Director Jessie Nelson originally hoped to use all Beatles songs for the soundtrack to her new movie, I Am Sam, starring Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer. When she learned that getting the necessary clearances in time for the Dec. 28th release of the film would be impossible, she went for the next best thing: Beatles covers. Working in conjunction with V2 Records, Nelson assembled a wish list of performers and wound up landing the likes of Eddie Vedder, Paul Westerberg, Ben Folds and the Black Crowes for a sixteen-song soundtrack album set for release January 8th.
"We would have these long conference calls and we would throw out the song and what the moment in the movie meant and who could really capture that moment," says Nelson. "'You've Got to Hide Your Love Away' is one of those moments when Sean is most broken as a character, most raw, most heartbroken and out of that came the idea for Eddie Vedder to sing that song. 'Blackbird' is a very gentle, very lyrical moment for the little girl, and out of that came Sarah McLachlan."
Nelson and co-writer Kristine Johnson volunteered at a center for the developmentally disabled in Culver City, California, while conducting research for the movie. The plot of the film revolves around a developmentally disabled man (Penn) and his struggle to maintain custody of his seven-year-old daughter. Nelson says that the Beatles became integral to the film after she observed what a tremendous impact the band's music had on the people at the center.
"We worked there with them for months and got to know these people really well and one thing they all shared was a love of the Beatles -- a huge love of the Beatles," she says. "They knew dates when songs were recorded and intimate things about the Beatles' lives, and they would compare their own lives and the journeys they were taking -- like if one of them was having a hard time with their roommate and it was causing them a lot of anxiety they would say, 'Oh, but Paul and John went through hard times too.' So we got into the notion of really letting the Beatles be a huge part of Sean's character."
Given the tight deadline, Nelson was struck by how quickly artists signed on and by their willingness to stay true to the film. "We were really lucky, people came at in such a pure way," she says. "When Eddie recorded his track, he sang it to the movie. He had the movie playing in the recording studio, and he was playing his guitar and singing to the scene. Even when I went to Ben Harper's recording session for 'Strawberry Fields,' they were watching the scene so closely and he was really trying to get inside Sean's mind as a character and really what that song meant at that moment in the movie. Ben Harper's version will blow your mind."
Teaming with Sean Lennon on "Across the Universe," Rufus Wainwright says the pair stuck to a faithful reading of the song: "We didn't really alter it. If anything, we just scaled it down. We had a short time to do anything, so it's basically just guitar, me and Sean and some harmonies. It's not the kind of song you can fuck with too much. I think it's done best straightforward."
Aimee Mann and husband Michael Penn did the duet, "Two of Us." "The film called for a duet between a man and a woman, and in the original version it's sung by John and Paul, so the song lent itself perfectly to being a duet between a man and a woman," she says. "Our version stayed pretty true to the original, but the lyrics have new meaning because they're being sung by a married couple."
For Grandaddy, the film's star was the main attraction. "We are huge, huge, longtime Sean Penn fans," says guitarist Jim Fairchild. "To be even remotely affiliated with anything that he's had a hand in is pretty incredible for us."
The I Am Sam complete track listing:
"Blackbird," Sarah McLachlan
"Two of Us," Aimee Mann and Michael Penn
"I'm Looking Through You," The Wallflowers with Jackson Browne
"Across the Universe," Rufus Wainwright with Sean Lennon
"Strawberry Fields Forever," Ben Harper
"You've Got To Hide Your Love Away," Eddie Vedder
"Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," The Black Crowes
"Golden Slumbers," Ben Folds
"Nowhere Man," Paul Westerberg
"Let It Be," Nick Cave
"Don't Let Me Down," The Stereophonics
"We Can Work It Out," Heather Nova
"Help!," Howie Day
"Julia," Chocolate Genius