Greetings, Soluters and fellow music lovers! While last month may have been one of our sloggiest, quality-wise, I’m happy to say that this month offers us … well, if few classics, at least a less embarrassing selection overall. No novelty jingles, no lazy sequel tie-ins, and the one song that is from a franchise is probably the best of the lot. Unfortunately the yogurt is also cursed, i.e. we have to wade through some pretty grim stuff this month. Gird your loins!
Let’s start with the grim so we can use the rest of this installment as a palate-cleanser. The winner of the ’77 Academy Award for Best Original Song was almost a foregone conclusion. Yes, it was from a critically panned film. Yes, it saw only middling box office. Yes, the production was troubled (to put it mildly). But it was the biggest song of the entire 1970s, the first-ever song to top the Billboard Hot 100 for a whopping ten weeks, the once-ubiquitous ballad “You Light Up My Life” from the scrappy little movie of the same name.
The song is widely despised today both for that puzzling ubiquity and for being so sappy, but from a purely musical perspective, it’s at least a smidgen more interesting than some of the era’s similar ballads. Composer (screenwriter/director) Joseph Brooks got his start in ad jingles and he writes with that same hyper-efficiency, compacting half a circle of fifths into as many measures. Pop-songwriters typically avoid doing this in such a straightforward way because, among other things, it creates voice-leading problems and forces the use of notes outside the home key: just two secondary dominants removed and you’re already dealing with an augmented first; Brooks takes us another secondary dominant past that.* As for those problem tones, Brooks just lets them fall where they will, creating a harmonic texture that sometimes feels more modal than it really is (starting off in the minor dominant helps, too). The total lack of syncopation or off-rhythm also makes this the whitest song we’ve covered in this series.
*Incidentally, Stevie Wonder pulled similar tricks a decade earlier in “For Once in My Life,” but he does it with panache, because he’s Stevie f’n Wonder. The underlying structure and phrases have so much in common, though, that I find myself singing one song to the other’s lyrics and vice-versa. Try it yourself and you’ll hear it.
A word about that troubled production. Actress Didi Conn is lip syncing to Kasey Cisyk… we think. The timing of this is a little unclear, but Brooks had a falling out with Cisyk (more on this below) but didn’t want to scrap the orchestral recording, so he hired Debby Boone to sing over it, matching the original note-for-note to cover up any original-vocal artifacts they couldn’t fully scrub from the track. The decision was fortuitous, because Boone then went and told everyone she was really singing to Jesus, and this helped bring in another entire demographic of music listeners to propel the song up the charts. Whatever else it is or was intended to be, “You Light Up My Life” became the anti-counter-culture song, Boone trampling over the bones of whatever was left of the ideological 60s and paving the way for the Reaganite 80s. I’m sure she made her nutcase father proud.
Oh, and there’s one more thing. The “falling out” with Cisyk was allegedly because she refused Brooks’ sexual advances. He then cut her out of the production and refused to pay her (she sued, successfully). Fast-forward to the 90s, and Brooks is on trial for a whole series of casting-couch rapes. Things avalanched from there: while awaiting trial, his son’s girlfriend turns up dead (the son would later be convicted of murder) and he himself was in the middle of another lawsuit for having put his home up as collateral on a friend’s bad loans. Brooks took his own life before his rape trial began. I say all this because it’s really, really hard to listen this track and not have all of this dissonant context humming in the margins, especially due to the circumstances of Cisyk’s ouster from the production.
Let’s move on to Disney!
The least of the three kid-friendly songs that received nominations this year is undoubtedly “Someone’s Waiting for You,” from The Rescuers. Keeping in mind that a fully animated film never won this category in the long span between Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid, Disney also wasn’t exactly sending its best. Songwriters Carol Connors and Ayn Robbins, the first two-woman team to break into the category, were just coming off Oscar nominations the previous year for “Gonna Fly Now”, i.e. the theme from Rocky, which made them an interesting choice for a cartoon about mouse rescuers. Sadly it’s not the most memorable soundtrack, and their nomination came for the only song where they teamed up with 10-time nominee and 2-time winner Sammy Fain (this would be his last), so I suspect something of a legacy acknowledgment here. In the meantime, soak up these delicious visuals by a first-time directing animator, a young whippersnapper named Don Bluth. Can’t wait to see what kind of career he has!
Disney’s second appearance in the category became much more of a standard for the company, the ballad “Candle on the Water” from Pete’s Dragon. Though the movie was originally conceived as a non-musical, the song was apparently so well-loved that the movie was reshaped around a dozen new songs. The pedigree here is especially fun: it’s from the songwriting team of Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha, two-time winners for their Maureen McGovern disaster-film toss-offs “The Morning After” and “We May Never Love Like This Again,” frequently considered the worst or near-worst winners of all time. I’ve mounted lukewarm defenses of both, and what I said there holds true for “Candle,” a song I don’t exactly love, despite the best efforts of the recently departed Helen Reddy (hers is far, far better than Okkervil River’s drippy cover for the Pete’s Dragon remake):
The third children’s film in the category isn’t Disney, but it might as well be: The Slipper and the Rose, a British production of Cinderella that employed long-time Disney songwriters the Sherman Brothers (winners for Mary Poppins, nominees for Bedknobs & Broomsticks, nothing for The Aristocats or The Parent Trap, etc.) Their songwriting here wasn’t especially well-regarded at the time, but the nominee, “He/She Danced With Me,” is a solid little waltz, its chromatic undulations sounding more Russian than anything (inspired perhaps by Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty, but maybe even a hint of Prokofiev’s Cinderella). I like it quite a bit!
Two fun facts about this movie: first, it was produced by David Frost, of forward-slash-Nixon fame. Second, while the Sherman Brothers wrote the music, it was orchestrated and conducted by Angela Morley, the first openly transgender person to receive nominations from the Academy. Though she wasn’t credited for her work on the songs, she was credited for the score, leading to her second Oscar nomination (her first, in 1974, was for The Little Prince.)
Finally, the song that would probably win if this category were somehow re-run, the classic Bond theme by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sanger, “Nobody Does It Better,” from The Spy Who Loved Me. There’s a good reason it’s usually ranked near the top of Bond themes, particularly for the way Hamlisch weds a memorable melody to such skillful production. Propelled by a peak Carly Simon, it became the highest-charting Bond theme until the mid-80s, besting even Sir Paul’s “Live and Let Die”:
To bring this all, ahem, full circle: there’s a quick little circle-of-fifths thing going on here at the end of each verse, but Hamlisch mostly disguises it by avoiding non-diatonic notes apart from a lowered 6, which is pretty conventional: it’s from the parallel minor and very common in jazz. So we don’t get the discomforting whiplash of whatever Brooks is doing above.
On the other hand, this song is curiously every bit as sexless as “You Light Up My Life.” As a Bond aficionado*, I tend to prefer the movie themes dripping with luxury and sensuality, à la Shirley “nobody else has the range” Bassey, which is closer to my mental image of What James Bond Should Be. But there is something perfect about Carly Simon crooning these frankly absurd lyrics without a hint of irony or affect. She’s not so much celebrating Bond as laying out, as matter-of-factly as possible, the fact that he’s the perfect spy and lover and everything else. Makes me feel sad for the rest.
*I have never seen a Bond movie.
What else could have been nominated?
The nominated songs may have been sexless, but that doesn’t mean the culture wasn’t producing sextastic options that could have, and in many cases should have, broken through into the mainstream awards circuit. Granted, the Academy was never going to nominate something as blunt as the Curtis Mayfield/Mavis Staples joint “Koochie Koochie Koochie,” but any number of their other songs from Sidney Poitier’s A Piece of the Action could have sufficed, including the “delicious, delicious, delicious” title track:
In the introduction I damned this slate with the faint praise of being less embarrassing than last month’s, but they look positively awful compared to the all-timers that 1977 gave us in the category of movie music, especially in light of such a landmark as the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Original tracks written for the film included “Stayin’ Alive,” “More Than a Woman,” “Night Fever,” and the Grammy-winning, Globe-nominated “How Deep is Your Love”:
Speaking of landmark songs… When we started following this category nearly two years ago, one of our very first installments looked at the missed opportunity to nominate “San Francisco,” the disaster-film theme that would become an unofficial anthem for the city. Forty years and change later, songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb would do the same for the city that never sleeps, a little ditty for Martin Scorsese’s box-office flop New York, New York that’d take on its own life after Frank Sinatra recorded a much-beloved cover of the song two years later. It’s hard to believe this song was ever “written”: it feels like it burst, fully-formed, from a novelty t-shirt kiosk off Times Square.
Next month: back to year two of the category, and not much better than year one, blech…