From 'Moon River' and 'Evergreen' to 'My Heart Will Go On,' sometimes the right love song can capture the heart and soul of a movie

Oscar-winning love songs take many forms: They can burst from the lips of animated characters (“Beauty and the Beast”), be a musical caress (Barbra Streisand doing “Evergreen” and “The Way We Were”), or emerge as a sandy growl (Joe Cocker’s gravel-voiced rendition of “Up Where We Belong”). But one characteristic unites these tunes: a dramatic urgency that adds power to a film and gives the characters dimension.

“It’s all in the script,” says Paul Williams, “Evergreen” lyricist. “The song has to be true to the film — say something about the story, the people and their emotional journey. Yes, we all want a hit, but trying to shoehorn something commercial into the picture doesn’t honor the film at all.

“I also don’t think it works to be too on the nose with the lyric. And,” he admits (echoing Marilyn Bergman’s comment about Streisand’s vocal on “The Way We Were”), “it doesn’t hurt to have Barbra sing your song.”

Williams’ only moment of hesitation came when he began “Evergreen” for “A Star Is Born” with: “Love, soft as an easy chair/ love, fresh as the morning air,” and confided to collaborator Streisand, “we could get laughed out of town, starting a love song with a line about a piece of furniture.”

Alan Menken, composer of the Oscar-winning “Beauty and the Beast,” “A Whole New World” and “Colors of the Wind” says, “I aim for something that will work within the context and also have a possibility of a chart life. I always felt I had an affinity for rock and pop music, but I’d never had a chart hit when Howard Ashman and I wrote ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ ‘Beauty’ was a very deliberate assignment.

“With ‘A Whole New World,’ Tim Rice and I thought in the same double-edged terms. Picture first, but with an eye on the charts as well. And I always make sure something will work on a first listening, because it has to.”

With Menken, the creative process varies. “Beauty and the Beast” was lyric first. “A Whole New World” started with music. Scorers such as Henry Mancini (“Moon River,” “The Days of Wine and Roses”), and Johnny Mandel (“The Shadow of Your Smile”), conceived the use of their main themes right at the beginning of composing, with the idea that these themes would become songs later.

Fred Karlin, composer of the Oscar-winning “For All We Know” from “Lovers and other Strangers,” did the same.

“That way,” says Karlin, “a strong theme could be used as needed in scoring the picture. Alan Pakula, who directed ‘The Sterile Cuckoo’ (which spotlighted Karlin’s Oscar-nominated love song “Come Saturday Morning”), trusted that my song could go in four different places where there’s no dialogue, or at those times music and song have to take over.”

When asked to compose a love lyric for a movie, Carole Bayer Sager’s first priority is discovering the director’s overall vision.

“Then I try to write a unique title and lyric,” she says.

Carole’s hook line for “Arthur” (“When you get caught between the moon and New York City”), matched to Burt Bacharach’s melody, meets her criteria as unique and memorable. she refers to “Arthur” as “a love song to a girl and a city.”

With “Nobody Does It Better,” from “The Spy Who Loved Me,” Carole thought of the title before being hired to do the movie.

“They weren’t sure about using me, but Marvin Hamlisch asked Cubby Broccoli if I could have a shot. I got the job because they loved the title,” she says. “It really expressed the character of James Bond. Then Marvin wrote a chorus to my title and I wrote the rest of the lyric to the chorus.”

Sometimes the content of a love song isn’t clearly spelled out by a film. Before writing the Oscar-winning “The Morning After” from “The Poseidon Adventure” I was told by producer Irwin Allen: “A ship is turning over, people are dying by the dozens, there’s fire and flood and tragedy. So make it positive!”

Al Kasha and I couldn’t just literally describe the horrors onscreen. The lines had to be upbeat and romantic because they wanted a hit. Our solution was to create a song that subliminally referred to the disasters, while at the same time hinting that hope was possible.

In our second Oscar winner, “We Never Love Like This Again,” from “The Towering Inferno,” after most of the cast was incinerated by a hotel fire, we ended the song with “we’ll love again,” implying that there was an afterlife where the lovers could be reunited, once again satisfying producer Allen’s request for optimism.

Gimmicks galore

Songs are often placed over the opening credits or within a film, but more and more today, they’re featured at the end of a picture, a frequently exploitative attempt to insert material that has nothing to do with the movie, but is simply a gimmick to promote soundtrack albums or win an Oscar nomination.

Michael Gore (Oscar winner for “Fame” and nominee for “Out Here on My Own”) is leery of this approach. As an expert in crafting full musicals, Gore worries: “If the tune isn’t set up properly, they’ve lost the integrity of the film.”

Will Jennings (double Oscar winner for “Up Where We Belong” and “My Heart Will Go On”) acknowledges this artistic danger, but thinks placing a song at the end of a picture is sometimes the best, most valid decision.

“If your tune has been played throughout, as my two were, the song can have triple the emotional and dramatic impact,” says Jennings. “Audiences become familiar with it, and it means something to them in relation to the story and the characters. People cheered at the end of ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ when the song went on because it had been prepared for.”

Sometimes the composer writes a song with a large orchestra in mind. Other times, as in the case of Michael Gore’s “Out Here on My Own,” the tune was planned for just a solo piano and vocal. But whatever the approach, the song’s object is to touch the heart and wring the tear ducts.

As Williams puts it: “Will Jennings’ lyric for “My Heart Will Go On” is a classic example of that. You’re defenseless at the end of the picture and his beautiful words, along with James Horner’s music, grab audiences by the chest and pull them across the street to buy the CD. That’s what a great love song can do.”

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