It’s not easy, is it? The world of music and movies used to be so intertwined, with chart-topping hits spinning off of blockbuster movies like nobody’s business. 1984 was a great year for that, with Purple Rain, Footloose, Ghostbusters and even The Woman in Red yielding high-selling, award-winning singles. Today, though? The most recent soundtrack hit I can think of might be Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway,” and nobody remembers it came from the soundtrack to 2004’s The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement before Clarkson put it out on her album of the same name.
Today’s Friday Feature – the first in far too long – focuses on an ’80s soundtrack that yielded a pair of great hits…although only one of them appeared on the accompanying album. It’s not a classic by any means, but it combines the artistry of modern dance – too often overlooked in contemporary film – with political topicality of the age.
Read on for always about White Nights after the jump. That’s the way it should be.For many Americans in the twilight years of the Soviet Union, there was nothing more encouraging than hearing freedom-loving Easterners defecting to democratic countries in pursuit of their dreams. Mikhail Nikolaevich Baryshnikov was one of those defectors in the early ’70s. The Latvia-born Baryshnikov was a celebrated dancer the world over – Clive Barnes of The New York Times called him “the most perfect dancer I have ever seen” – but his career only became more notable when, while on tour with the Bolshoi Ballet in Canada in 1974, he was granted political asylum and announced his intention to not return to the USSR. His motives were less political than professional; he sought to work with Western choreographers, and did so prodigiously, freelancing with other companies before joining first the New York City Ballet and then the American Ballet Theatre (he later became that company’s artistic director).
White Nights sort of drew on that experience for Baryshnikov’s character, Nikolai Rodchenko – whose plane to Tokyo is forced to land in Siberia – but it added some interesting contrast by making the other protagonist a defector in the opposite direction. For the role of Raymond Greenwood, an American tap dancer who oversees Rodchenko’s “stay” in his former home country, Tony and Emmy-nominated dancer/actor Gregory Hines was tapped. The unlikely duo made a killer pair of dancers onscreen, and the choreography, primarily overseen by Twyla Tharp, was quite literally hot to trot.
While the film boasted an atmospheric synth score by Michel Colombier (who had lent the same kind of airy cues to Purple Rain a year earlier), the film’s musical legacy lies with its pop soundtrack, released on Atlantic Records in 1985. There are quite a few unusual tracks by otherwise notable artists, including solo tracks by Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant, David Pack of Ambrosia, Lou Reed, Chaka Khan, Roberta Flack and Nile Rodgers. But the anchor was “Separate Lives,” the heartrending ballad written by Stephen Bishop (who sung another ’80s soundtrack hit, “It Might Be You” from Tootsie (1982)) and performed by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin.
Though the breakup-themed lyrical content was classic Collins, Bishop’s influence was actually his own crumbled relationship with actress Karen Allen. Between the universally-understood ache of the song itself, and the surprisingly reserved production by Collins and Arif Mardin (some of the least bombastic drums on a Collins track), it was a megahit on each side of the Atlantic, topping the U.S. charts and going Top 5 in the U.K. and receiving an Oscar nomination. (The single – Virgin VS-818 (U.K.)/Atlantic 7-89498 (U.S.) – was backed by a track from Collins’ No Jacket Required, either “I Don’t Wanna Know” or “Only You Know and I Know.” The U.K. 12″ included an otherwise unavailable extended mix of the latter track, which appears on the 12″ers compilation from 1987.)
But “Separate Lives” would lose the Oscar to another massive hit from White Nights – one that was so big, it didn’t appear on the soundtrack! Alright, that may be pushing it, but Lionel Richie’s heartwarming ballad “Say You, Say Me” was also a U.S. chart-topper and a Top 10 U.K. hit. Its exclusion from the full soundtrack was simple: Richie had just cut one of Motown’s biggest successes, Can’t Slow Down (1983), which yielded five Top 10 singles (including No. 1’s “All Night Long (All Night)” and “Hello”) and earned him a Grammy for Album of the Year. There was no way his follow-up would get farmed out to another label. So Motown released a standalone single (1819 MF (U.S.)/ZT 40422 (U.K.)) and appended it to the end of Richie’s next album, 1986’s Dancing on the Ceiling.
Various Artists, White Nights: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Atlantic 81273-1-E, 1985)
- Separate Lives – Phil Collins & Marilyn Martin
- Prove Me Wrong – David Pack
- Far Post – Robert Plant
- “People on a String” – Roberta Flack
- This is Your Day” – Nile Rodgers & Sandy Stewart
- Snake Charmer – John Hiatt
- The Other Side of the World – Chaka Khan
- My Love Is Chemical – Lou Reed
- Tapdance – David Foster
- People Have Got to Move – Jenny Burton