They’re singing “Deck the Halls” and it does seem very much like Christmas, all in all, when Darlene Love is belting one out. There’s a new instance of that, in the Chris Columbus-directed Netflix film “The Christmas Chronicles 2,” as Love joins Kurt Russell, who’s returning as Santa Claus, in a large-scale musical number built around a new song written by Steven Van Zandt, “The Spirit of Christmas.”
This new song joins a holiday pantheon that includes a previous collaborative effort between Love, Van Zandt and Columbus, “All Alone on Christmas,” which became established as a contemporary classic after being introduced in “Home Alone 2” in 1992. The gold standard, of course, remains the songs Love sang (credited and uncredited) on the 1963 compilation “Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You,” which introduced her wailing lament “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” into the canon of yuletide greatness.
Earlier, Variety talked with Love at length about her old and new holiday music. Now, we have director Columbus and songwriter Van Zandt (best known to most as a core member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band) weighing in — in separate conversations — on how they reunited with Love for a new Christmas movie song nearly 30 years after the success of their last one.
Variety: What’s the story behind how this new song and elaborate musical number came together?
Columbus: I was a huge fan of Steven’s work with the Disciples of Soul, and I needed a song for “Home Alone 2.” I got in touch with him and said, “Could you write a song?” He saw a rough cut, and he said, “What about Darlene Love singing the title song And what about the E Street Band playing backup?” It was a dream come true. So Steve recorded the song with Darlene and the E Street Band, we shot a video for it, and I thought, I want to do this forever. I literally had the most fun I have ever had, watching that recording take place.
Steve and I worked on a lot of movies together. He was my music supervisor on some films. He wrote another song for me for “Nine Months.” And then when we did the first “Christmas Chronicles,” I wanted Kurt to perform a musical number in a jail cell. I called Steve and I played him the Elvis Presley song that we used, “Santa Claus is Back in Town,” and he came up with an arrangement that was just spectacular.
So when it came time to do “Christmas Chronicles 2,” I called him and said, “We should write a song that will support a big, fat musical number. This time it’s not going to be in a jail cell, it’ll be in an airport. We’re gonna have choreography. We’re going to treat it like a spectacular showstopping musical number.” A few weeks after we had that conversation, he sent me a demo of “The Spirit of Christmas.” I was blown away, and my mind started working. I thought, “Now I know how I can set up the choreography and shoot this and how the song is going to build.” We didn’t do the musical number because we just wanted to do a musical number. Santa Claus had to bring the spirit of Christmas back to this airport, or he and Kay would be stranded in the year 1990 forever. So there was a valid story point the song is supporting.
How soon did you agree it should be a duet between Santa and Darlene?
I called him because I was driving to a meeting, when we could still have meetings in person. I was on the PCH blasting the great album he produced [in 2015] called “Introducing Darlene Love.” He happened to call in the middle of me listening to that; it’s not like I listen to Steven Van Zandt music 24/7. He said, “Who are you thinking about?” And I said, “I’m listening to this great song called ‘Forbidden Nights.’ Darlene would be amazing.’ He said, “That’s just what I was thinking.” He did the demo with Darlene, and when Netflix heard it, they were completely blown away.
The way the scene with Darlene plays in the movie reminds me a bit of Aretha Franklin in “The Blues Brothers,” where you have this great soul diva taking over for just one big scene in a mundane setting.
Yeah. I cannot deny — that’s a really good point. I find “The Blues Brothers” to have held up from a musical standpoint really well, and I watch that maybe once a year. So I was a little inspired by “The Blues Brothers,” I have to say.
Let’s go all the way back to you writing “Gremlins.” I don’t know if using her song “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” was your choice or the music supervisor’s or (director) Joe Dante’s. But whether that was your pick or not, that goes back a while, in terms of there being a connection.
You know, I’d have to look at the drafts, but I have to say that back then, I was very specific. I still am very specific, when I’m writing the script, to mention the music that should accompany the scene, if it’s appropriate. So I would say 95% (chance) of it was probably in one of the “Gremlins” drafts that I wrote. That song, you know, I still think it’s the best Christmas song ever recorded. But I don’t think anybody can really use it in a film anymore. It’s been used too many times. I think it needs a few years of retirement.
Phil Spector’s Christmas album has become everyone’s favorite over the years, but it wasn’t that ubiquitous in the early ‘80s. So at the time, it felt very novel to use a song from it in a film. And of course the opening line (“They’re singing ‘Deck the Halls’/But it’s not like Christmas at all”) was sort of a wink to the holiday dystopia about to come in “Gremlins.”
Yeah. I learned a lot in terms of music for me as a filmmaker from Martin Scorsese. And I’ll never forget seeing “Mean Streets” for the first time. When the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” comes on, it kind of changed my life. The way he used that particular song, something clicked in my head, where I said, “This is how you have to do it.” And I think Joe (Dante) did that with “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” in “Gremlins.” He cued it up perfectly, which is what it’s all about: Exactly where do you drop that needle in terms of the connection with what’s going on visually?
How did Kurt Russell feel about singing an old Christmas song in the first “Christmas Chronicles” and then going at it again with a new one in this sequel? Was he up for it both times?
Well, I think on the first film, there was more of a comfort level, because “Santa Claus is Back in Town” was an Elvis Presley song, and he had played Elvis [in director John Carpenter’s 1979 TV movie “Elvis.” He had already embodied that character, so that was very easy for him.
This was not written as an (Elvis-style song). Maybe Steve would disagree. I mean, there are certain moments in the song where he’s singing “it’s going to be all right” that are really connected to Elvis, and he got that. But the opening of the song was a lot different than “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” So Kurt and I had a long discussion about “What’s the voice behind this? We don’t want to do Elvis again throughout this whole song.” And I said, “It’s your portrayal of Santa Claus. This is Santa Claus singing this song.” So it’s got a different vibe at the beginning, and then it kind of morphs into more of an Elvis vibe halfway through the song.
It’s fun to see Darlene singing on screen because there just hasn’t been that much of that.
Yeah. And I love that she opens with a line from the Isley Brothers’ “Shout”: “Now, wait a minute…” I fell in love with the song at that moment. And there were five minutes left to go.
There’s something fascinating about movies that have a big musical number that aren’t actually full-on musicals. With “Christmas Chronicles,” when you’ve got Santa as the main character, there’s already some suspension of disbelief, so maybe it’s less difficult to pull off a musical number than if it came in the middle of a movie where supernatural things are not happening. But do you enjoy that aspect of having a musical number that is not in a movie that’s full of them?
Yeah. I look back on some of the films I’ve done, and it’s taken me a while to learn this about myself, but tonally, subconsciously, I like to mix it up. One specific tone throughout an entire film is not interesting to me. So for instance, “Home Alone” has a strong emotionality, and there’s a strong, emotional character moment between Kevin McCallister and Old Man Marley, and it pays off at the end of the film when Kevin realizes he’s responsible for bringing this family together. Contrast that with the fact that these ridiculous stunts are happening, like something out of a Warner Bros. cartoon. But for some reason, the audience responds to it.
So on “Christmas Chronicles 2,” it was important for me to include a musical number — not only because the audience loved it so much in the first movie, but because I thought, “Okay, that’s what the genre is right now.” I look back at something like the Marx Brothers, which I loved — there was always a musical interlude. Even as a kid, I loved that for no reason Chico would sit down and play the harp. And I even think in the Hope/Crosby movies, there were musical moments, for no reason. Last week Steve Van Zant and I were talking, and he said, “A few people in the press have asked me, why a musical number?” And he said, “Why not?” So I think that’s our philosophy: if it works story-wise, it’s certainly a fun moment for the audience.
STEVEN VAN ZANDT
Variety: Was it decided from the very beginning that the song you were working on for the new movie would be a duet between Kurt and Darlene?
Van Zandt: I’m not sure at what point Chris decided it would be a duet. Two years ago in “Christmas Chronicles 1” Kurt Russell did the great Lieber & Stoller/Elvis Presley Christmas song (“Santa Claus is Back in Town”) by himself. But this time he said, “Let’s change it up a little bit and have a duet.” And of course both of our favorite singers is Darlene Love. So we said, “Well, hey, it has to be her.” It was really obvious.
And of course it was the second time we did a Christmas song with Darlene Love. She’s the queen of Christmas, which goes back to her participation on the Phil Spector Christmas album, which is really a pivotal moment in Christmas music history. The Phil Spector album really changed and modernized, if you will, the whole concept of Christmas music. I think it’s become the standard now for our generation and succeeding generations, really. And she had the most famous song on that great album, “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).” And then she started doing the song on David Letterman for years, and that just solidified her position. So she was our first thought (in coming up with a song) on “Home Alone 2,” which was our first opportunity to work together.
Her voice and Kurt Russell’s are probably not the first most natural duet partners someone would think of.
[He laughs.] I mean, it’s like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans! Kurt’s so great, and he’s very, very humble, especially about his singing. He’s very self-conscious about it. So who do I pair him up with but the greatest living singer in the world? He was like, “Thanks a lot, pal. I really appreciate it.” It was funny. But it worked out great.
In talking with Chris Columbus about Kurt singing, he said, “Well, he, he did play Elvis” [back in 1979].
Right, and he did a good job with that. We felt there’s a bit of Elvis in Santa Claus. He’s sort of the Elvis Presley of mythology.
Are there any Easter eggs in the new song? “All Alone on Christmas” quoted briefly from “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).”
I threw in a little nod in “The Spirit of Christmas” to our first Christmas song, “All Alone on Christmas,” because in that first song I wrote for Darlene for “Home Alone 2,” she says “I wrote a letter to Santa Claus.” So I referred back to that in this song also.
You ended up doing a whole album with Darlene, much later.
Me and Chris both really loved the fact of introducing Darlene to a whole generation. We just did her very first album, “Introducing Darlene Love,” =six or so years ago.
Any chance you’ll do another one with her?
There’s always a chance of that. I’ve been wanting to do a Christmas album with her forever, and so we probably should at least do that, you know? Like I say, she is the queen of Christmas.
You had worked with her prior to writing “All Alone on Christmas” for her in 1992, right?
No. We had met all the way back in 1980 or ‘81. I don’t know if you saw that documentary “20 Feet from Stardom,” but she actually had left the business for some years, and then came back. I happened to be in L.A. the day she came back. Lou Adler had booked her at the Roxy, and me and Bruce were there in L.A., so I said, “Bruce, I know what we’re doing tonight.” And we went and caught what I think was the very first show of her rebirth. She actually did “Hungry Heart” that night, which was interesting; I think the single had been out, but I don’t even know if the “River” album had been out yet. Anyway, I talked to her and she said “What should I do? I want to come back into the business.” And I was like, “Well, I think L.A. is not exactly the right town for you. It just feels like you’re a New York kind of person. I think you need to be there; there’s going to be more work there.” So she moved to New York, man. And I was trying to find something to do with her, and I got her some gigs, and then she did very well on her own. She connected with various people, Paul Shaffer and a few others, and did a couple of off-Broadway shows and an on-Broadway show, and then got the gig as Danny Glover’s wife in the “Lethal Weapon” movies.
And I just kept trying to find a way to work with her, but the record companies weren’t interested. And I’m like, “Well, I mean, I’m not going to get her on the radio.” Because I didn’t have my own radio station yet. [Laughs.] Like I have now; I solved that problem. [Van Zandt has the Underground Garage channel on SiriusXM.] But I was searching for a way to work with her when Chris Columbus called, and I said, “Well, this is the perfect way to do it. Because we don’t have to worry about record companies. We don’t have to worry about radio. All we gotta worry about is having it work for the film. That, I know how to do.”
I’ll be forever thankful to Chris for making that opportunity. I did one other film with Chris. I wrote for him for a movie called “Nine Months” a song called “Time of Your Life,” which is one of my most important songs, actually. Chris brings out the best of me. Three of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, I’ve written for him. His energy and enthusiasm just inspire me. He’s just one of those guys who’s like he’s still 15 years old and just like discovering rock ‘n’ roll. He’s got that kind of enthusiasm, and so do I, when I tap it.
“All Alone on Christmas” is such a great song because it refers back to “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” but it also sounds very E Street as well as Spector, and then it has its own personality. And it fits in that tradition of slightly sad or lonely Christmas songs, even though it feels celebratory.
Yeah. I wanted all those things you just mentioned. I wanted it to be familiar, but obviously its own thing, and so you walk that line. Bruce at that point had let the E Street Band go, so I figured, let me grab whoever’s around, and most of them were around, in town, so I was able to use them.
And it’s the biggest challenge of my life, probably — musically, so far, anyway. Because writing a song is one thing. Writing a Christmas song, you are competing with history, with songs that are absolutely embedded in the worldwide consciousness. And that was the biggest challenge I’ve ever met, I think. I’m prouder of that song than anything else I’ve ever written, because I really did rise to the challenge and show up with something good. And I wanted to slip a little substance in there. Because my life has been writing about substantive issues, and I put a little bit in there about homelessness — just saying that this year, Christmas is bittersweet because there’s mothers and children in the street. Yes, we always have something to celebrate about, but at the same time, we need to be looking out for our neighbors and trying to be aware of the people who don’t have so much to celebrate.
Chris raises my game. But working with Darlene really raises your game, because I literally feel like she’s the greatest singer in the world. So you want to make sure that the records are living up to her standard.
She just did a terrific Christmas pay-per-view special, and you have to look up to make sure she is 79 when you’re watching that, because that doesn’t seem possible.
I know, I know. I mean, I think rock ‘n’ roll has completely changed the concept of chronological time. I really do. I know seven or eight people personally in their 80s who are working. Dion just did the best album of his life, and he’s 81. I just think 80 is the new 50, you know. It’s just some weird phenomenon that’s going on here, where I don’t think chronological time matters anymore.
(To read Variety’s Q&A with Love, click here.)