If there were awards for excellence in collaboration, Carole King would have won an MVP by now. The then up-and-coming songwriter was on staff at the Brill Building in the 1950s and ‘60s, writing top 10 hit singles for artists as diverse as the Shirelles, the Monkees, Aretha Franklin, and Dusty Springfield. She returned to her songwriting roots in the 1990s to pen idiosyncratic album tracks for Mariah Carey and Celine Dion, and would spend 2010 on tour with her Laurel Canyon peer James Taylor.
Film is a collaborative medium, and it’s easy to imagine an alternate universe where King became a well-regarded film composer. While she hasn’t had as extensive a film scoring career as some of her peers, King’s contributions to the film composition canon show us how her talents as a singer/songwriter sound in a different context, and offer us a window into a career possibility that could have been.
Tapestry, King’s breakthrough solo album, was still on the pop charts when she collaborated with Maurice Sendak on an animated musical. The animated TV special Really Rosie drew from Sendak’s educational “Nutshell Library” series of picture books and his early effort The Sign on Rosie’s Door to tell the story of Rosie, a ten-year-old aspiring actress from Avenue P who wants to make an autobiographical movie called Did You Hear What Happened to Chicken Soup? Sendak and King had both grown up near the real Avenue P in Brooklyn, which gave this adaptation a lived-in sense of authenticity.
By the time Really Rosie premiered in 1975, the film version of Harry Nilsson’s The Point! had opened the door for children’s musicals by beloved singer/songwriters. Really Rosie had a similarly episodic structure to The Point!, and at times the story takes a back seat to character studies or to King’s musical numbers. Sendak’s use of cel animation gives the film a jerky quality that may remind some viewers of 1970s Hanna Barbera, but his character designs and realistic-looking backgrounds elevate the janky animation.
The casting of adult actresses in child roles may also be a bit jarring to contemporary viewers. According to Animated TV Specials author George Woolery, King was ultimately cast in the title role because no one could find a child whose voice matched the songs she’d recorded for the film. King’s deeper voice, noticeable Brooklyn accent, and comic timing give the grade school-aged Rosie a certain je ne sais Marge Simpson, but the even-tempered King brings a sense of joy and vulnerability to a character with a mile-wide diva streak. While the musical numbers can seem like they were dropped into the story, King’s catchy melodies, rolling rhythms, and straightforward performances give them a plainspoken charm you don’t often hear in children’s music.
Really Rosie became a beloved anomaly in both Sendak and King’s careers; the soundtrack album peaked at 20 on the Billboard Top 200, and Sendak’s stage adaptation of the musical has played Off Broadway twice and become a staple of children’s theatre groups. Its frequent broadcasts on kids’ variety shows like The Great Space Coaster and Pinwheel made it one of the first places Gen Xers heard Carole King.
King’s next film composition credit came a decade later, with a movie that seems like it was tailor-made for her involvement–a romantic comedy about finding love at midlife, set in a semi-rural area not unlike where King settled in the 1980s, starring an actress whose rise to fame paralleled King’s own. The gentle romantic comedy Murphy’s Romance follows Emma (Sally Field), who moves to small-town Arizona in the wake of her divorce to start a stable and raise her son. Her burgeoning romance with town pharmacist Murphy Jones (James Garner) is complicated when her ex-husband (Brian Kerwin) tracks her down in the hopes of a second chance.
The film plays like a time capsule from 1985. Its depiction of divorced life and single motherhood portray an ambivalence consistent with the socially conservative ethos of the Reagan era. James Garner’s plainspoken bromides about political concerns of the day are about as subtle as the bumper stickers on his Model A. (One throwaway line about a genderqueer neighbor may have seemed progressive in the mid-1980s, but would make a contemporary viewer cringe.) King’s score is an extension of the film’s specificity to its time. While her rolling piano basslines and arpeggiated motifs are consistent with her previous work, her use of what sounds like a Casio synthesizer lands as a bit cheap and tinny now. Her melodies transition well among the other instruments on the soundtrack; listening to one bar of music get passed from synthesizer to fiddle echoes the changing dance partners in an early scene at a party.
One could read an interesting metacommentary into King composing a score for a Sally Field starring vehicle. Similar to King, Field made her name in the factory-like atmosphere of 1960s TV; she had a critical and commercial breakthrough with a few films that were in conversation with second-wave feminist issues when Tapestry was riding the pop charts. Both artists closed out the 1970s in turbulent relationships and less critically adored projects (King’s album Simple Gifts and Field’s run in the Smokey and the Bandit movies), and their work on Murphy’s Romance was a return to collaboration with big-name executives who helped them on their best work. Director Martin Ritt helmed Field’s big-screen breakthrough, Norma Rae, and producer Lou Adler had engineered Tapestry and Music and returned to work with King on her 1983 album Speeding Time and this score. Field’s performance has a wistful quality that many women who came of age in the second wave of feminism were experiencing in the Reagan era, a yearning King matches with a deliberate pace and more ethereal sense of melody as the film progresses.
Murphy’s Romance is King’s final film score to date. Later this month, she’ll be inducted as a solo artist into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; with her 80th birthday on the horizon, the odds are slim that she’ll return to film composition. Her ability to look at these films and bring out the best of them, however, is further testament to her skills as a collaborator.