For "Elizabethtown," Jim James and My Morning Jacket hit the note with a song called "Where to Begin." Against a scene when a family memorial moves into a backyard, it taps the woozy summer feeling of longing, and a tantalizing regret, with the line "... it's the art of feeling naked ... in your clothes." I can't imagine the movie without it.
Sometimes the right song works in a different way than it was originally intended. For the soundtrack of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Jackson Browne penned a song called "Somebody's Baby." It was a romantic portrait of Stacy, the character played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, and it had a memorably poignant chorus. Somehow it didn't fit anywhere in the movie. Late one night, playing DJ at home with a video rough cut, I tried the song on one completely incongruous and unromantic sequence involving an awkward episode of teenage sex. It worked, immediately. Perhaps too well. I've heard that Browne sometimes introduces it in concert like this: "Well, here's a love song I wrote about a girl, and somehow it became an anthem for premature ejaculation."
With "Say Anything," there was one important scene with a boombox that needed a great record. In the sequence, Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) wants to remind his ex-girlfriend of their love by serenading her with "their" song, standing on a hillside and holding his stereo high above his head, pointing it into her bedroom. It was a moment of heartache and rebellion and heroism. No song worked.
Cusack was a huge fan of the Los Angeles ska-funk band Fishbone at the time, and it's actually their "Bonin' in the Boneyard" that he was playing as we filmed the scene. But blasting that song in the finished movie, Lloyd appeared to be a crazed Fishbone fan, forcing his musical taste on a sleeping girl.
Then I came upon a tape of songs from our wedding, nestled in the glove compartment of my car. Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" was one of the songs on the tape, and instantly, every word and note felt written for the elusive boombox scene. I raced into the editing room, and sure enough, the song worked. In fact, it really worked. But the movie had to be finished in days, and we needed to secure the rights to the song fast. Only one problem: Peter Gabriel did not allow his extremely personal composition to be used for movies.
Still, he agreed to look at a videotape of "Say Anything," and a week later, I was given the message to call him. He didn't waste a moment in turning me down in a slightly sad and resolute voice. "Thank you for letting me watch your film," he added, "and I'm truly sorry that I can't give you the approval to use the song."
I was about hang up. For some reason, I couldn't help blurting out the question hanging in the air: "But why?"
"Well," he said wearily, "I just ... I didn't feel it was right for when he took the overdose."
"Wait. There's no overdose in my movie."
There was a pause. "Yours isn't the John Belushi film? 'Wired'?"
"No -- mine is called 'Say Anything.' "
"Oh the teenage movie," said Gabriel, cheering instantly. "I haven't watched it yet!"
Several days later he gave us the OK. I think I'm still celebrating. The yearning in the song matched the defiance in Cusack's face, saying all the things that Cusack, as Lloyd, needed to tell his ex-girlfriend, but couldn't.
Antidote to angst
T\o7INY DANCER\f7" was one of my favorite songs as a young journalist in the '70s, and I'm probably proudest of the singalong scene we filmed in "Almost Famous" because I'd wanted to capture the inner fan that lurks within even the most hardened rockers. I'd often seen those moments on tour when a record appeared on the radio or in a restaurant and suddenly all the tensions could evaporate for the length of the right song. Fandom could break out for those three minutes and blatantly reveal the giddy love of music that powers most musicians, much more than sex or drugs ever did or could.
The scene worked, I thought, even as we were shooting it, because the actors threw themselves completely into that display of unabashed love of rock. (Except, of course, Noah Taylor, who disliked the song enormously but can be seen gamely struggling through the exercise.) Some criticized the scene as a product of rose-colored vision. But in the years since the movie's release, it's been the most grizzled and unsentimental musicians who sought me out most strenuously to say, "That scene happened to us." And then, in a quieter voice, "Don't ever write this, but we once sang along to ... (insert guilty-pleasure pop classic)."