If last month’s installment was almost uniformly dire, at least this year gives us a bit to talk about, including one song that honestly blew me away, a song I thought I knew but whose use in the film completely recontextualized it for the better. Of course it didn’t win, but we can’t have everything, now can we?
Let’s start this installment with its most baffling inclusion, the barely-a-song “My Wishing Doll” from the epic Michener adaptation Hawaii. If you’re looking for the rest of the clip below… that’s it. In its entirety, the performance lasts less than thirty seconds, a casual piece for Julie Andrews’ character to goof around with her kids. If anything, Academy voters likely remembered not the song itself but its melody, which Elmer Bernstein used elsewhere in the score to more memorable effect. As sometimes happens, the nominations just piled on for the old-fashioned, epic production, sweeping trifles like this along with it. The effort was wasted: Hawaii would go 0–7 on awards night.
It’s a pity there isn’t more to work with (in the film, I mean: the soundtrack album contains a fuller version of the song), because what we have is pretty lovely, a nostalgic minor-key look at what childhood means among the would-be missionaries. There’s just not much to say about it here.
Continuing in the minor-key vein, we have Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster’s “A Time for Love,” from controversy-courting crime drama An American Dream. As performed in the film (by Janet Leigh!), it’s a fairly bland jazz standard, and if you can mentally imagine what an inoffensively bland early 60s jazz song might sound like, well, this song sounds like that. Mandel is nothing if not professional here, with complex chords and chromatic modulations, but…zzzzz….
To be fair, the soporific quality is almost entirely due to the rhythm and instrumentation, what we might call the cruise-ship shuffle, because the actual melody is fairly engaging. Perversely enough, I think the piece sounds much better slowed down even more (e.g. as a torch song), so that that arching, melancholic melody isn’t distracted by your grandparents cha-chaing by the shuffleboard courts. Take it away, Shirley Horn!
It’s indicative of how much the category had changed over the last decade with the waning of the musical’s Golden Age and the shifts in popular taste that the only two diegetic songs nominated this year were such incidental pieces, while everything that follows rolls over the credits. Credits or not, though, the category’s winner is also something of a snooze, though it was a big hit at the time: the end-credits track to lion conservation film Born Free, which (and this feels like cheating somewhat) slaps a few lyrics by Don Black onto the main melody of John Barry’s Oscar-winning score, effectively two awards for the price of one.
For my money, it works better as an instrumental: the downward leap in “born free,” a sort of a reverse hunting-call, is thematically clever (if that was the intention), but it sounds less “free” than “resigned” in Matt Monro’s lugubrious performance. Barry’s orchestration is as rich as usual, but again, he won for that in another category, so.
Things get far more interesting with the next nominee and, I suspect, if the category were somehow re-run today, the song that’d likely take home the statue: Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s classic title track from Alfie. Like a lot of Bacharach productions, the harmonies here run all over the place (no sooner does he state the tonic than he runs away from it, like he’s embarrassed to have a home key), with a rollercoaster of a countertheme that soars over a truly weird vii–i–vi progression that forces the melody to contort in unusual ways. The way the production kicks up after the first repeat (matched to the credits rolling) is also sharply done, veering, much like the film itself, from loneliness to something cheekier and more energetic.
I’d also single out David’s lyrics here as especially good: I’m a sucker for the rhetorical-question style here (“What’s it all about, Alfie?”), and the proposed answers have something of a bite, albeit a melancholic one (“If only fools are kind, Alfie, / then I guess it is wise to be cruel.”) Unfortunately for Cilla Black, who performs the song in the film (very well, in fact!), it was almost immediately commandeered by Dionne Warwick, who now owns the rights to it forever. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
Now we arrive at the one song I most want to talk about, the title track from Georgy Girl, a song that you’re probably humming in your head just from reading the name, and possibly with annoyance. In the course of these last few weeks, I’ve gone from mild resentment (it initially sounds like a commercial jingle: you can imagine an actress skipping along to an ad for feminine products) to grudging acceptance to full-on respect to enthusiastic love, and I’m here to take you on that journey with me!
The radio-single version of song (music by Dusty Springfield’s brother Tom, lyrics by Jim Dale) is straightforward in construction (I–iii–IV–V, a very basic progression, with occasional forays into modal-sounding ♭VII and a countertheme that runs briefly over III-II-V) and, if fairly standard folk-pop, distinguishes itself with some nice harmonization between Aussie band The Seekers’ lead vocalist Judith Durham and her male backups, along with some really nice melodic touches (the “a little bit” asides lead a tentativeness to the radio single version, and I love that the melody peaks on the word “new” at the conclusion.) For sure, it suffers a bit from a not uncommon form of pop misogyny in its assertion that “dowdy” women can get what they want by “getting off the shelf,” but it’s otherwise a respectable entry that’s at least better than much of its competition this year. As used in the film, however, something more sublime emerges.
When researching for this piece, more than one commentator criticized the song for poorly reflecting the content of the movie in question, a bubbly piece of pop songwriting for a fairly miserable, black-and-white look at a depressed, sexually frustrated woman (Oscar-nominated Lynn Redgrave) who, faced with dead-ends all around her, ends up with maybe the most livable version of her likely unsatisfying futures. One author went so far as to describe the song as “facile” and “insulting,” having “missed the point of Georgy Girl the movie” (though, to repeat: this appears to be a widespread opinion, so I don’t want to pick on this particular author).
Here’s the rub, however: the radio-single version of “Georgy Girl” is not the one that appears in the movie, where there are in fact two alternate sets of lyrics used instead, and the differences are telling. The opening-credits version, like the radio single, blames Georgy’s misery on her dowdy looks, promising a better future if she only changes herself…. which she does by getting a new hairdo, only to promptly find herself even more miserable than before, i.e. it’s very evidently satirical, Georgy’s internal monologue acting as a Greek chorus that dispenses only bad advice. The pop-misogyny turns out to have a purpose, the deceptive bubbliness of an instagram lifestyle ad promising you the happiness and beauty that only a full-time team of trainers and nutritionists can provide.
Even more revelatory is the end-credits version, where Georgy (spoiler) has gotten “what she wanted”: a husband, a child, and a secure future… Only, she doesn’t love the husband and the screaming baby isn’t actually hers. (The final shot of the newlyweds’ uncertain, dissatisfied faces in their wedding car prefigures the similar ending of next year’s The Graduate.) Now the song’s internal monologue curdles into outright mockery (“Better try to smile and tell yourself that you got your way”), with the tentative “a little bit” transforming into the acidic, almost accusatory “well, didn’t you?” and a jeering “You’ve made it!” If the song ultimately clashes with the movie, it’s not because it’s “simplistic” or “optimistic” but the reverse: it’s ugly and unsparing, and that only makes me love it more.
What else could have been nominated?
Lots of folks identify the real titan in this category as the winner of the Golden Globe and the Grammy for Record of the Year, Bert Kaempfert’s “Strangers in the Night” from A Man Could Get Killed. Problem was (and I don’t know how the Globes resolved this), it’s not actually a song in the movie, just a catchy instrumental melody that was later attached to words for the radio single that its most famous interpreter, Sinatra, apparently called “the worst fucking song I ever heard.” Guess the HFP couldn’t resist rewarding such a huge hit, whether it was in the movie or not. They did, however, have the wisdom to nominate Francis Lai’s title track to Un homme et une femme and its memorably cheeky 4+2+4 (!) romance. The most well-known iteration of the song has no lyrics per se, just a vocalise-duet, but the film also uses a version with lyrics by Pierre Barouh. It’s a slight but utterly delightful piece, and it’s not like the Academy wasn’t aware of the movie’s existence: the film received four Oscar nominations, winning for Foreign Film (over The Battle of Algiers and Loves of a Blonde!) and Original Screenplay.*
As for the musical, such a mainstay of this category and of the industry overall, it had a legendarily terrible year in line with the genre’s overall wane in the late 60s, most famously a stunted adaptation of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Pop musicals were doing considerably better, at least in the song department. Sure, Elvis released three films and nearly all the original songs were bad (though, confirmed Elvis-hater that I am, I’d actually go to bat for “Please Don’t Stop Loving Me” from Frankie and Johnny, which is lovely), but we also got, for example, an attempt to recapture some of The Beatles’ lightning-in-a-bottle in the form of teenage band Herman’s Hermits and their second film, Hold On! They’re not my cup of tea (I saw multiple critics refer to them as “safe” which sounds just about right) so I was surprised that I liked some of these songs more than I expected. “Where Were You When I Needed You?” has a pretty fun singalong chorus, and despite initially sounding like a second-rate early Beatles B-side recorded in some teenager’s garage (not inaccurate), I really dig how the otherwise cheery, upbeat title track starts every line of the chorus in a minor key. It’s propulsive and it works.
Speaking of bands I have no particular affinity for, The Lovin’ Spoonful followed up their wildly successful first year as a band by scoring not one but two films in 1966: some appropriately yuk-yuk ditties for the Woody Allen trifle What’s Up Tiger Lily? (let’s just pretend this never happened) and a bunch of pieces for UCLA student Francis Coppola’s first “respectable” (i.e. non-B-movie) film as director, the comedy You’re a Big Boy Now. The latter produced one of the band’s best-known hits, the melancholy “Darling Be Home Soon”. It’s a very curious piece, with almost the entire melody crammed into a cluster of four neighboring notes (which makes the unexpected little arpeggio at the end of the chorus’ phrases feel like a soothing drink of water in an otherwise parched melody). Like so many songs in today’s list, it’s since become owned by another performer, but the original ain’t bad, either.
* The 1966 nominees across the board made for one of the more interesting years in Academy history: acting nominations went to Anouk Aimée, Ida Kamínska, Mako, and Tahitian once-off actress Jocelyne LaGarde! The Redgrave sister-enemies were nominated for Best Actress against each other! The last non-English film to win Original Screenplay for the next thirty-five years! The first of only two ever (honorary) Oscars for a stunt man! We need more idiosyncratic years like this.
Previous installments: 1936, 1954, 1974, 1982
Next month: the first-ever Best Song nominations get the category off to a terrible start. Can’t wait!