With a ‘Film Stars’ Song in Contention, Rock Star Elvis Costello Reflects on Moonlighting for the Movies

The song “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way" is an emotional double entendre.

Elvis Costello Liverpool
Mary Mccartney

Elvis Costello wrote the closing song for the new movie “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” but it’s a classic from his own canon that director Paul McGuigan planted as an Easter egg for music buffs. Costello’s “Pump It Up” is heard early on in the film to establish the late ’70s time frame, right before a scene that has the American actress Gloria Grahame (played by Annette Bening) meeting her younger Liverpudlian boyfriend (Jamie Bell) for the first time. Just after “Pump It Up” is heard on the soundtrack, the two lovers-to-be dance to “Boogie Oogie Oogie” — a cheeky nod to one of the silliest awards upsets of all time, when the ephemeral disco group A Taste of Honey famously beat Costello for the best new artist Grammy.

“You know what? It didn’t register,” admits Costello, who didn’t get the embedded joke when he first saw the film, and whom the director never bothered to tip off about the sly juxtaposition. “I didn’t recognize the song, because I never heard that record [‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’]; I didn’t really listen to that kind of music then.”

That hilariously ignominious Grammy defeat hasn’t weighed much on Costello’s mind in the four decades since. He stands a shot at a nomination for a different award with “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way,” the song that has brought him to a suite in the Hollywood Roosevelt today, as one of the parties being talked up for contention for “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” In contrast to the signature song that McGuigan threw into the movie as 1978 source music, Costello’s new end-credits theme couldn’t be less pumped up.

His contribution to the film is more of a piece with the 1998 album he did in collaboration with Burt Bacharach, “Painted from Memory” — which, incidentally, did finally get Costello his first (and still only) Grammy. If people hear some lingering echoes of Bacharach’s style in this new solo composition, “that wouldn’t be a bad thing,” Costello says. “That would be good pedigree, as they say in the dog world! I learned from listening to Burt that sometimes those unusual combinations of instruments can give you that sound that you want. I would never presume to orchestrate like he could, but you can hear those flugels,” a Bacharach-esque touch amid the small orchestra that Costello wrote the arrangement for.

The title, “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way,” is an emotional double entendre, taking on different meanings in different verses to reflect Grahame as someone who alternately invites and shields herself from the male gaze. “When you first see Gloria in the story, she’s in the grip of mortal illness, and then when the story flashes back to their first meeting, she’s very seductive,” says Costello. “They have this flirtation, and then it very quickly reveals her vulnerability, as the minute he points out their age difference, she gets mad at him. You didn’t have to reach very far to find the stuff for the song.”

Costello is enough of a Grahame fan to have put her photo up on the big screen behind him on a recent tour to illustrate a type of female character he was singing about in his song “Church Underground,” “about a girl running away from home with the hope of becoming a notorious movie femme fatale.” McGuigan and producer Barbara Broccoli came to a concert to ask him to write the theme, “and it was complete coincidence that I picked Gloria’s picture. They must have thought I was a mind reader when they came to ask me to be involved in the movie.”

Another coincidence: when he read the script, he was startled to see the name of his best friend of 35 years — playwright Alan Bleasdale, who was best man at Costello and Diana Krall’s wedding — mentioned as a minor character who employs the male lead in a British play. “Alan never mentioned that he’d had an actor working for him who was involved with Gloria Grahame — I mean, why would he? — but when I saw his name in the script, that was really strange. I guess it was meant to be.”

The man who wrote “Complicated Shadows” had long been drawn toward Grahame, one of the queens of noir. “I like the conflicted nature of the characters that she seemed to be good at playing,” he says. “I mean, sometimes the parts that Gloria Grahame played were very simple to understand, but there’s a couple of films where they’re quite complicated. In ‘Human Desire,’ the Fritz Lang film, that’s a pretty complicated character — on the face of it, a hard, kind of murderous person, but there’s a reason for it.”

But, reading the “Liverpool” script, he gravitated toward exploring how “people don’t reside in the place where we have our most vivid memory of them. Their life continues, out of that moment where they’re most celebrated, and that’s obviously what this film picks up. Here’s a person associated with black-and-white images from film noir, but she’s acting in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ in a repertory theater in the north of England, or on English television in the late ’70s and early ’80s. When you say the name, you see the image that I used in my show. You don’t see the person with the complications that life brings.”

Costello turned out for the AFI Film Festival premiere of “Liverpool” at the Chinese Theatre, running across the street afterward for a brief performance in the Hollywood Roosevelt’s tiny cellar theater for Bening, Warren Beatty and a few dozen invited guests. The setting had him reminiscing. “The last time I was at the Chinese Theatre, I snuck in to see a screening of ‘Godfather III,’ in which I have a song,” he told the audience. “My movie cameos are numerous and some of them infamous. Like, the song that the brother is singing under his breath in ‘E.T.’ is mine.” The small crowd tittered, as if Costello were making a droll joke. “It’s really true!” he protested.

It’s “Accidents Will Happen” that’s heard in passing in “E.T.,” and “Miracle Man” in “Godfather III.” These were collected on a 2012 compilation album, “In Motion Pictures,” along with 13 other Costello tracks that were written for or picked up by the movies. “I actually didn’t think they would put it out on a finished record,” he says of the “In Motion Pictures” CD. “I thought it was a playlist, and then I was kind of surprised [Universal Music] put it out in the sleeve. The [catalog songs] that were selected by [filmmakers] were always intriguing, but I did genuinely write a lot of those songs for movies.” Those original film compositions weren’t always as high-profile as the one he just did; his song “Crawling to the USA” is better remembered than “Americathon,” the movie it appeared in, and “My Mood Swings” was buried nearly to the point of inaudibility in “The Big Lebowski.”

“Then there are the complete anomalies, like singing a song you would never imagine singing, where you’re cast against type. That’s what ‘She’ would be,” Costello says, bringing up a career game-changer that came about in 1999, right after he’d released the collaboration with Bacharach, at the height of what some have referred to as his crooner phase. For the Julia Roberts vehicle “Notting Hill,” he was asked to cover an old Charles Aznavour romantic ballad. “It was like casting Wallace Beery in the Clark Gable role,” he jokes. “But the song was a damn hit all over the world” — his biggest nearly everywhere but the U.S., in fact. “Heaven knows it’s allowed me to play in countries in the world that my own songs would never allow me to play in, so I can’t complain about that. It’s been a strange life I’ve lived, to turn up and see the horror when they realize that none of my other songs sound like ‘She.’ ”

If there’s an awards injustice worse than losing a best new artist Grammy to a one-hit disco group, at least as far as fans are concerned, it would have to be the fact that “God Give Me Strength” — one of the best movie themes of the past 25 years, which he co-wrote with Burt Bacharach for Allison Anders’ “Grace of My Heart” — wasn’t even nominated for a best song Oscar. He doesn’t act as if he’s spent too many sleepless nights about it: “The film has to be known enough for people to be worrying about that,” he figures. As for kudos in general: “I was 20 years into my career before I ever went to an awards show, so I have never really seen any of that as my natural domain,” he says.

But the Oscars finally began to look at him that way — as it were — in 2004, when he and co-writer T Bone Burnett did get a nomination for “The Scarlet Tide,” from “Cold Mountain.” Costello sang it on the telecast, ultimately losing to a little-remembered Annie Lennox song from the “Lord of the Rings” finale. “If [an award] were to happen sometime, that would be fun. But it’s kind of silly to say this song is better than that song. That year, there were a couple of really good songs nominated. I wanted the one from ‘A Mighty Wind’ to win [Michael McKean’s and Annette O’Toole’s “A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow”]. I really did!”

His movie songwriting career hasn’t been especially prodigious between “Cold Mountain” and “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.” But then, neither has his career as a record-maker, either. In the 2010s, he’s focused his creativity almost exclusively on a well-received memoir (2015’s “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink”), building themed concert tours, and on writing for a different kind of stage — the Broadway stage.

“Burt and I have about 20 songs we wrote for two musicals that have not been produced,” he says, including an expanded dramatic adaptation of the “Painted from Memory” album that’s gone on the back burner.  “That’s separate from the 19 songs that I wrote for ‘A Face in the Crowd’” — his musical-theater update of the Budd Schulberg novel about a corrupt populist politician that became most famous in Elia Kazan’s 1957 film version.  he says. “I don’t know how far away from opening night we are with ‘Face in the Crowd.’ You know that business — the theater world is a complicated amount of agreements between the resources, the cast, and the timing, apart from what the actual thing is about.

“But I have been previewing ‘Face in the Crowd’ songs in my shows with the agreement of my cohorts, [director] Des McAnuff and [book co-writer] Sarah Ruhl.” (He even played one of them at the “Film Stars” after-party; see the video, above.) “It’s a good way of getting the measure of whether these songs read to an audience on one hearing… and also thinking about what kind of voices could sing these, because it’s not going to be me singing them in the musical. All of that is all investigation, aside from the fact that it’s just thrilling to play a [new] song and have somebody go, ‘Hey, that’s good,’ or ‘That makes me laugh.'”

Meanwhile, he’s also looking at how to work “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way” into the set when he and his band the Imposters kick off a six-night residency at the Wynn Las Vegas Feb. 28, a show he’s dubbed “Now/Not Now” in deference to the mixture of oldies and unreleased material he plans to play. He delights in thinking about “what other songs does it lead to, or what other songs would you place around it? Songs do that: They gather allies.”

Will there be new songs in the set in Las Vegas that weren’t written for musical theater or a movie? The short answer is yes… although that shouldn’t get anyone’s hopes up for a new studio album from Costello any time soon. His last album of completely fresh compositions was the T Bone Burnett-produced “National Ransom” in 2010. Three years later, he released a collaborative effort with the Roots, “Wise Up Ghost,” that refashioned scraps of his old lyrics into more experimental new material. And in the four years since then, it’s been mostly radio silence on record.

For Costello, there’s nothing rote or inherently less creative about doing a catalog-themed tour. “In years gone by, you would say, ‘Well, it says on my contract that it’s time to make a record, and then we’ll go and play those songs on a tour.’ I don’t do that. I’m kind of like my own impresario. I create my own shows, into which I put the songs I have, both old and new. The last three shows I’ve done have been focused on repertoire in different ways, but they have taken advantage of the opportunity to put new songs in quite key places: the ‘Spectacular Spinning Songbook’ [in which patrons spun a wheel to select choices] did that, ‘Detour’ [a narrated solo tour] really did that, and even [the 2017 tour themed around the 35th anniversary of] ‘Imperial Bedroom’ did, by taking those songs and in some cases being able to render them more the way they were written.”

Why stop throwing new records into the mix, though? “Well, somebody’s got to want to make them,” he quips, alluding to his label-less status. His only recent releases have been vinyl singles pressed in quantities of less than 1,000 to sell as collectors’ items. “One thing about the vinyl record is that it invites brevity,” he says. “The CD was a temptation to make longer and longer records. And I took full advantage of that; I don’t regret the shape or duration of any of the records I made I guessed right that we wouldn’t be doing it very much more when I effectively made a double album for my last record (meaning ‘National Ransom’). “I thought, ‘Well, this might be the last go-round,’ and it proved to be the case. So that was the right decision, to sign off from that particular cyclic continuum of record/tour/record/tour. Look at the last few years. If I had not broken off from that, I wouldn’t have had the fun I’ve had creating these shows and developing them.”

Unlike, say, the Gloria Grahame portrayed in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” Costello is well aware he’s of a generation separate from the one feeding the hit-making machinery now, and he actually seems tickled, not reluctant, at the prospect of redoubling his efforts elsewhere. It’s the fans, he suggests, that are overly glued to their CDs. “You should never assume you have either an obligation or a right to record,” he says. “There are lots of young, great artists whose moment is [now].” But, he adds, “That doesn’t mean there won’t be any more records. It just means there better be a good reason to make ‘em.”