Soundtrack Saturday: “Coming to America”

Written by Film, Soundtrack Saturday

Eddie Murphy’s back on the big screen this weekend in Imagine That, but Kelly Stitzel’s been bullied into talking about Murphy’s 1988 smash hit Coming to America by Jeff Giles and Jason Hare. Imagine that!

The other day I was minding my own business, drinking my coffee and reading e-mails, when I saw a tweet directed at me from our own Jeff Giles: “I just found out the System recorded a song for the Coming to America soundtrack. This is a Soundtrack Saturday request!” Before long, the lovely Jason Hare chimed in, and a full-fledged Twitter conversation had begun about the possibility of the next Soundtrack Saturday focusing on this 1988 Eddie Murphy film. It went a little something like this:

Me: You know, I just might be able to make that happen.
Jeff: SWEET. I have an irrational love for the System. Well, just “Don’t Disturb This Groove,” really. But whatever.
Jason: Who did the actual song “Coming to America” for the movie? Was it them?
Jason: It was! It was!
Jason: This might be my favorite soundtrack song with the song’s name in the title. Either this or “Spaceballs.”
Jeff: Casio goes to Africa! Yes! I love it!
Jeff: The soundtrack’s 10th track is a duet between Laura Branigan and Joe “Bean” Esposito. YES YES YES YES YES
Me: you boys just made my week easier b/c I had no idea what I was going to write about this week.
Jeff: We live to serve! Or to hunt down cover versions of “What a Fool Believes,” whichever comes first.

To be honest, Coming to America had been on a mental list I’ve been keeping of movies I want to write about for this column. However, the older I get, the harder it is to read my mental lists, so I welcomed this reminder from Jeff and Jason. I have a feeling that if you read Popdose you’ve seen Coming to America many times; I know I’ve seen it at least 50 times, if not more. It was a highly quoted film in my household after multiple viewings on cable by my family in the early ’90s, and it’s still a movie I randomly quote from without prompting. It’s still one of my favorite movies directed by John Landis (National Lampoon’s Animal House, The Blues Brothers), and it’s probably my all-time favorite of Eddie Murphy’s movies.

For the three of you who haven’t seen Coming to America, let me tell you about it. Murphy plays Prince Akeem of Zamunda (a fictional African nation — standard in Hollywood), who is turning 21 and must marry, but he isn’t happy with the idea of committing to a woman he’s never met — and therefore doesn’t love. With his parents’ blessing, he and his right-hand man, Semmi (Arsenio Hall), plan a trip to the United States so Akeem can find the perfect woman, though his father, King Jaffe (James Earl Jones), thinks he’s going just so he can “sow his royal oats.” Akeem and Semmi decide that Queens, New York, will be the perfect place to “find a woman with grace, elegance, taste and culture … a woman suitable for a king.”

Akeem figures that in order to find this perfect woman he and Semmi must act like regular citizens of Queens, not royalty. So they get a shitty apartment and they get shitty jobs at McDowell’s, a fast-food restaurant that’s strikingly similar to McDonald’s, despite owner Cleo McDowell’s (John Amos) claims to the contrary. While working there, Akeem meets and becomes smitten with Mr. McDowell’s daughter Lisa (Shari Headley). The only problem is that Lisa’s already dating Darryl (Eriq LaSalle), the heir to his parents’ successful company, Soul Glo, a Jheri-curl hair-care product.

Fortunately, Darryl, in addition to having greasy hair, is also a jackass, and soon forces Lisa to break up with him, leaving her free to date Akeem. Lisa and Akeem quickly fall in love, but their romance is endangered when his parents show up in New York — they had received a telegram from Semmi asking for more money. Lisa is angry when she learns Akeem’s true identity, and turns him down when he proposes. Heartbroken, he returns to Zamunda with his parents to marry the woman who had originally been chosen for him. However, he gets a nice surprise when he lifts the bride’s veil at the ceremony. Awww, happy endings.

It’s now common practice for Murphy to play multiple characters in his films, but Coming to America was the film that started it all. Both he and Hall play three characters in addition to their main roles, thanks to the help of talented makeup artist Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Men in Black), who received an Academy Award nomination for his work. One of the more controversial roles Murphy has played in his career is that of an old Jewish man in the film’s barbershop scene, though the controversy mostly stemmed from people not believing that was the skinny black comic from Brooklyn under all that latex, despite what the closing credits said.

Another notable thing about Coming to America is that it was the first time Murphy had worked with John Landis since their 1983 film Trading Places, which is cleverly referenced in the film with cameos by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy as their Trading Places characters, Mortimer and Randolph Duke. The director has said that Murphy was an arrogant jerk during the filming of Coming to America, a 180 from his supposedly upbeat, try-anything attitude on the set of Trading Places, when he was just 21 years old. Landis said that their professional relationship was fine during production but that their friendship suffered because of Murphy’s douchebaggery. (Landis doesn’t come across as the most humble guy himself in interviews, despite Coming to America being his last box-office hit.)

Does that make me love the movie any less? Nah. Besides, Landis directed Murphy again in Beverly Hills Cop III, so there couldn’t have been that much love lost — except from fans of the first two Cop movies after they saw the 1994 entry. (It was reported last year that Murphy is developing a fourth Cop with sequel hound Brett Ratner.)

Okay, now let’s talk about the soundtrack. The multitalented Nile Rodgers composed Coming to America‘s score and also wrote and produced several songs that appear on the soundtrack. There’s a great “featurette” about the film’s music on the DVD, in which Rodgers discusses how he wanted the score to be a combination of traditional African music, classical music, and modern urban music. I think he did a pretty damn good job of achieving that mix.

I can’t provide you with the score, but I can provide you with the complete soundtrack. I’ve included everything that made it onto the official release and everything that didn’t, including a couple bonuses I think you’ll love. Remember, “just let your Soul Glo!”

Ladysmith Black Mambazo – Mbube (Wimoweh) (This is not the exact version that appears in the film, but I figured something was better than nothing.)
J.J. Fad – Comin’ Correct
Eddie Murphy – I Got It
Chico DeBarge – All Dressed Up (Ready to Hit the Town)
Mel & Kim – That’s the Way It Is
The Cover Girls – Better Late Than Never
Laura Branigan and Joe Esposito – Come Into My Life
Nona Hendryx – Transparent
Michael Rodgers – I Like It Like That
Marvin Gaye – Pride and Joy
Marvin Gaye – You’re a Wonderful One
LeVert – Addicted to You
Smokey Robinson & the Miracles – Ooo Baby Baby
Jackie Wilson – To Be Loved
Sister Sledge – Livin’ the Good Life
The System – Coming to America
Soul Glo Theme (I just had to)

And of course, I couldn’t do a Soundtrack Saturday about Coming to America without including Randy Watson & Sexual Chocolate covering “The Greatest Love of All.”

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