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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

MENTAL MONTAGE: Movie Stars on the Radio

The body (minus the leg warmers) that inspired America to "do the
Jane Fonda..." and Mickey Avalon to write a hit song.

When it comes down to it, movie stars are nothing more than romanticized human beings: romanticized in their dramatic performances and romanticized in the public consciousness. They put themselves before the camera, and we place them on pedestals. And so, it is not really surprising that so many of our beloved celebrities become muses of song. In Byron's day, we would have read about some random, faceless damsel whom he was lusting over in one of his lyrical opuses. Today, instrumental inspiration often comes from a more obvious source, and so songwriters, rock-stars, and pop-idols reveal their own personal fanaticism by penning ballads and hit songs about the grand stars of cinema's bygone glory era. When these musical offerings are not straight-forward dedications to the Gods of Mt. Olympus, they are at least homages to the singular figures in our ever-growing pop culture.

Buggy Bette

The best celebs always have a trademark. For Harlow, it was her flaxen hair. For Flynn, it was his debonair mustache. For Bette-pop-eyed-Davis (left), it was her large, invasive peepers... (and perhaps a cigarette). Bette's luminous eyes did a great deal of her acting, taking her characters even in moments of stillness from anything from dewy wonder to murderous intent. As such, her baby blues inspired the lyrics to the 1974 Jackie DeShannon song, "Bette Davis Eyes," which described a dangerous coquette who knows how to use her sensuality to get what she wants: "She's precocious, and she knows just what it takes to make a crow blush." The song became more famous when it was re-recorded with minor lyrical changes-- crow became pro-- by Kim Carnes in 1981, where it became the #1 hit of the year. Bette was so flattered to be initiated into yet another generation of fans that she personally thanked Carnes for the "shout out." It meant a great deal to her that, years past her prime, she was still looked upon as the staple of female sexual power.

Jack White's Red-head

Alternative rock musician Jack White has enjoyed success in a number of realms: in various bands, in a solo career, as a music producer, and even as a film actor. His work is often interesting for its articulate yet untidy homages to different artists of the past. He makes no secret of his adoration for heroines like Loretta Lynn or Wanda Jackson, for both of whom he spearheaded new albums. His appreciation of the musicians of yesteryear is always apparent, and his respect blends mediums. Nursing a clear crush on the gorgeous Rita Hayworth (right), he made her the leading lady in the song "Take, Take, Take"-- his perspective on the draining and abusive side of celebrity. Released in 2005 on the White Stripes album Get Behind Me Satan, Rita Hayworth is described as being accosted repeatedly by an increasingly demanding fan whose obsession finally chases her away: "Well it's just not fair/ I want to get a piece of hair." The question both raised and answered is: "What price fame?"

Jack also pays a very direct homage to Rita's hubby Orson Welles in a Citizen Kane tribute. From the 2001 White Stripes album White Blood Cells, "The Union Forever" is totally comprised of pieces of dialogue from the Kane script. A seemingly impossible feat, White weaves the story of Charles Foster Kane (left) into a macabre translation of destructive capitalism and the ravages suffered by its most famous cinematic victim. "The union forever" is thus illustrated as a death sentence, and the painful life of isolation-- "It can't be love, for there is no true love"-- that Kane is left to suffer in his untouchable castle on a hill is sonically translated by White. In listening, movie fans can connect to the otherwise unrelatable character on a whole other level.

Hello, Norma Jeane...

Marilyn Monroe's (right) name pops up everywhere, so it barely joggles the mind anymore when she presents herself in song. However, the most famous and direct offering to Hollywood's sacrificed movie angel is Elton John's "Candle in the Wind." Released in 1973, Elton composed a cathartic release for a world still in mourning for the luminous star who died too soon. The song is particularly fascinating in the way Elton's empathy for the fallen idol and his poignant childhood memories reflect the powerful impact that she had and has maintained on the universal culture. Marilyn was as American as apple pie, but her beauty and vulnerability crossed over borders and oceans to reach people around the world. Few people can have such an amazing effect. Elton would alter the lyrics in 1997 to honor the death of another far-reaching woman, Lady Diana, after her equally shocking and affecting death, but the fact that Sir Elton's feelings of loss were as palpable for a starlet he never knew as they were for a close friend speaks volumes: "I would have liked to have known you,/ but I was just a kid."

In Thine Honor

The tragedy of Frances Farmer (right) has become one of the most famous cautionary tales about Hollywood: if you come here and try to maintain your independence, you will be lobotomized. I am hearing Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People" in my head as I say this, as he has been known to make a commentary or two on celebrity (Hello, "Dope Show" and ass-less pants). But, a much less dramatic and equally tortured musician added his two cents to the Tinsel Town blood bank. Kurt Cobain continued the saga of fame's destruction with his own drug overdose in 1994. One of rock's most complicated and raw poets, his personal demons certainly found a soul mate in Frances, to whom he penned an ode in 1993's In Utero. The song "Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle" not only explored Cobain's empathy for the destroyed muse, but reflected his understanding of her inability to compromise. At the time, his internal battle to maintain artistic integrity with the growing popularity of his band caused him to draw a connection between himself and the actress, who fought the same losing battle so many decades before. He would too lose his fight by succumbing to his addictions, but through his words, they both come out victorious, leaving an indelible mark on our cultural history: "She'll come back as fire, And burn all the liars,/ leave a blanket of ash on the ground." We're still burning.

Not Too Fast to Leave a Mark

James Dean (right) remains the poster boy for his generation and a symbol to every generation of youth that follows. He carries the torch of existential confusion, youthful rebellion, and the sort of obstinate bravery that gets us all through puberty. As such, he has influenced many people. Many would try to copy his look to replicate that James Dean cool, but The Eagles tried instead to synthesize his sound. Their 1974 offering "James Dean," from their album On the Border, is an example of a direct star tribute. There is no metaphor; there is no mystery in the lines. Don Henley et al simply wanted to write a song about pretty much the coolest person in their personal recollection. The impenetrability of Dean's bravado on the screen gave him a great power that many an adolescent wished to possess, hence the remaining fascination with his persona: "James Dean, you said it all so clean/ And I know my life would look all right/ If I could see it on the silver screen." Herein too does the band solve the mystery behind Dean's immortality: tragically killed in an auto accident in life, on the screen he still survives. Behind the shield of cinema hides the eternal elixir of life. Too fast to live, too famous to die.

Music in Silence

Not all the glory went to our more contemporary idols. Even in the days of silent films, movie stars were making a lot of noise. One of the crazes of the day was to write songs in honor of popular, current figures. In keeping with this mindset, the world's first movie star, Florence Lawrence (left), got her melodious comeuppance while at the pinnacle of her career. In the days of vaudeville, barber shop quartets, and fox trots, music had a very different personality from the one it bears today-- which is very schizophrenic at times. But, imagine an era where you could actually identify the instrument you were hearing-- I know, it's a long shot. While visiting with friends, one might hear a musician tickling the ivories to "Sweet Rosie O'Grady." A drunken night with friends might end with a house band encore of "And the Band Played On." In 1916, Carl Laemmle hosted a company party for the employees of Universal-- a masked ball no less-- to which his ace star Flo was invited. Imagine her surprise and delight when the MacDonald and Steiner Company's most recent hit, "Florence Lawrence," started echoing through the air and extolling the virtues of her "eyes like the violent, lips like the cherry." Had she any question that she was famous, it was quickly answered, and one can imagine she waltzed it up-- in between blushes, of course.

The Great Profile

Montgomery Clift was pretty (see right). Pretty talented, but also just really damn pretty. Before his tragic car crash, which marred his otherwise perfect visage, it was fairly well agreed upon that he was born with the right profile. Hence, The Clash's 1979 London Calling offering, "The Right Profile." The entire song is written about the public's agony, confusion, and even cold-heartedness after witnessing the movie star's altered appearance in Raintree County: "Monty's face is broken on a wheel/ Is he alive? Can he still feel?"  Monty's downward slide and addiction to pain pills and alcohol are also melodized, as is the hypocrisy of a world that turned its back on one of their prettiest people when he wasn't so pretty anymore. As the idol of Red River and A Place in the Sun, Monty had overcome the crutch of his good looks to bring forth great performances of depth and feeling. After his car crash, Monty in one respect found himself unbound-- as an actor, he was now able to pursue more character roles that would have been denied him in his pristine condition. But too, he suffered the ego blow of his fall from grace when he lost his face. In his life, he became both beauty and the beast, a point that The Clash illustrated with their typical howling and hard-hitting rhythms. 

Quick Hits:

As Lon Chaney (right) is "The Man of a Thousand Faces," it is fitting that he too become "The Man of a Thousand Songs." Countless numbers have been written for the sad actor whose continuing pain and influence never seem to wane. He has been mentioned or directly written about in songs from multiple artists: from Vetiver, to Garland Jeffreys, to Rob Zombie-- not to mention the hit from The Hollywood Revue of 1929, "Lon Chaney's Gonna Get You If You Don't Watch Out!" From Lon's martyrdom to his grotesquerie, he continues to inspire like-minded sufferers, freaks, and idolaters. Over 80 years after his death, his growing legion of fans hold tightly to his memory, as if hoping that he will emerge from the grave and perhaps in turn wear their faces too when they become too heavy. At the very least, these different musical artists return the favor by taking turns wearing his.

When John Ford's The Searchers hit theaters in 1956, he probably hoped at best to have made a great film. Little did he know that it would become an instant classic and the movie that future filmmakers like Steven Spielberg would look to as the prototype of perfect filmmaking. The success of the flick centered around the layered and complicated performance of John Wayne (left), whose hardened, prejudiced cowboy reflected the political unrest of a society undergoing change. His stubborn behavior was clearly indicated in his constant retort: "That'll be the day..." By the film's end, the day of reckoning did come... and so too did Buddy Holly's hit "That'll Be the Day," which was lyrically if not thematically inspired by the film and Wayne's performance in it.

This one remains nameless, but the song "The Second Time Around," which was penned by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen in 1960, was dedicated to one very special lady. While the song made its debut via Bing Crosby, it was more heavily associated over the years with King Crooner Frank Sinatra. This is not just because Frank recorded and performed the song himself many times, but because it was through him that Van Heusen met Shirley MacLaine (right), an often forgotten female member of the infamous Rat Pack. Van Heusen fell in love with Shirley, who unfortunately was married to Steve Parker. While he pined, poor Jimmy wrote the ballad for his lady love, whom he prayed would leave her husband. She did, but not until the '80s. Jimmy didn't get Shirley, but at least Frank got a hit out of it.

And the bands play on...

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