Burt Bacharach: The Movie Maestro

Popular music lost a titan when Burt Bacharach died last month. As a songwriter and producer, Bacharach was synonymous with mid-century vocal pop music; his collaborations with vocalists like Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, and Nancy Sinatra set a complicated yet sophisticated tone for the 1960s smart set. When the pop charts trended towards rock and roll, however, Bacharach’s nimble songwriting skills allowed him to adapt to different cultural moments, and his deceptively light touch showed up in places you might not expect. 

Among those places was the multiplex. Bacharach’s ability to set a mood through memorable melodies and canny vocal arrangements added to the timelessness and relatability of beloved feature films, while elevating some of the tackier basic-cable fare of the 1980s and beyond. How did the maestro’s music evolve through his work for the cinema? 

Bacharach made his debut as a composer with Forever My Love, a 1962 feature-length edit of the Sissi trilogy, which depicted the courtship and marriage of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and the free-spirited Bavarian princess Elisabeth. Forever My Love is the cinematic equivalent of a layer cake at a diner; the sugary pink confection looks delicious behind glass but lands on the plate tasting stale and heavy. While the production design and costumes look opulent, the film is hobbled by the kinds of stilted performances and expository dialogue that only the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 writer’s room could love. 

In the context of Bacharach’s career to that point, it’s easy to understand the appeal of a film like Forever My Love. He’d spent several years as Marlene Dietrich’s music director, and he’d come to appreciate the string players in European countries like Austria and Bavaria. The violin-heavy score for Forever My Love gave him the opportunity to arrange for string quartets and experiment with Regency-era composition. The score just ends up cuing the audience to big emotional moments, and director Ernst Marischka leans on it so much that after a while it fails to register. Only the characteristically regal opening title song establishes itself from the spun sugar that surrounds it. 

Forever My Love was a modest success on its release, and Bacharach would go on to score and write title themes for films like What’s New Pussycat, Casino Royale, and Alfie, which further established his sweet spot as witty, urbane, and subtly seductive. His work on the groundbreaking 1969 buddy comedy Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid allowed him to build on his skills as a songwriter and composer. 

In his LA Times obituary, director George Roy Hill is quoted as saying “the picture was designed for a contemporary feel,” which comes through in the sly, loose-limbed performances of Robert Redford and Paul Newman, the naturalistic visual style of the film—which relied on long takes and wide shots to establish Butch and Sundance’s rapport—and, yes, the use of music. Unlike the aural wallpaper in Forever My Love, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid goes for long stretches with no music to tell viewers how to react, and Bacharach’s cues ground the film in time and place while creating implicit parallels between its era and the music of the late 1960s.

Hill uses anachronistic techniques such as undercranking the camera and shooting in overexposed black and white that resemble tintypes and early films like The Great Train Robbery to anchor his story and characters in the Old West, and Bacharach’s use of early jazz techniques and tack piano-centric arrangements match the throwback mood of these scenes. Later montages, like a scene where Butch and Sundance attempt to rob banks during an extended sojourn in Bolivia, are cut to an instrumental bed with a wordless scat vocal that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an easy listening radio station. 

The film’s other concession to modernity came in a famous early scene, when Butch (Paul Newman) goes on a bicycle ride with Sundance’s girl, Etta (Katharine Ross). As the pair ride through a patchy garden behind the saloon where they’re staying, BJ Thomas’s rendition of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” perambulates on the soundtrack. 

Before Bacharach got involved with the film, Hill and his editing crew had cut the scene to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)”. When Bacharach viewed the scene, the phrase “raindrops keep falling on my head” came to mind, followed by old-timey instrumentation: “I knew this song was going to start with a ukulele, and that there would be a tack piano on it to get a honky-tonk kind of feeling,” he wrote in his autobiography, Anyone Who Had a Heart. “What I would do back then was come up with words that had no meaning but just sounded good to me on the notes I was writing.” 

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid received a mixed critical reception on its 1969 release, and many critics complained that the “Raindrops” scene slowed down the film and had nothing to do with the plot. Seen from a contemporary perspective, the scene serves the film better than its detractors initially claimed. Hal David’s dryly funny lyrics paralleled the futile crush Butch had on Etta, and the combination of a contemporary-sounding pop song and a vintage arrangement balances the film’s late 19th century aesthetic and Paul Newman’s aspirational cool and relatable heartache. 

While Bacharach and David had a reliable brand throughout the 1960s, the popularity of Butch and Sundance boosted their profile and allowed them to explore some more ambitious ground. Their next project, a musical remake of the 1937 film Lost Horizon, ended their partnership and almost ended Bacharach’s composing career. 

It opens with four travelers—a photojournalist (Sally Kellerman), a comedian (Bobby Van), a UN peace negotiator (Peter Finch), and his brother (Michael York)—attempting to leave a war-torn South Asian country. Their DC3 crashes in the Himalayas, where they are rescued by a spiritual leader (Charles Boyer) and brought back to Shangri-La. While Shangri-La is a utopian society, each of the travelers feels differently about it, but their plans to escape are complicated when one of the men falls in love with one of the residents of the village. 

The film is a notorious flop from the end of the studio era that looks worse from a contemporary perspective. The depiction of South Asian people and use of yellowface and prosthetics are cringe-inducingly offensive to 21st century audiences, the screenplay is clunky and confusing, and the leaden pacing kills its few assets. While it was billed as a musical, Columbia cut many of the songs after an unsuccessful roadshow run. 

The way director Charles Jarrott presents musical numbers, from the orientalist instrumentation to the clunky staging, makes the songs sound worse than they were. While Bacharach’s melodies sounded crisp and catchy on his solo album Living Together, David’s kludgy lyrics—culled from the contradictory snatches of Eastern philosophy found in Larry Kramer’s screenplay—and the frequent rewrites and re-edits weighted down these versions of the songs. 

The failure of Lost Horizon strained Bacharach and David’s working relationship; they split after its release and Bacharach maintained a lower public profile in the second half of the 1970s. He returned to film composing in the next decade, scoring a pair of low-budget features: the melancholy slapstick Arthur and the buddy comedy Night Shift

On paper, one could draw parallels between Night Shift and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Both films focused on a pair of opposites who find themselves on the wrong side of the law, and who develop a rapport with sympathetically depicted sex workers. Both films also feature an award-winning love theme from Bacharach. Where Butch and Sundance was thoughtfully made and had a sense of subtlety about it, Night Shift had a broader, coarser style. This is the kind of film that’s best watched surreptitiously over a freeview weekend in 1985 while your mom is at the grocery store. 

High-strung morgue attendant Chuck (Henry Winkler) is moved to overnights at his job and has to work with rambunctious new hire Bill (Michael Keaton). When Chuck finds out that his neighbor, the streetwalker Belinda (Shelley Long), has lost her pimp, Bill steps in with a plan to take over his business and run it out of the morgue. 

Bacharach’s score serves as a kind of narrative ligament, connecting scenes between Chuck’s attempt at a respectable life with his fiancee and his seedier experiences at the morgue. The composer dabbles with trendy instrumentation, like synthesizers and full-on, Tim Capello-style 1980s sax, which grounds Night Shift in the sleazy excesses of late 20th century Times Square. The soundtrack also marked one of the first times Bacharach worked with a rock band, as Quarterflash performed the title theme during their brief reign on MTV. 

Night Shift did reasonably well at the box office, but its tacky subject matter and cheesy production values weren’t what anyone would call Oscar bait. A few years after the film’s release, however, Dionne Warwick re-recorded the end credits song, “That’s What Friends Are For” with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder as a benefit for AIDS research. The recording made it to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and won two Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group. 

Bacharach continued scoring mid-budget ensemble pieces and romantic comedies well into the 1990s, and “God Give Me Strength,” which he wrote with Elvis Costello for Grace of My Heart, led to a series of collaborations with the singer/songwriter. Sixteen years after scoring the

Jacqueline Susann biopic Isn’t She Great, Bacharach recorded his final film score for the intimate family drama A Boy Called Po. The film depicts the challenging, but ultimately loving, relationship between widowed father David (Christopher Gorham) and his 11-year-old son, Po (Julian Feder), who has autism. 

The subject matter is a sharp contrast with the sophisticated comedies and character studies where Bacharach honed his skills as a film composer. The subject matter of A Boy Called Po was personal for him; his daughter Nikki struggled with Asperger’s for much of her life. “It touched me very much,” he told Variety in 2017. “Sometimes you do things that make you feel. It’s not about money or rewards.” 

A Boy Called Po is so well-intentioned that finding fault with it feels like kicking a puppy. The relationship between David and Po holds the film together, and Gorham and Feder’s performances make some of the less plausible plot contrivances seem real. Unfortunately, Colin Goldman and Steve C. Roberts’ screenplay hinges on positive, but unfortunate, stereotypes of people with autism (like Po’s preternatural skills at math and reading the stocks), and some aspects of the happy ending don’t quite land. 

Bacharach’s score feels a bit like a retrospective that touches on some of his best-loved work. The film’s opening titles play over a stripped-down, minor-key cover of his song “Close to You,” and at some points the melodic motifs of the score sound like off-the-cuff improvisations on one of his most popular songs. His use of piano underscores David’s introspective moments as he tries to understand Po, while Po’s escapes into fantasy are accompanied by harp and string quartets that call to mind some of his finest 1960s singles. Burt Bacharach will be remembered as a first-rate songwriter, one who brought sophistication to the pop charts and who crafted some of the finest singles for first-rate vocalists. He was also able to tell a story through just a melody and bridge the time between past and present through the juxtaposition of musical instruments. His work on film revealed another facet of his talent.

Chelsea Spear is returning to arts writing after spending a few years correcting other people’s grammar. Her byline has appeared at the Brattle Theatre’s Film Notes blog and in the pages of The Gay & Lesbian Review. She lives in Boston.

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