find my emotional response is more predictable than the salivating of Pavlov’s dogs. And it doesn’t really bother me. On the other hand, while the soundtrack to the film serves its purpose by providing appropriate period music to accompany the fantastical events of Forrest’s life and the world he inhabits, it is absolutely infuriating. I’ll explain why in a moment.

The Film: Forrest Gump

The Song: “Free Bird”

The Artist: Lynyrd Skynyrd

Who’s Who: Tom Hanks is Forrest Gump, the paragon of socially conservative virtues. He has an IQ of 75, yet graduates from college as an All-American football player, honorably serves his country in a foreign war, and steadfastly pursues a monogamous relationship. He is polite, well-mannered, and relentlessly optimistic, and he respects and obeys authority figures throughout his life. Through a combination of hard work, persistence, and luck, he is eventually rewarded with riches beyond his needs and the love of the girl of his dreams.

Jenny Curran, played by Robin Wright Penn, is a representative of the counterculture movement. She is dismissed from college for posing for pornographic photographs, moves through a series of abusive and destructive relationships, becomes addicted to drugs, and eventually becomes a single mother working as a waitress in a local diner. She ends up dying from AIDS.

Forrest Gump was directed by the widely acclaimed Robert Zemeckis, whose love affair with visual effects was showcased in films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), the Back to The Future trilogy, and more recently, Beowolf (2007). Forrest Gump was one of the first appearances of Gary Sinise, and also includes the first appearance of the recently troubled Haley Joel Osment as Forrest’s son.

Lynryd Skynryd had a relatively short, bright career before several of its members, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, were killed in a plane crash in Mississippi in 1977. “Free Bird” was featured on the band’s eponymous major label debut, and reached #19 on the Billboard Hot 100. Forrest Gump also features “Sweet Home Alabama,” the from the band’s successful followup, Second Helping. The tragic crash of a Convair 240 that took the lives of Van Zant and five others, and gravely injured most of the remaining passengers, occurred three dates into their tour supporting Street Survivors and was attributed to “fuel exhaustion and total loss of power from both engines due to crew inattention to fuel supply.”

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Why it Works: This is one of the most successful musical scenes in the movie. Jenny’s downward spiral has brought her from the marijuana haze of campfires to cocaine-dusted mirrors and finally to the depths of needle drugs, and for a brief spell suicide seems to her to be her only option for escape. The song is a reference to a pair of scenes earlier in the film, the first where Jenny prays to be turned into a bird, and the second where she flirts with the prospect of leaping off a bridge to escape her problems. It’s also an allusion to the similar fate shared by Lynryd Skynyrd. The accelerating pace of the music drives home the impression of a life that is out of control, and Jenny’s climb onto the balcony even allows a nicely exploited opportunity to emphasize a pair of fashion cues from the era, Jenny’s silver platform heels and polyester bellbottoms.

What Goes Wrong: There’s really nothing wrong with the scene featuring “Free Bird”. My complaint is more of an indictment of how music is used in the remainder of the movie, particularly with regards to the way the soundtrack itself was developed. In the film clip I included the brief sequence featuring KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” in front of “Free Bird” to help illustrate my point. According to the wikipedia article on the soundtrack, a total of 45 songs are used in the film. By my own sloppy reckoning, the total time that popular music is playing in the film is just 24 minutes. Which means that each song is used for an average of just more than 30 seconds. While most of the songs are appropriate period pieces, too many times they are used as transitional techniques, helping to bridge between the scenes of a montage rather than being associated with any particular events of the film.

I’ve seen True Romance (1993) described as a collection of brilliantly conceived scenes that failed to coalesce into a great movie; conversely Forrest Gump is an excellent movie that fails to include any truly spectacular scenes. Musically, there are a few very clever inclusions, such as Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking” during Forrest’s visit to New York City (in a nod to 1969’s Midnight Cowboy), and Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” to accompany Forrest’s run across the country, which took place in the midst of the Carter administration and the OPEC oil embargo. But even when songs were used appropriately, each time the music faded out after just a few bars, it was like I could hear the “ka-ching” of a cash register as one more familiar favorite was added to the film’s soundtrack. The technique obviously worked; the soundtrack for Forrest Gump is the fourth best-selling film soundtrack of all time, having sold over 12 million copies.

Other Stuff: Forrest Gump was the darling of the 1994 Academy Awards, being nominated in thirteen different categories. The film cleaned up, winning a total of six statuettes, including Best Director, Best Picture, and a second consecutive Best Actor award for Tom Hanks. It’s also worth noting that of the songs mentioned here, only “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Everybody’s Talking” were actually featured on the soundtrack.