Sunday, June 28, 2020

Songs that were made into movies

Today's Music Weird is for anyone who ever heard a hit song and thought, "Man, that would make a great movie!"

Most hit songs that have been adapted into movies are narrative songs, but even narrative songs—many of which are only 3-4 minutes in length—contain too little story to fill a 90-minute film. In adapting a song to the silver screen, screenwriters usually elaborate on the story quite a bit.

In fleshing out the song, some movie adaptations drastically change and embellish the story. This makes sense from a dramatic standpoint, since watching a movie that mirrored a song's story without adding any details or surprises would be pretty dull. But the changes can also completely alter the character of the story, which can be unsatisfying for viewers whose expectations have been set by their familiarity with a beloved hit song. 

We often hear people say that a movie isn't as good as the book. If you were to watch all these movies, I think you'd agree that some of them aren't as good as the song.

Purple People Eater (1988)

When he wasn't acting in Western movies like High Noon, Sheb Wooley pursued a singing and songwriting career that occasionally yielded major hits. His biggest was "The Purple People Eater," a space-themed novelty that incorporated sped-up voices like those heard on The Chipmunks' records and David Seville's hit "Witch Doctor." Like "Witch Doctor," "The Purple People Eater" was a #1 hit on the pop chart in 1958.

Thirty years later, "The Purple People Eater" was adapted into the movie Purple People Eater, starring Ned Beatty and Shelley Winters and a lot of other surprising performers, including Sheb Wooley himself.  

The movie is pretty true to the song. In the song, the good-natured Purple People Eater (who eats only purple purple) comes to Earth to start a rock 'n' roll band. In the movie, the alien appears after a child plays the original Sheb Wooley record and then forms a band with the child. The added storyline is that they become successful and help save a retirement village.

The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia (1981)

"The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" was the biggest hit for actress and vocalist Vicki Lawrence, best known for her performances on The Carol Burnett Show and the spinoff sitcom Mama's Family

Written by songwriter Bobby Russell, who was married to Lawrence at the time, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" tells an elaborate tale of a man who sets out to get revenge on the man who has been sleeping with his wife, finds the man already dead, and then is convicted of a murder he didn't commit. And that isn't even the whole story. Russell was ambivalent about the song, but Lawrence loved it, recorded it, and enjoyed a million-selling #1 hit.

If ever a song were ripe for a film adaptation, this was it. Kristy McNichol, Dennis Quaid, and Mark Hamill were cast in the lead roles, but the screenplay—despite being "based on" Russell's song—retained none of the original story elements apart from the general themes of jealousy, revenge, and murder. For the soundtrack, Tanya Tucker recorded a new version of the song that reflected the movie's plot. It was a song based on a movie based on a song.

Big Bad John (1990)

Like Purple People Eater, the movie Big Bad John appeared three decades after the hit that inspired it and starred Ned Beatty as well as the hit's original recording artist, in this case Jimmy Dean. By 1990, Dean was more strongly associated with the sausage that bore his name than with music, considering that he hadn't had a major country hit since the mid 1970s.

But "Big Bad John" had been a whopper of a hit. Topping the country, pop, and easy listening charts in 1961, the song also went to #2 on the UK pop chart. It inspired possibly more sequels and parodies than any other hit, as previously addressed on the Music Weird

In the film, Big John works and—spoiler alert—dies in the mine, just like in the song, but the rest of the story is grafted on. Dean's original version of the title song isn't even used in the movie, probably for licensing reasons. A new recording with the Charlie Daniels Band is included instead.

Ode to Billy Joe (1976)

Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" (1967) was a #1 hit that generated a lot of discussion, because it contained several mysteries that the song doesn't resolve. Why did Billie Joe jump off the Tallahatchie bridge? What was the song's narrator doing with him on the bridge before he jumped, and what did they throw into the river? Listeners had to wait almost a decade to find out.

Max Baer Jr.—Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies—directed the film, which changes the spelling of Billie Joe's name and answers the questions that the song leaves hanging. The narrator (named Bobbie Lee Hartley in the movie) was with Billy Joe because they had a would-be romantic interlude in which he revealed he was gay; the item thrown from the bridge was the narrator's ragdoll, a symbol of her childhood; and Billy Joe committed suicide because he couldn't come to terms with his sexuality or didn't want to face the harsh realities of being gay in 1950s Mississippi.

The Gambler (1980)
Kenny Rogers' 1978 #1 hit "The Gambler" inspired not just one but five movies, all of which were made for TV. The first, The Gambler, aired in 1980 and was based on a story "suggested by a song by" Don Schlitz, the composer of "The Gambler." Kenny Rogers himself played the lead as Brady Hawkes, the gambler, as he would continue to do for all five movies, the last one of which was made in 1994. In the song, Rogers was the voice of the young narrator who receives the last words of wisdom from a dying old gambler, but in the movies, Rogers plays the gambler and does not die.

The song's story is pretty thin, so for the TV movie, the plot was fleshed out considerably, with the old gambler befriending and mentoring a young gambler. The two of them set off on a quest together and have various side quests along the way.

Harper Valley P.T.A. (1978)

Jeannie C. Riley's #1 hit "Harper Valley P.T.A." (1968), written by Tom T. Hall, told a humorous story about the hypocrisy of self-appointed moral authorities. It resonated with listeners in such a big way that it became the basis of a movie, a television series, and even an adult film (Vista Valley P.T.A.). In the 1978 movie, Barbara Eden plays Stella Johnson, the sexy target of community scorn. The soundtrack of the film features the original hit as well as a couple songs sung by Eden, who reprised her role as Stella in the subsequent television series.

Yellow Submarine (1968)
The Beatles' 1966 hit "Yellow Submarine" inspired this animated 1968 film. Although it featured several songs by the Beatles as well as the Beatles themselves in the final scene, the animated version of the band was voiced by actors.

The song tells the story of a group of friends who sail to a "sea of green" on the sun and live in happiness underwater in a yellow submarine. The movie depicts the Beatles as the friends who live in an underwater paradise and have a yellow submarine, but many other characters and plot elements are introduced, such as the band's conflict with the Blue Meanies, blue beings who hate music.

Take This Job and Shove It (1981)

Johnny Paycheck's #1 country hit "Take This Job and Shove It," written by David Allan Coe, became a rallying cry for disgruntled workers everywhere in 1977. It also inspired the 1981 film of the same name, in which both Paycheck and Coe appeared. If not for their presence in the film, I would consider this to be a movie that is simply titled after a song rather than based on one. But even with Paycheck and Coe in the picture, the connection between the song and screenplay is tenuous.

The song is written from the standpoint of a factory worker who no longer sees the point in working a job he hates after his woman leaves. Despite the rousing chorus, he doesn't actually quit his job—he only daydreams about what the bosses' reactions will be when he finally gets the nerve to quit. It's not much of a basis for a movie, and Coe doesn't receive a "based on" or "inspired by" credit for the film, which is a comedy about friends at a brewery who experience conflict when one becomes a manager. The song appears during a scene of domestic turmoil, which is the only part of the film that could be said to be based on the song.

I saw this movie at Muncie, Indiana's Ski-Hi Drive-In in 1981 as part of a double feature with The Last Chase

The Legend of Tom Dooley (1959)

The folk song "Tom Dooley" is based on the real-life murder of a woman named Laura Foster by a man named Tom Dula, a Confederate soldier who was convicted and hanged for the crime, although some question remained about his guilt. The Kingston Trio's revival of the song became a #1 hit in 1958, so a movie was rushed into production to bring the tragic story to the silver screen. That movie, The Legend of Tom Dooley, starred Michael Landon as Tom Dooley and Jo Morrow as Laura.

The song "Tom Dooley" offers only a skeleton of a story that presents a love triangle, a murder, and a man (Dooley) awaiting his execution. It doesn't come close to communicating the details of the actual murder on which it is based, and this vagueness allowed the film to stray even farther from the facts of the case and show Dooley as a purely sympathetic character and Laura's death as an accident. Reinforcing the film's direct connection to the song, the Kingston Trio's hit recording is featured in the film.

Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer (2000)

Elmo & Patsy's 1979 Christmas novelty "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" had to be sanitized for its adaptation into an animated family film, which Elmo narrates. In the original song, a drunken grandma is killed after being run over by Santa and his reindeer, a major plot point that was omitted from the cartoon. Although grandma does in fact get run over by a reindeer in the movie (twice!), she survives, and the rest of the story concerns conflict over a family store as well as a prize fruitcake recipe, amnesia, and the true meaning of Christmas.

Coward of the County (1981)

After Kenny RogersThe Gambler proved successful and won a couple Emmy awards, another one of Rogers' #1 hits, "Coward of the County" from 1979, was turned into yet another TV movie. This time the movie closely mirrored the song's story, in which Tommy, the mild-mannered "coward of the county," gets revenge on the men who raped his woman in a scenario that reminded me of the 1971 film Straw Dogs

In the song, Rogers is the narrator who tells Tommy's story, and similarly, in the movie he plays Tommy's uncle rather than the coward himself but gets top billing anyway.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Judith "Judy" Reisman: From '60s folksinger to anti-sex crusader

Judy Reisman and Friend

In 1990 when Cincinnati charged photographer Robert Mapplethorpe with obscenity over his art exhibit "The Perfect Moment," the prosecution called only one expert witness: the anti-Alfred Kinsey polemicist Judith "Judy" Reisman. The defense objected, arguing that Reisman's only qualification for evaluating art was her early work as a songwriter. 

A songwriter?

Yes, it's true. Reisman—who made a career of crusading against sex researcher Alfred Kinsey and later served as a conservative commentator on WorldNetDaily—began as a folksinger in the liberal urban-folk scene of the early-to-mid 1960s. 

In her post-music career, Reisman became laser focused on Kinsey, writing books with titles such as Sexual Sabotage: How One Mad Scientist Unleashed a Plague of Corruption and Contagion on AmericaStolen Honor, Stolen Innocence: How America Was Betrayed by the Lies and Sexual Crimes of a Mad "Scientist"Kinsey: Crimes and Consequences; and Kinsey, Sex and Fraud: The Indoctrination of a People. She became active in abstinence-only programs, and Ronald Reagan's Justice Department gave Reisman $734,000 to study pornography (even though her credentials, critics say, are "practically cosmetic").

Despite all this, her early folk songs and musical programs were were much milder than her later work, celebrating things like art, ethnic and cultural diversity, and the Civil Rights Movement. 

Many articles about the Mapplethorpe obscenity case trivialize Reisman's songwriting career, but it actually was more substantial than you might think. She collaborated with well-known folk artists, released a number of records, contributed to a number of children's television shows (mostly local ones), and was featured in the influential folk magazine Broadside.

Her first record, An Appeal to Conscience, was released in 1965 and dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. It contained two songs, "For the Dignity of Man" (a salute to Lyndon B. Johnson) and "Where Freedom Ends" (a salute to Martin Luther King Jr.). Reisman wrote "Where Freedom Ends" by herself, but on "For the Dignity of Man," she collaborated with folk veterans Stu Jamieson and Bill CunninghamThe record was the only release of CRM (presumably "Civil Rights Movement") Records.

In 1965 she also copyrighted several other original songs: "The Inconstant Lover," "Fishin'," "The Last Supper," "Warmth," "The Brazilian Fruit Vender," and "The German Psyche."

Reisman told the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle that her song "The Ballad of Annie Hayes" was named one of the best of 1965 by Les Claypool (the Los Angeles disc jockey, not the Primus bass player). The sheet music for the song appeared in the folk magazine Broadside, and the article provided an address where readers could write for information about Reisman's album, New Sounds By Judy Reisman.

"The Ballad of Annie Hayes," which is not included on the album, expressed Reisman's outrage over the real-life story of a 16-year-old Georgia girl who was raped and killed.

In 1966 Reisman performed 12 original folk songs on KPFK in Los Angeles, but thereafter, she moved to Milwaukee when her husband was offered a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

She continued to compose folk songs, and in 1967 copyrighted a song called "Judah Maccabee" and one called "Hazy Day," the latter of which featured music by Dick Hieronymus.

Her collaboration with Hieronymus is interesting. Hieronymus did quite a bit of session work with big-name artists in his career and participated in the 1973 session for John Lennon's "Since My Baby Left Me." In 1976 he recorded a children's album, Songs of Meter Park, with Jimmy Vann, which was a Schoolhouse Rock-type educational album of songs about the metric system, such as "I Like to Weigh With Kilograms." Ironically, in the context of today's blog post, he also co-wrote the themes of the 1978 adult films I Am Always Ready and Love Airlines.

While in Wisconsin, Reisman created musical segments for the children's television programs Children's Fair (a public television show on channel 10 in Milwaukee) and Merry-Go-Round (an Ohio program).

In 1968, Reisman wrote The Great Adventure, a musical play for television. The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle described it as a "history of American minorities: the Jew, the Indian, and Negro." She also performed a program for the Milwaukee Public Museum, Strange But True, which concerned "problems with conservation." She continued to be featured on KPFK in Los Angeles, where she performed an original musical story that year, A History of the Jewish People

1969 saw the release of Reisman's Daytime Nighttime, a filmstrip with a 7" EP that was released by Scholastic Records to encourage art appreciation among children. The songs highlighted works of art with daytime or nighttime imagery by artists such as Henri Matisse, Joan MirĂ³, and Henri Rousseau

In the 1970s, on the strength of her work on Children's Fair and Merry-Go-Round, Reisman got a job writing musical segments for the long-running national children's show Captain Kangaroo. The gig came to an end, Reisman claims, when her "thoughtful tunes" proved to be no match for cartoon violence in capturing the attention of children. With seemingly nowhere else to go in her musical career, she went back to school to study communications and started on her path to becoming an anti-sex crusader with odd views such as blaming the Holocaust on homosexuals.

As for the Mapplethorpe case, Mapplethorpe won, and a 25-year retrospective on the obscenity trial in the Washington Post called the court battle "a PR disaster" for Cincinnati. David Mann, who was one of the City Council members at the time, said, "It kind of made us the laughing stock of sophisticated communities."