“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game — the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.” —Walt Whitman
With the All-Star Game right around the corner, I suggested to Kelly Stitzel that she feature Bull Durham for this week’s Soundtrack Saturday. I was shocked — shocked, I tell ya! — to find out she’s never seen writer-director Ron Shelton’s 1988 summer hit, one of the best sports movies of all time, if not the best movie about baseball. It’s also one of the finest romantic comedies of the past 25 years.
First-time director Shelton drew from his own experiences as a minor-league ball player for Bull Durham‘s screenplay, and he was blessed with a stellar cast that brought his richly drawn characters to life. It’s a movie full of smart dialogue and character-based comedy that celebrates the lunacy, hijinks, and joy of America’s two favorite pastimes — baseball and sex.
Susan Sarandon, radiant as ever, flew on her own dime from Italy to audition and win the role of Annie Savoy, a part-time teacher in Durham, North Carolina. Annie dedicates each summer of her life to tutoring a player on the Durham Bulls, the local minor-league team, that she believes has the best potential to get a call up to the majors. However, Annie isn’t interested in improving the players’ reading and writing. And she isn’t a coach, although she knows as much about baseball as any manager. No, she’s more of a spiritual and sexual adviser: “You know how to make love, then you’ll know how to pitch.” She reads Walt Whitman to her lover-players and puts on Edith Piaf records in the hopes of making them well-rounded human beings and therefore better ball players. At the top of the film she chooses as her new student Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, the Bulls’ latest gifted pitcher, who has a million-dollar arm but a five-cent head on his shoulders.
The role of Nuke went to Tim Robbins in a career-breakthrough performance. Shelton had to fight to get Robbins cast in the part; up to that point he’d been in Howard the Duck, an infamous flop, and mostly blink-and-you-missed-him bit parts (raise your hand if you recall him in Top Gun). In addition to his lack of experience onscreen, executives at Orion Pictures felt that a woman as classy as Sarandon would never fall for a guy like Robbins. Luckily, Shelton prevailed, and the two actors not only worked wonderfully on the set but fell in love and remain a devoted couple to this day. Shows you how smart those movie execs can be.
At the same time Annie’s taking Nuke under her wing, the Bulls bring in “player to be named later” Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), a journeyman catcher and 12-year veteran of the minor leagues. Crash is a man who respects the game of baseball for all that it is and should be. Despite his dedication and excellence on the field, he’s only made it to “the show,” i.e. the majors, once, but they were the best 21 days of his life. In the twilight of his career, Crash is prepared to quit when he’s presented the offer of being Nuke’s babysitter, but since it means he’ll get to play ball for one more season, you know what he’s going to decide.
Costner seems so perfectly suited for the role of Crash that it’s surprising to learn the character was written with Kurt Russell in mind. (Russell starred in 1986′s The Best of Times, written by Shelton, and later worked with Shelton on 2003′s Dark Blue, playing a part originally offered to Costner.) When he signed up for Bull Durham in 1987 he was a newly minted star, having played Eliot Ness in that summer’s big-screen adaptation of The Untouchables, and by the time Bull Durham began filming, the sleeper hit No Way Out had made him a sex symbol. (Who can forget that limo scene with Sean Young?) But Bull Durham took him to a new level of popularity and made him an A-list actor.
As the movie progresses, it becomes obvious that Annie and Crash are meant for each other. Unfortunately, their egos and each one’s code of ethics stall them from consummating their passion until Nuke graduates to the show. Like any great romantic comedy, though, you know these two are going to end up together.
In between there are classic scenes that make the film so memorable, like the moment when exasperated Bulls manager Joe Riggins (the late Trey Wilson) is chewing out his young players after a poorly played game. He mocks them, calling them “lollygaggers,” then storms off, muttering a string of obscenities at such a rapid clip that it becomes one lone curse word: “Goddamnsonofabitchinmotherfuckinshit!” Then there’s the scene where the players all meet on the pitcher’s mound in the middle of the game to discuss everything but baseball. Coach Larry Hockett (a hilarious Robert Wuhl) eventually joins them, and they discuss what kind of wedding gift to buy a recently engaged couple.
Of course we can’t forget the many lessons Crash bestows upon Nuke. My favorite has always been this pearl of wisdom: “Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You’ll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you’ll be classy. If you win 20 in the show you can let the fungus grow back and the press’ll think you’re colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.”
Finally, there’s Crash’s speech about what he believes. (I could transcribe it, but it’s better if you just hear it for yourself.) Bull Durham is a classic American movie, but its themes are universal, which is why it’s so revered by critics and fans alike.
When the movie came out, Capitol Records released a woefully incomplete soundtrack album that’s now out of print (although copies can still be found in the CD section of various libraries, and there are $45 used copies available at Amazon.com). While it was missing several key songs from the movie, the soundtrack was still a good collection of the bluesy rock and jazz you’d expect to hear in the North Carolina bars where the film takes place.
The record begins, ironically, with the obligatory smooth ballad that plays over the film’s closing credits: Joe Cocker’s “A Woman Loves a Man” is soulful and comes off much classier than it would if a lesser singer were trying to pull it off. After a solid rocker by the Fabulous Thunderbirds comes “I Got Loaded” by Los Lobos, which was originally used as a temp track during the “rainout” scene where Crash floods the playing field to ensure a day off for the Bulls. Shelton loved how the spirit of “I Got Loaded” made the grown men look like boys having fun in the mud, so he kept it in the movie.
George Thorogood & the Destroyers are in the cleanup spot with “Born to Be Bad.” I’ve never been a Thorogood fan, but this song is amusingly used when Nuke is shown dancing with four girls at once. The Blasters follow with “So Long Baby, Goodbye,” which accompanies a great montage in the film. House of Schock closes out side one with “Middle of Nowhere”; I’ve never heard anything else by Go-Go’s drummer Gina Schock’s side project, but “Middle” is a great power-pop song.
Side two begins with the obvious but still classic “Centerfield” by John Fogerty, followed by Tennessee singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin’s “You Done Me Wrong.” The remaining three numbers on the record are courtesy of jazz saxophonist Bennie Wallace collaborating with Dr. John; Shelton had heard Wallace’s 1985 album Twilight Time and invited him to contribute to the movie. (He also scored Shelton’s next two films, Blaze and White Men Can’t Jump.) One of the songs, “All Night Dance,” originally appeared on Twilight Time, but I believe it was rerecorded for Bull Durham. It’s noteworthy for the fact that it features some killer guitar playing by Stevie Ray Vaughan but has never appeared on any of the late musician’s compilations.
So, what’s missing? Let’s begin with Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” — the song plays in its entirety as the movie opens and Annie enters Durham’s baseball stadium. While the late Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball, dances and entertains the crowd, you’re immersed in the atmosphere of minor-league baseball. Then there’s the Ike & Tina Turner soul song “I Idolize You,” which plays under Crash and Nuke’s first confrontation outside a bar: Crash clocks the rookie and gives him his first lesson, after which they come back inside to find Annie and Patkin dancing. Nuke grouses, “We fight and she gets the clown. How’s that happen?” To which Crash replies, “God, I like this song.”
Shelton has stated that he listened to Edith Piaf during the time he was writing Bull Durham, so the inclusion of her music is organic to the film. “That crazy French chick,” as Nuke calls her, is featured in two pivotal scenes, yet neither “La Vie en Rose” or “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” were on the soundtrack album. However, the most egregious omission was the Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man”: when Crash and Annie finally hook up, the song plays over a montage that’s sexy and fun, and it ends with the lasting image of the two characters framed in a doorway, dancing in her living room.
On Bull Durham‘s DVD commentary, Shelton says many studios passed on the script because it was a sports film (The Natural is great, but Roy Hobbs is a mythical creature next to Crash Davis). When Capitol cranked out the soundtrack album, it’s doubtful they expected the movie to be a hit, seeing as how it was a low-budget baseball movie competing with high-profile blockbusters like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Coming to America that summer. Eighteen songs show up in the film, so there was no way all of them would have fit on a single LP (even though the overall running time is less than an hour), but still, a couple of the songs certainly should have wound up on the cassette or CD as bonus tracks.
In the new millennium it’s surprising that the complete soundtrack hasn’t already been included as part of a special-edition Bull Durham DVD. Perhaps someone at MGM, which now owns Orion Pictures’ library — the studio went bankrupt in the ’90s — will read this post (fingers crossed!) and remaster the soundtrack in time for the film’s 25th anniversary.
In the meantime, I present the complete Bull Durham soundtrack. Load the tracks onto your iPod or burn them to a CD, then take a drive out to the local ballpark. Who knows, maybe you’ll catch a home run. Or you can go parking with your sweetheart, put on “Sixty Minute Man,” and hope you’ll get lucky with America’s other favorite pastime.
Bill Haley & His Comets, “Rock Around the Clock”
The Smithereens, “Only a Memory”
George Thorogood & the Destroyers, “Born to Be Bad”
Ike & Tina Turner, “I Idolize You”
House of Schock, “Middle of Nowhere”
Edith Piaf, “La Vie en Rose”
Pat McLaughlin, “You Done Me Wrong”
The Blasters, “So Long Baby, Goodbye”
Los Lobos, “I Got Loaded”
Bennie Wallace and Dr. John, “Try a Little Tenderness”
The Everly Brothers, “When Will I Be Loved”
John Fogerty, “Centerfield”
The Fabulous Thunderbirds, “Can’t Tear It Up Enuff”
Edith Piaf, “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien”
Bennie Wallace and Dr. John with Stevie Ray Vaughan, “All Night Dance”
The Dominoes, “Sixty Minute Man”
Bennie Wallace and Dr. John with Bonnie Raitt, “Love Ain’t No Triple Play”
Joe Cocker, “A Woman Loves a Man”