Song of the Week #14- "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"
I was watching Belfast with my friend last week, and- like all great films- it raised a lot of questions. Questions like, “Hey, remember the last time I watched Belfast and was inspired to write a blog post because of it?” and “Hey, why haven’t I written anything Oscar Bait related in a while?” Well, luckily for all of us “The Ballad of High Noon” wasn’t the only Oscar-nominated song featured in Belfast. Unluckily for us, that other song just happens to be “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
Readers of this blog will hopefully remember that I love a good movie musical. Sadly, those were few and far between in the 1960s. Oh sure, movie musicals certainly had a brief resurgence in those days. Many of them were big hits, both critically and commercially. Hell, Best Picture went to a musical on four separate occasions in that decade! But how many of them were actually any good? Not a lot. Oh sure, The Music Man is great fun and Mary Poppins is a classic. But far too many musicals from this era are bloated messes, taking paper thin stories and stretching them past their breaking point, hoping to cover up the glaring flaws with expensive production design and elaborate musical numbers. All sizzle no steak might be fine for a ninety minute movie- The Gay Divorcee is not a particularly deep movie, but you don't see me complaining- but when you start pushing three hours, you have to give me something. Is it any wonder that movies like Hello, Dolly! wound up nearly killing the movie musical for good? And few movies demonstrate the worst excesses of this era than Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Watching Ken Hughes' Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it is immediately apparent that producer Albert R. Broccoli (best known for being the man who brought James Bond to the big screen) were trying to ride off Mary Poppins' coattails. Aside from the obvious similarities in tone and style, they even poached that film's songwriters in the celebrated Sherman Brothers and one of its stars with Dick Van Dyke, playing the most American Englishman in the world, Caractacus Potts. They even tried getting Julie Andrews to costar with him as love interest Truly Scrumptious, but she wisely turned them down. Alternating between dreadfully dull and unbearably annoying, all tied together with some truly dreadful random events plotting (loosely based on the novel by James Bond's creator Ian Fleming; now there's a crossover we should have had at some point), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is the type of movie you probably need to grow up with to enjoy. Unfortunately I didn't see it until I was twenty-six years old, so you can imagine the experience I had.
Still, even a dull musical can usually be counted on to have a couple of good songs, and the Sherman Brothers are obviously no slouches in the songwriting department. But it seems that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was something of an off time for them, almost as if the only direction they received was, "Just give us the songs from Mary Poppins, but shittier." And if that's the case, they certainly did their job well enough. "Hushabye Mountain," for instance, is just the poor man's "Chim Chim Cher-ee" mixed with a little "Feed the Birds". Then there's "Me Ol' Bamboo," which is basically a low energy "Step in Time." Honestly the nicest thing I can say about that song is it inspired the much more entertaining "Bag of Weed" from Family Guy. (You know something's truly bad if I'm saying Family Guy brought me more joy than it.) And "Truly Scrumptious" is nothing more than a reskinned "Jolly Holiday" with some bizarre cannibalistic subtext thrown in. Seriously, listen to this song and tell me these kids aren't thinking about eating this woman.
To be frank, none of the songs in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang can reasonably be called good; but some songs are less not good than others, and the title track is definitely the most least not good of the bunch. Considering the song's reputation as an obnoxious earworm, it comes a surprise to me be saying that, but there you are. Yes, it is very repetitive. Yes, the song is a little annoying. Yes, it is very repetitive. Yes, the tune is simplistic. And yes, it is very repetitive. Still, you can't deny it's a catchy hook, the kind that only the Sherman Brothers could write. And at least it's not grating like "It's A Small World"; it's something you can sing for a bit without having people want to instantly murder you in the most painful way they can manage. So in that regard it's at least a mild success.
And look, the lyrics are basically nonsense. How is Chitty Chitty Bang a fine four-fendered friend, I ask you? At that point in the film the car hasn't saved their lives even once! It's just a car! But as a song that's clearly just a bunch of improvised bullshit meant to answer the inane quesions of Caractacs Potts' stupid children, you can't really critique too harshly. Besides, the lyrics to "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius" are also all nonsense, and that song's a classic. "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" is nowhere near the level of that song, but it's not really trying to be either. It's one of the few songs in the movie that's its own thing, and that serves it well. It's nothing special, but it's pleasant enough to listen to. Which is good, because it gets played in the movie a lot. It's not just a song, it's a leitmotif!
Of course, "Song of the Week" is not just about the song itself, but its use in the movie, and it's here where "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" falters a little. While the song might be a bit better than the others, the scene itself is fairly dull comparatively. "Me Ol' Bamboo" might not be much of a tune, but at least the dancing is nice, and Dick Van Dyke is a consummate showman. (It really can not be overstated how much the man adds to the movie, singlehandedly elevating it to the level of "barely watchable.") By contrast, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" just sees him sitting behind the wheel of a car, singing with his precocious children. Then again, maybe in 1968 that was plenty impressive. Think of all the old movies with scenes of characters driving where the actors were clearly not driving the car through the location. And now look! They're really driving through fields! It's amazing!!! And I guess it certainly could be worse. The Academy could have gone the typical musical route of nominating the film's obligatory love song, "Lovely Lovely Man", quite possibly the dullest song in the history of musical cinema. It's so boring that they cut it from the stage version! Considering the fact that anyone who decides that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang belongs on stage clearly isn't great at making good decisions, the fact that even they knew better than to include this is really saying something.
None of this explains why the Academy decided the song needed to be nominated though. Seeing as how Best Original Song was the film's sole nomination, Maybe they just liked the Sherman Brothers- "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" would be the second of their five total nominations, so there's a chance of that. Maybe because the movie was a big hit, they felt like they should recognize it for something. Or maybe because they already nominated three songs whose titles were the same as the films they came from ("For Love of Ivy", "Funny Girl" and "Star!"), they might as well throw a nod at the other one. If that's the case, it didn't pay off for "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang"; the Title Song Contingent was split by the four way vote, resulting in a win for "The Windmills of Your Mind" from The Thomas Crown Affair.
Still, I guess the Sherman Brothers had the last laugh in the end. I'm willing to bet none of you can hum "The Windmills of Your Mind." But are any of you gonna be able to get through the week without "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" running through your head?
Have any suggestions for the next Short of the Week? Contact me on Twitter via @NoahGoucher!
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