Listen to America: The 1970s

To see the intro to this project, as well as links to other decades, click here.

33) “Suicide is Painless,” from M*A*S*H (1970)

In 1973, there were two movie musicals which feature a scene with Jesus at the Last Supper. In Godspell, which is a silly but honestly pretty faithful adaptation of Matthew, Jesus gives a final farewell to each apostle, touching hands, making eye contact. The song is “On the Willows,” an unusual adaptation of Psalm 137 because it homes in on verses 2-4 at the expense of some of the more famous verses. In Jesus Christ Superstar, which stirs in about as much cynicism as a rock musical is capable of stirring in, “The Last Supper” begins with the truely clueless disciples looking forward to the future from their drunken haze. Jesus murmurs in a falsetto: “For all you care, this wine could be my blood.” For as much sacrilege as either of those films wants to squeeze in, nothing holds a candle to the Last Supper given in honor of “Jawbreaker” Waldowski, the well-endowed dentist whose homosexuality is driving him to suicide in front of all his coworkers. As he gets into his mock-coffin and the doctors and nurses file by to leave him bottles and porno mags, a private first class named Seidman sings the song which had played over the title credits. Ken Prymus’s voice is cool and clear, and accompanied by an acoustic guitar which is both as well. The more he gets into the song, the more alienating the scene becomes.

34) “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

Far from my favorite number in Fiddler on the Roof, but as a linchpin there may not be a more important or more remembered song in the entire picture. A film with rarely charted charisma, Fiddler needs us to believe in Tevye with the fervor that Tevye believes in God. And while “Sunrise, Sunset” and “Tevye’s Dream” provide us windows to see him and Golde in moments serious and hilarious, respectively, “If I Were a Rich Man” is just for Tevye. Over the course of the song, Tevye is perceptive (wealth is as good as wisdom), wry (a staircase just going up and one just going down), and solemn (studying the holy books would be heaven). It comes with a dance that is truly democratic—any idiot could do it, and most idiots shouldn’t try more—but which signifies the shimmying dad he’ll be in future scenes. Topol, in five and a half minutes, is rewriting what a solo number in a musical can look like. Without the paciness of “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” or the marvelous beauty of the setting in “The Sound of Music,” Fiddler on the Roof proves that truly great performers don’t need much more than themselves to center an iconic sequence.

35) “Mein Herr,” from Cabaret (1972)

The right answer is to include a song from Cabaret. Which right answer to choose from this film is a spinning carousel. Ultimately, after squeezing in a Judy Garland in three separate decades, the symbolism of this number with Liza Minnelli was too tempting to pass up. In 1939, after a few movie roles that proved she had talent, Garland etched her name in stone with “Over the Rainbow.” In her late teens, Garland moped slowly from haybale to haybale, occasionally patting a little dog, wishing on something much more ephemeral than a star. When the “Mein Herr” number was filmed, Minnelli was twenty-five, looking like her mother and sounding like her mother and at the same time looking as unlike Dorothy Gale as was possible. Instead of pigtails, a Louise Brooks haircut. Instead of wide eyes, eyes spangled and half-closed with mascara. Instead of dreams, closures. “Mein Herr” is a song about giving up on a paramour who can no longer be useful to the singer, and with every stretch of her leg and every throaty warble, Minnelli is rewriting a family legacy for a new type of Hollywood. If there’s a scene where Garland looks like Minnelli, it must be “Get Happy” from Summer Stock. But there’s nothing about “Mein Herr” that resembles “Get Happy,” just as Cabaret could not be less like Summer Stock.

36) “At the Hop,” from American Graffiti (1973)

Looking at Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids, I am reminded of Ms. Norbury’s pep talk for Cady before she steps into the Mathletes competition in Mean Girls. Nothing will break your focus, she says to her most frustrating student, “because not one of those Marymount boys is cute.” It’s appropriate. When the goal is to look at your dance partner, or throw your dance partner over your back, or to run into someone else’s dance partner, or to just look at the dance floor in despair because you’re the most crumpled wallflower, being distracted by “Flash Cadillac” just wouldn’t be right. Music is the food of these sweating teenagers, and the band plays on. “At the Hop” is as kinetic a number as the band plays at this school dance, though the lyrics are rather more repetitive in this rendition than they were for Danny and the Juniors in their original iteration. No matter. Like the rest of American Graffiti, this song performance is all about the vibe.

37) “Special to Me (Phoenix Audition Song),” from Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Jessica Harper is hilarious in this scene, and some of it is even on purpose. The way she dances and throws her arms around in the beginning and end of the clip is just breathtaking, adorable cheese. But the basically generic character of the song makes this feel like a pop song for a few years on, and the way de Palma shoots this it looks like a music video. There’s a group of adoring people both near and far who look approvingly on Phoenix, she holds a microphone that’s the size of a lightsaber, and in a few terrific moments she looks right into the camera. Brian de Palma didn’t invent the music video (and if he did, he did it with “Goodbye Eddie, Goodbye” in the first minutes of this film), but the way that the performance takes place in a baroque setting, that the music swirls up around someone who is meant to be our entire focus, a singer who starts with sheet music and quickly decides she doesn’t need it, you can see him fooling around with a new grammar. Phoenix’s audition song presages more than a decade of the way people will ingest music, as much through the shared glances with the understood audience as through the music and lyrics.

38) “It Don’t Worry Me,” from Nashville (1975)

There are, as ever, two ways to read the final four minutes or so of Nashville. You can read this as the bleakest statement of hopelessness that’s ever been put on celluloid. A beloved and troubled country star has been shot, just the latest assasination attempt in a country where it seems like anyone trying to make a change for the better is putting their life on the line. And the response is for some nobody, someone who’s been hoofing it trying to get into the biz and who is getting her opportunity, to pick up the microphone and to start singing a song called “It Don’t Worry Me,” a song about the hopelessness of a post-’60s nation that cannot put its faith into any of the institutions that seemed so sturdy just a generation before. Or maybe “It Don’t Worry Me” is a chance for the people that the country has so often kicked aside to step up and finally get an opportunity: a poor white woman, backed by a Black choir, manages to connect to a middle-class audience and reassure them, avoid panic. Flip the coin and it’s hope or hopelessness. Robert Altman could hardly say which path was the better one. He was a movie director, not the prophet Isaiah. But he presents two possibilities in one sequence, and it’s as real a thing as I’ve ever seen in the movies. Who the hell can say what will happen in the wake of tragedy?

39) “Time Warp,” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

The greatest line dance that’s never caught on at middle school dances or basic wedding receptions. Raul Esparza, as Raul Esparza has a cheerful habit of doing, does my favorite version of Riff Raff’s part in this song, but I love everything that Richard O’Brien is doing here. There’s this inimitable retching noise he manages to create in the word “warp,” something which takes some truly hunchbacked cajones to attempt. And then he proves how much he’s been playing the role when he goes into a genuinely beautiful screech for “LIKE YOU’RE UNDER SEDATION,” singing an action out of the Robert Plant playbook. There will be popular musicals again—see the next entry for proof—but this has to be the moment where the cult of this film, the 800-pound gorilla of American cult movies, strikes hardest. Before this there’s just some mild cheese and some extremely referential lips. But at this moment, even before Tim Curry graces the screen, The Rocky Horror Picture Show blasts off into a world where you either get what it’s going for or you’re squarer than Brad and Janet.

40) “Summer Nights,” from Grease (1978)

Almost every song in this film does what it sets out to do: namely, to prove that the music of the 1950s cannot coexist straightfaced with the ideas of the 1960s. And while other people might opt for “You’re the One That I Want” or even “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” as the tasting for this particular pudding, no song works as hard to make this come off than “Summer Nights,” in which two people provide completely different accounts of what was presumably the same experience. Sandy depicts a vision of wholesomness that would nauseate a grown Mormon, while Danny reports a titillatingly carnal experience only slightly marred by bowling. John Travolta’s period-specific falsetto is not nearly as convincing as the aspartame vocals that Olivia Newton-John is spitting off. It’s all catchy, all gendered, and as pedantic as showtunes come.

41) “The Rainbow Connection,” from The Muppet Movie (1979)

For people of Jim Henson’s generation, they had “When You Wish Upon a Star,” a song sung by a cricket down on his luck who could still access his hope, his belief in a better tomorrow. For people of Brian Henson’s generation, they have “The Rainbow Connection.” Given that only one of these appears on this list of seventy-five, you can guess where my partisan leanings fall, though one may well argue that “The Rainbow Connection” has eclipsed “When You Wish Upon a Star” in the shape of things. The other obvious connection here is to “Over the Rainbow,” of course, though to the credit of Paul Williams and Jim Henson they never attempt to confront that song on its own territory. “The Rainbow Connection” is not orchestral or beautiful. It begins with that wonderful “plinka plinka plinka plinka plink,” which is so far away from anything in either predecessor. I adore that last line, too, in which Kermit puts himself in a lovely enormous cadre of idealists: there are lovers, dreamers, and Kermit too.

42) “Bye Bye Life,” from All That Jazz (1979)

Once again, we close the decade with a Bob Fosse number. This son falls at the end of All That Jazz, liberally goofing around with the lyrics of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” a noted change from the showbizzier numbers being appropriated elsewhere. This is the portrait of the artist as a middle-aged screwup, not just a young man lamenting that his girlfriend’s left him but a man on his deathbed regretting, well, everything. This picture is pure pastiche. It draws from multiple decades of Broadway standards, Bob Fosse’s life, Bob Fosse’s other frequent collaborators, 8 1/2, and the styles of the previous decade. (I’ll grant that this a reach, but when I see Roy Scheider, Ben Vereen, Ann Reinking, and Leland Palmer arrayed in a loose upside-down cross on that glowing stage, I instantly flash to some late ’60s cover art by Jim Steranko.) Nothing here is new, which is sort of the joke in All That Jazz, down to the use of “Everything Old Is New Again” in an earlier scene. What’s so wonderful about the simplicity of the lyrics in this song, how obviously it’s been copped from an enormous early success, is that the pastiche works. Since the 1990s, pastiche has been one of the key elements of mainstream film, and has nearly become a guarantor of prestige: Scream, Joker, Best Picture winner The Artist. No one has done it better, more effectively, or more transparently than Fosse does here with Roy Scheider playing him at the end of one of cinema’s greatest documentations of self-loathing.

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