Sunday, February 24, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday: The King of Comedy (1983)

Robbie Robertson loved Mean Streets (1973) so much that he asked the movie's director to film what would be The Band's final concert.

Thus was the beginning of The Last Waltz (1978), possible the greatest rock concert movie ever made. And thus was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship between The Band's guitarist and chief songwriter and the film's director, Martin Scorsese.

The two were such good buddies that they actually lived together for a time. And indulged in the same – ahem – recreational substances.

With his career as a member of The Band now over, Robertson was ready to try new things. And thankfully, his friend was there to supply him with new challenges.

First, Scorsese asked Robertson to score Raging Bull (1980). Then came the next project, King of Comedy (1983), a film about an obsessed fan's scheme to become as famous as the TV star he idolized. And it would be a little bit different than the straightforward release of incidental music as the soundtrack.

Compilation soundtracks were just starting to get into vogue. And besides composing instrumental music for the movie, Robertson had to stuff the film's accompanying album with tracks from established artists.

For a strange movie with a cast that included Robert DeNiro, Jerry Lewis and Tony Randall (!), – not to mention Sandra Bernhard in her first and possibly most bizarre role – the soundtrack is almost equally strange.

Check out this cast of contributors: Ric Ocasek. Rickie Lee Jones. Bob James. The Pretenders. The Talking Heads. Ray Charles. David Sanborn.

OK, so a lot of these songs were not especially made for the movie but were castoffs, previously unreleased or just not released yet. (An example of the last category: "Back on the Chain Gang" gave the Pretenders their highest charting U.S. single to date by reaching No. 5, nearly six months before it would be released on the Learning to Crawl (1984) LP).

Several of the best tracks, however, were the result of Robertson's hard work.

Robertson produced B.B. King's take on the standard "T'aint Nobody's Bizness (If I Do)," which remains my personal favorite song from the venerable blues guitarist. King was never a classic blues man like Muddy Waters. He has always been at his best when he's belting out songs in a big band setting, which is what we have here.

Play "T'aint Nobody's Bizness (If I Do)" by B.B. King

As I always seem to do on these Sundays, I'm saving the best for last.

You can have your "Moondance," your "Domino," your "Jackie Wilson Said," your "Tupelo Honey." In my book at least, Van Morrison may not have recorded a better song than "Wonderful Remark," which closes both the album and the film.

Robertson not only produced the song, but provides some amazing lead guitar. And then as an added bonus, there's some outstanding organ playing from the incomparable Nicky Hopkins. Morrison's voice goes with the flow of the slowly-building song. He whispers, he croons, he even yelps. Even filmgoers who hated the movie (which was somewhat of a bomb, but it has gained in stature over the years) were probably leaving the theater humming.

Play "Wonderful Remark" by Van Morrison

One more note about the soundtrack: The song "Between Trains" marks Robertson's debut as a solo artist. Written as a tribute to a Scorsese assistant who had died suddenly during filming, the song featured ex-Band mates Garth Hudson on synthesizer and Richard Manuel on backing vocals.

Play "Between Trains" by Robbie Robertson (vinyl rip)


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting the BB King and Van tune. I have only heard a fragment of Between Trains on the Band's unofficial (but very cool) web-site. Would you be so kind as to post it here? This is one of his most beautiful tunes (and that's saying something) and has never been reissued in the digital era.
The soundtrack to Carny from a few years before The King Of Comedy had Robbie Robertson's first post-Band music, notably his cover of Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" and an instrumental. This has also (sadly for Band fans) never been reissued.

Rob said...

I'll see what I can do.

My only version of "Between Trains" comes from my vinyl "King of Comedy" LP. You're right. It's really a beautiful tune.

Though I have LP-to-mp3 conversion software, I try to use it as little as possible for the purposes of this blog. But I may make an exception here …

"Wonderful Remark" and "T'ain't" have been issued on CD as part of Morrison and King compilations. As you noted, "Between Trains"is still homeless in the CD era. Too bad.

Anonymous said...

That would be generous. I really have to get LP/digital conversion software.

Rob said...

If you're still out there, Scott, I've added the vinyl rip of "Between Trains."

Turns out by software is utterly obsolete. But with my MacBoook, all I have to do is run a line from the audio out plugs on my tuner/amp to my audio in plug – then record the proceedings on GarageBand. Way too easy for a techno-fool like me.

Hope you enjoy it.

g said...

Just was searching the net to see if I would be able to hear one of my favorite Robbie Robertson songs - and wish that Richard sang leads but that's something different - and came upon your blog. See you like "Between Trains" as well - great song and nice I'm not the only who likes it - I know the background of the song but, as mentioned, think that Richard's vocal would have hit the listener even harder - but we'll never know. THANKS