My First Time: Watching ‘They Live’ (1988)

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Welcome to My First Time, a series where I review classic films (1930s -1990s) as I see them for the first time. Check back weekly for new installments!

It’s tough to be a horror fan. I enjoy the genre – and have since my Goosebumps-reading days – but liking scary stories carries a certain stigma with it. Fortunately, I’ve never encountered much opposition. Sadly, though, one often hears stories of fellow horror fans having their passion rebuked with a distasteful sneer and an utterance of “You actually LIKE that stuff?”

To be fair, I can understand where that distaste for horror comes from. Let’s admit it: a lot of horror films are smutty, overly gory, and just plain gross. After 1978’s Halloween (actually not a bad film), a wave of slasher movies hit the screen, all featuring promiscuous teens, gory deaths, and killers that we’re encouraged to root for. Allow me to be clear: aside from a couple good exceptions (Halloween and the parts of Scream that I’ve seen), I dislike those movies. They give horror a bad name.

What’s especially sad is that bad horror films cause some to reject the whole horror genre, and that’s a shame. That means missing out on great stuff like Stephen King novels, Boris Karloff’s TV series Thriller, the first two film adaptations of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video, 1963’s The Haunting

…And John Carpenter’s They Live!

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Nada (Roddy Piper), our fearless hero.

As They Live begins, we meet John Nada (Roddy Piper), a drifter making his way into Los Angeles. After getting a job at a construction company, Nada meets fellow worker Frank Armitage (Keith David), who befriends Nada and takes him to a soup kitchen near a shantytown. While at the kitchen, Nada becomes intrigued by strange activity revolving around the nearby church: a preacher standing outside the church and vehemently urging people to “wake up,” as well as another drifter claiming that his TV signal is often jammed by another signal from the church.

Nada enters the church building, only to realize that the building isn’t a house of worship; rather, the place is filled with scientific and broadcasting equipment. Nada discovers a false panel in a wall and moves it aside, revealing a cardboard box. He reaches for it, but stops when the preacher notices him. That night, the “church” is inexplicably raided by the police. Nada returns the next morning to find the building empty – except for the box hidden in the walls. Nada snatches the box, runs to an alley, and opens it, uncovering… lots of sunglasses.

Nada slips on a pair and immediately notices some strange things. First, the sunglasses force the wearer to see their surroundings in black-and-white. Second, all magazines and signs have been stripped of their usual images, replaced with messages like STAY ASLEEP, WATCH TV, CONFORM, and NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT. Third (and definitely most disturbing), Nada discovers that a solid percentage of the people on Earth aren’t people at all; rather, they’re aliens who look like zombies.

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The world in sunglass-vision.

Rather than being frightened, Nada becomes aggressive, confronting two aliens in a grocery store and killing most of the aliens in a bank. Unfortunately, this brings him to the aliens’s attention, as well as placing him on the police’s radar. Desperate for a place to hide, Nada hijacks a car, forcing Holly Thompson (Meg Foster) to take him to her apartment. After hearing Nada’s crazy-sounding story, however, Holly takes matters into her own hands. Catching Nada unawares, Holly pushes him out the window of her second or third-story apartment. However, Nada survives.

Nada returns to the alley he left the glasses in and retrieves them, only to encounter Frank. (Remember Frank, Nada’s construction-worker friend?) Nada wants Frank to put on a pair of the glasses, but Frank, believing Nada’s just a crazy shooter, wants no part of it. After a famous six-minute fist-fight sequence, Nada slips a pair of glasses on Frank, waking him up to the true state of the world. Now on the same side, Frank and Nada team up to put an end to the aliens’s rule once and for all!

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Our Dynamic Duo! (Left: Keith David as Frank; Right: Roddy Piper as Nada.)

If I had to describe They Live‘s plot in one sentence, I’d say, “What if an ’80s action hero dropped into the middle of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers?” There’s a lot of humor and horror inherent in that situation, and writer/director John Carpenter understood that. As he adapted Ray Nelson’s story “Eight O’Clock In The Morning” into the They Live script, it’s obvious that Carpenter (under the pen name Frank Armitage) took care to balance the action-oriented, horrific, and comedic elements of the story. He succeeded remarkably well!

This balance is easiest to see in our lead character. John Nada is a perfect example of what I call the “Carpenter Horror Hero:” a brave person who, rather than cower in fear of the evil confronting them, immediately decides to stand and fight back! John Carpenter had made a definitive statement on this hero in his 1982 film The Thing. Where it was serious in The Thing, however, Carpenter does it more playfully here. While Nada is scared of what’s going on, he also finds time to drop a number of ’80s-action-hero one-liners. Some of my favorites include:

“Mama don’t like tattletales.”
“Come to show them where I am, huh? NOT NICE!”

And, most famously (one swear word in this one, so be warned):

Even with all this humor, horror, and action, John Carpenter also manages to share an important theme, warning against conformity, group-think, and the power of the media. Not bad for a little genre movie!

That brings us to the acting. If you saw the video above, you could probably tell that Roddy Piper wasn’t the greatest actor in the world. Heck, you don’t have to be when you’re a WWF superstar! However, like another wrestler-turned-actor named Dwayne Johnson, Piper is fine when he’s given something in his wheelhouse. The role of John Nada is perfectly crafted to fit Piper’s strengths; all it requires is swagger and a strong physical presence. Piper delivers both of those things in spades! It doesn’t matter that he reads his lines a little flatly; Nada is a classic B-movie hero, so an in-depth interpretation isn’t needed.

Keith David cleans house as Frank, but I was expecting that! He’s not quite as physically strong as Roddy Piper, but he exudes a sense of sturdiness and toughness with every line he delivers. He gives my favorite performance of the three leads!

I wish I could say Meg Foster did a good job, too, but I cannot tell a lie. She’s just as bad with line delivery as Roddy Piper, but her role isn’t accommodating like Piper’s role. It also doesn’t help that she almost ALWAYS has the same look on her face, regardless of the situation.

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See this expression? Get used to it. You’ll be seeing it often!

I didn’t want to wrap up this article without talking about the score, which was composed by John Carpenter and Alan Howarth. Carpenter often writes the scores for his films, and they’re famous for being simple, electronically-based, and keyboard-driven. That wouldn’t work for every film, but they fit Carpenter’s brand of movie perfectly! For They Live, however, Carpenter brought in Alan Howarth to help, and you can hear his influence. Carpenter’s electronic base is still there, but Howarth (I’m assuming) adds bluesy guitar stings that give the music such a unique flavor. It’s unlike any horror score that I’ve ever heard!

Like I said at the beginning of this review, horror gets a bad rep, and it’s often deserved. However, gems like They Live are what make dipping into the genre worthwhile. The balanced mixture of action, horror, and comedy make it truly unique, and the themes are worth picking up on. They Live is totally worth your time!

Final Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

 

 

My First Time: Watching ‘Father Goose’ (1964)

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Welcome to My First Time, a new series where I review classic films (1930s – 1990s) as I see them for the first time. Check back often for new installments!

Several directors live and die by the maxim that every successful movie requires only two things: a good script and a well-chosen cast. I agree with that. Personally, when I watch a film, I’m not kept in my seat by the cinematography, editing, or score (although I can and do appreciate greatness in those things); rather, I’m hooked by an intriguing story and well-drawn characters. These elements are laid out on the page, and the actors embody them on the screen.

How important is the cast to a film? Well, it’s so important that one miscalculated casting choice can derail a movie. Sadly, I feel like that happened with 1964’s Father Goose.

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Cary Grant, all grizzled up for his role. See how the charm still shines through?

Father Goose begins as Walter Eckland (Cary Grant), a boozy, uncouth beach bum, pilots his boat up to a harbor on a south Pacific island near his home. World War II is in full swing, and as a result, the harbor has been re-purposed as a military outpost. Eckland docks and proceeds to mooch barrels of fuel off the pier, something he’s often done. This time, however, it attracts the attention of a British naval officer, who informs his superior, Commander Haughton (Trevor Howard).  Haughton sees Eckland – who he knows from pre-War days – and an idea flashes into his mind!

Haughton tells Eckland that his boat will be impounded – unless Eckland volunteers to become a spotter, living on a seemingly deserted island and reporting Japanese plane and ship movements to the Navy. Eckland doesn’t like the idea, but he also wants to keep his boat. Eckland reluctantly agrees to take the job. Eckland spends the next couple weeks begrudgingly doing the job.

One day, Haughton radios Eckland with good news: Haughton has found a replacement spotter for Eckland, but Eckland has to pick him up from another island. Eckland eagerly heads to the island, but when he gets there, he finds a freshly-dug grave and a bullet-riddled shack. While investigating the scene, Eckland makes another discovery: a teacher, Catherine Freneau (Leslie Caron), and seven schoolgirls! The eight ladies were dropped on the island not long before, from a plane under attack.

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Cary Grant and his fellow islanders!

Eckland agrees to take Ms. Freneau and the schoolgirls back to his island and protect them until help can come. Almost immediately after arriving on the island, Eckland and his rough personality begin clashing with Ms. Freneau’s prim, upper-crust lifestyle. Comic hijinks ensue as Eckland struggles to co-exist with the schoolgirls and Ms. Freneau, and vice versa!

All of this makes for a perfectly solid story. We’ve seen the “seedy man clashes with prim woman” trope many times (The African Queen probably being the most-acclaimed example). However, Peter Stone, Frank Tarloff, and S.H. Barnett’s script does a decent job keeping these ancient plot devices watchable. My favorite thing about the script is that it doesn’t let the comedy detract from the fact that there’s a war on. There are moments of genuine peril when Japanese patrols land on the island, and I love those parts of the film.

The juxtaposition of war and comedy also makes for one memorable visual. During the opening sequence, we see Cary Grant idly cruising toward a island shore, listening to pop music as explosions appear on land. There’s not an actual battle going on, but the shot is a striking one. It’s definitely not something you see every day!

Now, however, we come to the casting.

More than once, Cary Grant stated that Walter Eckland was one of his all-time favorite roles. He also claimed that Eckland embodied his real personality more than any other part he played. I love those statements, and it’s easy to see that Grant’s having fun with the role, putting everything he has into it. Even with all that effort and energy, though, Grant isn’t convincing in the role. We’ve seen so many movies with Cary Grant as a debonair smooth-talker or a cocky, boyish hero that it’s hard to buy him as a scruffy, un-mannered, boozing beachcomber. That’s not Grant’s fault by any means; like I said, he’s doing his best. There’s just no way for Walter Eckland to come out from Cary Grant’s persona!

The script does give Grant some action-hero stuff to do in the third act, and it’s fun to watch. Grant only occasionally got to do any Indiana Jones-style heroics. I never knew he was so good at it!

Trevor Howard does a solid job with the thankless straight-guy role of Commander Haughton, providing a good foil to the comic craziness happening on the island. The young girls do well with their roles; they’re fun to watch as they react to Grant’s comic stylings. Unfortunately, the other lead, Leslie Caron, doesn’t do much with her role. She’s okay, but she seems to be phoning it in.

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Grant, right before he goes into action-hero mode. (This is my favorite moment in the film!)

All things considered, Father Goose is a solid, inoffensive family film. Aside from Cary Grant’s miscasting and Leslie Caron’s lack of real acting, I have no complaints. It’s not a world-beater of a film, but it won’t make you want to gauge your eyes out, either. In fact, it might be a good way to introduce kids to Cary Grant and his body of his work! It’s definitely something to consider!

Final Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jerry Goldsmith: Five Fantastic Scores

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Earlier today, I was browsing down my Twitter feed (which I probably do more often than I should). I lazily scrolled, only halfway paying attention to the words moving down my phone screen.

All of a sudden, I stopped. Why? I had read this:

Jerry Goldsmith just so happens to be my favorite film composer. Over the course of his five-decade career, he wrote the score for 247 films, never once repeating himself. Within his body of work, one can find a vast array of musical styles: brassy full-orchestra scores; ragtime; soft jazz, and experimental scores with electronic instruments. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, my friends.

Goldsmith passed away in 2004, but he left behind a body of work that’s still revered by fans today, including myself. In celebration of Goldsmith’s induction into the Walk Of Fame, I thought I’d share five of my favorite Goldsmith scores with you!

Patton (1970)

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We begin our journey with Goldsmith’s score for Patton, the Best Picture winner of 1970. The epic three-hour film tells the true story of the controversial career of General George S. Patton. He’s purported to be the only American general that the Nazis actually feared, but he also drew flack for his flamboyant outfit, his beliefs in reincarnation, and his brash way of treating the soldiers under his command. The film does an excellent job of painting an even-handed portrait of this unique man.

Goldsmith’s score does a great job painting an aural picture of Patton! Over the course of the soundtrack, the tone modulates between brassy marches – depicting Patton’s outer image  – to quieter themes as Patton reflects on his “past lives” and looks with dread to his life after the war. It completes the picture that the visuals begin!

 

Chinatown (1974)

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And now, we move from the epic score of Patton to the melancholy jazz of Chinatown. This 1974 film – set in the 1930s – begins when a woman (Diane Ladd) comes into detective J.J. Gittes’s (Jack Nicholson) office. This woman believes that her husband, tycoon Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), is having an affair, and she hires Gittes to get proof. As Gittes investigates, however, he finds out that the woman who hired him is not the real Mrs. Mulwray. Hollis Mulwray appears to be the target of slander, meant to discredit his opposition to a dam being built outside of L.A. As Gittes delves deeper, he discovers a scandal involving L.A.’s Water And Power company, with Noah Cross (John Huston), Evelyn Mulwray’s father, at the center.

Chinatown has an extremely intricate plot, but that’s not the engine that drives the film. The emotions behind the plot – the sadness, desperation, greed, and shock – are what make the film memorable for so many, and that’s what Goldsmith underlines with his score. The film’s love story is the emotional core of the film, and Goldsmith does amazingly well accentuating the tenderness and tragedy in his Love Theme.

Poltergeist (1982)

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Jerry Goldsmith won his only Oscar for one of his horror scores (The Omen in 1976), but that’s not a favorite of mine. In my opinion, when it comes to Goldsmith’s horror work, Poltergeist rises to the top of the barrel!

Poltergeist revolves around the Freelings, a typical American family living in a typical suburb. Things start to get weird, however, when a ghostly hand emerges from the late-night TV static and blasts into a wall in the master bedroom. Little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is the only one to witness the occurrence, but soon, the whole family notices a number of strange events: the dog barking at seemingly nothing; bent silverware, and chairs moving on their own. All seems all well and good, up until the night a mysterious force sucks Carol Anne into her closet, where she vanishes. Understandably terrified, the Freelings call a group of paranormal investigators, who enter the house to do battle with the evil being in residence.

I like Poltergeist quite a bit; I think it’s a tasteful horror film that draws its scares without a lot of tricks or gore (although it does use a tiny bit of each). One of the most interesting things about it, however, is how it takes the idyllic suburb that Steven Spielberg loved in the ’80s and turns it on its head. Goldsmith’s score does a fantastic job accentuating that point, blending a whimsical, magical score with ominous electronic instruments, striking horns, and screaming strings. There’s no other score quite like it!

 

I.Q. (1994)

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Okay, enough with horror. Let’s shift gears to the utterly charming (and sadly underseen) romantic comedy I.Q.!

The place: 1950s Princeton. Catherine Boyd (Meg Ryan), a young mathematician, is out on a pleasant drive with her fiance, psychology professor/ snob James (Stephen Fry). James’s car starts to backfire, forcing him to stop at a gas station. Ed Walters (Tim Robbins), a mechanic and science-fiction aficionado who works at the station, goes out to greet the customers. It’s love at first sight between Ed and Catherine, but Catherine suppresses her feelings. However, Catherine is flustered enough to leave her watch at the station. Ed looks up her address and goes to return the watch, only to be shocked when Albert Einstein (Walter Matthau) opens the door! Einstein is Catherine’s uncle, and he doesn’t like James any more than anyone else does. Einstein wants his niece to marry for love and not for convenience, and he can tell that love exists between Catherine and James. In order to get his niece to recognize those feelings, Einstein and his fellow geniuses cook up a plan to make Ed look like a genius, in order to completely win Catherine’s affections!

I.Q. is a frothy romcom (one of my favorites of the genre) with a touch of ’50s flair. Picking up on this, Goldsmith composed one of the lightest scores of his career! Using “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” as a recurring motif, Goldsmith took elements of ’50s pop music, blended them with a little classical violin (meant to represent Einstein’s tastes), and made a perfect complement to this little trifle of a story!

 

Rudy (1993)

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Up until this point, I’ve examined Jerry Goldsmith’s storied career in chronological order. It felt like the simplest way to organize this article, and it didn’t require me to do any superfluous thinking. However, I believe in going out with a bang. That meant changing the timeline to end on Rudy, which features what I think is the greatest music the man ever produced!

Rudy tells the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger (Sean Astin). Rudy grows up in Joliet, Illinois, surrounded by folks who all seem to work at the steel mill outside of town. Rudy’s dad (Ned Beatty) is a foreman at the mill, and he assures Rudy that he’ll have a job there, as soon as Rudy comes of age. Rudy, however, wants something more from his life: he wants to play football at Notre Dame. Most of Rudy’s friends and family scoff and scorn, but Rudy continues to keep his dream alive. Rudy does this by confiding in his supportive friend Pete (Christopher Reed). When Pete dies, however, a devastated Rudy decides that it’s now or never; if he’s ever going to fulfill his dream, he has to start right away. Rudy leaves for Notre Dame, where he sets out to make his dream a reality with the help of three friends: a kind priest (Robert Prosky), a jovial grad student/tutor (Jon Favreau), and the university’s cantankerous groundskeeper (Charles S. Dutton).

Rudy is a classic American epic, the story of a young man who overcomes major obstacles to achieve his life’s dream. Goldsmith obviously recognized this, for his score shows that he was influenced by Aaron Copland. Copland’s music paid tribute to ranchers, factory workers, coal miners… essentially the typical American. Copland’s bold full-orchestra compositions revealed the inner majesty in seemingly ordinary lives. Goldsmith’s Rudy score does the same for Rudy’s story! Emulating Copland’s sound, Goldsmith created a warm, epic collection of music, helping us to see how amazing Rudy’s story is.

Jerry Goldsmith considered this score to be one of his finest works, and I agree. In fact, this is my all-time favorite soundtrack by ANY composer. Just thought you’d like to know!

 

Winning a star on the Walk Of Fame is a great boon, and Jerry Goldsmith is definitely deserving of such an honor. Over the course of a half-century, he made his mark on hundreds of movies, making each one better with his carefully crafted scores. For that, he’ll be remembered forever!

5 Great Songs You Should Listen To: December Edition

(First things first: a shoutout to my friend Kyle, who originated the idea for this series!)

I Can Dream About You” – Dan Hartman (From Streets Of Fire, 1984)

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In 1982, screenwriter/director Walter Hill was one of the hottest properties in Hollywood due to his smash hit 48 HRS. Hill used his popularity to set up Streets Of Fire. Hill described the film as one that his teenage self would have considered perfect, including elements that he thought were “great then and which I still have great affection for: custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor.” Unfortunately, SoF bombed at the box office. It did leave us with a well-loved soundtrack, though! Of the tracks I’ve heard, I think the strongest is Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You.” The tune was meant as a homage to the doo-wop music of the ’50s. They didn’t entirely succeed in that regard, but the song is a fine ’80s love song with a gentle, soothing production backing it up. Check it out!

He’s Sure The Boy I Love” – The Crystals (From He’s A Rebel, 1963)

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In the early 1960s, the most exciting new thing coming out of pop music was producer Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound.” It’s easy to see why; even today, the big sound, rich arrangements, and innocent lyrics make Spector-produced tracks sound both unique and sweetly nostalgic. “He’s Sure The Boy I Love” is a prime example of everything that makes those early “Wall Of Sound” tunes great! (By the way, if you’re a movie buff, you might recognize this song from Goodfellas, where Martin Scorsese uses it as a sonic backdrop to some very unsavory goings-on!)

The Road Goes On Forever” – The Highwaymen (From The Road Goes On Forever, 1995)

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The Highwaymen were a country supergroup consisting of genre stars Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings. They only recorded three albums together, but they were important in keeping the “outlaw country” tradition from being completely forgotten in the midst of pop-oriented country music. “The Road Goes On Forever” is a particular favorite of mine for its textured lyrics and the wonderful Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque story they tell. It’s a must-listen!

My Eyes Adored You” – Frankie Valli (Single, 1974)

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Yes, I know “My Eyes Adored You” is corny. It’s corny in a way I can get behind, though! In fact, the ’70s production and the cotton-candy-sweet romantic lyrics are exactly why I hold this tune in such warm regard. Although I didn’t grow up in the ’70s, I read many YA novels from the period during my middle school and high school years (and even today). This tune, very much of the period, bring me right back to my early years, when emotions were high and life was relatively carefree.

Show Me The Way” – Peter Frampton (From Frampton Comes Alive!, 1976)

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Speaking of corny songs… This classic tune – from Peter Frampton’s famous live album – recently taught me a valuable lesson about pop music and its importance. It was the day after Christmas, and I was out for a car ride with my dad. As we shot the breeze and chatted about stuff, we were tuned in to the local oldies station. As we drove, “Show Me The Way” came over the air, and, for a second, I was transfixed. Something about that song completed the moment in such a powerful, poignant way. I know I’ll always remember that moment with my dad, largely because I have a song to connect it to. That’s what pop music gives to each of us: it’s inextricably linked to moments in time, due to the time it was released or some other personal memory. It remains locked in our memory banks forever, ready to bring back those vintage feelings and emotions whenever the song is played on our radios or iPods. That’s what makes those songs special!

 

 

Five Great Movie Opening Scenes (And What They Teach Us)

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Let’s start with a little hypothetical situation, shall we?

Let’s say it’s Friday night. You’ve just finished a long, stressful work week, and you’ve decided to unwind though a trip to your local multiplex. You go to your favorite theater and buy a ticket to the film that sounds most interesting. You get your tub of popcorn (slathered in that wonderful-tasting fake butter) and your gallon of soda. You make your way into the dark theater and settle into a seat in your favorite part of the theater. You’re ready to be blown away!

Now that we’ve come to this point, let me ask you a question. How much time do you give a movie before passing judgment?

If you’re like most people, you’ve made your decision within ten minutes (give or take a few minutes). During the movie’s opening sequence, you’ve made up your mind about a movie’s quality, and the film will have to work really hard to change your opinion, good or bad.

What does all this mean? It means that aspiring filmmakers (like myself) need to learn how to open a story properly. If we don’t start our story with a bang, audiences will never see the magical scenes we labored over, connect with the lifelike characters we carefully created, or gasp at the surprises we cleverly planted later in the movie. They’ll be too busy sleeping to see them.

Okay, okay, so a good beginning is important. We get that. That brings up another question, however: what makes an opening scene great?

Honestly, I don’t know if there’s any hard-and-fast rules when it comes to this. It really depends on the sort of story you’re telling and the tone you’re trying to evoke. However, I do feel that there are basic guidelines that can provide some assistance, no matter what yarn you’re spinning.

Personally, when I’m starting a story (or an article or a script or whatever), I try to keep these tips in mind:

  1. A good opening should hook the audience. It should make them want to know what happens next.
  2. A good opening should establish the tone and world of the film. It should let the audience know what kind of movie they’re watching.
  3. If possible, a good opening should show off a little bit! It should show the audience something that they won’t see at any other movie at the theater!

Below, you’ll find five movie openings that I think get it right! Of course, however, I don’t know everything about storytelling or the movies. Tell me about your favorite openings in the comments below!

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

So you want to start your movie with a bang? How does a dead body grab ya?

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard tells the story of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling B-movie screenwriter. While trying to avoid a pair of repo men, Gillis pulls into the driveway of a run-down Hollywood mansion. It looks deserted, but it’s not; in fact, it’s the home of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent-movie star who fell into hard times with the debut of talking motion pictures. Desmond wants to make a comeback, and she’s written the script she wants to make a comeback with. Desmond forces Gillis to stay at her house and re-write her script while she hides him from the repo guys. Things get REALLY weird from there!

Wilder immediately establishes the hard tone of his film-industry noir story by opening it with a murder! As the film begins, homicide detectives are pouring into Norma Desmond’s backyard, where Joe Gillis’s body lies floating in the pool. As the cops investigate the scene, Gillis’s voice-over comes over the speakers, inviting us to relax as he tells us the story of his death. Is the plot device a little twisted? Yes. It’s also attention-grabbing, and that’s just what an opening scene should be!

Touch Of Evil (1958)

In 1941, a stage/radio wunderkind named Orson Welles released his first motion picture: Citizen Kane. The movie was surrounded by a storm of controversy; newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst recognized certain unsavory elements of his own life woven into the story of Welles’s character Charles Foster Kane. Hearst didn’t want those parts of his life and personality to be splashed on screens across the USA and took steps to kill Citizen Kane. Hearst didn’t succeed, but the film did lose money during its initial release. Of course, Kane is now considered one of the greatest films of all time, but Hollywood didn’t have that foresight. After a couple more nasty experiences on other movies, Welles left the Hollywood system in 1948, determined to make his movies independently.

1958’s Touch Of Evil marked the first feature-length film Orson Welles had directed in ten years. The film tells the story of Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican drug-enforcement officer who has just arrested members of a major drug ring. In retaliation, the remaining members of the ring plant a bomb in a car, killing two people. During his investigation, Vargas runs afoul of Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a corrupt American sheriff in the pocket of the drug ring. Quinlan is determined to pin the bombing on an innocent young man, but Vargas stands in his way.

Touch Of Evil begins with a close-up on a bomb being set, a strong image meant to immediately draw our attention. The film moves into one of the most famous one-take scenes in history. It’s all the better to keep the suspense rising and story flowing smoothly. As we marvel at the technical achievement, we follow the car – waiting for the inevitable explosion – and are introduced to Vargas and his new wife (Janet Leigh). It’s an exciting and elegant way to open this dark story!

Jaws (1975)

It’s summer, and that means that the east coast’s Amity Island is gearing up for the yearly influx of tourists. This is extremely important to the community; most of the city’s money comes from these summer months. Unfortunately, a gigantic great white shark has established his feeding ground in the water off Amity Island’s beaches. Police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches, but Amity’s mayor, Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), strongly objects. After two more deaths, however, Vaughn eventually agrees to pay Quint (Robert Shaw), a grizzled fisherman, ten thousand dollars to kill the shark. Quint, Brody, and shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) take to the ocean in Quint’s woefully inadequate boat – the Orca – to do battle with the monster shark.

Jaws was only Steven Spielberg’s second film, but he was already a sure-footed filmmaker and storyteller! That shining talent makes itself known immediately through the first sequence of the film. Spielberg shows an artistic flair by not showing us the shark’s doings below the water. Rather, through John Williams’s fantastic score, the shark’s POV shots, and Chrissie Watkins’s (Susan Backlinie) death throes, Spielberg puts our imagination to work conjuring up something much worse than the movie could possibly have shown us. It’s a fantastic way to start a fantastic film!

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

When it comes to starting a film, Twilight Zone: The Movie presents two interesting challenges for the screenwriter. Problem The First: The Twilight Zone is a huge cultural landmark, and most people have at least some familiarity with the show. Audiences are going to come in with preconceived notions, and those are difficult for a writer to overcome! The second issue has to do with the fact that TZ: The Movie features not one story, but four. How does one construct an opening sequence that accommodates everything?

Here’s how writer/director John Landis handled the challenge: write a beginning that doesn’t really connect to anything! Instead of trying to explain what the Twilight Zone is (Rod Serling’s classic intro already does that) or setting up a frame story, Landis created an opening sketch that’s all about setting the tone of the film (and scaring the pants off us in the process)!

On a personal note: this opening scene scared the tar out of me when I saw it as a child. In fact, it scared me so much that I didn’t finish Twilight Zone: The Movie for many years. It wasn’t until my teenage years that I revisited and enjoyed the film. As a matter of fact, this opening sequence – the one that warped me so badly – has become my favorite part of the movie!

Oh, and by the way: You wanna see something really scary?

The Lion King (1994)

I hesitate to use the word ‘perfect’ to describe anything. I’ve found that, if one looks hard enough, one can find flaws in almost everything. They may be small flaws, but almost anything can be made better with a little extra care and effort. Therefore, the P-word is rarely accurate, and so I rarely use it.

That being said, let me tell you this. The Lion King’s opening IS PERFECT.

In a little over four minutes, the “Circle Of Life” sequence does everything an opening sequence should do. It sets the tone for the film that follows; with all the different animals converging, the wide assortment of camera angles, the dynamic lighting, and bold music, we know that we’re in for a big, sweeping epic. It introduces a ton of our central characters. It grabs our attention right away with that epic opening line “NYAAAAAH SVENATYAAAAAAH!” (Feel free to correct my spelling on that one.) On top of all that, the sequence does a fantastic job of establishing the theme of the film. More specifically, that theme is the message that each of us are valuable, and that each of us have a purpose and mission in life. Pretty heady stuff, no?

That’s a lot of ground to cover in a few minutes. The Lion King pulls it off, and it does it without any dialogue. How amazing is that?!

The Lion King‘s opening scene is a perfect example of what Alfred Hitchcock called “pure cinema:” a sequence or a bit of storytelling that couldn’t be done as well in any other medium. Right off the bat, The Lion King lets us know that we’re in the hands of master filmmakers. The film continues to prove it all the way to its end credits!

…Yes, The Lion King‘s opening is a work of art, but then all the scenes in this article are. Not all of them are masterful on a technical level, but that’s okay. All of them are showcases of fine storytellers plying their craft, showing us how to work in the magical art of cinema!

What are your favorite film opening sequences? Let us know in the comments below!

 

 

10 Opening Album Tracks That Will Blow Your Socks Off

Eddie Cochran (of “Summertime Blues” fame) with his gal at the record shop

Welcome to The Vintage Vestibule!  Before we get into the thick of things, please go and visit our “Welcome!” page.  You can find the link right below our header.  Go on and check it out; I’ll wait.

You back?  Okay, let’s get going!

First impressions are extremely important when you’re trying to entertain someone.  The first ten minutes of a movie are what tell you whether you wasted your money or not.  You probably read the first page of a book (or a first blog post…) before you slap down your money, trying to get a feel of what awaits you in the following pages.

…And, of course, the opening track of an album sets the tone for your listening experience.  If the recording artist has done his or her job right, their album will open with a tune that will convince you to keep the needle on the vinyl (or keep your finger away from the skip button, if you’re a modern-technology type).

Okay, okay, so what makes a good opening track?  Oh, good, thank you for asking.  In this author’s humble opinion, a good album track will do one of two things: (1) it will ease you into the album with a song that encapsulates the album’s theme or tone, or (2) it will whack you over the head and say, “Hey!  Listen to me!”

Let me show you what I mean.  Using the criteria above, let’s take a look at ten of the best retro (or retro-styled) opening tracks that I know.

10. “A Song For You” – Carpenters

This Leon Russell-penned tune eloquently distills the theme of the Carpenters’ fourth album (which takes its name from this song)  into a five-minute mission statement.  Richard & Karen Carpenter must have noticed this, since they decided to bookend their magnificent ballads with Russell’s work (there’s a haunting one-minute reprise of the tune at the end of the track list).  Listen to this track, and you immediately know where Richard & Karen are going to be taking you.

9. “Thunder Road” – Bruce Springsteen

Springsteen opened his Born To Run album with this tune, the best working-class love story that he’s ever penned (and that’s saying a TON).  From its tender harmonica-and-piano opening (perfect for easing a listener into an album) to its soaring, lush finale, Springsteen paints a vivid picture of the youthful dreams and fights for freedom that shape ninety percent of his work.  That’s probably why this song opens most Springsteen greatest-hits track lists.

8. “Country Boy (You Got Your Feet In L.A.)” – Glen Campbell

Dennis Lambert & Brian Potter’s “Country Boy” said something that Glen Campbell had probably wanted to say for a long time.  Reading books and articles about Campbell, one gets the impression that the boy from Arkansas never felt quite at home in Los Angeles.  In 1975, Campbell finally put those feelings into this lushly-orchestrated song, which perfectly states what the 1975 album Rhinestone Cowboy is all about.  Lambert & Potter’s rich orchestrations jolt the listener awake while Campbell pours out his feelings for all to hear.

7. “What’s Going On” – Marvin Gaye

By 1971, Marvin Gaye was ready to change the musical world, and he had the perfect song to show us how he was going to do it.  He put that magical song, “What’s Going On,” at the beginning of the album of the same name, and it proceeded to become one of the most important songs of the decade.  The tune starts with some inviting banter between Gaye and the Funk Brothers (Motown studio musicians), making us feel comfortable before launching into a richly-textured, funk-laced backing track.  Gaye adds the cherry to the cake with his striking, thoughtful lyric.  By the time the tune’s over, you’re a changed person.  If you’re not… I don’t really know what to say.

6. “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” – Frank Sinatra

Here, Frank Sinatra ditches his “cool, suave man” facade and shows us the conflicted man underneath.  “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning,” the title track to Sinatra’s 1955 masterpiece In The Wee Small Hours, portrays Sinatra as a man driven to insomnia by a broken heart.  Sinatra’s singing is so heartfelt that you forget that Sinatra ever had any swagger at all; rarely did The Chairman Of The Board ever sound more relatable.  The simple arrangement only enhances the melancholy tone of the lyrics, helping coax the listener into the most introspective and sad album in Sinatra’s body of work.

5. “I’ve Got Your Number, Son” – She & Him

Okay, so it’s not “retro,” per se.  I couldn’t resist adding “I’ve Got Your Number, Son,” however, since Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward, and their musicians do such an amazing job of keeping Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound” alive.  “Number” opens She & Him’s Volume Three with an exhilarating rush of pounding percussion, strings, and vocals that pack such an energetic punch that you can’t help but be affected by it.  By the time Ms. Deschanel’s smooth, creamy voice bursts in, you’d follow her anywhere.

4. “I Got A Name” – Jim Croce

You’ll have to cut me some slack here; this song is such a personal touchstone that I can’t talk about it in an analytical way.  The lyrics speak to me so deeply that I’ve adapted them as a personal… I don’t know, I guess “mission statement” is the only word.  Croce’s strong sense of self-identity and self-confidence is something that everybody could (and should) strive to emulate.  The song would have been great just on the strength of the lyrics, but Croce accompanies with an arrangement that’s beautiful in its home-grown, folksy style.  It’s a perfect opening to the last album Croce released before he died, which shares this song’s title.  It’s touching to hear such a life-affirming song come right before Croce’s untimely death.

3. “A Hard Day’s Night” – The Beatles

Ah, yes.  The chord heard ’round the world.  That opening chord (which I challenge anyone to find on any guitar) is what makes “A Hard Day’s Night” a great opening track; it’s so loud that it demands that you sit & listen to the rest of the album (also named A Hard Day’s Night).  The rest of the tune borrows its energy from that opening strum, turning what could have been just another bubble-gum pop song into a clarion call for a generation.    John, Paul, George, and Ringo are at their pre-Rubber Soul best here, taking the style of their idols Elvis Presley & Chuck Berry to a new, more textured level.

2. “(I Know) I’m Losing You” – The Temptations

“(I Know) I’m Losing You” is the best distillation of the “Motown Sound” that I’ve ever heard.  It’s only appropriate, therefore, that it comes from Motown’s greatest group, The Temptations, and that it kicks off their best album, The Temptations With A Lot O’ Soul.  With A Lot O’ Soul was the first full album where the Temptations began to break away from their earlier, Smokey Robinson-esque sound, and the group let you know something was new right away with the hard-edged arrangement.  Of course, David Ruffin’s vocals were as soulful as ever, but even his voice had a rough edge that it hadn’t had on earlier tunes.  Of course, the Temptations would go further with this sound on albums like Cloud NinePsychedelic Shack but this track (and, in fact, all of With A Lot O’ Soul) was an important first step.  Maybe that’s why I love it so much.

1. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” – The Beach Boys

I think we can all agree that The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is one of the greatest albums of all time.  In fact, some of us (including myself) would go as far as to say that it’s THE greatest album of all time.  It’s definitely the album when Brian Wilson came to full flower as a musician.  Brian’s arrangements take Phil Spector’s “Wall Of Sound” and build on it, creating something more majestic and soul-touching than Spector could even imagine.  The lyrics are just as touching, if not more; Brian & Tony Asher (with contributions by Mike Love and Terry Sachen) tap into the deepest emotions that lie in all of us, turning them into lyrics that we can all identify with, whether we’re old or young, poor or rich, or whatever.

Brian made a masterful choice in placing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” at the top of the track list.  The song starts with a beautiful chain of notes played on guitar, drawing us into the song.  By the time Hal Blaine strikes that drum, we’re already in the perfect mindset to take in this masterpiece.  Brian’s lush arrangement then proceeds to out-Spector Phil Spector, enveloping us in a thick blanket of rich sound.  Meanwhile, the lyrics are speaking to our souls, telling us exactly what young love feels like, perfectly detailing the hopes, fears, and dreams that come with such love.  It’s every crush, infatuation, and true love you’ve ever had, distilled into two-and-a-half minutes.  It’s truly glorious.

…And there you have it: your author’s humble list of the 10 greatest opening tracks in vintage history.  Thanks for sticking around for the long haul, and if I’ve left out any of your favorites, let me know!