Welcome to Wild Card Wednesday! Today I’m going to talk about what I think makes a good remake. I will mostly use song covers to illustrate my point, but I’ll also talk about a movie or two.
My regular readers are aware of the original vs. remake series I do with Tiffany A. White. Usually, I do the original and Tiffany does the remake.
There are several reasons for this:
- I genuinely enjoy old movies. It’s like traveling back in time. Everybody is well dressed and well mannered. Because I antique, I love the sets. Sometimes I even see furniture that is just like a piece I have.
- The original has a special magic–a fresh idea, the right set of actors, the perfect director. Sometimes this combination can’t be matched.
- I am a grinch about remakes (and about many other things). Many remakes are nothing more than a regurgitation of the original. There’s nothing new, nothing unique–unless you count seeing the latest fashions and hearing a different soundtrack.
Number three brings us to the reason for this post. Not all remakes are made of the brown stinky. Some of them really put a new spin on an old idea. I see this more often with songs than I do with movies, so I’ll show you what I mean with a few songs.
Chris Isaac’s song “Wicked Game” got a great deal of exposure when it was used in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. “Wicked Game” fit into the soundtrack of Wild at Heart like a missing puzzle piece.
Chris Isaac’s voice sounds like a cross between Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison. In “Wicked Game,” Isaac wails about lost love and a broken heart to hauntingly beautiful music.
Chris Isaac’s “Wicked Game” was the only version I knew for many years. One day, I found a cover version by a band I’d never heard of called H.I.M. I listened, expecting to be undewhelmed, but I was impressed.
The heavy metal version of Chris Isaac’s beautiful song is passionate, heartreaking–everything the Isaac version was. But it’s different enough to be a whole different song.
To me, that is what a real remake is. It takes what was great about the original and expands on it, stretches it, and reinvents it.
“Sweet Jane” originally appeared on Velvet Underground’s 1970 album Loaded. If you’re saying, “Wait a minute. That’s an old Lou Reed song,” you’re right. Lou Reed was a member of Velvet Underground.
Velvet Underground’s version of “Sweet Jane” is a rocking song. The carefully written lyrics are almost overpowered by the driving chorus and the guitar riff.
Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” is a song I love to jam to when I’m driving. Give it a listen:
In 1988, the Cowboy Junkies covered “Sweet Jane” on the Trinity Sessions album. In 1994, the Cowboy Junkies’ version of “Sweet Jane” was used on the soundtrack of the movie Natural Born Killers.
The Cowboy Junkie’s version of “Sweet Jane” is everything Velvet Underground’s version is not. It is romantic. It forces you to digest the lyrics. It is poignant and seductive and kind of dark.
I don’t jam to it when I drive, but I do love this version of “Sweet Jane.”
“Personal Jesus” is a song originally recorded by Depeche Mode in 1989. It was from the album Violator.
The song was inspired by Priscilla Presley’s book Elvis and Me, which was about Priscilla’s relationship with the King.
Depeche Mode’s version of “Personal Jesus” reminds me of New Wave music, even though it was released in 1989. Take a listen:
Johnny Cash was both an interesting individual and an excellent musician. His song song covers were sublime. Johnny Cash understood how to cover a song and knew that the right way wasn’t just to copy it. Cash’s covers of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” and his cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” are two of the coolest, most unique song covers.
Johnny Cash covered “Personal Jesus” in 2002 for his Amercian IV album. Red Hot Chili Pepper’s guitarist, John Frusciante created the acoustic blues arrangement. Mike Campbell (from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) also plays guitar on this song.
This is my all time favorite of Johnny Cash’s covers. Listen for yourself:
Don’t Fear the Reaper
“Don’t Fear the Reaper” originally appeared on Blue Öyster Cult’s 1976 album Agents of Fortune.
The songwriter, Brian “Buck Dharma” Roeser, says “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is about the foolishness of fearing death because we all die eventually. The song is often mistaken to be about murder-suicide pacts because it mentions Romeo and Juliet, but Roeser says he used Shakespeare’s star crossed lovers as an example of a couple who believed they’d meet up in the afterlife.
“Don’t Fear the Reaper” is well known for its distinctive guitar solo and for its use of cowbell. It’s fast paced and one of the songs I jam to while I drive around.
Take a listen:
Gus (AKA Gus Black, AKA Anthony Penaloza) covered “Don’t Fear the Reaper” for the soundtrack of the 1996 film Scream. Gus’s version of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” also appeared in an episode of Smallville and in the film The Howling: Reborn.
The amazing Blue Oyster Cult guitar solo is missing, but the soul of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is all there. Like the original, Gus’s cover of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is haunting and memorable. But it is very different, almost a whole new song.
Tributes vs. Copies
The versatility of music makes it possible for a tribute song to hold the same power as the original–even though it is just a copy. Staind’s cover of “Nutshell” (by Alice in Chains) is an example of this. I can love Alice in Chains’s version but still sense the heartfelt sincerity of Staind’s cover.
(And, besides, “Nutshell” is one of my personal anthems.)
The faithful copy/tribute doesn’t work for me in movies, no matter how heartfelt. Gus Van Sant’s version of Psycho–I believe–was a sort of tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. It just didn’t come together. I kept thinking, “Okay. Show me the money.” I knew Van Sant was capable of masterful moviemaking because Drugstore Cowboy is such an amazing movie.
If I’m going to see a tribute, I like Quentin Tarantino’s style best. Death Proof is made to replicate the grindhouse theater experience. Jackie Brown pays homage to the blaxploitation films of the 70s. But they are their own stories.
[Fun factoid: Jackie Brown was based on an Elmore Leonard novel–Rum Punch. Tarantino did an amazing job of making the adaptation his own creation. It wasn’t just a copy of Mr. Leonard’s book.]
What I Want to See in a Cinematic Remake
In short, I want to see something different, something I’ve never seen before and can’t see anywhere else.
The 2005 remake of House of Wax blew me away. The original 1953 version was released in 3-D–which was a big deal at that time. It showed more of the backstory of how the villain became the villain. The remake took the basic idea of the original, ran with it, and ended up with a slasher/wrong turn flick.
(And Paris Hilton died magnificently.)
The 1983 remake of Scarface is still one of my favorite movies. The 1932 original was based on a book by the same name. It loosely followed the life of Al Capone. The original has a very similar storyline to the 1983 remake. It’s about mobsters fighting for power in South Side Chicago.
[Fun factoid: Al Capone supposedly liked this movie so well that he owned a copy of of it.]
The 1983 remake is about the rise and fall of a Cuban cocaine kingpin in Miami, Florida. It has a totally different feel than the 1932 classic. Al Pacino helps make 1983’s Scarface wonderful. He’s a dynamo of an actor.
Rumor has it that Universal is planning to remake Scarface…again.
Eli Roth–the creator of Hostel–was set to remake The Bad Seed (1956). He has not yet done the remake, but I think it would be worth watching. He has an interesting vision.