Sunday, September 1, 2019

Chart Song Cinema: Bless the Beasts and the Children (1971)

The biggest musical curiosity in Bless the Beasts and the Children, Stanley Kramer's film version of a novel by Glendon Swarthout, is an early appearance of what came to be known as "Nadia's Theme." Listed as "Cotton's Theme" on the soundtrack, that hypnotic melody gives the proceedings a dusky pathos, even playing in an uptempo arrangement to accompany a buffalo stampede. The movie depicts six adolescent misfits, victims of short-sighted parenting who become known as the humiliation-prone "bedwetters" at an Arizona boys camp. After witnessing a population-control buffalo shoot, they sneak out in the night on an adventure to set the beasts free, with tragedy lurking near the end in proper bummer film-era fashion.

Although Bless the Beasts and the Children resonates loudest as a general study in societal ills, a clearer-cut anti-war moral does struggle to emerge. The boys journey like a rag-tag military cavalry on horseback and also in a rusty jeep, with an angst-ridden ringleader named Cotton who wears an army helmet and addresses them as "men." (Lost in Space-vet Billy Mumy is the coolest of these kids, with his deadpan, mistrustful gaze; Miles Chapin seems based on the 1969 Hardy Boys cartoon character "Chubby," even appearing at one point wearing an ascot.) The Vietnam War looms largest as a parallel, with the boys aiming to rescue a weaker ally in spite of unforeseen complexity. Mere absurdity, too, functions reliably as an allegorical ingredient.

The Carpenters' theme song, written by Barry DeVorzon and Perry Botkin, Jr., is a solid entry in the early '70s hit parade of childhood awareness, a glaring counterpoint during the early upsurge of Me Generation cultural behavior. "The world can never be the world they see," go the lyrics, with musical accompaniment that sounds clearly elegiac, if not funereal. (You can read more about the era's pronounced interest in childhood in chapter 1 of my book, Early '70s Radio.) By the time this song had appeared as the B-side of their "Superstar" single, the Carpenters had become well-established sovereigns in the new realm of soft-rock, where the young adult expressions and concerns of the post-sixties could foster and abide. This sort of balladry had long-reaching influence. Listen to how the melody resolves at the end of each verse in "Bless the Beasts and the Children" and see how it reminds you of Lionel Richie and Diana Ross's "Endless Love," which came out a full decade later.

"Bless the Beasts and the Children" found enough radio traction to peak at #67 on the Billboard Hot 100, riding on the fumes of its movie placement and its hit A-side, which peaked at #2. The soundtrack album included a version with a vibraphone intro, which is different from the oboe intro on the versions the Carpenters would otherwise release on 45 and LP. The vibraphone version, with its blurry, tear-in-the-eye sound, has the more emotional effect.

"Bless the Beasts and the Children" (1971)
The Carpenters

Written by Barry DeVorzon and Perry Botkin, Jr. * Produced by Jack Daugherty * Arranged by Richard Carpenter  * 45: "Superstar" / "Bless the Beasts and the Children" * LP: Bless the Beasts and the Children (soundtrack); A Song for You (1972) * Billboard charts: Hot 100 (#67), Easy Listening (#26) * Entered: 1971-11-27 (peaked in 1972)

"Bless the Beasts and the Children"

"Bless the Beasts and the Children" (soundtrack version)

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