Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bob Dylan's Movie History

Oscar season got me thinking about music and the movies and that led to my  favorite atypical Bob Dylan album, the soundtrack for Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, for some easy listening.
When it was first released in 1973, Dylan made news for his debut as an actor along with another singer-songwriter, Kris Kristofferson. Dylan didn’t turn any heads with his performance but Kris was propelled into Hollywood orbit as the reluctant hero/heartthrob. The critics panned the movie as less than stellar Sam Peckinpah.

With one exception, Dylan’s role in writing the unusual soundtrack for the film did not make a lot of waves, although it was nominated for a Grammy and a BAFTA award.
The exception was “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” which became a hit for him, reaching #12 on the Billboard charts. The song took on a classic life of its own when Eric Clapton covered it, Guns & Roses revived it and then gained a special poignance when Warren Zevon recorded it for his final album released just before his death.

What seems overlooked is the seminal role this soundtrack made in moving the film story along with both its music and the lyrics. Until then, movie music (other than musicals) was either background and theme music or, as in the case of American Grafitti used to provide counterpoint to the plot developments.

But Dylan and Peckinpah saw an opportunity to try something different. Use the music to set the tone and lay the ground work for the back story but also to interpret events and drive the action.  It is some of Dylan’s must entertaining music.

How’s this for a setup that captures the story (we all know by heart) and the dilemma of the outlaw:
There’s guns across the river aiming at you
Lawmen on your trail they’d like to catch ya
Bounty hunters too they’d like to get ya
Billy they don’t like you to be so free

And of course, nothing captures the last moments of consciousness like these lyrics: 
Mama put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them anymore
That long black cloud is coming down
I feel like I’m knockin on heaven’s door

The movie is the sort of grade B western that I like watch again to see how Peckinpah directs and to enjoy James Coburn along with western actors like Richard Jaeckel, Jack Elam and Katy Jurado.

The album sounds great after forty years because Dylan’s voice is young and mellow and he works with the best musicians: Booker T, Russ Kunkel (exquisite bongos on “Cantina Theme”) Jim Keltner and Roger McGuinn.

Today you cannot go to a movie without a soundtrack of rock and pop songs that are used to describe characters' moods or situations while they jog, drive or stare into the distance.
Many of those songs are Dylan’s. IMDB lists 439 audio credits for him and he won an Oscar for "Things Have Changed in 2001 from Wonder Boys. And some movies have created standout albums that capture good musical history (Big Chill, The Blues Brothers, Forest Gump.)  

But as we wade through another awards season, don't forget this turning point in movie music from Dylan.

There’s always one more notch and four more aces
Billy you’re playing all alone

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Tributes: From Billy Joel to Phil Everly

One of the pleasures of the holiday season is seeing honors for music legends and going over best of the year lists that open doors to new music and tribute albums. Here’s a brief survey.

HBO’s wonderful tribute to Stephen Sondheim, Six By Sondheim, directed by James Lapine, combines the best of traditional documentary interviews and music clips to take us from “West Side Story” through “Sundays in the Park with George.” The kinescopes from Broadway stage shows contained come vintage performances, like Mandy Patinkin as Georges Seurat. 

The interviews with Sondheim showcased his take on the creative process and his reverence for those who influenced him including personal mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern and Hal Prince. It seemed unusual that such a giant (eight Tonys, eight Grammys, a Pulitzer, an Academy Award) could be so reflective and articulate about music and writing.

At the Kennedy Center (where I first heard “Send in the Clowns”) the musical honors also included some wonderful documentary footage as well as some lushly produced performances by stars paying tribute to legends. On hand to salute Herbie Hancock (“the hippest guy in the room”) was Snoop Dog and his diamond studded mic holder along with combos led by Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter. Harry Belafonte and Buddy Guy were there for Carlos Santana. Tony Bennett set up the biography of Billy Joel and then some big guns weighed in on his classics, including Don Henley, Garth Brooks and Rufus Wainwright. They performed in front of a stage-to-ceiling keyboard and closed the show with “Piano Man” before a standing, singing audience. It’s hard to find a comparable case where a signature song that became a classic anthem also mirrored the life of its creator.

Finally Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone and Bob Edwards of XM radio tipped me to two tribute albums worth purchasing.  The first is Sing Me The Songs: Celebrating the Work of Kate McGarrigle. Performing the songs of the late Canadian artist (“Heart Like A Wheel”) are her children, Martha and Rufus Wainwright, her sister, Anna, Emmy Lou Harris and Norah Jones.

Jones is also one half  of the duo in a cover album of songs by the Everly Brothers with Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong.  Those sibling harmonies that hooked us all as teenagers and influenced a generation of rockers get a much-deserved spotlight on For Everly. It is nice to know Phil got to hear it before he passed away this week.