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 Rogers' The 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.