Friday, December 17, 2010

authors and other fools

Before his recording career took off in 1976 with The Art of Tea (one of my favorite albums), jazz-pop singer-songwriter Michael Franks composed scores for the films Cry for Me, Billy ('72), Zandy's Bride ('74), and the Roger Corman-produced cult classic Cockfighter ('74). It wasn't until 1982, however, that he lent his voice to a movie theme song: "Coming Home to You," from the Al Pacino vehicle Author! Author!

The song's music was written by Dave Grusin, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the husband-and-wife team who penned the lyrics for "The Way We Were" ('73) and "The Windmills of Your Mind" (from The Thomas Crown Affair, '68), both of which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. (Grusin and the Bergmans had previously collaborated on the theme songs for Maude and Good Times, among other TV series.) The Bergmans also wrote the lyrics for the following 1982 Best Original Song nominees: "It Might Be You" (music by Grusin once again), from Sydney Pollack's Tootsie; "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" (Michel Legrand, music), from Norman Jewison's Best Friends; and "If We Were in Love" (John Williams, music), from Yes, Giorgio, starring Luciano Pavarotti.

Three nominations for three different songs. They had good odds, but the Bergmans ended up losing to "Up Where We Belong"—music by Jack Nitzsche and Buffy Sainte-Marie, lyrics by Will Jennings—from the Richard Gere-Debra Winger drama An Officer and a Gentleman. (The fifth nominee was Rocky III's "Eye of the Tiger," written by Survivor's Jim Peterik and Frankie Sullivan III.)

"Coming Home to You" obviously wasn't on the Oscar short list that year. That's because it's not a good song. In fact it's often cringeworthy.

In 2007 a blogger at Cinefile Video wrote, "Upon listening to this song, you get the distinct impression that Mr. Franks had never uttered a note in his life before stepping in front of the mic to record it, for it is just a wretched, wretched performance."

It's certainly not his best, but he's a hired hand in this scenario working in a strictly pop vein, and having exclusively sung his own lyrics up to that point in his career, he may have felt off balance trying to breathe life into the Bergmans' words, which aren't their best either: "Whenever there are days / It feels as though the world / Is coming to an end / We close the door behind us / Where it's always milk and cookies / And a friend." But the biggest crime here is committed by Grusin, who unabashedly lifts the keyboard riff from the Doobie Brothers' "What a Fool Believes" ('78). (He also steals from his arrangement for "It Might Be You," or maybe it's the other way around—Author! Author! was released six months before Tootsie.)

Grusin wasn't the only one ripping off Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins's Grammy-winning composition in those days. In 1980 Robbie Dupree somehow avoided a lawsuit with "Steal Away"—is it because he secretly is Loggins?—while the keyboard riff was put to more subtle use in the Pointer Sisters' "He's So Shy" later that year (the same can't be said for Tom Monroe's 1981 cover of Petula Clark's "Downtown").

Dave Grusin and the Bergmans
Maybe Grusin was simply burned out after scoring both On Golden Pond and Absence of Malice as well as portions of Reds in 1981. In addition to scoring Tootsie and Author! Author! (he was brought in after the film's original composer, Johnny Mandel, was fired) in '82, Grusin composed the theme song for TV's St. Elsewhere and released a jazz album titled Out of the Shadows. You could say his plate was full at the start of the Reagan years, so he can be forgiven for stealing from the Michael McDonald playbook.

That's what this fool believes, anyway.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Movie titles are fair game.

Fair Game, the fact-based thriller that opened last month, is based on Valerie Plame's 2007 memoir Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House. Directed by Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. & Mrs. Smith), the film stars Naomi Watts as Plame and Sean Penn as her husband, diplomat Joseph Wilson.

This Fair Game is not to be confused with 1995's Fair Game, an action movie starring William Baldwin and Cindy Crawford that's based on the assumption that supermodels can act. Actually, Fair Game is adapted from the novel of the same name by Paula Gosling, but it was first adapted for the big screen nine years earlier as Cobra, starring Sylvester Stallone as supercop Marion "Cobra" Cobretti and his then-wife, Brigitte Nielsen, as a government witness he must protect from the bad guys. Say what you will about Nielsen as an actress, but in Cobra she does a great job pretending she isn't half a foot taller than her husband.

Nineteen eighty-six also saw the release of an Australian action film titled Fair Game, but its protagonist, according to Wikipedia, is "a young woman ... who runs a wildlife sanctuary in the Outback [and] is menaced by three kangaroo hunters who have entered the sanctuary looking for new game." (Remember, the late Steve Irwin was a crocodile hunter, so he wasn't a suspect in this case.) In the documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008), an entertaining, affectionate look at Australian B-movies of the '70s and '80s, movie buff Quentin Tarantino discusses a scene in which the heroine is stripped to her waist and forced to be a hood ornament on the hunters' truck. "If you like outrageous cinema," the director of Inglourious Basterds says, "you live and breathe to wait for those weird moments that happen every once in a while in genre cinema, where it's like you can't believe you're seeing what you're seeing."

The heroine of Fair Game is played by Cassandra Delaney, not Naomi Watts, whose family moved to Australia when she was 14, but since I need a good complete-circle ending for this blog entry, let's just say it was her. As Watts's latest film makes clear, the truth is fair game, right?