by David Kamp
About two-thirds of the way into GRACE OF MY HEART, Allison Anders's panoramic new film musical, Illeana Douglas opens her mouth, the dubbed voice of a singer named Kristen Vigard comes out, a string section wells up, timpani thunder, and we know for sure that Burt Bacharach hasn't lost a thing. If you've followed music over the last couple of years, you're probably aware that Bacharach is back: a retro hero among the youthful cocktail-lounge set in America and a bona fide musical deity in England, where a new compilation of his old hits--mostly the 60s ones he wrote with lyricist Hal David, such as Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By" and Jackie DeShannon's "What the World Needs Now Is Love"--entered the charts in February at No. 6. The movie scene finds Douglas lip-synching to a new Bacharach song, written with Elvis, called "God Give Me Strength." It's an epic in triple time, six minutes long, the best thing Bacharach has done in years--uplifting proof that his return is not just a rehabilitation of reputation but a creative renaissance.
GRACE OF MY HEART comes at an opportune time, when seemingly every peice of popular music recorded in the last 40 years is up for reappraisal. Thanks to CD re-releases and the emergence of pseudo-scholarly "pop-culture historians," the oeuvres of everyone from Bacharach to the Beach Boys have been given a second lease on life. Anders's film deals with one of the chief beneficiaries of this trend: that brand of shiny, assembly-line-produced teen music known as Brill Building pop. Named for the midtown-Manhattan high-rise that in the early 60s housed the smoky warrens of the era's great songwriting teams--Bacharach and David, Leiber and Stoller ("Spanish Harlem," "Yakety Yak"), Goffin and King ("Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" "Up On The Roof"), Barry and Greenwich ("Be My Baby, "Then He Kissed Me," "River Deep-Mountain High"), and Mann and Weil ("You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'")--Brill Building pop never recovered from the advent of acts such as Bob Dylan and the Beatles, who wrote their own material. By the late 60s, the buiding's writers were being castigated as hacks and forced to either reinvent themselves or disappear. At some point during the current decade, however, there developed an unspoken consensus that the Brill songs are actually pretty great, not mere "oldies" to be played at 30th-year high-school reunions but "classics" to be studied and admired for their catchiness and craftmanship.
The neat trick Anders pulls off is to construct her film's sound track almost entirely out of new songs written to order, Brill-style--in some cases even using the old Brill personnel. The GRACE OF MY HEART album, out on MCA Records, sounds like your muso-snob friend's homemade compilation tape of lost gems of 60s pop; there are a couple of standout tracks that transcend their era (Costello's own reading of "God Give Me Strength" and Shawn Colvin's rueful "Between Two Worlds," written by Gerry Goffin with his daughter Louise and David Baerwald), a few songs that sound like forgotten novelty hits, and a bunch of solid, ingratiating hum-alongables. Anders opted to go the a clef route with her story rather than do a biopic, so the new tunes substitute for the old hits. "I had specific junctures in the screenplay where I wanted the songs to go, and for every one song in the movie I had, like, five songs to use as points of reference," she says. The resulting reference-laden numbers slot neatly into GRACE OF MY HEART's reference-laden plot, whose protagonist, Denise Waverly, played by Douglas, goes through it all: she's a would-be singer (read: Carole King) who lands a songwriting job in the Brill Building, goes to work for an aspiring music mogul named Joel Miller (read: Don Krishner or Phil Spector), pens a hit for an all-black girl group called the Luminaries (read: the Crystals or the Shirelles), marries and divorces her songwriting partner (read: King and Goffin, or Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry), moves to Los Angeles after falling for a disturbed surf-music genius (read: Brian Wilson), and finds triumph at the dawn of the singer-songwriter 70s with a multi-platinum solo album (read: King's TAPESTRY, with bits of Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro thrown in).
Putting together the sound track was a painstaking process. Anders and Karyn Rachtman, her music supervisor, set about their task with the idea of enlisting some of the actual artists whose lives and work form the basis for the film's plot. "I really wanted to get a lot of the women who worked in the Brill Building involved, because that was such a rich time for female writers, the way they related their experiences to other women through songs, like big sisters," the director says. "That, and the female singer-songwriters from the 70s. They were all part of the fabric of my life growing up, more so than movies were."
Alas, recruiting her dream team of female songwriting greats turned out to be a bigger headache than anticipated. Carole King was appearing in a play and couldn't work out the logistics of contributing. Cynthia Weil was committed to her own Brill Building script. Laura Nyro, after several conversations with the director, opted to pass. There were further disappointments. Though Brian Wilson screened footage and seemed not at all offended by the fact that his stand-in, played by Matt Dillon, is a drug-addled kook, in the end he just couldn't fulfill Anders's tight schedule. Grace Slick said she just didn't have it in her anymore to write another psychedlic weird-out with Paul Kantner. And, bizarrely, both Goffin and the Beach Boys' Mike Love professed eagerness to collaborate with Nine Inch Nails. Ultimately, Anders did manage to snare Bacharach, Goffin, Lesley Gore, Carole Bayer Sager, and Joni Mitchell, and thus was begun the intriguing experiment of getting accomplished veteran songwriters to "do" themselves circa 30 years ago.
To oversee this process, Anders and Rachtman brought in Larry Klein, a producer and bassist best known for being Mitchell's collaborator and, until recently, husband. Klein admits that his taks was at times delicate. He had to bring a Wurlitzer keyboard into his ex-wife's home to get her to contribute, since "Joni was at that point not feeling driven songwriting-wise and didn't feel like going into the room where the piano was." After showing scenes from the film to her and "steering her towards her FOR THE ROSES period," Klein coaxed from Mitchell the quietly affecting "Man from Mars," sung in the film by Vigard, Douglas's voice double. The song, meant to reflect Denise's devestation after the tragic end of a love affair, was in fact Mitchell's transmutation of her grief over a cat that had run away.
Klein asked Gore, famous for "It's My Party (And I'll Cry If I Want To)," to help out on the movie's most convincing Wall of Sound simulation, "My Secret Love," an echo-saturated, behemoth with a string arrangement by Jimmie Haskell, the man who made Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" sound enormous. In the movie, Douglas's character is mortified by an assignment to write a single for a Milquetoast ingenue (Bridget Fonda in a cameo) until she discovers that the ingenue is a closeted lesbian. The resulting song is a kitsch masterpiece of cavernous production and coded language ("We must be wise/And keep our disguise/Stand by our lies/My secret love!"), complete with a spoken passage ("You and I/We are like spies in the house of holy love...").
"The anger in the song is genuine," says Gore. "I tapped into the anger I fel as a young woman in the 60s. It's reminiscent of the attitudes I adopted in 'It's My Party' and 'You Don't Own Me.'"
In other cases, the veteran songwriters had to be gently nudged back. "A concept that Allison loosely had," Klein says, "that we didn't always stick to, was to pair the old Brill writers with disciples of theirs, with the idea that the disciple would draw the source back to an area they've wandered from. Elvis, for example, really pushed Burt to go back to his 60s roots." Indeed, it was the younger songwriter who got the ball rolling on "God Give Me Strength," a collaboration carried out entirely by fax and answering machine. Costello sent Bacharach a completed lyric for the song, plus a proposed melody for the verse. Bacharach immediately recognized that Costello was paying him homage, writing in the "classic" style of old Bacharach hits such as "Anyone Who Had A Heart." "It was in that 6/8, 12/8 thing I used to write in, that I hadn't done in years," he says. "Musically, I can't go back and say, 'I want to write something like "Don't Make Me Over."' I just don't think that way. But this was for a movie about the Brill Building, so I thought, Great! I suggested a couple of new chords and changes, wrote the bridge, and did the orchestration. To me, the song has a certain timelessness. It works as a period piece, but it also works for the time the movie's being released in."
Klein played the role of disciple-nudge with Gerry Goffin on a perky girl- group song called "Born To Love That Boy." "For the purpose of the movie," Klein says, "we needed to simulate the masochistic pop song written from a feminine perspective, which was ubiquitous at the time. Gerry did one of the originals, 'He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss).' But he kept trying to do something sophisticated, and I had to push him not to. Finally, he understood what I was after, and once he did, he did it fast. He still works on that Brill Building timetable."
"I'm an old guy," says Goffin. "I don't do that kind of song anymore, so I just did it as a parody of the songs I used to write. To me, it's almost funny." But relatively few of the tracks are arch, postmodern takes on old genres. Goffin played it straight for "Between Two Worlds," meant to represent Denise's singer-songwriter-survivor period, and Klein swathed the song in atmospheric, grimly beautiful strings and pedal steel guitar to evoke the early-70s records of Nick Drake and Gram Parsons, both of whom died young and posthumously gained cult followings. "One of my pet peeves with period films is that they make things sound too damn good, so I really tried hard to achieve authenticity, to be true to the period," says Klein. Virtually all the songs were recorded in Studio B of Capitol's famous "stack o' records" building in Hollywood, one of the few facilities left relatively unchanged from when it was built in the 50s. Klein also consulted with and employed members of early rock's famed "Wrecking Crew" of L.A. session musicians, among them the saxophonist Plas Johnson (that's him on the PINK PANTHER theme) and the bassist Chuck Berghofer, who re-created his part from "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" for GRACE OF MY HEART's Nancy Sinatra-Lee Hazlewood sound-alike, "Absence Make the Heart Grow Fonder."
Only time and the questionable taste of the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will tell whether Elvis Costello will take the stage of the Shrine Auditorium next March to sing "God Give Me Strength" before Hollywood's assembled luminaries. But if nothing else, GRACE OF MY HEART will achieve significance as the film that engendered the historic Bacharach-Costello collaboration, one that will likely continue. "We're talking about starting work on an album, perhaps in October," says Bacharach. "We'd write maybe eight new songs together. Then I would orchestrate two or three of his not-so-well-known songs and he'd sing orchestrations of two or three of my not-so-well-known songs." His return to pop supremacy, Bacharach admits, "is kind of strange. At the Royal Festival Hall, I walked out and immediately got a standing ovation. Part of me is thinking, You're not dead. You don't have some incurable disease-- or do you? Does the audience know something about me that I don't know?"
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