Popeye Revisited

May 10, 2010

Was Robert Altman’s 1980 adaptation of “Popeye” really for kids? It was so cheesy to me when I first saw it. I remember being baffled by this film when I was a kid — the special effects and look of it were all so cheesy. In hindsight, though, through my adult eyes, there is so much to appreciate.

First of all, a strange bit of trivia. It turns out that the village where they filmed it is still intact. Of course, it’s not on a lot in Hollywood but on the Mediterranean island of Malta, off the coast of Italy. You can visit Popeye’s village today; it’s something of a theme park. But beware: when you visit the website, you will have to endure a techno rendition of the Popeye theme song. Ibiza it is not.

The soundtrack to the film was written by Harry Nilsson and musical arrangements by Van Dyke Parks — amazing! Parks had produced at least two calypso-themed albums in the 1970s, “Discover America” (which I blogged about here) and “The Clang of the Yankee Reaper.” Parks and Nilsson certainly swam in the same circles in L.A. in the 1970s, and frequently collaborated. But I had no idea that such talent was behind the songs from “Popeye,” especially because most of the songs were sung by the cast, including Robin Williams. But you can download some very high quality demos with vocals provided by Nilsson over at the exhaustive “For The Love of Harry” blog.

There are a few notable songs in the film, including “He Needs Me” which was re-purposed by P.T. Anderson for a very romantic scene in his under-appreciated movie “Punch Drunk Love.” (I have always thought his use of light and shadow at 5:50 in the video below is truly an inspired piece of celluloid.)

Another wonderful song is called “Everything Is Food.” Here’s the clip from the movie.

Why should I bother spending all this time being so serious about such silly music? Because silly music seems so rare today. Yes, we have the music of “Yo Gabba Gabba,” and I am sure there are some brilliant serious musicians behind it. But it’s like musicians and songwriters today look at their talents as some kind of calling to make serious, inner-directed music. I’m thinking of artists like Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, and The National, who are all so deeply invested in creating a particular atmosphere in and around their music, it just feels like bands today are obsessed with walking around with a metaphorical sign over their head that reads “I’m a serious musician!!! Take me seriously!!!” To paraphrase Mr. Parks, I just wish there were more serious musicians who took silly music seriously too.

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