Oscar Wilde honoree: Van Morrison
Van Morrison and Hollywood seem to have a “crazy love” for each other.
Over 35 years, Morrison’s tunes have been featured in more than 70 films.
Songs like “Crazy Love” — the most often-used tune from his repertoire — typically occupy key moments in a film, musically advancing the tale and setting an emotional tone. “Gloria,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Into the Mystic” and “Someone Like You” also are filmmaker favorites. On Feb. 22, the U.S.-Ireland Alliance recognizes the songwriter’s contributions to cinema with an Oscar Wilde Award.
“Van has written some of the most extraordinary songs ever,” says director Neil Jordan, who was honored by the org last year and used Morrison’s music in “Breakfast on Pluto.”
“And Van has got more references hanging on to his music than someone like Bob Dylan,” Jordan adds. “Dylan is so narrative with the stories he tells, but with Van, there is a lot of symbolism — the meaning is kind of wonderfully obscured in many ways, so the music can suck in all kinds of associations.”
Jordan says he knew he wanted to use Morrison’s “Cypress Avenue” and “Madame George” while he was writing the script for “Breakfast on Pluto.”
“Van’s music was the only thing I listened to during the period that the film takes place (early ’70s). It was a very crazy period,” Jordan says. “I was always a fan of the music and the man. He was from that environment, and somehow he escaped it.”
Jordan recalls trying to use “Madame George” almost 13 years earlier for “The Crying Game,” but says he couldn’t get permission. “I recall Van was having some trouble with his label, so we couldn’t get it. But Van and I kept in touch over the years, and he said yes this time. You have to talk to Van personally if you want to use his songs.”
Morrison’s music also has appeared in “Thelma & Louise,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “One Fine Day,” among many others. His music is often sought by such heavyweight directors as Martin Scorsese, James L. Brooks, Oliver Stone, Taylor Hackford, Lawrence Kasdan and John Landis.
In “The Departed,” Scorsese even reached outside the usual Morrison catalog by using a live version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” recorded by Morrison in 1991 in Berlin.
“‘Someone Like You’ was Bridget’s story,” says director Sharon Maguire, referring to the Morrison classic she used in “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” “I know some people — especially men — consider that song girly and syrupy. But it’s not. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt song. And it’s the one song that just stuck for me, that it had to be in the film.”
“Plus, I’ve always loved that song,” she adds. “It fit so well with the idea of the film: someone searching a long time for the exact, almost impossible-to-define-why person who makes them feel safe, and who they want to be with forever.”
Maguire says she “compiled a bunch of songs to listen to in the car the year before ‘Bridget Jones’ (went into production). There were a lot of new and modern songs on it, including ‘Someone Like You.'”
To illustrate that Morrison is one of the preeminent musicians of the film music medium, Manhattan/EMI Music has released “Van Morrison at the Movies: The Soundtrack Hits,” a 19-track compilation disc of some of his songs as used in films.
The debut deal, struck with Morrison’s U.K.-based Exile Prods. and EMI’s worldwide catalog marketing arm, combines such Morrison chestnuts as “Gloria” and “Brown Eyed Girl” with a previously unreleased live version of “Moondance” featured in “An American Werewolf in London.”
“Morrison is one of those great singer-songwriters from a lost era,” says Kathy Nelson, president of music at NBC Universal, who has supervised the music in more than 100 feature films and has placed several Morrison tracks into pics. “There’s Van, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty and a handful of others whose songs always add tremendously to a film. Morrison’s voice is so lyrical that it’s not intrusive; it’s lyrical and it’s emotional. It can slip in and out of a scene without jarring.”
During production of “Thelma & Louise,” Nelson and director Ridley Scott were looking for the best song to help kick off the characters’ road trip.
“We needed something to jumpstart the girls’ adventure, and I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t corny or overused,” Nelson says. “And then we listened to Morrison’s ‘Wild Night.’ It turned out to be the perfect song for that scene.”
But not every film can be graced with a Morrison track. Nelson and other supervisors note that Morrison tunes are difficult to clear and can be expensive. A license fee for a Morrison song can be at the higher end of the scale, as much as $100,000 for a high-visibility placement.
“His songs are very highly thought of by directors, and as an artist, he is keeping his songs in the public consciousness with these high-profile uses,” says Billy Meshel, CEO of music publisher Music and Media Intl. and a publishing industry valuation expert. “He obviously knows how to manage his songs well.”
Morrison typically approves every use by evaluating both the song’s context and the production pedigree, something Maguire learned firsthand during “Bridget Jones’ ” post-production.
“We were often told by Van’s people that either he wasn’t available to ask for permission or we were given just a plain ‘no, you can’t use it,'” Maguire recalls of her pursuit to use “Someone Like You.” “They were always very polite, but firm.”
“So we tried recording a cover version of it. However, when we put it up against the picture, it just wasn’t the same because it wasn’t Van,” she continues. “We knew we needed the original song.”
That decision, Maguire says, set off a “helter-skelter, nightmarish chase around the pubs, clubs, venues and hotels of Dublin and New York by Van’s people to track him down before the film’s picture and sound were locked, to beg him to let us use the track. At the eleventh hour, he said yes.”
Maguire remembers being in Soho and receiving the call that Morrison had given his permission and “having a feeling of rightness,” she says. “It made the end of the film very special.”