Studios are adapting everything into movies. They’re adapting novels, short stories, and old cartoons. They’re adapting comic books once a week. They’re even adapting toys and candy. But one seemingly obvious inspirational resource has remained suspiciously untapped, one of the oldest and purist forms of storytelling in the history of civilization: songs. It’s bound to happen, so we’re getting a headstart on things. (If it’s going to become a trend, we can at least try to do it right.) I’m going to go first and provide songs right from my Spotify playlist that I think would make amazing films. Feel free to share your suggestions (and your playlists) with me.
“Billy Dee” – 13Ghosts
Delivered atop a twisting, fragmented arrangement that recalls the gritty guitar solos of bluesy southern rock jam sessions, Bradley Armstrong’s lyrics call to mind the most vicious work of Harry Crews. The entire composition is infused with literary energy, as two blue-collar, drug-hardened friends clash the affection of Curly Sue, daughter of a local minister, in a contest that climaxes with a brawl on the courtroom steps (overseen by the local sheriff) and a tragic epilogue. This song unfolds in calloused poetry, both in the way Billy speaks (“I’d sing you a sad song if I thought you could hear it, man”) and in the description of the events (“Billy laughed hard, like a dead man choking on a mouthful of dirt”) while tension and danger are eminent in every note, every tempo change, and every dropout.
Filmmaking Tips: This sort of distinct regionalism requires a director who isn’t afraid to get dirt under his fingernails, someone like Shotgun Stories Director Jeff Nichols.
Song: Skybucket Records
“Hold On” – Tom Waits
Tom Waits’ heartfelt lyrical plea makes for one of the most sincere love songs in the Western rock canon. “Hold On” tells the story of two lovers who defy small town expectations to live a life of wandering, never setting their stake to the soil, and settling for a home in one another’s hearts. This simple, honest investigation of love is too seldom spoken toward in cinematic testimonials, which more frequently subscribe to the melodramatic pursuits of happily-ever-after love (Nicholas Sparks adaptations) or choose to paint the everyday decision required of lifetime partnership in cynical indie tones (Blue Valentine, Revolutionary Road). Waits’ gravely semi-narrative makes for the perfect opportunity to investigate that compromised romantic ground.
Filmmaking tips: This adaptation would be a great pet project for frequent Waits collaborator Jim Jarmusch, who has a knack for finding screen magic in the simple and mundane, but one has to expect at least a few lines of narration made available for Waits to perform.
Song/Video: Tom Waits, Epitaph Records
“Jesse Got Trapped in a Coal Mine” – Goodnight, Texas
Goodnight, Texas is an up-and-coming band with members from North Carolina and San Francisco, named for a town that sits precisely in the middle of those two coastal locales, singing a song about a tragedy near the Maxon-Dixon line, and their Americana, folk sound has its pulse on the heartbeat of all the land in between. Of course, filming a movie about centered on a coal mining tragedy comes with distinct challenges (namely, it’s pitch black inside of a mine). But narratively, coal mining could serve as a narrative device rich with metaphor (the blackness, the alluded to “opium-den” addiction of the miners) and loaded with contemporary cultural significance (coal mining currently sits at the front lines of environmental and corporate American battles). All of these things could really elevate this song’s simple but heartbreaking narrative, about a mine collapse that steals a young couple’s wedding and life plans.
Filmmaker Tips: This seems well-suited for an adaptation by Scott Cooper, whose comparable dramatic, Americana influence is on display in both Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace.
Song/Video: Goodnight, Texas, Tallest Man Records
“Sadie” – Alkaline Trio
With their trademark twist of campy provocation, Alkaline Trio penned “Sadie” as something of a love letter to notorious Manson murderer Susan Atkins. Co-lead singer Matt Skiba infuses vocals with a sense of adoration, a distinct affection supported by the softened punk rock ballad playing behind. The chilling juxtaposition of content and style is punctuated by the inclusion of an actual quote from Atkins: “He represented a God to me that was so beautiful that I’d do anything for him. I’d do anything for God. Even murder, if I believed it was right. How could it not be right if it is done with love? I have no remorse for doing what was right to me.”
Filmmaking Tips: The song’s shockingly sympathetic (or enamored) tone might translate to a chilling but useful horror film, an exposed cinematic nerve that musician-turned-director Rob Zombie, who shares with the band a love for all things horror, directly touched in 2005 with The Devil’s Rejects.
Album Cover: Interscope
The Rodeo Saga: “The Fever,” “Rodeo,” “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old),” “Beaches of Cheyenne” – Garth Brooks
I know, I am totally cheating a dozen ways here. While often dismissed by Country purists for his Pop-Country sensibilities, Garth Brooks stands out as one of the great musical storytellers of his or any generation. And three things Garth liked to tell stories about: infidelity, gleeful alcohol consumption, and that “damned old rodeo.” And hidden in his four big rodeo hits is the breakthrough movie script we are looking for. Pair “Rodeo” with “Beaches of Cheyenne” and then pair “The Fever” with “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” and you have yourself an epic saga of two complete character sketches of young rodeo stars, one Texan and one Californian, perhaps rivals, beaten into submission by the addictive adrenaline rush and the migratory, rockstar lifestyle offered by the professional rodeo circuit.
Filmmaking tips: Channing Tatum. Ryan Gosling. Double Oscar.
Album Cover: Capitol Records
“Fire at the Pageant” – The Felice Brothers
To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what is going on in this raucous barefoot anthem from Catskills Mountains quartet The Felice Brothers. But, there’s something effortlessly cinematic about the eerie blend of their revivalist folk-influence sound and the passively supernatural story. What’s clear: the song tells of an apparent zombie father who “won’t stay in the ground,” his distraught family, and a fire at the pageant. With those three elements alone, there is an astounding horror movie to be found.
Filmmaking Tips: The band filmed their own disturbing video for the song (above), one that establishes an uneasy tone, which could be borrowed by Director Jim Mickle whose 2014 remake of We Are What We Are showcases the precise blend of Appalachian gothic and absurd horror to match the song.
Song/Video: The Felice Brothers, Fat Possum
“Fields of Athenry” – Pete St. John
Originally written in the 1970s by Pete St. John, Fields of Athenry tells the story of Michael, a man convicted and sentenced for stealing corn to feed his family. The lyrics contextualize the ballad historically by describing the stolen food as “Trevelyan’s corn,” a reference to a 19th Century British social servant who famously stated that the Irish could survive on corn, a crop with which the Irish folk were unfamiliar. In a most egregious exhibition of oppression, Trevalyan arranged for the delivery of an un-consumable Indian corn shipment to the island. The uncookable corn was placed in storage where starving residents who didn’t know of its uselessness broke in to steal it and were convicted for their desperate crime. “The Fields of Athenry” is a song rich in the tradition of the proud Irish spirit. Any doubts toward the song’s inherent power might be best answered by the goosebump-inducing bonus video below, uploaded to YoutTube by Dan Kerins, in which thousands of Irish soccer fans sing the ballad in unison to support their losing team.
Filmmaking Tip: Wouldn’t this be a great late-life project from the already legendary Ken Loach?
Initial Song/Video: Dropkick Murphys, Epitaph Records
“Fancy” – Bobbie Gentry
Though the song is probably more famous through Reba McEntire’s soulful 1991 cover, Gentry’s orginal 1970 performance is the most honest and biting, and the most decipherable in its message. “Fancy” tells the story of a down-on-her-luck, working class mother who puts everything she has into a dress for her teen daughter before encouraging her daughter to take her “one chance” at a local dance. This is thematically rich work, a parable of generational feminine empowerment, where a mother leads her daughter to find her own agency by any means, a surprisingly liberal call for her to own her sexual identity and employ it to her own journey toward the things which have been kept from the family. Later versus explore the outcomes for both mother and daughter, establishing a narrative of self-sacrifice on the part of the mother so that her daughter can do as instructed: “To thine own self be true.”
Filmmaking Tips: Dear God, Hollywood, if you put a male director on this when Jane Campion is available…
Album Cover: Capitol Records
“My Michelle” – Guns n’ Roses
Nearly 30 years later and there still hasn’t been a movie which has directly investigated rock history’s most dangerous and scary stretch. If we aren’t going to shoot for the fences and finally make the Appetite for Destruction rock opera, then, for me, the best entry point to the era is this song, the narrative about a young girl living a life of such debauchery that even the era’s trademark wildcard has to voice his concern through song. It’s contextually clear that Michelle lives on the hardest edge of late-Century Los Angeles because her broken background (her “daddy works in porno now that mommy’s not around”) has never given her a model in which domesticity, sobriety, and monogamy were of any advantage. She engages in hedonistic pursuits so extreme that she hypothetically domesticates her famous suitor, whose hyper-masculinity lends him to lyrically believe that she’s a tame-able possession, even when it’s evident that she’s not.
Filmmaker: I think the raw energy of the music and setting might require an up-and-coming director, but your best bet for the titular Michelle would be Kristen Stewart, really the only young actress capable of not just keeping up with but neutering the world’s last and most famous cock rocker.
Album Cover: Geffen Records
“Searching for a Former Clarity” – Against Me!
Against Me!’s 2005 album marked their first full departure from their anarcho-folk roots that made them legendary, and yet, the titular track might have been the barest of all their songs up until that point, both in terms of lyrical content and composition. The song works as a second person confessional detailing an unnamed musician’s struggle with an unspecified illness and the reflection of his/her life from within that condition. From its very first line, “Searching for a Former Clarity” cuts deep. Riding the steady tempo of an almost naked drumbeat, like a heart trying to keep itself calm, later lines (namely those in which the focal character recalls journal entries) suggest singer Laura Jane Grace may have been embedding lines that were both literally and metaphorically biographical, and whether that interpretation is true or false, the song ends up feeling boldly personal. Ultimately, the central musician leaves everything on stage with harrowing last words, establishing the short song as one that explores the artist’s exchange of identity for legacy, trading life for art.
Filmmaking tips: Steve McQueen and the star of his choosing are all that’s needed to make this work.
Song: Against Me!, Fat Wreck Chords
BONUS ALBUM: “Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left of Them” – Murder by Death
Murder by Death is a very cinematic band. Just about any of their individual songs could have found its way onto this list. But the best adaptation available in their library has to be their entire 2003 concept album “Who Will Survive and What Will be Left of Them.” The album, built with a grass roots rock centerpiece decorated in the haunting contributions of cellist Sarah Balliet and then-pianist Vincent Edwards, tells the story of a small Mexican mining village going to war with the Devil. Each song feels like a separate scene, tinged with its own atmosphere: the opening a distinct throwback to old-timey Western films and later songs given the feel of more contemplative dramas, intense horrors, and in-your-face thrillers. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Adam Turla’s lyrical narrative (backed by the likes of William Elliot Whitmore and Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance) is the sense of humanness alloted to this showdown and to the devil himself (“Lord knows the devil, he only talks shit, and he only drinks whiskey from a jar.”). At just over 42 minutes, this album still feels like something epic, as could a film adaptation, given the right players.
Filmmaking tip: Michael Pena needs more roles, so there’s your hero, and I’d give anything to have Jake Gyllenhaal playing a cowboy-clad devil hissing lines like “I’ll leave a trail of fire across this desert, just to see the desperation in your eyes.”
Song/Video: Murder by Death, Eyeball Records