Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Chart Song Cinema: Lost Horizon (1973)

I don't know if "cursed" is the right word, but Lost Horizon, the 1973 musical remake of the classic '30s film, was a critical and financial failure that represented the end of the road for a number of things. It was arguably the last gasp of the epic and earnest movie musical genre. It was the final film production the once-prolific Ross Hunter would ever undertake.  It was the last consecutive project Burt Bacharach and Hal David would work on together as the indomitable songwriting duo that generated some 70+ charting classics throughout the sixties and early seventies. And the movie's three charting songs would be "lasts" for the artists who recorded them: Shawn Phillips's "Lost Horizon" was his last song to reach Billboard's Hot 100; the 5th Dimension's "Living Together, Growing Together" was their last Top 40 hit; and Tony Bennett's version of the same song was his very last charting single. (It was the second-to-last for the Mike Curb Congregation, who shared the single's billing.)

At one of my readings someone from the audience asked me what had happened to the old conception of the "Great American Songbook," the body of songs written by well-loved tunesmiths that artists would all rush to record. I did happen to address this in my book, in which I talk about the advent of Elvis, and how singular personalities and recordings put to test the dated notion of "the song not the singer" by the late fifties (as did the Beatles in the sixties, whose oft-covered oeuvre reflected their magnetic personae as much as their songcraft). This made choral performances of hits like "Hound Dog" and "Tutti Frutti" on Your Hit Parade sound ridiculous. The answer that leapt off my tongue for this question, though, was "Lost Horizon."

It was a good answer - in late '72 and early '73, before the film debuted, artists like Ed Ames, Ronnie Aldrich, 101 Strings, Hugo Montenegro and Guy Chandler, along with the previously mentioned Tony Bennett and 5th Dimension, made noise on Billboard with Lost Horizon renditions and high hopes, only to cower in embarrassment after the film spontaneously combusted in public. Never again would a "songbook" be ransacked in such a way. Such a bomb was Lost Horizon that it scorched both the Bacharach-David hit-making dynasty and damaged the songwriters' relationship. "The movie was so personally embarrassing that it almost destroyed me," says Bacharach in his Anyone Who Had a Heart memoir. "The day after it opened, I got in the car and drove down to Del Mar to escape because I thought nobody down there would know me" (p. 159).

Did Lost Horizon singlehandedly kill all these careers and entertainment industry templates? No, it just made a production, so to speak, out of their illnesses. It also misjudged the early '70s zeitgeist, asking it to accept a sunny, youth-preserving shangri-la nestled among frigid mountains with none of the science or theory that was turning books like Alvin Toffler's Future Shock and Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth into bestsellers.  It asked civil rights-conscious viewers to buy into a paradise in which Caucasian colonizers enjoyed the servitude of Sherpas. And it asked moviegoers to savor its sophisticated songs but to forgive its low grade vocals and choreography.

My own view of Lost Horizon - and I'm not being coy here - is that it should be understood as a horror film. It's the perfect twin bill for The Wicker Man, a British film that also came out in 1973 and similarly dealt with an isolated society that brings in a chosen outsider. If one embraces the unsettling aspects of Lost Horizon as intentional, the movie begins to make sense, taking on an air of offbeat darkness. Here Sally Kellerman's strained vocals and awkward dance moves become edgy and appropriately unhinged. Liv Ullman's "The World Is a Circle" number, and also "Living Together, Growing Together," with all of the flailing arms and reproductive language, make them compelling companion pieces to the Wicker Man's pagan maypole and "leap fire" numbers. Yes - I believe that if Lost Horizon was, in fact, cursed, it's because it had a horror flick genetic code that wasn't treated properly by Columbia Pictures marketing. Had the salesmanship been thusly attended to, beguiling Bacharach-David melodies and words like "Share the Joy" might have been as readily remembered today as the Exorcist theme or the lullaby from Rosemary's Baby.

Tony Bennett with the Mike Curb Congregation - "Living Together, Growing Together" (Billboard #111, entered 12/9/72). Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Produced by Mike Curb and Don Costa. 45: "Living Together, Growing Together"/"The Good Things in Life" (MGM/Verve 1972). LP: Tony Bennett's Greatest Hits Vol. 7 (MGM 1973).

It must have stung Bacharach and David to have written a racial equality song for a film that ended up being roundly criticized for racial inequality.

Lost Horizon curse: This would be Bennett's final charting hit.

The 5th Dimension - "Living Together, Growing Together" (Billboard #32, entered 1/6/73). Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Produced by Bones Howe. 45: "Living Together, Growing Together"/"What Do I Need to Be Me" (Bell 1973). LP: Living Together, Growing Together (Bell 1973).

Lost Horizon curse: This would be the 5th Dimension's final Top 40 hit.

Shawn Phillips - "Lost Horizon" (Billboard #69, entered 2/10/73). Written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Produced by Burt Bacharach. 45: "Lost Horizon"/"Landscape" (A&M 1973). LP: Lost Horizon (A&M 1973).

Lost Horizon curse: This would be Shawn Phillips's final Hot 100 hit (although two more would "bubble under" in 1973 and 1975.)

No comments:

Post a Comment