Rock Is Money to Hollywood Ears

Soundtracks are big business

Tom Cruise laughs in a scene from the film 'Risky Business', 1983. Credit: Warner Brothers/Getty

As the summer ended, the two current movies with Top Ten, platinum-selling soundtracks, Flashdance and Staying Alive, continued to draw at the box office. Flashdance, the movie, had grossed $87.5 million, while the soundtrack had sold a staggering 4 million copies and produced two Number One singles. Staying Alive had earned $58.3 million and finally had a hit in Frank Stallone's "Far From Over," after an initial single by the Bee Gees had bombed. What the industry has learned from the success of these films is not just that rock & roll draws its huge following into theaters, but that MTV and video clips are a strong new force in movie advertising.

They call it "cross-plugging": the film gets a boost from the airing of video clips that are made to promote the music. Michael Sembello's "Maniac" rose to the top of the charts with strong promotion from a video that's a montage of Flashdance's sexy dance sequences; Stallone's "Far From Over" got heavy play by MTV for a video that features John Travolta. MTV's airing of these videos, which use actual footage from the films, amounts to promotion for the movies as well as the music. "You're going to see that synergism all over now," says movie-marketing consultant Charlie Powell. "You're going to see the cross-plugging back and forth — the movie selling the MTV selling the album selling a book selling even a fashion. What's going on here is a terrific marketing event that transcends a movie or an album."

"If you have a really hot soundtrack and you can get MTV playing it all day long, you're in business," says Leonard Goldberg, executive producer of WarGames, another youth-oriented movie that was a big hit this summer, grossing $68.2 million.

Unfortunately, as a result, we may see a host of imitators of Flashdance and Staying Alive, which were weak on dialogue and plot, but strong on rock music and dancing to propel the action along.

"I hope we don't get a plethora of movies like that, although it has clearly affected the thinking of the studios this year," says Bill Oakes, the head of RSO Films, which produced not just Staying Alive but such other films with big-selling soundtracks as Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Xanadu. "If you continue to go further in the direction of Flashdance, you end up with a film with no characters and hardly any dialogue.

"Flashdance was shooting on the same lot as us at Paramount," Oakes remembers. "And frankly, there were gloomy faces all over the lot for quite a while, because it was a film that, without the music in it, didn't add up to much. A lot of people call it an extended MTV clip."

"I think you're going to see the visual sensual-effect picture — which is how I describe MTV — you're going to see that a lot in movies today," says Charlie Powell.

Powell thinks Flashdance helped Staying Alive by attracting an older audience. "The young kids were going to go see both of them, but Flashdance started to develop crossover business. I'm a 49-year-old man, and I wanted to see Flashdance, and 38-year-olds had to see it, and twenty-sevens and fifty-twos all had to see it. Normally, that audience doesn't come out for a youth-oriented picture. We didn't come out for Porky's II. We did come out for Flashdance, and that crossover business then was waiting for Staying Alive."

***

What Flashdance has going for it, primarily, is composer Giorgio Moroder. It is Moroder's song "Flashdance … What a Feeling," sung by Irene Cara, that went to Number One on the charts and created tremendous early interest in the picture.

Moroder wasn't brought in until late in the project, so he shares production credit for the music with Phil Ramone. That point confused many. The two didn't, in fact, collaborate; Ramone, whose contribution included the hit "Maniac," was involved at the beginning of production but had other commitments, which necessitated the film company's calling in another producer. "At the last moment — something like six weeks before the final mixing — they still needed somebody to write the score," says Moroder, "and that's when I came in."

It was no shot in the dark. The Italian-born Moroder had won an Academy Award for his 1978 soundtrack to Midnight Express, had scored Cat People in 1982 for director Paul Schrader ("He certainly wouldn't have allowed me to do anything too commercial") and had written the music for American Gigolo in 1980, which included Blondie's huge hit "Call Me." He'd also written the hit "On the Radio," which was used in the film Foxes, for Donna Summer, whose first success in America had come with Moroder's European-disco sound.

Because of the enormous success of Flashdance, Moroder now has more offers for film work than he can accept. Lately, most of his time is taken up with Scarface, a new film by Brian De Palma, starring Al Pacino. He is also writing a disco number to be sung by Irene Cara in D.C. Cab, a movie that stars Gary Busey and Mr. T, and he's preparing to do another film with De Palma, tentatively titled Fire, starring John Travolta in a role fashioned after the life of Jim Morrison of the Doors. "In the case of fire," says Moroder, "they need the songs before because they have to shoot concerts."But usually, like other composers who do soundtracks, Moroder doesn't start work until the shooting of the film is completed. First, he's shown a rough cut — a long, unedited version of the movie — and then he sets out to score the film, with some instructions from the director. "In Scarface, there's some source music, some kind of Cuban music. And there's some music playing in a discotheque, and that has to be danceable songs. And for the score, it's a very dramatic movie, so there's a lot of tension in the music. De Palma and I agreed on the kind of sound we wanted. It's going to be my kind of sound — synthesizers." Debbie Harry sings one of the songs for Scarface, Amy Holland sings another.

Moroder's work may not make or break Scarface, but it certainly turned Flashdance around. Can a good soundtrack save a bad movie?

"Definitely," says Frank Stallone. "Look at Flashdance. Or Fast Times at Ridgemont High — a floppy movie, a good soundtrack. I think it can help."

"No," says consultant Charlie Powell. "Take The Wiz — shitty movie, excellent soundtrack. It's a hell of a good soundtrack that didn't help the movie at all."

"I'm no musician," says producer Leonard Goldberg, "but I think the score for Flashdance was far superior to the score for Staying Alive. Had the quality of the scores been reversed, Flashdance wouldn't have done nearly as well and Staying Alive would have done much better."

***

It was a film that RSO's Bill Oakes produced that actually changed the way movie studios look at soundtracks. While Oakes was putting together Saturday Night Fever in 1976, the studio, Paramount, "wasn't even remotely interested in even participating on the album in terms of being a royalty earner," Oakes recalls. "Soundtrack albums before Fever didn't sell unless the movie went through the roof — in which case people rushed around and put some of the score onto vinyl and packaged it and hoped to sell a few copies."

By the time Saturday Night Fever became the largest-grossing album in history, the studios had taken notice. "Now their lawyers hungrily pound the table, saying, 'We want our soundtrack royalties,'" says Oakes. "Back then, it was regarded as just above the level of belt buckles as a tie-in."

Fever also greatly changed the way a movie with a potential hit soundtrack is marketed, a method that is copied to excess these days. Some two months before the movie was to open, RSO Records put out the single "How Deep Is Your Love" by the Bee Gees. They were careful to have the records say, "From the forthcoming motion picture Saturday Night Fever." As the single climbed to Number One, the public already was on the watch for the film. Then, just as the movie was to open, they let out the second single, "Staying Alive," and managed to have both a Number One single and a Number One album as the theaters opened their doors to an audience primed for the John Travolta movie.

As have many movies since, Flashdance followed suit, with Irene Cara's recording of the theme song released in advance of the movie to stir up interest. Before Flashdance, the potential for using videos in advance of a film's release hadn't been tapped, but videos for rock-oriented films are likely to be the trailers of the future.

In the past, a rock & roll soundtrack might have been thought to narrow the audience for a picture, but studios are now happy to boast about the rock bent of their films. "Given a choice, the moviemaker would rather reach out and get the younger kids, even if he has to turn off the old folks," says Charlie Powell. The prime filmgoing audience is, after all, 15- to 25-year-olds.

"Rock & roll can be a tremendous help," says Leonard Goldberg. "It can't make somebody go and see something bad, though. There was a film out recently, Brimstone and Treacle. Well, Sting was in that movie, and no one went to see it. And the Police are very hot right now. My teenager tells me Sting is God. Now, if Sting were in Staying Alive, that would help."

One film that didn't take the shortcut to the teen audience was Goldberg's WarGames, directed by John Badham, which used an orchestral rather than a rock score. "For a time, we thought we'd use one or two rock songs in the movie," says Goldberg. "Indeed, Crosby, Stills and Nash did a few numbers for us. They even ended up releasing a song called 'War Games,' although we decided against using it in the film."

The other group that Goldberg says he and Badham considered using was Men at Work. "They said, 'We don't have time to write a song because of your schedule, but on our new album, there's a song that sounds as if it were written for your movie.' And it could have been. The song was 'It's a Mistake,' which is on the charts now."

But they decided against the rock songs — and lost the tremendous help of cross-plugging — because, as Goldberg tells it, Badham felt the rock music "took you out of the reality of the film, one of the vital ingredients of WarGames."

***

Perhaps the best recent use of rock music in a film is Risky Business, another big summer hit that grossed $33.8 million and has actually been gaining in popularity this fall. Risky Business features a score by the German band Tangerine Dream, as well as songs by Talking Heads, Prince, Jeff Beck, the Police and Phil Collins. There's also a segment in the film where actor Tom Cruise dances in his underwear to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll." It's with hindsight — audiences go crazy for the Seger number --- that the film company will soon be releasing a video of Cruise's "performance" of the Seger song, as well as a soundtrack album. Capitol, likewise, rereleased "Old Time Rock & Roll," and the 1979 record is back in the Hot 100.Director Paul Brickman and coproducer John Avnet were careful— and incredibly successful — in choosing the movie's music. "When I went out to do movies, some 10 or 11 years ago," says Avnet, "I always imagined putting together the movie and the music this way."

Brickman and Avnet picked the Jeff Beck, Seger and Phil Collins songs long before they started shooting. "Jeff Beck's 'The Pump' is not modern music per se," says Avnet, "but it caught the feeling of cruising and being an adolescent and being hot — that restless energy looking for a place to go." Knowing they wanted to use that particular music, the scene was shot to it, as was the scene using the Seger number.

Another film that has sections carefully edited to rock songs is The Big Chill, a fall release directed by Larry Kasdan about a reunion of a group of friends, now in their thirties. They get back together when they learn of the death of a classmate; Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" is used as the backdrop as the news is spread.

The filmmakers view their soundtrack of Motown and other Sixties songs as an important element of the film, and as with Risky Business, the music gives the film life. "Using those Motown songs was always part of the conception of the film," says producer Michael Shamberg. "The music is like a character in the film."

Shamberg believes the Sixties Motown music will give the film — the first for Johnny Carson's production company — a broad appeal; consultant Charlie Powell thinks it may not interest the younger kids. In any case, the film will have a promotional video of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," although the video will not use footage from the film.

That, of course, is a bit of a stretch — cross-plugging may not work when the connection between the song, the video and the film is so loose. In another unusual case, the three videos that have been made to promote the soundtrack for Eddie and the Cruisers, a new film about a New Jersey rock band, use footage of actor Michael Paré (who plays Eddie) performing the songs. But the singer is actually John Cafferty, who performs them with his band, Beaver Brown, on the soundtrack album.

So although it is Cafferty's record that is being promoted by the videos, he'll remain a faceless act. In that film's case, a strong soundtrack may die with the movie, which has gotten tepid reviews.

Frank Stallone says he was a little worried when all the negative reviews came out for the film Staying Alive. "I was nervous about the success of the movie, because it was like an advertisement for the music, and vice versa, so I was hoping it would do well," he says. "But I was watching how people reacted in the movie theaters — how they reacted was more important than how the critics reacted — and they really seemed to like it. They want entertainment. They're tired of seeing people attacked by giant moths."

Stallone appears only briefly in the "Far From Over" video; the featured performer is John Travolta. "In the video, something happened to my hair," says Stallone. "It got caught in an eggbeater or something. And I have a headband on, so I look like an Italian Arapaho. It's ridiculous." Not signed to Polygram until recently, he agrees he might have been featured a bit more in the video if he'd been signed to the label when it was made.

Stallone insists there's no animosity between himself and the Bee Gees. The Bee Gees, in an unusual deal with Polygram, got the right to have one of their songs be the first single released from the soundtrack, as well as having all their music be on one side of the album. "I thought they should have mixed it up," says Stallone, "but that's what the Bee Gees wanted, and that's what they got."

They also got a small share in the movie, a rare deal for a performer or composer on a soundtrack. Giorgio Moroder didn't get points for the movie Flashdance, only points on the album and a fee for the score.

Those financial arrangements may have to change. When big names from rock & roll are tied to a movie project and help draw the attention of young moviegoers, they may start asking for a piece of the film. And rock stars seem increasingly interested in film work: Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits wrote the best soundtrack in recent memory for last year's Local Hero, Stewart Copeland of the Police scored Rumble Fish and Joe Jackson's new album is the soundtrack to the still unreleased Mike's Murder, to name a few.

Composers' contracts will have to change, of course, if we begin to see more movies like Flashdance, where the starting point is the music itself, where the music is the whole reason to make the film. It's bound to become more complicated when the stars are not the actors, but the songs themselves.