Thursday, April 26, 2007

They write the songs

The night before last, at the cheap cinema, we finally caught up with Music & Lyrics, the romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore. I'm something of a connoisseur of romantic comedies, and this is a better one. I give it a very solid B, possibly a B+. It's far superior to the execrable yet wildly successful While You Were Sleeping, but of course nowhere nearly as good the sine qua non of the modern form, Annie Hall, the rare romantic comedy in which the boy and the girl aren't together at the end.

More than anything else, what Music & Lyrics has going for it is its stars, both of them favorites of mine, both lovely to look at. I especially adore Drew Barrymore. In the film, she plays the girl who waters the plants of the Hugh Grant character, an aging '80s pop star reminiscent of Andrew Ridgely, the member of the British duo Wham! who wasn't George Michael. Grant is stuck trying to write a song, and by the standard magic of romantic comedies, Barrymore turns out to be so adept at writing lyrics she practically breathes them. Love ensues, then brief estrangement, then triumph.

I was surprised at the seriousness with which the film treats songwriting, a craft I know a little something about. I especially know what it is like to be blocked, as the Grant character is. Barrymore has a helpful insight when she says a good way to find inspiration is simply to walk around, to look and listen. John Lennon read newspapers for ideas, as I recall. In fact, he wrote a song referencing that very method.

Another good songwriting lesson the film offers, by example: be detailed. (It's good lesson for any kind of writing.) Late in the film, Grant earns redemption by singing a lyric he has written. The song simply recapitulates several of the film's plot points, but it's full of humorous details that the characters recognize, and so does the viewer. They're the sort of seemingly throwaway details ("You killed my plants") that can really bring songs to life. An example is in the Prince song "Kiss," which goes: "You don't have to watch 'Dynasty' to have an attitude." Why "Dynasty"? Why not?

As it happens, many of the tunes in Music & Lyrics are by the brilliant songwriter Adam Schlesinger, of the rock group Fountains of Wayne. He excels at coming up with just those kinds of details, and at pop songcraft generally.

What the film shows of the act of songwriting doesn't seem quite right, though. Instead we see -- appropriately enough, I guess -- a romanticized version of the task, where people gather around a piano and crank out the material. The film has a pop starlet character modeled on Britney Spears, and my sense is that songs released by the likes of Britney Spears don't so much get written around a piano. Instead, songwriters often write by recording these days. They lay down a groove in the software program Pro Tools, then come up with some lyrics that fit. It's one reason, methinks, that today's pop songs don't have hooks as indelible as the ones of yore.

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