Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question, from staffer Sara Stoudt: What’s a favorite use of a cover song in a movie/TV show?
Even though movie fans had been waiting for 20 years to see Al Pacino and Robert De Niro face off, director Michael Mann made them wait a little longer. It’s not until halfway through Heat’s two hours and forty-five minutes that the two finally come face to face – but it’s worth the wait. Having spent the first part of the film observing each other from afar, Detective Vincent Hanna (Pacino) decides to get to know the master criminal he is pursuing (De Niro) by inviting him for a not-entirely-friendly cup of coffee. The ensuing scene is a cinema classic.
Equally stunning, although less well-known, is the scene immediately preceding this epic meeting, where Pacino speeds down an LA freeway in pursuit of De Niro. Moby‘s exhilarating cover of Joy Division’s “New Dawn Fades” does a great job of communicating the excitement Hanna feels at the thought of finally confronting the criminal he has become obsessed with, and and also the anticipation of the audience at finally seeing De Niro and Pacino together.
It starts with the keyboards. Then Ray Charles belts “Well, I heard about the fellow you been dancing with…” The horns come in next. Finally, the rest of the backing band kicks in with a tight R&B groove that urges you to get up and dance. So begins Charles’ epic cover of “Shake a Tail Feather,” from the even more epic 1980 musical comedy The Blues Brothers.
One of my earliest musical memories is of watching the film on HBO when I was just a lad of three. Seeing Jake and Elwood Blues sing and dance their way across the greater Chicago area while on a mission from God inspired me to move my little body. As I’ve grown older, I can still appreciate the music (and still hate Illinois Nazis). Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi serve the music well, paying tribute to their idols, while clearly having a bit of fun. But the real stars of the group were the musicians themselves. “The backbone” of this great rhythm and blues band was the same group of artists that practically invented soul, including members of Booker T. & the M.G.’s, several Stax Records session players, and a few members of the Saturday Night Live band.
The soundtrack album mostly features covers as the group recreates soul and blues classics such as “Gimme Some Lovin’,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” In my view, the cover that has held up the best over time is Charles’ rendition of “Shake a Tail Feather.” The song was originally recorded in the early ‘60s by the Five Du-Tones. By the time Charles recorded it, the track had been covered by the likes of Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, James & Bobby Purify, and Ike & Tina Turner.
The performance in the movie is spectacular, with a crowd in the streets outside Ray’s Music Exchange performing the dance moves named in the song one by one: the Twist, the Monkey, the Mashed Potato, and the Boogaloo. Charles plays the song like only he could, incorporating his signature vocal style and piano playing. Brother Ray shows us how to “Do it right!”
I missed The Wire when it first aired, but a few years ago, when I started my own law practice, working from home, there wasn’t much work right away. So, I decided to binge watch The Wire. It was only five seasons (and 60 episodes), it was supposed to be great, and my wife wasn’t interested in it. Also, I was a big fan of Homicide: Life On The Streets, which shares significant creative DNA with The Wire. Perfect.
The Wire was, in fact, great, and harrowing, and depressing and brilliant. The way that it dissected the Baltimore of its era by focusing on the decay of all of its major institutions—the police, the unions, the government, the schools, the press, and even the street gangs—was remarkable. The narrative style was groundbreaking, and the performances, by actors who rarely, if ever, have reached the same level of quality since, were stunning. And there was Omar.
The credits for the first season ran over a cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole,” recorded by the Blind Boys of Alabama. At the time, I didn’t know that it was a cover, because I’m not that big a Waits fan. It was one of those situations where an existing song, not written for the show, somehow encapsulated it, and I give the creative team credit both for choosing the song, and for their excellent cover choices. The second season, they used Waits’ original. For season three, it was a Neville Brothers cover, and in season 4, they commissioned a version, credited to DoMaJe, sung by Baltimore middle-schoolers, which related to the season’s focus on the public schools. The final year, they used a cover by Steve Earle, who also acted in the show. I think that each year’s version in some way reflected the season. If you want more background about the credits, including the musical choices, go here.
Speaking of opening-credits covers, a few years ago there was a show called Deep State. It was like 24, but… actually, that’s it. It was basically just like 24. One difference, though, is that it had an extremely cool theme song: An atmospheric, glitchy cover of Talking Heads‘ “Once in a Lifetime.” The singer sounds like a dictator yelling from the stage, surrounded by adoring masses even as society collapses. It has next to nothing to do with the original musically, but, spiritually, seems like something David Byrne could get into. If “Once in a Lifetime” had been one of Byrne’s collaborations with Brian Eno, it might have sounded more like this.
I went to track down the full version, and encountered some bad news. Unlike most of the covers on The Wire, this cover was created just for this show. There is no “full version”; the cover doesn’t exist beyond the 60 seconds in the show’s opening titles. It was created by film and TV composer Dan Berridge, but, according to the one interview I can find, the idea of combining his darkly atmospheric music with the Talking Heads lyrics came from someone at Fox. But the little snippet Berridge and the anonymous suits came up with proves enormously affecting (and, guys, it’s not too late to flesh it out!). I don’t remember what happened in the TV show, but I haven’t forgotten the opening music.
Grey’s Anatomy is no stranger to cover music. Each episode title is a song, and cover songs abound throughout the series to provide ambiance to dramatic moments (including Season 10 that featured all ‘80s cover songs). The use of a cover song that hit me hardest was in episode 18 of season 13 (aka the one where Maggie’s mom dies). The song trickles in during the final scene: “all I wanna get is a little bit closer,” sung in a raspy voice backed by piano, complete with dramatic pauses. Cue the tears.
After I finished off my box of tissues, I could look beyond the obvious emotion in the scene and recognize the song choice as a particularly strategic one. Tegan and Sara are known for their raw and emotional songs, but the Heartthrob album was a deviation from the duo’s more melancholy tone. This album is studded with upbeat electro-pop bops. However, even amongst a more chipper musical background, the lyrics still are emotional, and Tegan and Sara even called the album “their most personal yet” at the time of its release.
Kyle Neal’s stripped version brings the old-school Tegan and Sara melancholy back and helps us confront the personal lyrics without the distraction of a synth. Each measured word and press of the piano key brings us a little bit closer to the heart-wrenching scene unfolding in front of us. The backup harmony shadows Neal’s voice perfectly and adds to the sense of longing. Tegan and Sara write songs about love in many forms, from the romantic love typical of pop songs, to sisterly love. Yes, “Closer” is mostly interpreted as a romantic song, but in this context, familial longing for closeness is also emphasized. The lines about “getting underneath me” are changed to “how you could get near me” to further show us that “it’s not just all physical.”
If ever a track signposted a movie, it was Echo and the Bunnymen‘s glorious cover of The Doors’ “People are Strange” at the start of The Lost Boys. Played over an opening montage of fictional seaside town Santa Carla, it indicated a decidedly dark side of Californian hippiedom, a lead character who resembled Jim Morrison, and a captivating theme of folks who: “Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die.” British band Echo, already on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack of 1986, were the post-punk psychedelicists of choice for the disaffected youth, with none other than Ray Manzarek helping out on keys. If the film was the go-to movie of misunderstood teenagers everywhere, Echo’s cover perfectly matched the energy and claustrophobia of adolescence with the eerie freakiness of all the best vampire stories. As Corey Haim’s Sam perfectly puts it: “My own brother, a goddamn, shit-sucking vampire! Oh, you wait ’til Mom finds out, buddy.”
It’s the night of Parry and Lydia’s first date, and against all odds, the awkward couple is clicking, to the increasing amazement of Jack, Parry’s protector, and Anne, Jack’s girlfriend. “I think they were made for each other,” Anne whispers in near-disbelief. Laughter builds at the table, smiles get bigger and bigger, and then Robin Williams begins to sing “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”
The original comes from the Marx Brothers movie At the Circus. They were past their peak by this point, and Groucho was wearing a pretty obvious rug, but when it came time for Groucho to sing, he became as youthful as we’ve ever seen him, dancing and singing, eyes alight with joy at all the entendres he gets to put across.
The original’s a hoot, but Robin Williams’s version is just a treat. It’s sweet and gentle, just barely this side of a non sequitur, and he makes it sound like he’s marveling at the woman sitting in front of him – which, of course, he is. The camera pulls back, showing them to be the last diners of the night, the waitstaff bearing witness as they wait to go home, and the further away the camera pulls, the more fortunate we feel to hear Robin Williams continuing to sing to this woman who means so much to him, and to see Amanda Plummer in thrall to his near-nonsensical words.
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