The first time I ever visited Sherman Oaks and saw the childhood home of my old roommate Miles (this was back when we lived in San Diego, before he got famous), I mentioned to him that I felt like I’d been there before.
“It looks familiar?” he asked me.
“That’s because it’s been in the background of every porn movie you’ve ever seen.”
He explained that, to his knowledge, no porn had been filmed specifically in his house, but that the architecture was very typical for homes in the Valley. This was when I first learned that the San Fernando Valley is the pornography capital of the world. In Boogie Nights, and later in Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson treats the San Fernando Valley with the same reverence that Michael Mann reserves for Los Angeles in Heat and Collateral and John Hughes holds for Chicago in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
From the very beginning of the film, when the muted undertones of Michael Penn’s composition “Big Top” are shattered by the energy of the Emotions’ classic “Best of My Love,” it’s clear that music is going to be a very important aspect of the movie. The collection of ’70s and early ’80s songs Anderson uses in his film blend seamlessly into the scenes, gliding along perfectly in the background until the appropriate moments when the music itself is brought forward and allowed to speak as though it were a character itself. In Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson demonstrates just how much a great soundtrack, when properly presented, can add to an already excellent film.
The Film: Boogie Nights
The Songs: “Momma Told Me (Not to Come)”
The Artists: Three Dog Night / Eric Burdon & War
Who’s Who: Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg), who is soon to be christened as “Dirk Diggler” has just run away from home. His first destination is the house of the “exotic pictures” director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). Jack is throwing a party for all his friends in the adult film industry: the stars of his movies, his backers and crew, and an endless assortment of random guests. On his way through the party, Eddie meets fellow performers Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker), crosses swords with Reed Rothschild (John C. Reilly), has his primary asset evaluated by financial backer Colonel James (Robert Ridgeley) and catches the eyes of both boom mike operator Scotty J (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and broodless mother Amber Waves (Julianne Moore).
After an earlier incarnation as Redwood, Three Dog Night released their self-titled debut in 1969. Their name was taken from an expression used by indigenous Australians; on a particularly cold night, an aboriginal would bed down with not one, or two, but three wild dogs in order to keep warm. “Momma Told Me (Not To Come)” was originally written by Randy Newman. It was first recorded by, curiously enough, Eric Burdon and the Animals. It didn’t become a hit until Three Dog Night released their version in 1970, when it reached #1 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.
Eric Burdon, a self-described “overfed, long-haired, leaping gnome” was a founding member of the Animals, part of the vanguard for the British Invasion bands in the mid-’60s. During a career that produced such hits as “House of the Rising Sun” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” Eric Burdon was the anchor for the Animals, surviving a rotating lineup of guitarists and drummers that ultimately disbanded in 1969. At this point Burdon joined with the California funk band War, and “Spill the Wine” was one of their first efforts together. It’s been suggested that Burdon was the inspiration behind John Lennon’s Eggman, due to his predilection for breaking eggs over the bodies of naked groupies.
Why It Works: One of the reasons these two songs work so wonderfully here is that they belong in back yard of Jack Horner’s Canoga Park home every bit as much as the pool and the cabana bar and the skin-baring guests. Rather than feeling like part of the film’s soundtrack, they feel like they’re part of the actual film — as though the music was playing when they filmed the scene itself.
I don’t think there could be a more perfect song for the first half of this scene than “Momma Told Me Not To Come.” Eddie, fresh from a fight with his mother who utterly condemns his interest in sex, has run away from home to go diving headfirst into the “craziest party that could ever be.” When Jack asks Eddie, “Do you like music?” it’s almost as though director Anderson is posing that question to us. In a sense, the scene is built around the song; Three Dog Night fades into Eric Burdon and War just at the moment Colonel James arrives, an ideal transition.
I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, but “Spill the Wine” fits the situation even more perfectly. It’s unfortunate that some of the song’s lyrics get swallowed by other activity and conversations in the film, because they match the events of the scene brilliantly. Consider Eric Burdon’s musings:
I dreamt I was in a Hollywood movie
And that I was the star of the movie
This really blew my mind…
For Eddie, his dreams of being a “big bright shining star” are beginning to come within reach. While he’s appropriately coy in his interactions with Jack’s guests, Eddie has had an agenda from the moment he tipped his head to Jack in Maurice’s nightclub. He’s been taking the bus from Torrance all the way out to Reseda (for those unfamiliar with LA geography, it’s a long, long, long way) to wash dishes in a nightclub in hopes of being discovered, and at this point in the movie, it’s all finally happening. Once Eddie becomes Dirk Diggler, he eventually becomes jaded and spoiled, but in this scene he’s still a seventeen year-old kid, wide-eyed and enthusiastic about what his future holds:
I stood high upon a mountain top, naked to the world
In front of every kind of girl, there was
black ones, round ones, big ones, crazy ones…
What more is there to say?
What Goes Wrong: I don’t think there’s anyone more capable than Paul Thomas Anderson when it comes to eliciting quality performances from actors. He’s brought some of the most underappreciated actors to the front of the stage (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle). He’s guided some veteran character actors to what were, in my eyes, career-defining roles (Bill H. Macy, Phillip Baker Hall, Luis Guzman). And I think his finest gift as a director is his ability to take actors with questionable dramatic abilities, and wring every ounce of talent out of them and onto the screen (Adam Sandler, in Punch Drunk Love, and Tom Cruise in Magnolia). One of the few times I’ve seen him fail is with Nicole Ari Parker, who plays Becky Barnett. From her scowl at Eddie’s introduction, to her declaration of her look as “chocolate love,” her overacting is distracting and disappointing.
Other Stuff: One of the things that makes the banter between Eddie and Reed so amusing is that even though Jack didn’t actually say that he lives on the street, Eddie’s wearing the same shirt he’d had on the previous night (during his “audition” with Rollergirl). This reminds us that Eddie might not actually have anyplace to stay — it turns out that Reed has been more perceptive with his aggressive banner than he himself even realizes.
Boogie Nights is one of my favorite movies, and the soundtrack is a big part of why I love it so much. This won’t be the only time I write about it — there are plenty more scenes that are worth discussing. Someday, I’ll even explain my theory about the religious references in the film, and the whole “Garden of Eden” theme, but we’ll save that for another time.