Looking back, the Popeye movie shouldn’t have happened. Between its notoriously maverick director Robert Altman, a soundtrack by an enigmatic, binge-happy songwriter, and legendarily rampant drug use from everyone on set from Robin Williams on down to pretty much everyone, it’s a miracle that the movie came to fruition. Disney was a co-producer, and we can’t imagine that this is how, say, Pete’s Dragon came to be.
But somehow, all the pieces came together for the 1980 musical version of Popeye. Holding those pieces in place was Hollywood legend Robert Evans who had also greenlit The Godfather and Rosemary’s Baby amongst many, many others, as head of production at Paramount.
In hindsight we can see what a genius Williams was and how his casting was inspired. At the time he was a wildcard tackling his first film role. Similarly, Altman was in a period of low cachet. Despite critical success, M*A*S*H and Nashville were years behind him, and his resurgence was still on the horizon.
Into this mix, Evans and Altman brought Harry Nilsson. Like Altman, Nilsson was a famously offbeat genius who hadn’t had a hit in a while. After a string of brilliant but poorly-received followups to his smash Nilsson Schmilsson in 1970, he was free from his record label and not doing much of anything.
In some ways, it is hard to conceive of a potentially more anti-Hollywood grouping. It’s certainly not what you’d expect from a major production at the time.
In addition to the songs Nilsson wrote for the film, this 2-CD set includes his original demos. It also has previously-unreleased soundtrack material by Thomas Pierson, and Nilsson songs that went unused in the final film.
Upon listening to this soundtrack again, for the first time in quite awhile, what comes through immediately is the great craft Nilsson brings to the table. In most cases, the material holds up in its own right, without needing the film for context. Some of the songs do work better with the film, but this combination is an enhancement rather than a necessity.
Looking back, Nilsson and Altman were probably the perfect team. Both were more committed to the art than to the business, and both were considered outsiders in many ways. If it weren’t Nilsson writing these songs, the obvious choices would be his great friend Paul Williams, or Randy Newman, who Nilsson greatly respected. You can hear similar threads to their work in this material, and it brings to mind Paul Williams’ approach to Bugsy Malone, the great 1976 film by Alan Parker.
Instrumentally, Nilsson chooses a folk underpinning, embellished with orchestral elements over the top. Piano, Banjo, hornpipes, and modern drums sit alongside massed violins and timpani with ease. This gives it the perfect feel for the port town of “Sweethaven” in the film, and marries it well with the suitable evocative score by Thomas Pierson.
The demo material reveals interesting aspects of Nilsson’s writing process. It’s also a glimpse at the state of his voice at the time, which he had damaged earlier in the 70s. It also shows how much his craft is intact, and how masterful he is in the studio.
Some of the demos are nearly-complete songs. Others seem almost like sketches, with words missing and melodies not yet confirmed. The renditions of ‘He Needs Me’, are especially interesting, particularly one with Nilsson guiding Shelley Duvall through the song.
Overall, this is an interesting release. Like the film, it reveals a far greater success than was recognised at the time. If this had just been a re-release of the soundtrack, it might not have been as impressive. But with the wealth of demo material, this becomes a much more desirable album.