Jan 232024

Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.

Misty covers

Popular song titles end up as film titles often enough–“Singin’ in the Rain,” “Dazed and Confused,” “American Pie,” “[I] Walk the Line.” But how many songs are referenced by a film title? Only one: Erroll Garner’s 1954 hit “Misty.” The film Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut from 1971, calls it out.

The film follows a jazz radio DJ who spins “mellow groove” for his listeners each evening. One night someone calls in a simple request: “Play ‘Misty’ for me.” The next evening she calls again. “Play ‘Misty’ for me,” she repeats, and hangs up. This psychological suspense thriller hinges–or unhinges–on this repetition.

A hundred good versions of “Misty” were in circulation by 1971, but the caller doesn’t say which one she wants to hear. And the DJ doesn’t ask. (I get it: the film must advance its plot and not get mired in detail, but as a music lover I’m disappointed, and still just curious: What was her jam?) The DJ puts on the instrumental by the Erroll Garner Trio–the original “Misty” recording.

The song was original in both senses of the word: being the first, and being wholly unique. Garner himself was an original: a self-taught prodigy with a style all his own, who could not read or write music notation, but whose unorthodox creations were some of the era’s crowning achievements, both artistically and commercially.

Garner’s instrumental plays a few times during the film, both as part of the action, and as part of the score. In the world of “Play Misty for Me,” there are no covers of “Misty,” and no lyrics.

Moviegoers mostly knew the words anyway, through popular versions by the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Johnny Mathis. But audiences may have been clueless about the substance of the lyrics. “Misty” was the “Every Breath You Take” of its day: it passed as a love ballad or torch song, but it invited a darker reading, with each verse hinting at a serious emotional disturbance, a fatal attraction. Screenwriter Jo Heims had the song’s double-edged meaning in mind, and wove her story around its tale of obsession. As with the radio caller’s request, you hear it once and it’s anodyne; hear it again and something feels wrong.
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