Wednesday, June 23, 2004

"Well, the folks at the American Film Institute have done it again. Last night they aired their seventh consecutive annual retrospective of great moments in the history of cinema. The new special was devoted exclusively to songs made popular by movies (including a few that were originally introduced in Broadway musicals, but I digress). Last year, you'll recall, the AFI spotlighted filmdom's greatest heroes and villians. I thank my lucky stars that the powers that determine such things (people in the industry, critics and academics) had the good sense to zero in on 'Over the Rainbow', from 1939's The Wizard of Oz, as the #1 choice. The song¹s appeal, especially in regards to a then 17 year old Judy Garland¹s classic, subtle interpretation, is timeless. Of course, we all know by now that we almost had Shirley Temple as Oz's Dorothy, not Garland, and that 'Over the Rainbow' was barely saved from the cutting room floor, as it was believed to slow down the action of the story. Happily, and I don't want to knock Temple, this is one of those peculiar instances in which everything came together as if by magic. Of course, 'Over the Rainbow' won the Academy Award in 1939, but, in addition to this new AFI tribute, it was also named--in 2001--the greatest song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry Association of America in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Arts; the music is by Harold Arlen and the lyrics are by E.Y. 'Yip' Harburg. What a privilege for all of us to have this song as part of our collective consciousness.

Following close behind was 'As Time Goes By,' made popular by 1942's Casablanca, although the song actually predates the movie. At #3: 'Singin' in the Rain' as joyously performed by Gene Kelly in the 1952 release of the same name (though, there again, the song dates back to The Hollywood Revue of 1929). Fourth place went to 'Moon River' as heard in Breakfast at Tiffany's. There was little doubt in my mind, which songs would dominate the top of the AFI list, but tyring to predetermine the final outcome was a real mind bender, because each of the top four, and you might as well throw in Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas' (from Holiday Inn) at #5, have had great cultural impact. No doubt, they're all special, but 'Over the Rainbow' is a personal favorite, and always has been, so I'm especially delighted by the outcome.

A recent newspaper article suggested the tunes were selected based on being a song with actual lyrics (which ruled out, among others, the Pink Panther theme, and the haunting tune from Laura [the words by Johnny Mercer were added later, after the film's release]), as well as certain points such as defining a character, advancing the story, and, of course, cultural impact. It's hard not to be impressed by many of the choices, (quite a few Oscar winners) such as 'All that Jazz' (Chicago), 'Seems Like Old Times' (Annie Hall), 'Do Re Mi' (The Sound of Music), 'Buttons and Bows' (The Paleface), ³I¹ve Had the Time of My Life² (Dirty Dancing), ³Come What May² (Moulin Rouge!), ³Put the Blame on Mame² (Gilda), ³I¹m Easy² (Nashville), ³Springtime for Hitler² (The Producers), ³Isn¹t it Romantic² (Love Me Tonight), ³Yankee Doodle Boy² (Yankee Doodle Dandy), ³Summer Nights² (Grease) ³On the Good Ship Lollipop² (Bright Eyes), ³Stayin¹ Alive² (Saturday Night Fever) , ³Jailhouse Rock² (Jailhouse Rock) and even ³Old Time Rock n Roll,² featured prominently in 1983¹s Risky Business, but there were a few muddles. Oh sure, ³Gonna Fly Now, ³ the theme from Rocky, advances the plot , but do the words ³Gonna Fly now² repeated during a bridge in the song really constitue lyrics? That one is iffy to me. I¹m also disappointed that the AFI opted to single out Mary Poppins's ³Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious² (sp? get over it) instead of its Oscar winning ³Chim-Chim-Cheree.² And I¹m sorry, I never had much patience for The Lion King's ³Hakuna Matata,² though I can¹t deny its popularity. Oh, and there had to be something more worthwhile than Marlon Brando warbling ³Luck Be a Lady Tonight² from Guys and Dolls.

Of course, with as many worthy entries are there were, there were bound to be some regrettable omissions, but only a few. I, for instance, would¹ve loved it if George Clooney pantomining the catchy ³I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow² from O Brother, Where Art Thou? (actually sung on the Grammy winning soundtrack by Dan Tyminski) had been included or Lulu purring her way through ³To Sir With Love² (from To Sir With Love). What about Cat Stevens¹s memorable contributions to Harold and Maude, (³If you want to be be me, be me...² and all that), or Tim Curry strutting his considerable stuff in ³Sweet Tranvestite² from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (talk about cultural impact)? Who can believe there wasn¹t any room for the marvellous Betty Hutton and her many catchy musical numbers, including the greatest showbiz anthem of them all, ŒThere¹s No Business Like Show Business² (from Annie Get Your Gun), or Barbra Streisand belting out ³On a Clear Day² (from ³On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). Or what about ³Baby, it¹s Cold Outside² (a 1949 Oscar winner, from Neptune¹s Daughter) My biggest disappointment however, was the omission of any songs from The Music Man, bus most especially ³Trouble,² Robert Preston¹s most defining moment onscreen (and lip-synched--to his own vocal track--to utter perfection). Of course, my own sister was named after ³Tammy² the mega selling hit song from Tammy and the Bachelor, so it would have been lovely for it to have been honored, but alas...

Of course, backing to Straisand, she was well represented, what with ³Evergreen² (her 1976 Oscar winner from the remake of A Star is Born), ³The Way We Were (the Oscar winning title track to her 1973 smash with Robert Redford), as well as ³Don¹t Rain on My Parade² and the sublime ³People² from 1968¹s Funny Girl. Judy Garland was also featured prominently, thanks to not only ³Over the Rainbow² but also ³Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas² & ³The Trolley Song² (both from Meet Me in St. Louis) as well as the torchy, ŒThe Man That Got Away² from the 1954 version of A Star is Born, and the rousing ³Get Happy² from Summer Stock. Liza Minnelli scored with the title tunes from both Cabaret and New York, New York--and good for her (both songs composed by the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb). Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly also popped up more than once. So did Bette Midler and Julie Andrews. The latter¹s The Sound of Music (with songs by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II) was included three times. West Side Story was another movie with multiple mentions, as was Singin¹ in the Rain and a few others. (Of course, limiting each each movie to only spot one the list would¹ve made room for some of the titles mentioned above, but how do you not include both ³Make ŒEm Laugh² and ³Singin¹ in the Rain² or ³The Trolley Song² and ³Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas²?) And of course, Walt Disney¹s animated musicals turned up frequently, with the biggest vote getter being ³When You Wish Upon a Star.² The 1940 Oscar winner, from Pinocchio, placed as high as #7.

Finally, about the telecast itself. A few quibbles. Two songs, ³Puttin¹ on the Ritz² and ³Diamonds Are a Girl¹s Best Friend,² were shown as they appeared in two different movies; Blue Skies and Young Frankenstein for the former, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Moulin Rouge! for the latter. The AFI did not elect, however, for the same treatment in regards to ³Unchained Melody,² which was reintroduced to moviegoers via 1990¹s Ghost (as per The Righteous Brothers¹ 1960¹s cover), but one had to read the fine print to see that the song, a 1955 Oscar nominee, originally appeared in the movie Unchained. Also, why not segue from ³Ol Man River² in the 1930¹s black and white version of Showboat to the 1950¹s technicolor redo? And while it was great to see American Idol¹s Clay Aiken on hand as one of the commentators, it would have been cool if current AI champ Fantasia Barrino had been interviewed in regards to ³Summertime² (from Porgy and Bess), since her performance of that classic song clearly propelled her to the winners¹ circle. FYI to Hugh Jackman, Audrey Hepburn didn¹t sing ³I Could Have Danced All Night² in My Fair Lady. She was dubbed by Marni Nixon, who also dubbed for Deborah Kerr in The King and I and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. It was almost a very good night for Nixon, as her most famous trio of dub-jobs were highlighted, though nobody acknowledged her contributions to any of the films in question. And what about Dolly Parton? She was given ample credit for the title tune to 9 to 5, but when it came to ³I Will Always Love You² (from 1992¹s The Bodyguard), Whitney Houston got all the credit, even though Dolly wrote the song years and years earlier and had even sung it herself in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (in which she made contributions to the original Broadway score). What a way to make a living, indeed.

Any comments, questions, other feedback???

Thanks for your consideration,

PS and, of course, the Beatles singing "Get Back" on the rooftop of the Apple building at the conclusion of Let it Be does nothing to advance the plot, after all, it's a documentary, but, boy, what a pivotal moment in pop-culture history"

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