Three of this year’s more intriguing signature songs for movies were written by actors. Another, for a Bruce Springsteen-inspired film, was written half in Punjabi.
The accidental songwriter: Mary Steenburgen and “Glasgow”
The lilting country ballad “Glasgow (No Place Like Home),” from “Wild Rose,” is one of the top contenders for an original song Oscar nomination. Its co-composer: Oscar-winning actress Mary Steenburgen. If you didn’t know she was a songwriter, neither did she until she had a medical procedure on her forearm in 2007 and emerged different.
“It was a minor surgery, but I still needed to be knocked out,” she says of waking up and hearing music everywhere. “The first couple of days after, I thought it was just a weird reaction to the anesthetic. I felt like a different person. The world was very definitely musical to me.”
The condition is rare though not unheard of. It’s sometimes called “musical hallucinations.” As novel, or even enviable, as that sounds, it was decidedly discordant for the actress.
“It became a musical tornado. Everything in the world. I wanted it to go away, I wanted my old brain back. I couldn’t fully focus on a conversation. I couldn’t memorize lines. It wasn’t something I understood.”
“It became a musical tornado. Everything in the world. I wanted it to go away, I wanted my old brain back. I couldn’t fully focus on a conversation. I couldn’t memorize lines. It wasn’t something I understood.
“My husband [actor Ted Danson] said, ‘Sorry, you can’t go crazy,’ ” she says, laughing. “ ‘There are so many people who count on you. You’re gonna have to master this; it cannot master you.’ ”
So Steenburgen tried to put the chaos in order by learning to write songs. She read books on the craft, learned its language and followed advice to go to Nashville. She found collaborations that honed her newfound gift and compiled dozens of songs. When she learned that “Wild Rose,” a film about an irresponsible young Scottish woman chasing a dream to make it in Nashville, needed a climactic song, she went for it.
“It’s not just an end-credits song, but it had to be an expression of the character’s whole journey that you had just experienced,” says Steenburgen.
“I read the script as an actor. I thought, if that was me standing up there and after never having been able to write a song, now I’ve written one, what would that character have to say? The director said this song is to her children, and really to her mother: ‘I gave you hell and you were there for me and thank you.’ ”
The actress, who won her Oscar in 1981 for her supporting role in “Melvin and Howard,” conversed with a dear Scottish friend to “hear the musicality of the accent. I’d say, ‘Tell me what it’s like to walk around there.’ She said something about the stones in the street, the cobblestones. That inspired the opening line: ‘I’ve worn out the stones in front of your doorstep / coming and going, coming and going.’
“Then I called two of my favorite co-writers — two of everyone’s favorite co-writers in Nashville, [frequent collaborator] Caitlyn Smith and Kate York. Within a few hours, we had this song.
“To me, it’s the world’s most beautiful puzzle. How you take a concept and individual words and take the power of rhyme, sometimes, and you take a heartbeat and melody and put all those pieces together and make a song that didn’t exist before … I’m now glad I had that dumb surgery.”
The legit diva: Cynthia Erivo and “Stand Up”
Tony- and Grammy-winning singer-actress Cynthia Erivo knew a lot about Harriet Tubman when composing a song for the film “Harriet”; after all, she was playing the lead. For the stirring “Stand Up,” she knew she wasn’t just writing from character, but one of the most inspirational characters possible.
“It’s a truncated version of what she was doing and to show people they can be a person who stands up for good. You can’t tell the whole story in five minutes, but you can tell quite a bit of it,” says Erivo.
“It feels good to sing in the second verse: ‘And I don’t mind if I lose any blood on the way to salvation / And I’ll fight with the strength that I got until I die.’ There’s strength in it. It’s defiant. It’s bravery. It’s confident. There’s something very powerful about that, and as a woman to be able to sing it.”
Erivo says she has been writing songs since she was 16 (“You just haven’t heard them,” she says with a chuckle); she placed one on the “Beyond the Lights” soundtrack in 2014. She co-wrote “Stand Up” with the startling young talent Joshuah Campbell, whom she believes is still in seminary school. She hopes their song can be picked up by others to help spread the message. Easier said than done, considering the Grammy- and Tony-winning range and power of Erivo’s instrument.
In the song’s outro, Erivo’s voice turns angelic with the refrain: “I go to prepare a place for you.” Those are reportedly Tubman’s last words.
“There’s no other real way to finish it,” says Erivo. “It’s particularly poignant to be able to sing those words ... I think that ending is necessary to remind people that this is what was said and what was done and we have a duty to remember it and to keep our word.”
The slacker rapper: Randall Park “Punched Keanu Reeves”
In “Always Be My Maybe,” Randall Park plays Marcus, a kind of slacker rapper fronting the fictional outfit Hello Peril. When it came time to deliver a hardcore lyrical smack-down detailing Marcus’ physical smack-down of Keanu Reeves (playing an exaggerated version of himself), he’s hilarious — but as intimidating as a sarcastic house cat.
“I would say that’s kind of how I really rap,” the “Fresh off the Boat” star admits with a laugh. “That’s kind of my style, I guess. It’s instinctual, to not put too much into it.”
Before writing “I Punched Keanu Reeves” and the other Hello Peril songs, Park had some hip-hop chops; he used to be in a band with UCLA friends, Ill Again. He jumped at the chance to work with longtime Bay Area hip-hop producer Dan the Automator (Daniel M. Nakamura), who crafted the beats the two would hone into songs. They thought they were done when a Netflix executive saw a cut of the film ending with a reference to Marcus writing a song about his confrontation with Reeves. At the executive’s suggestion, Park got back to work with Nakamura.
Marcus boasts, “Any summit I could be on / Any Point Break I could surf with my gi on / ... What an excellent adventure / I wouldn’t be surprised if Keanu’s wearing dentures / I’ve got a high five that can make a man die / I should be with the Justice League and the Avengers.”
Park says Reeves was enthusiastic about the song, though “he didn’t want it to just be about him, but to reflect the movie in some way, and the love story. That’s why in the end it reveals it’s really about Marcus and Sasha and not just a tribute to Keanu Reeves.”
Park laughs at the notion of engaging in an actual rap battle with anyone, though: “Oh, no, I’d get destroyed. I don’t think I have it in me.”
The two-time Oscar winner: A.R. Rahman and “For You My Love”
“Blinded by the Light” is not a thriller about cults. It’s a comic drama based on the true story of a Pakistani British teen who loves the works of Bruce Springsteen. It boasts perhaps the sweetest movie love song of 2019, and it’s not by Bruce Springsteen. And it’s only half in English.
“The idea came from director Gurinder Chadha; she liked the love theme I composed for the movie, and she came up with the idea of using it as an end-title song,” composer A.R. Rahman says of “For You, My Love.” “I wanted to take this idea further, by combining English culture and the Sufi culture, from where the main protagonist’s family originated.”
The lovely ballad is sung in English (by Hriday Gattani) and in Punjabi (by Parag Chhabra). The simple longing of its lyrics hearkens to Springsteen’s “Drive All Night,” and its dreamy atmosphere recalls “Secret Garden.” Any resemblances, however, are purely coincidental, says Rahman — though he admits to fandom of his own.
“When I was growing up back in the ‘80s, I would try to sing ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ in such a high-pitched voice that it would hurt my throat, which was a catharsis to me. I’d never heard anyone sing a song like that before.”