In a Newton-Leibniz moment of simultaneous inspiration, both Rian Johnson and James Ponsoldt snuck a relatively obscure 38 year old folk-rock song into their terrific films Looper and Smashed. With both coming off a successful play at TIFF 2012, I therefore declare Richard and Linda Thompson's “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” to be THE new anthem for film lovers with distinguished taste. I expect limited edition art prints glorifying the song and every hipster to make this their new karaoke jam.
I had the good fortune to speak with Johnson, Ponsoltdt and, of particular excitement to this longtime fan, the song's author and co-performer Richard Thompson. First, though, an introduction to Thompson for those who may not be aware of his work.
RT has been on the rock, folk and folk-rock scene since the late 1960s. He may not be a household name but he has quite a devoted following. A tribute album featuring R.E.M, David Byrne and Dinosaur Jr. came out in 1994. He was a founding member of the band Fairport Convention, which was among the first groups to take some of ye olde British folk tunes and present them in a rock context. Fairport Convention influenced bands like Jethro Tull, Pentangle, Steelye Span and, yes, Led Zeppelin. Indeed, Fairport Convention's female vocalist, Sandy Denny, is the additional voice you hear on "The Battle of Evermore" on Led Zeppelin IV. (If you are blanking on the name, that's the song that goes "Oohh now, oh now, oh now, oh, oh now, oh now, oh now, bring it, bring it, bring it, bring iiiit, bring iiiit, bringyaaa, bringyaaa, bringyaaa, bubrinngyaaa, bneaaaah, bneaaaaaah, bneaaaaaaaaaaah, oh!")
Here's my favorite song "Matty Groves," off their best album Liege and Lief from 1969. I strongly suggest cranking it toward the end and air drumming as you dig those thunderous guitar licks.
Today Richard Thompson is a solo act, pumping out songs that are at once catchy, upbeat and fun as well as haunting and beautiful. His guitar playing is extremely unique, rooted more in the classical tradition than in blues, and when he plugs in he works in both fretwork pyrotechnics as well as glorious sheets of sound. There's also no shortage of, for lack of a better expression, a Monty Python-esque humor that pops up from time to time. Here are some examples of each of those aspects.
"Cocksferry Queen," is, for me, the typical great RT song. Catchy, great guitar, anthemic. It's on the 1999 album Mock Tudor and this clip is from a show that looks like an SNL parody of a British television show.
For ballads, the big fan favorite, and the one that may've been on most of my mid-90s mixed tapes, is "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," originally on the 1991 album Rumor and Sigh. This one's a real emotional workout and you can get a good sense of his acoustic guitar playing here.
RT's live performances are very warm, entertaining affairs. This good humor is more than evident in his album 1000 Years of Popular Music. In it he covers ancient Italian ballads, negro spirituals, Henry Purcell, Stephen Foster, Hoagy Carmichael and Prince. Who am I to deny you his version of “Oops, I Did It Again”?
Between Fairport Convention and now(ish) he had a creative stride that may be his most lasting. Teaming up with his then wife, the duo “Richard and Linda Thompson” put out one of the all time perfect albums Shoot Out The Lights. Rolling Stone Magazine called it the 9th greatest album of the 1980s, if that means anything to you.
For my money it is the greatest break-up record of all time. More than even Blood on the Tracks because this one has Thomspon's furious guitar playing. Feel the anger and frustration evident at the end of this, the title track. The sentiment is no joke: Richard and Linda broke up in 1982 at the conclusion of the tour.
A lesser-known album from this era (which also has the word "Lights" in it) is 1974's I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. It's hardly the first CD I grab when I want to get a fix, but one track, the title track, has always been among my favorites.
It was one of the ones Linda sang, and it's a plea from a woman to a would-be boyfriend to take her out for an unforgettable night. It has a grinding beat, great opening guitar riff and the bad girl lyrics include “Meet me at the station don't be late/I need to spend some money and it just won't wait” and “A couple of drunken nights rolling on the floor/Is just the kind of mess I'm looking for.” Commenting on this self-aware, self-destructive attitude is a quite strange (yet strangely fitting) musical line of marching band horns.
The song is certainly appropriate for the moment when Mary Elizabeth Winstead's character in Smashed decides to hop in a strange woman's car, smoke crack and end up sleeping beneath a highway overpass. It's a sad moment for us in the audience – we know she's making a rough decision – however the song is very up, and, at least on the surface, Winstead is having an awesome night.
“That's exactly what I love about the song,” Smashed director James Ponsoldt says. “I was pretty clear from early on that I wanted [music] cues to play in counterpoint to the emotion of the scenes (not always, but frequently). No reason to underline the emotion, you know? It just seems more interesting to muddy the emotional waters. I also never wanted to pass moral judgment over a character's choices (and a lot of times it seems like music in movies is used in an insanely clunky and manipulative way -- which is pretty boring to me).”
You'd think a science fiction time travel film like Looper wouldn't have much use for a song like this, but when Joseph Gordon-Levitt spends time with Piper Perabo in a brothel (the oldest profession lives!) this is the needle-drop we get.
“It fit perfectly with the scene in Looper between Piper Perabo's character Suzie and Joe, which has all the eye candy of a boudoir fantasy but is really about this deep lonely lack of an emotional connection,” director Rian Johnson says. “All the individual elements of it are 'fun' - the horns, the lyrics (on the surface at least), the jaunty tune, but they all come together to form something crushingly sad. Linda's voice has a glazed distance to it, like there's some thick gauze between her and these good times she's singing about.”
Clearly something about this fairly obscure song (recorded when the directors were either infants or paternal gleams) resonates over the years. I asked Richard Thompson if they knew back then this one would have staying power.
“This was considered by us and the record company to be the ‘single’ from the album. It got some airplay, and reached about #40 on the charts, but was probably too quirky and ‘English’ to do better. It was top 5 in South Africa, recorded by Julie Covington.” Thompson says. He was also quite unaware of the upcoming coincidence of the two films. Or he was told and he forgot. “There is a steady trickle of songs used in film and TV. If it’s in the new Spielberg, they’ll probably tell me. For independent films, the publisher usually cuts a cheap deal on the license,” he says.
I asked if he was surprised the same tune would be used in a sci-fi adventure, the other in an indie drama.
“It is so hard to tell what will work and what won’t in a scene. Vaughan Williams said something to the effect that you slave away writing a cue for the big love scene, then they go and use it for the battle scene – but it’s amazing how well it works there! There is also the phenomenon of temporary cues, that the director puts in until the soundtrack is written – and then falls in love with the temp track.”
That was certainly not the case here. Ponsoldt says the idea for the song came on early in editing, and he sicced his music supervisor to try and get the rights cheaply. Johnson says he's been a fan of Thompson for years after first getting a mixed tape from a friend, the writer and musician Sarah Shay.
The big question, of course, is how pissed off the two directors are at one another for stealing the other's thunder.
“Not at all!” Ponsoldt claims. “I interviewed Rian about Looper for Filmmaker magazine in June. I was blown away by the movie -- and was definitely (pleasantly) surprised when the the song popped up in his film. Rian is a brilliant filmmaker and he has great taste (he's one of the world's biggest fans of the The Mountain Goats!)”
Rian's take is a little more believable. “I should probably hunt him down and Highlander his ass, shouting "there can be only one!" he jokes.
Despite the original female vocalist, Richard still plays the song in concert. “It’s fun to play solo and with a band. UK audiences have a nostalgic attachment to it, but for many shows it’s an upbeat, up tempo song that goes down well.”
Here's a version from just a few weeks ago.
Culture warriors - now the power is in your hands. Two incidents is a good start, but we need more to make a mandate. If this is the anthem of now, we have to sing it out loud. Please upload your solo guitar, barber shop or jazz fusion versions of the song and link them below.