Music

Modern Spins on Classic Songs (Or, Am I a Musical Purist?)

I celebrated my birthday on the 18th, and one part of my celebration was a little trip to NYC for dinner and Maleficent with my friend Lauren. I loved the movie, but today’s topic is not actually about that, but rather, about the song that plays over the end credits…

In the original Disney film Sleeping Beauty, there is a duet between Aurora and Phillip called “Once Upon a Dream.” For Maleficent, the creative team decided to put a dark timbre on the classic love song and turn it into a solo for a fittingly moody songstress- Lana Del Rey. I now think that this might be a good starting point for examining how old school songs can be made new. It seems as though it’s being done more often in recent years.

Take the upcoming film adaptation of the classic musical Annie, for example. Unlike the two Annie Warbucks movies that came before, this one has changed the time period of the story from the Great Depression to the present day. I don’t know what other big changes have been made, but I do know that the famous song “It’s the Hard-Knock Life” is being redone for a new generation with the help of Jay-Z. And obviously it’s going to be sung by a new chorus of girls in the context of the movie as well. My big concern is this- a lot of the songs in the original Annie were written to fit the period; won’t the lyrics and musical style seem glaringly dated when relocated to modern Manhattan? How much help is Jay-Z going to contribute?

Musical purists will undoubtedly be aghast at the prospect of taking a classic musical and changing it so drastically. I don’t consider myself a musical purist as long as the remaking is done well, with respect to the original, and with some logical purpose. This latter criterion is where I believe Maleficent succeeds and where the new Annie runs the risk of failing. Undoubtedly, both movies’ musical remixes are high-quality and are lovingly throwing back to their original source material. But a logical purpose for modernizing the lizard-leaping-orphan? I’m not sure I’ve found it yet. There have already been not one, but two Annie screen versions, neither of which is a perfect retelling of the stage musical.

Maleficent redid “Once Upon a Dream” to suit the tone of the newly created Sleeping Beauty protagonist, and in doing so was able to accomplish something fresh and intriguing. However, to be fair, the song’s lyrics are sort of timeless. The lyrics of “We’d Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover” are most definitely not. Both films are trying to change the music of a classic piece to suit the modern frame of mind, and in that regard, a tale like Sleeping Beauty doesn’t suffer from the confines of time period being especially relevant to the plot. But I think Annie will have a much more difficult time. I’m not saying it’s impossible- but when freshening up a beloved classic, successful execution becomes a tightrope.

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