Friday, September 4, 2015

Chart Song Cinema: The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)

Reviewing Alan J. Pakula's The Sterile Cuckoo in late 1969, Roger Ebert complained about its reliance on the "Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude," a then-fashionable movie device depicting "lovers floating over the countryside" to the sound of the "hit single on the sound track." For Ebert, The Sterile Cuckoo's three such scenes interfered with its "rhythm" and wrongfully presented lead characters Pookie (Liza Minelli) and Jerry (Wendell Burton) as "conventional lovers."

I'd actually be OK if those three scenes were all the movie contained. Before I ever viewed The Sterile Cuckoo, the Sandpipers' lovely "Come Saturday Morning" (which climbed to #17 in 1970 and became an easy listening staple) drew me into it. The song features unambiguous lyrics by Dory Previn about a weekend-oriented relationship, a wistful melody by Fred Karlin, and the most sublime musical arrangement (courtesy of Nick DeCaro) the Sandpipers, a vocal trio from LA, would ever take part in. It's the song itself that gives those soft focus scenes an appropriately bittersweet context, and in his criticism, Ebert's tin ear is showing.

I try to imagine the movie without those scenes, and all that's left is novelist John Nichols's not-so-inspiring story of two awkward college freshmen, Liza Minnelli's irritating chatter, and Burton's wishy-washiness. Those musical scenes really do help sustain the film and improve the odds of viewers sticking around past the mid-way point, at least. And in the present-day era, where pre-existing pop songs routinely appear as soundtrack filler, I honor films like The Sterile Cuckoo for commissioning songwriters to provide unique, story-enhancing material.   

(Coincidence: The Sandpipers also performed the title track to the satirical film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which Roger Ebert co-wrote. The song appeared on the group's 1970 album Come Saturday Morning, named after the very hit single that accompanied The Sterile Cuckoo interludes Ebert disdained.)

The Sandpipers - "Come Saturday Morning" (Billboard #17, entered 12/20/69). Written by Fred Karlin and Dory Previn. Produced by Allen Stanton. Arranged by Nick DeCaro. 45: "Come Saturday Morning"/"Pretty Flamingo" (A&M 1969). LPs: Come Saturday Morning (A&M 1970); The Sterile Cuckoo (Paramount 1970).

The Sandpipers - "Come Saturday Morning"

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