Music in movies – Rocky (1976)

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Rocky is a remarkable film that holds up well even today. From a musical standpoint, Rocky’s theme ‘Gonna Fly Now’ has transcended the movie and become an anthem that is instantly recognizable throughout the world. It epitomizes the movie training montage, and has a huge payoff with Rocky’s triumphant ascent of the steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. There isn’t much other music in the movie, but it’s hard to give the film anything lower than 4 stars on the strength of this one iconic song alone.

That’s all you really need to know. Although the many sequels have turned the franchise into a parody of itself, the original is still worth seeing. It’s well written (by Sylvester Stallone!) and has great performances by Stallone, Carl Weathers, Talia Shire, Burt Young, and especially Burgess Meredith.

Ratings

Movie: 4/4 stars

Music: 4/4 stars

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Music in movies – Say Anything

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Wow, I remember Say Anything being a much better movie than this. I guess my tastes have changed since I was in high school. John Cusack is only a few years older than me, so maybe I thought he was cool then and gave the movie a pass. We had similar tastes in music back then – we were both big fans of bands like Fishbone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Living Colour (all of which were a lot better back then too). I had the same Fishbone T-shirt that he wore in one scene. And the movie opens with ‘Taste the Pain’, an obscure early RHCP song. So it all started pretty promising.

But the story and characters didn’t hold up for me. And don’t get me started on the fashion and hair styles. The film is set in Seattle, although you can hardly tell because they don’t make use of the locations at all.

Of course the big musical payoff in the movie is when Cusak’s character stands outside his ex-girlfriend’s window holding a boom-box over his head (that’s what people used to have before iPods). Peter Gabriel’s ‘In Your Eyes’ still sounds great to me, but it’s not enough to redeem the movie.

Looking through the soundtrack listing, there is a bunch of decent music. I love Fishbone, Living Colour, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Steely Dan, Mother Love Bone, and Dave Brubeck separately, but they don’t seem to do anything for the movie. Apparently Nancy Wilson also contributed to the original score. All of the ingredients were there, but for some reason the whole was less than the sum of it’s parts for me.

Ratings

Movie: 2/4 stars

Music: 2.5/4 stars

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Music in movies – Leap of Faith

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Leap of Faith is a quirky little movie that I have no business liking, but for some reason, I do. I’ve seen it a few times over the years, and even though it’s predictable and melodramatic, it seems to get me every time.

The movie stars Steve Martin in a solid performance as a fake miracle worker, and Debra Winger as the brains of the operation. This movie has an impressive cast – Liam Neeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Lolita Davidovich. Meat Loaf is also on-board making his second appearance in my blog. This time he’s the organist in the band, a role that he plays much more convincingly than the sax player in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s a nice touch that Paradise by the Dashboard Light is playing on the radio in an early scene.

For me, the real star of the show is the gospel choir. I don’t know if the ‘Angels of Mercy’ exist outside of this movie, but they should. They are a fantastic choir and the arrangements are top notch, which was no surprise to me at all when I found out that they were done by George Duke.

My favorite scene starts with the Angels singing ‘Change in my Life’ a capella while the crew puts up the tent. It builds slowly but effectively, and you just can’t help tapping your feet to it. Psalm 27 is an amazingly creative (and ambitious) arrangement for a choir. The whole thing wraps up with Patti LaBelle singing ‘Are you Ready for a Miracle’, which is also great.

The opening scene has ‘Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat’ (from the musical ‘Guys and Dolls’) playing in the background. I’ve played this song too many times to count, but I liked the arrangement. The singer sounded oddly familiar. Turns out it was Don Henley! Small world (I had just watched the Eagles documentary a few days prior).

This is a movie that you could have easily missed, so if you get the chance, do yourself a favor and check it out!

Ratings

Movie: 3/4 stars

Music: 4/4 stars

 

 

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Music in movies – History of the Eagles Part One

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History of the Eagles (Part One, really?) is the behind-the-scenes tale of the rise, fall, and resurrection of the Eagles. I’m endlessly fascinated by the stories of how successful artists go to where they are. I love hearing about the hard work and struggles, the lucky coincidences, and the hard times along the way.

Much has been made of the internal struggles the Eagles went through: the creative and personal conflicts and the resulting personnel changes. For someone who has never played in a band before, this may all sound very dramatic and shocking. But anyone who has played in a band for any period of time has gone through all of these struggles and more. A band is like a marriage between all of it’s members. Everyone has different motivations – creatively, professionally, financially, and personally. So I’m not the least bit surprised to hear about any of the conflicts that they went through.

But enough about the drama, what about the music? In a word, it’s fantastic. It opens with a beautiful a capella rendition of ‘Seven Bridges Road’ which was my favorite. In addition to hearing the back story to several of their major hits, you get great insights into the creative process from Glenn Frey and Don Henley. I loved when Glenn talks about learning how to write songs by sharing a wall with Jackson Browne. It’s not just inspiration, it’s elbow grease! Throughout the film there are numerous live performances, all of which are excellent.

This is a long film. The Eagle don’t even break up until two hours in. Then we hear about the side projects, eventual reunion, and new material. I think the film could have been just as strong if it had ended when the reunion was announced. It all felt downhill to me after that. It was interesting seeing Don and Glenn re-kindle their writing partnership, but the new material never feels as strong as the classic stuff. Still, you can’t fault them for keeping at it, that’s what I would do in their position.

For me, the real insight is seeing just how much the music industry has changed. There is no live music scene where singer/songwriter types congregate and learn their craft. There are very limited opportunities for musicians to build their chops up on the road. There are few record companies left, and they don’t groom up and coming artists like they used to. And last but not least, pop artists are strictly singers these days. Few of them know how to play an instrument. There’s something very satisfying about seeing Don Henley behind the drums. Everyone in the Eagles was a great instrumentalist in addition to being a great singer.

Watch this movie if for no other reason than to catch a glimpse of a bygone era where musicians could be commercially successful by doing what they loved – playing music.

Ratings

Movie: 3/4 stars

Music: 4/4 stars

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Music in movies – Springsteen & I

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People who like Bruce Springsteen really like Bruce Springsteen. This is what I learned from Springsteen and I. I haven’t listened to much of Bruce’s music, but as someone who grew up in the 80′s, I’m familiar with his hits (he’s had a lot). This movie is filled with a lot of Bruce’s music, and about 80% of it was unfamiliar to me. Bruce has a deep catalog indeed.

This movie is comprised of self-shot videos of Bruce’s super-fans describing their love for the Boss and reminiscing about the great shows they have seen over the years. This is intercut with archival footage of some of those shows over the years. Bruce’s fans are not (all) middle-aged blue-collar workers from New Jersey. They are young and old, men and women, and come from all corners of the globe. For an artist like Bruce who has had a career that has spanned many decades, this wasn’t surprising to me.

The thing that impressed me about Bruce is his dedication to performing. It’s widely known that his concerts stretch for hours, and that he gives his all every night all night. Most people don’t realize how physically taxing this is. You might expect Bruce to phone it in after all of these years, but you’d be wrong.

Bruce also has an amazing connection with his fans. He isn’t afraid to bring them up on stage to dance, sing, or tell their story. My favorite story from the movie was from a street musician who asked Bruce to sit in with him. Bruce didn’t stop and play a song, he stopped and played for fifteen minutes while a crowd of hundreds gathered.

I have to give a shout out to Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011. He and Bruce clearly had a deep connection, playing together for decades. Clarence is enigmatic to me – on one hand he is an unremarkable saxophone player (from a technical perspective), and yet it’s hard to imagine Bruce’s music without his iconic solos. He has a huge, bright sound that is larger than life, but his playing is fairly simplistic. I know he had a few side projects, but for forty years, he sustained a career primarily by playing with Bruce, which is a testament to their relationship.

Ratings

Movie: 2.5/4 stars

Music: 3/4 stars

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Music in movies – Sound City

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You had me at Dave Grohl. I didn’t know anything about Sound City when I saw it for the first time, which is just as well, because it was delightful to watch it unfold. All I knew was that it was directed by Dave Grohl, who is basically the president of Rock and Roll these days. If ever there is an awards ceremony, induction ceremony, charity fundraiser, or all-star band, Dave Grohl seems to be there. And rightly so (for me). He’s a great drummer, with genuine street cred earned in Nirvana. But it turns out that he’s also a fantastic singer-songwriter and guitar player who launched the Foo Fighters in the aftermath of Nirvana’s demise.

So what is Sound City all about? Well Sound City is a legendary recording studio in LA where Nirvana recorded Nevermind. Oh yeah, every other legendary recording by every other legendary artist was recorded there too. With the music business in the state that it is, Sound City is going under. I assumed that this was going to be your standard run-of-the-mill rags-to-riches-to-rags behind-the-music story of the studio and the music that was made there.

I was wrong. Although the first half of the movie is this kind of story, it starts to take a turn. A lot of time is spent talking about the mystical ‘Neve’ console. It turns out, Dave Grohl has purchased the console (being president has its perks). Dave had the idea to re-assemble the console in his home studio and invite some of the Sound City artists to break it in with him. This is where things start to get interesting.

We’re treated to half a dozen vignettes of these musicians hanging out with Dave and his friends in his home studio, creating new music on the Neve console. People like Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, Lee Ving, Jim Keltner, Josh Homme, Trent Reznor, and some guy named Paul McCartney.

Not all of the music from these segments were winners. For example, I like the Stevie Nicks song, but found the lyrics unlistenable. But I find it endlessly fascinating watching the creative process of these musicians writing and arranging new music together. Mostly we see the arranging. We never see the ‘blank page’ moment, but rather the middle-to-end game where parts have been written and they are being assembled and edited on the fly. I could watch this forever.

I find it especially interesting watching these ‘hard’ rockers talk about ephemeral creative concepts that make good music great. It seems out of keeping with their rough exterior personas, but at the end of the day, all of these people are gifted musicians. and have achieved success by mastering their craft.

There’s also a significant recurring theme on the evils of electronic music production, and that music made under constraints (like recording to tape) is inherently better. I felt that all of this was misplaced. People are welcome to their opinions, but don’t blame the (Pro) tools, blame the people who misuse them.

Dave feels like he works better when recording to tape because he’s better when he’s working without a net, but I think the net is all in his head.

Ratings

Movie: 3/4 stars

Music: 3.5/4 stars

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Music in movies – Hear My Train a Comin’

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Hear My Train a Comin’ is a run-of-the-mill PBS documentary. The usual suspects from Jimi’s life are interviewed and cut together with concert footage, most of which you’ve seen before. I didn’t learn anything new about Jimi, his life, or his music by watching this documentary. Of course the music is good, but that goes without saying.

If I had only seen this biography, I feel like I’d have a somewhat skewed and myopic view of his life. There was very little talk of his drug use or death.

The one standout moment for me was in the studio. One of Jimi’s producers deconstructed a recording by soloing various tracks to expose the various pieces that contributed to the final puzzle. I would loved to have seen much more of this.

It’s hard to go wrong with the source material that they had available to them. The concert footage is, of course, amazing, if not new. The story of Jimi’s rise to fame and sudden death is hard to make boring. I just wish they had dug beneath the surface to give us something new.

Ratings

Movie: 2.5/4 stars

Music: 3.5/4 stars

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