Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Chart Song Cinema: The Strawberry Statement (1970)

The Strawberry Statement, starring Bruce Davison, Kim Darby, and Bud Cort, reimagined (and relocated) the 1968 Columbia University student riots, telling the story of a freshman named Simon who stumbles into campus protest culture and eventually gets his clock cleaned by riot police. It's another of the era's bummer movies with familiar period themes: political struggle and befuddlement, idealism shattered, and a sadistic focus on the short lifespan of youth and innocence. The numerous pre-existing rock soundtrack songs, as is usually the case, add value to the viewing experience while getting cheapened in return by attaching themselves to specific visual images. Two songs bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100, thanks to their appearance in the film:

"The Circle Game" (1967)
Buffy Sainte-Marie

Written by Joni Mitchell * Produced by Maynard Solomon * 45: "The Circle Game" / "Better to Find Out for Yourself" * LPs: Fire and Fleet and Candlelight (Vanguard, 1967), The Strawberry Statement (MGM, 1970) * Billboard charts: Bubbling under (#109) * Entered: 1970-08-15

Although Joni Mitchell released her own version (gentle) of "The Circle Game" on her 1970 Ladies of the Canyon LP, two fellow Canadians had released prior versions: Buffy Sainte-Marie (strident) on her 1967 Fire and Fleet and Candlelight LP and Tom Rush (reflective) on his 1968 Circle Game LP. If Sainte-Marie's treatment of it sounded jarring in comparison to the other ones, it seemed especially so during the opening and closing credits of The Strawberry Statement, as if to underscore the film's already heavy-handed message. "Better to Find Out for Yourself," from her 1969 Illuminations album, is enticing, though, a saucy B-side that brings out the Cree side of Sainte-Marie and takes it to the moon.

Side A: "The Circle Game"

Side A: "Better to Find Out for Yourself"

"Something in the Air" (1969)
Thunderclap Newman

Written by Speedy Keen * Produced by Pete Townshend * 45: "Something in the Air" / "Wilhelmina" (Track 1969) * LPs: The Magic Christian (Pye 1970); Hollywood Dream (Track 1970); The Strawberry Statement (MGM 1970) * Billboard charts (as re-entry): Bubbling Under (#120) * Re-entered: 1970-10-24

British trio Thunderclap Newman's now frequently-licensed "Something in the Air" had been a 1969 summertime #1 single in the UK. Its appearance in the Magic Christian film (starring Ringo Starr and Peter Sellers) helped the record reach #37 in the US that year, while its placement on the Strawberry Statement soundtrack, accompanying scenes of protagonist Simon overlooking the city, lifted it up again for a chart encore at #120. (Billboard listed the original Track single since no reissue of the song as a 45 ever occurred.)

Most of the TV and movie placements for "Something in the Air" don't make room for the distinctive piano solo played by the band's namesake, the pipe-smoking Andy "Thunderclap" Newman. Lead singer Speedy Keen, a vocal dead ringer for producer Pete Townshend, wrote the A side, while the B side, written by Newman, is a British music hall castaway reminiscent of "Come Josephine in My Flying Machine." The group's guitarist, Jimmy McCulloch, played with Paul McCartney and Wings from 1974 to 1976.

Side A: "Something in the Air"

Side A: "Wilhelmina"

Monday, March 7, 2016

Chart Song Cinema: Nicholas and Alexandra (1971)

Released in 1971, the British production Nicholas and Alexandra depicted the last days of Nicholas IIthe last ruling tsar of Russiaand his family. Behind its decorative veneer was an early seventies bummer film, asking us to develop a fondness for the doomed lead characters (including Tom Baker's crazed Rasputin), while additional themes relevant to the emerging seventies psyche loomed large: political complexity, the bittersweet demise of an older generation, the hazardous side effects of revolution, and the fragility ofand fascination withthe larger traditional family.

The character of Nicholas, reminding one of Mike Brady, drew sympathy as a man whose entire worldview focused on his "too beautiful to last" immediate family. For the mid-sixties Von Trapps, such a devotion led toward gorgeous vistas. For the early-seventies Romanovs, it led toward getting shot in a cellar.

"Too Beautiful to Last" (1972) Engelbert Humperdinck 

Written by Paul Francis Webster and Richard Rodney Bennett * Produced by Gordon Mills * 45: "Too Beautiful to Last" / "A Hundred Times a Day" * LP: In Time * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#86), easy listening (#16) * Entered: 1972-03-25 (easy listening), 1972-04-29 (Hot 100)

"Too Beautiful to Last" merged Paul Francis Webster's lyrics to the Richard Rodney Bennett theme music moviegoers had heard throughout the three-hour Nicholas and Alexandra epic. Engelbert Humperdinck's dynamic delivery of it made for a vintage dollop of early seventies schlager. (In the UK, the single had a better outing, climbing up to #14.) A perfume-drenched creation by British composers Laurie Holloway (male) and Michael Green appeared as the B side.

Side A: "Too Beautiful to Last"

Side B: "A Hundred Times a Day"

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Chart Song Cinema: Across 110th Street (1973)

"Across 110th Street" (1973)
Bobby Womack

Written by Bobby Womack and J.J. Johnson * Produced by J.J. Johnson * 45: "Across 110th Street" / "Hang On In There" * LP: Across 110th Street * Label: United Artists * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#59), soul (#19) * Entered: 1973-03-24 (Hot 100), 1973-03-31 (soul)

The blaxploitation film genre, with its
race consciousness, economic angst, moral ambiguity, and violent responses to all of the above, flashed across American movie screens as a direct product of the early seventies psyche. Among the torrent of releases, Barry Shear's Across 110th Street (based on a novel by Wally Ferris) survived its era with an ever-strengthening reputation, mostly due to its bleak singularity of vision. It's also notable for its poor box office performance. The plot concerned a heist that three black men pull on a mafia-run bank, lighting a powder keg involving street criminals, mafiosi, and cops both crooked and straight. Variety magazine called it "strong and relentless in its pursuit of violence" and warned viewers that it presented no sympathetic characters. As Greil Marcus put it in his Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music (1975), it gave "no way out" for viewers by refusing to tell the "good guys from the bad guys."

Bobby Womack's title song for Across 110th Street is a reminder that music is the more powerful medium. Although a song can expand in meaning through its association with a film, never does a film live up to the possibilities one can conjure up mentally when a piece of music plays. Womack's is among the most potent of blaxploitation themes, with its opening organ mimicking flashing city lights and its first-person lyrics ("I was the third brother of five / Doing whatever I had to survive") speaking to the human heart more directly than anything in the movie.

A song from the soundtrack called "Hang on In There" appears on the B side, and it's a crucial part of the listening experience. Womack's opening lines seem to expand on the ones from side A ("I left home at the age of twelve / Mama couldn't understand it, but she wished me well"), and the track's slide guitar and clavinet speak with authority rivaled only by Womack's own voice. Although the 45 is credited to him, a sub-heading under each song says "performed by Bobby Womack & Peace." Information about who exactly played in Peace remains elusive, which is frustrating where two songs like this are concerned.

(Quentin Tarrantino's usage of "Across 110th Street" as an intro for Jackie Brown (1997) removes it from its original source and assigns it to his own images. It's clever pastiche usage, but like all the music Tarrantino has dropped into his song-licensing shopping bag, it suffers from its association with those images while the film benefits from the song's evocative power.)

Side A: "Across 110th Street"

Side B: "Hang On In There"