Filmmaker David O. Russell was thrilled that Jack White permitted him to use two of his songs on the soundtrack of Silver Linings Playbook, but I was more excited to recognize Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance,” which is directly followed by Les Paul and Mary Ford’s rendition of “The Moon of Manakoora,” as Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence have their disastrous date at the neighborhood diner. When I met Russell and told him how much I liked that parlay of vintage numbers he was astonished that I recognized the latter piece. Well, why not? It was “introduced” in John Ford’s 1937 movie The Hurricane and recorded by its star, Dorothy Lamour, among others. The melody was written by the legendary Alfred Newman, who won nine Academy Awards (and had 45 nominations to his credit) and the lyrics by Frank Loesser, the brilliant wordsmith who went on to write Guys and Dolls. (Newman originally wrote it as a theme for Douglas Fairbanks’ 1932 feature Mr. Robinson Crusoe, but no one seems to have remembered that when he resuscitated it five years later.)
This is the kind of stuff I carry around in my head, for better or worse. I would be lost as a modern-day Grammy commentator, but I know Georgia Gibbs’ voice when I hear even a snippet of her hit record “Kiss of Fire,” as I did in Hitchcock, during a scene at Helen Mirren’s beach house.
Classic songs and selections from what’s now called the Great American Songbook still turn up in contemporary films, either suggested by music supervisors or thought of by savvy directors. Sometimes the usage is ironic or odd, as when Andrew Dominik chose to have Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards warbling “It’s Only a Paper Moon” while someone was being brutally murdered in Killing Them Softly.
More often, older music is used to evoke a particular mood or era. I anticipated hearing familiar tunes in Hyde Park on Hudson, which is set in 1939, but I was especially pleased to recognize two songs by The Ink Spots, “If I Didn’t Care” and “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire,” before a word was sung, as their guitar-and-piano introductions are so familiar.
None of this makes me special; I have lots of friends who are equally conversant with vintage pop music. But at a time when soundtracks are dominated by current and recent compositions, I take almost disproportionate pleasure in hearing music from an earlier time, especially when it takes me by surprise.
P.S. In case you don’t know, two of Alfred Newman’s sons are carrying on his tradition as film composers: David Newman, whose credits include Galaxy Quest, Ice Age, and The Cat in the Hat, and Thomas Newman, whose Oscar nominations include The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, and this year’s Skyfall. Their cousin Randy Newman also has formidable credentials as a singer, songwriter, and film composer.