Last week, All Is by My Side, a Jimi Hendrix biopic starring Andre Benjamin (formerly one-half of Outkast) in the lead role was announced as officially happening, with various elements of production already in place. A little later last week, Experience Hendrix, LLC, “the family-owned company entrusted with safeguarding the legacy” of the legendary rock musician, announced that said biopic would not feature any of Hendrix’s original recordings or copyrighted works. Naturally, this leaves open the question of how, exactly, will music be handled in the film, though one suspects that Benjamin wouldn’t have been cast if writer/director John Ridley didn’t have use for the former Outkast member’s vocal talents. Hendrix won’t be getting the Ray treatment, obviously, but will All Is by My Side feature in-character, mise-en-scene covers ala Walk the Line or instead will it go for the more inspired-by-on-the-soundtrack route of I’m Not Here?
Only time will tell if the movie’s final quality is any good, but it’s already off to a rocky start, which may be a fairly apt metaphor for Hendrix’s short life. It isn’t helped by the fact that very few cover songs live up to, much less exceed, the quality of the originals — and movie cover songs are an even less likely wager. But if this is the only way to hear Andre 3000 cover Jimi Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” I’ll take what I can get. Literally any thing would be better than whatever the hell that was in the last season of “Battlestar Galactica.” While I won’t expect to be wowed, there’s still hope, as the below list of Movie Cover Songs That Surpass Their Original Recordings, contextually speaking, proves.
“The Immigrant Song” - Led Zeppelin, covered by Trent Reznor, Karen O, and Atticus Ross for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Trent Reznor’s and Karen O’s synth-metal update is really best known for getting the Led out as the song accompaniment on the trailer for David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and then getting a reprise in the movie’s opening credit sequence, but isn’t really used in the film proper. But the lyrics are more appropriate for the story of this book and this movie than they are for just about everywhere else the song has appeared (I’m looking at you, Shrek the Third), even in the context of the song’s origins. So, while it may not be “better” (from a musicality perspective) than Led Zeppelin, this cover kicks so much more ass than any cover has any right to. It’s the Lisbeth Salander of movie cover songs.
“Across the Universe” - The Beatles, covered by Fiona Apple for Pleasantville
Now, obviously, I’m not going to make the claim that anybody, even someone as exceptionally talented as Fiona Apple, could actually improve upon any song in The Beatles’ catalog because that would be certifiably insane. Except, that’s totally what I’m about to do. It’s true enough that Apple’s take on “Across the Universe” isn’t fundamentally different from the original, relying so much on the source that before she begins singing it’s impossible to know which version you’ll be getting. But that’s sort of the point. While John Lennon’s vocals invoke drug-induced psychedelia, Apple’s is haunting and wistful, which serves to contrast the hopeful lyrics and the message of the movie in a far more compelling manner than the band’s musical discovery of Hinduism and acid. I’ll go out on a limb and say that both versions of “Across the Universe” are damn near perfect, but hearing The Beatles during Pleasantville’s end credits would have been too distracting and, really, uninteresting. Hearing Apple deliver what amounts to an almost personal confession, however, is always a welcome surprise.
“Tiny Dancer” - Elton John, covered by the cast of Almost Famous in Almost Famous
Okay, okay, okay. Okay. Yes, the version of the song you’ll find on the film’s official soundtrack is the solo-tastic Elton John original and technically this may not even constitute an actual cover, since it’s just a bunch of people — some off key — singing the song in unison. But it’s this sing-along aspect that elevates the above sequence in Almost Famous to legendary status, whereas a simple montage set to the song by itself would have been any other scene in any other movie. In fact, I’d wager that most people who have seen this movie attempt to re-enact the “Tiny Dancer” moment every single time the song emits from their car stereo. That sense of togetherness overcoming darkness and tension is just too infectious. Frankly, it’s damn near impossible not to attempt your best Rocket Man, even (especially?) if you’re driving alone and the only cameraderie to be had is with an Elton John that doesn’t exist anymore. Basically, there’s Before Almost Famous and there’s After Almost Famous, and “Tiny Dancer” will never be the same.
“Let’s Get In On” - Marvin Gaye, covered by Jack Black (and Sonic Death Monkey, or Barry Jive and the Uptown Five) in High Fidelity
No, you’re right, as much as I love Jack Black, though that’s only unconditional when he’s jamming with Kyle Gass for Tenacious D, he doesn’t quite have the chops to match Marvin Gaye in a traditional cover. At no point in the history of the universe has anyone ever said, while listening to Gaye’s original recording of “Let’s Get It On,” Y’know, I think I’d rather listen to Jack Black. That said, Black absolutely nails the song and that he’s so capable comes off as such a stark, jubilant revelation at the end of High Fidelity it’s unforgettable. Remember, this was before most of the world knew who Jack Black was, much less that he was in a real life rock band. At the time, his rendition was such an eye opening experience that it was arguably more awesome than anything but a live performance by Gaye himself. At the very least, it’s the best scene in the movie.
“Life on Mars” - David Bowie, covered by Seu Jorge in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Granted, director Wes Anderson stuffed his movie’s soundtrack with Bowie covers performed by Jorge, and from “Rebel Rebel” to “Changes” to “Space Oddity” they all exquisitely capture their inherent Bowie-ness while becoming totally new songs. Part of that is because of the unplugged nature of their recording, and part of that is also due to Jorge’s native Brazilian Portugeuse turning the familiar into the unexpected. But it’s the cover of “Life on Mars” performed about halfway through the movie that resonates so clearly in memory, functioning as both a denoument for everything that came before, and setting us up for everything yet to happen. It’s a weird, powerful song in its original capacity, and if there are any films that are weird and powerful enough for the Thin White Duke, they’re the films of Wes Anderson. Though, David Bowie himself would have been too jarring in every instance his music is used in The Life Aquatic, and doing so likely would have derailed the magnificence of the score at the movie’s big, bad Bill Murray action hero sequence. But Jorge’s melodic, slowed down cover keeps everything grounded before the movie really lifts off.
“Roxanne” - The Police, covered by Jacek Koman (with an assist from Ewan McGregor) in Moulin Rouge!
Say what you will about Baz Luhrmann’s inability to stage a musical number with amazing choreography and sensible editing that accentuates said choreography rather detracts and distracts from it, I certainly won’t argue. His usage of beloved pop songs in lieu of period appropriate pieces or writing anything too original is also a little suspect, but this rendition of “Roxanne” with a medley of “Come What May” (technically titled “El Tango de Roxanne”) is probably what the director intended throughout the entirety of Moulin Rouge! At the very least, this is my go-to song for interesting and surprising covers that change the intent purely because of the twist on the delivery. Indeed, Sting’s original vocals and The Police’s original arrangement make their version a quintessential 80s hit that still holds up today. Yet, Koman’s passion, anguish, and heartbreak can be felt every time he roars that titular name, and combined with the classical orchestra behind him, the song becomes an operatic, melodramatic showstopper. In short: It’s the entire reason I wanted to write this list.
Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter @RobOfWar, and his ware can be purchased here (if you’re into that sort of thing). He’s pretty sure nobody will agree with him, but he’s not sure that he cares.