I hesitate to draw conclusions before all the facts are in, but let’s face it. 2016 has sucked. And not just in the land of cinema, where precious few gems have risen above the extraordinary wave of mediocrity we have witnessed. As the world at large retreats from communality, decency and fact, we need artists more than ever to offer their judgment and passion. We need them to help us see what we often forget – that what binds us is far more significant than what divides us, that we rise and fall together.
Perhaps no art form embraces that mystical truth more than music. Musicians have access to a secret language that bridges the expanse between reason and passion, between mathematics and art. The best ones translate that message into a language we can all understand.
As bad as a year as it has been for film, the world of music has suffered far more in 2016. The loss of musical talent this year has been staggering. Not being musically inclined myself, I don’t pretend to understand or evaluate these artists. But many of them have contributed to the art I do understand a bit better. Here then, is a brief consideration of ten soaring musical talents who died in 2016, and their greatest achievements in movies.
Of all the names on this list, no one had a wider reach than Bowie. In feature film, in documentary, in television, he is credited on the soundtracks of over 500 films and programs. Though involved in various forms of filmed entertainment for close to 50 years, Bowie’s music still appears virtually every week on some screen or another. Bowie also had a fine career acting in film, playing key roles in movies such as Labyrinth, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Basquiat. Directors relished his otherworldly charisma. No one was better at playing characters who seemed just a bit beyond the known realm of men, and no one made better use of that particular quality than Nicolas Roeg in one of Bowie’s first forays into film, 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth.
Had he done nothing beyond penning “Hallelujah,” Cohen would have a place in film history. The song that has helped keep televised singing competitions shows afloat is best known for its appearance in 2001’s Shrek, but it has been a continual presence on screen, and will be heard in Universal’s upcoming animated film Sing once again as 2016 comes to a close. No disrespect intended toward Shrek, but when it comes to Cohen and film, I always think first of the haunting use of “Everybody Knows” early on in Atom Egoyan’s 1994 Exotica.
Eagles music has not been quite as prevalent in film as that of Bowie, but then again Glenn Frey and Don Henley showed up a little later and didn’t have the same connections to the art world. They’ve done pretty well for themselves. Both on his own and as a founding member of the Eagles, Frey had a significant impact on movies, even acting a few times on television and in Jerry Maguire. Most of his credits are for songs that the Eagles actually performed, but his greatest contribution was for a song he co-wrote with Henley and Don Felder. Though the Eagles version of “Hotel California” has been used quite a bit on screen, it is the Gipsy Kings version, sung in Spanish, which introduces John Turturro’s Jesus character in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, that remains indelible.
There was a time back in the ‘70s and ‘80s when Haggard’s iconic “Okie From Muskogee” seemed to be the ubiquitous representation of a certain strata of America. It could be serious and patriotic or cynical and ironic depending on your particular bent. But Haggard’s career went much farther than the one song for which he is most known. He acted from time to time, and his musical contributions to Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (which of course, included “Okie”), add greatly to that underrated movie.
Kantner was the first major rock & roller we lost in 2016, dying the same day as one of his co-founders of Jefferson Airplane, Signe Anderson. I was initially inclined to select the use of Kantner’s emblematic song “Volunteers” in Forrest Gump as his most important cinematic contribution. But it’s hard to ignore his moment in the Maysles’ brothers documentary Gimme Shelter, a chronicle of the Altamont concert, surely worthy of cultural landmark status. Kent State may have signaled the end of the ‘60s to some people, but Kantner’s defiant response to the Hell’s Angels after they beat up Airplane lead singer Marty Balin surely marks a key moment in the decade’s demise.
Purple Rain. What else? It’s not that Prince didn’t make other important contributions to many soundtracks. It’s just that in Purple Rain, Albert Magnoli caught the essence of a driven young musical genius and Prince embodied him spectacularly. His few subsequent forays into acting and directing proved fruitless, but with Purple Rain, Prince helped legitimize the modern pop musician as a character worthy of study, paving the way for Eminem’s 8 Mile.
As great as Bowie, Cohen and Prince were, I suspect I have listened to more of Leon Russell’s music than to any of the others on this list. Whether he performed it or just wrote it, Russell had unimaginable range and stamina. “Superstar” has cropped up in many movies over the years and I can recall hearing the haunting opening of “This Masquerade” and the aching beauty of “A Song for You” in movies and television shows alike, though I’m hard pressed to pinpoint any of them. But I can remember Oren Moverman’s use of “Stranger in a Strange Land” in his 2009 searing drama The Messenger. The strange and gorgeous composition echoes the strange world in which Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster find themselves.
To the best of my knowledge, Robert Stigwood never played an instrument, sang a song, or composed music. I could be dead wrong – he may have be an accomplished accordionist for all I know. My knowledge of Stigwood is limited to his influence as a pop music producer, where he was a giant, and as a film producer, where he was formidable. Relying on his connections within the world of music, he produced some of his era’s most successful musical films, including the iconic Saturday Night Fever and the immensely popular Grease. Sadly, he also presided over somewhat less successful enterprises such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Grease 2. Surprisingly, the one true masterpiece on his film resume was not a musical at all. Returning to his native Australia in 1981, he produced – with Patricia Lovell – Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, winning eight AACTA awards.
The youngest name on this list is also probably the least known to film fans. At least when going by his given name. I admit that part of my decision to refer to him as Malik Taylor stems from my indecision on how to properly alphabetize Phife Dawg. Phife, who struggled with diabetes his whole life, formed the hip hop band A Tribe Called Quest with childhood friend Q-Tip in the mid ‘80s. Fifteen years later, their song “If Everybody Looked the Same” would appear on the soundtracks of five different feature films in 2000 alone. That began a run that continues to this day, despite band break-ups and reunions. If you need music to intelligently tap into today’s urban mythology, you look to Quest. One of the great strengths of 2015’s Dope was its soundtrack, and Phife is well represented with several songs, including “Scenario” and “Bustin’ Out.”
The aforementioned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is truly awful. One of its few saving graces is Earth, Wind & Fire’s version of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” the rare Beatles cover that surpasses the original. White founded the enormously successful band in 1970, and co-wrote their massive hit ‘September” later that decade. I don’t know how many film appearances “September” has made. Too many for me to count. Throw in ‘Shining Star” and there’s an obvious place in the history of film music. But for me, nothing will top the contribution White made to Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, finally released the same year as the regrettable Sgt. Pepper. One of the reasons Burnett’s movie was un-seeable for so long was his liberal “borrowing” of music without permission. But watching a little girl sing the White composition “Reasons” to her doll as her mother touches up her make-up in the bathroom next door, is one of the sweetest, most poignant moments you will see on film. It’s Philip Bailey’s tenor you hear coming through the tinny little transistor, and it’s a good bit of Maurice White’s soul.
That’s ten. And it doesn’t include Keith Emerson’s soundtrack for Dario Argento’s Inferno or Denise Matthews’ (AKA Vanity) performance in The Last Dragon. It leaves out Mubarak Begum’s playback singing on “Wah Na Aayenge Palat Kar” in Bimal Roy’s Devdas, as well as all other performances from non-English music. The list is just too long. Normally, I would wait until the year is ended to write such a piece, for fear that we may lose someone else in 2016’s final month. It’s a silly notion really, but somewhere inside I am hoping that by writing this now, it will ensure the remainder of the year passes by peacefully. We have already lost enough.