The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

5 October 2003

Themes with variations

In 1957, MGM's musicals unit remade the 1939 Ernst Lubitsch classic Ninotchka with a Cole Porter score. In Silk Stockings, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, Soviet composer Peter Ilyich Boroff (Wim Sonneveld) is hanging out in Paris with an American film producer (Fred Astaire), who plans to rework Boroff's socialistically-realistic Ode to a Tractor into a song for a Hollywood picture; the Kremlin dispatches three knuckleheads to retrieve Boroff from the the evil capitalists, and when the operatives, too, seem to have been seduced by the City of Lights, the deadly serious Nina Yoshenko — Cyd Charisse, with a Russian accent indistinguishable from her Scottish burr in Brigadoon, three years earlier, and who cares? — must salvage both the mission and the pride of the Soviet Union.

Boroff, once he heard the Hollywood version — with lyrics, yet! — was appalled, one reason why reworkings of these themes usually involve pieces by dead composers. (The other reason, very much related, is that if they've been dead long enough, the original work is out of copyright and therefore in the public domain.) The possibly-pseudonymous Ostin Allegro was no doubt aware of this when he put together Pop Meets the Classics, a guide to British hits (many also charting in North America) which draw from classical sources. Most of these I knew, and there are a couple which were not hits in the UK which I also know — one that comes to mind is "For Elise", a discofied Beethoven number played by "The Philharmonics" which occupied the bottom of Billboard's Hot 100 for one week in 1977 — but it's still startling to see how often composers of popular music have turned to the classics for themes, even today.

Scarily, I now have to track down a copy of S Club 7's "Natural", which, says Ostin, is based on Gabriel Fauré's Pavane, if only to see how it differs from the jazzy reworking of the same piece on Befour, a much-cherished (by me, anyway) early-Seventies album by Brian Auger and the Trinity.

Posted at 10:35 PM to Tongue and Groove