The nightmarishly complex world of music rights and home video releases.
It was something I became aware of while watching the John Hughes teen comedy Weird Science when it was first screened on TV back in the Eighties, specifically the moment at the end of the film when the male students are introduced to their new gym teacher, the camera panning up her body revealing it to be Lisa (Kelly LeBrock), the woman the two boys created dressed in typical eighties workout attire. As a teenager, I know what I should have been thinking, but my mind was elsewhere because something odd happened. The music that accompanied the scene was the theme from Rocky, and that wasn’t right. Having seen the film on video many times prior I knew full well that the scene was usually accompanied by a reprise of Oingo Boingo’s theme song ‘Weird Science‘. Something I didn’t notice at the time was that the same piece of music was also used to replace the Roy Orbison song ‘Pretty Woman‘ that played as Lisa ascends the mall escalator. The TV screening was in fact the correct version, I just didn’t understand why. This was my introduction to the complexities of music licensing in the early years of home video.
The roots of the problem go back to 1973, which saw the release of two films that set a trend for using soundtracks comprised of existing popular music rather than an original score: George Lucas’s American Graffiti & Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. American Graffiti featured a whole slate of early Sixties pop tunes used diegetically throughout which were crucial to evoking the era while in Mean Streets, the images were specifically cut to the music. Both films were hugely influential, and the use of existing music instead of a traditional score caught on¹.
The problem with these soundtracks arose in the early eighties because of an unforeseen oversight in the publishing agreements the studios had drawn up with the artists at the time. The original contracts allowed for their music to be used in the initial theatrical engagements and for subsequent screenings on television, but as no one at the time could have anticipated the coming home video era and just how popular it would become, the publishing rights did not extend to the new medium. This oversight was initially overlooked and some titles slipped out on home video with their music intact, but when it was noticed, the headaches began. This resulted in the video releases of some films like Mean Streets and John Sayles’s Baby, It’s You (1982) being held up for years while the rights issues were resolved, but more often than not the studios just opted to replace the music familiar from the theatrical prints with tracks they did not have to pay to re-license.
This is what happened with Weird Science, and it proved to be a particular problem for many other teen films due to their extensive use of contemporary music, including several other John Hughes films. His début feature Sixteen Candles lost almost half of its original soundtrack on home video including ‘Happy Birthday‘ by Altered Images, ‘Turning Japanese‘ by The Vapors, Frank Sinatra’s rendition of ‘New York, New York‘, ‘Young Guns (Go For It)‘ by Wham, a brief snippet to The Twilight Zone theme and even the title song, ‘Kajagoogoo‘, an instrumental track by the band of the same name. The Breakfast Club also lost some of its original music, but in this case, the theme song ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)‘ by Simple Minds heard at the start and reprised over the end credits was left intact on all home video releases. This was probably because the song was written specifically for the film by the soundtrack producer Keith Forsey, a lucky turn of events as the loss of the track would have been disastrous.
Amy Heckerling’s classic Fast Times At Ridgemont High also lost songs in the transfer to home video, but though many sources claim that the film had the majority of the original songs re-scored, in fact only eight of the original 24 tracks were replaced, the most notable losses being Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl‘ and Oingo Boingo’s ‘Goodbye, Goodbye‘. When the film was first screened on US TV, the soundtrack was extensively re-dubbed in order to remove the film’s copious profanity, but the music was left unaltered with the sole exception of The Go-Go’s track ‘Speeding‘ which was only omitted because the whole sequence it was used in was removed for censorship reasons. The most contentious song featured in the film from a music rights perspective was Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir‘, but somewhat ironically, the song was intact on all versions. We’ll return to this song later.
Aside from teen movies, there were other casualties. While John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing did not lose any of its Ennio Morricone score when it arrived on home video, the Stevie Wonder song ‘Superstition‘ that is heard playing through a boom box was replaced with a piece of unidentifiable funk music. As it was the only song used in the entire film, the loss of the track did not have a particularly significant effect on the drama but in other cases, the results were quite damaging. The Coen Brother’s début feature Blood Simple had its humorously repeated use of The Four Tops tune ‘It’s The Same Old Song‘ replaced with Neil Diamond’s version of ‘I’m a Believer’ when released on tape. Worse still, the video release of Walter Hill’s The Warriors lost the narratively important use of Arnold McCuller’s cover of ‘Nowhere To Run‘, played by the female DJ as a message to the Warriors as they make their way back to Coney Island through hostile gang territory. The replacement track ‘I Am A Warrior‘ does not work in the same way.
Just to confuse matters, there were sometimes films that escaped unscathed. Uli Edel’s gruelling biographical film from 1981 about a teen drug addict, Christiane F. featured nine tracks by David Bowie including ‘TVC15‘, ‘Warszawa‘, ‘Heroes‘ and concert footage of Bowie himself performing ‘Station To Station‘, but made it to home video intact, even though the Bowie track ‘Young Americans‘ had been omitted from the Sixteen Candles video release around the same time.
Then there was the AIP fiasco. An early indicator of what would eventually turn out to be one of the most notorious examples of re-scoring was first noted by critic Tim Lucas in one of the original Video Watchdog columns he wrote for Video Times magazine. It was the release of Robert Fuest’s Dr Phibes Rises Again. Original theatrical prints of the film ended with Vincent Price’s rendition of ‘Over The Rainbow‘ as Phibes passes through the gates to the River Of Life with the coffin containing the body of Victoria (Caroline Munro), but this was replaced on the Vestron videotape with a reprise of the music that introduced Vulnavia (Valli Kemp). In this case, the effect was unfortunate but not damaging, but worse was to come… much worse.
Tim Lucas’s theory at the time as to why this happened was pretty persuasive. In 1983, Orion Pictures acquired the AIP catalogue of titles. When it came to AIP’s in-house productions such as Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe titles, the rights for the music were already secured. The problem was that the AIP catalogue included many titles the company had acquired themselves for distribution in the US, and as a result, the publishing rights for their soundtracks had to be purchased separately for any video releases. Either unwilling or unable to do this, they opted to replace the original soundtracks with newly commissioned scores. To do this they chose a composer called Kendall Schmidt, fresh out of U.C.L.A.’s Film Scoring Program. Schmidt had provided a synth score for Joseph Mangine’s Neon Maniacs, a bizarre low-budget monster flick, and Orion just had him replace the problematic original scores on a batch of other AIP titles with synth scores similar to the one he wrote for Mangine’s film.
A few got off lightly. As with Dr Phibes Rises Again, Madhouse lost only its closing song, Vincent Price’s rendition of ‘When Day Is Done‘; Journey To The Seventh Planet lost Otto Brandenberg’s ethereal end title song, and while Mario Bava’s Planet Of The Vampires lost its original score by Gino Marinuzzi Jr., Bava expert Tim Lucas himself has said that in this case, Schmidt’s synth score was not inappropriate for the film. Other titles were not so lucky, and key amongst them was Michael Reeves’s masterpiece Witchfinder General which had Paul Ferris’s beautiful original score striped out in favour of a hideously inappropriate synthesizer score, and the results were disastrous. Other films to suffer were Scream And Scream Again, which had its title song by Amen Corner replaced by an instrumental version, Curse Of The Crimson Altar, Charles B. Pierce’s Winterhawk, Howard Avedis’s 1976 crime drama Scorchy, Vernon Zimmerman’s Roller derby film Unholy Rollers with Claudia Jennings, Luigi Scattini’s 1965 comedy War, Italian Style and Ivan Passer’s Crime And Passion which lost it’s original Vangelis score which pre-dates the acclaimed music he wrote for Chariots of Fire by five years². It’s somewhat ironic that it is now very difficult to find almost any of the synthesizer scores Kendall Schmidt wrote for the AIP titles, with one exception. While Odeon Entertainment’s Blu-ray of Curse Of The Crimson Altar does restore Peter Knight‘s original score, Kino Lorber was unable to clear the rights for their US disc released under the title The Crimson Cult and was forced to use Schmidt’s score.
Then there were music documentaries which posed their own significant problems. The original home video release of The Decline Of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris’s classic documentary about the LA punk scene was released on tape in the eighties with all its performances intact, but it would take three decades to resolve the licensing issues to allow its unaltered release on DVD & Blu ray. Spheeris’s film and its sequels did finally emerge unscathed, but Derek Burbidge’s Urgh! A Music War was not so lucky. The concert film featured many of the emerging new wave bands from the early Eighties along with several lesser-known acts, especially in the expanded 124-minute version released on home video. Burbidge’s film was a major cult hit in the US, but its reputation was mainly acquired via TV screenings as licensing issues prevented its home video re-issue for decades and remained unresolved when it was finally issued as a burn-on-demand DVD-R released on the Warner Archive label in 2009. Warner’s disc featured the expanded version, but they were forced to omit Splodgenessabounds’ cover version of ‘Two Little Boys‘, though the song is still credited at the end of the film.
Sometimes soundtrack alterations are not a publishing rights issue at all. It might be hard to believe but even Jim Sharman’s era-defining cult movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show wasn’t immune from music tampering. When the film was originally released in 1975, it had a mono soundtrack comprised of versions of the songs that were sung live on set by the actors giving the performances a real immediacy. When the film was released on VHS and laserdisc to mark its 15th Anniversary, producer Lou Adler decided to replace the original live performances with the stereo tracks recorded for the soundtrack album. The changes in vocal inflection were, at times, quite significant, resulting in an ‘off’ feel to the whole thing. It wasn’t until the DVD release in 2000 that the original soundtrack was restored, which I guess proves that sometimes fans just have to be patient. The animated sci-fi anthology Heavy Metal was out of circulation for 15 years, Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop was unavailable for 18 years and the Giorgio Moroder version of Metropolis would take 27 years, but the licensing rights to all three films were finally resolved. Some remain unresolved, and it does not look likely that we will ever see them on blu ray any time soon.
The key example of this is Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, but in order to explain it, we first need to go back to the Led Zeppelin song ‘Kashmir‘ and how it was used in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Prior to his date with Stacey midway through the film, Mark is advised by his friend Mike to play side one of Led Zeppelin IV, but when it then cuts to the couple in the car, Mark is playing ‘Kashmir‘ from side two of Physical Graffiti. As detailed in the blu ray commentary, it was the original intention to use a track from Led Zeppelin IV, but when writer Cameron Crowe approached the band about using a track they said it just wasn’t possible, but out of friendship with Crowe the band offered the use of a track from Physical Graffiti³. If you’re a Led Zeppelin fan and know about the subsequent re-scoring for home video, you might suspect the song was replaced, but after their initial music choice was nixed, the use of ‘Kashmir‘ was always an intentional joke. In all versions of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, the song was never a problem from a licensing standpoint, so it was something of a shock to Amy Heckerling when she subsequently tried to licence more of the band’s tracks to be told that Led Zeppelin does not licence its music. Ten years later, it became clear how serious they were.
When Bad Lieutenant was released theatrically in 1993, several key sequences in the film were scored to a track by Schooly D called ‘Signifying Rapper‘ from his 1986 album Smoke Some Kill. It’s a song that features a guitar riff that sounds very similar to the one in ‘Kashmir‘, and when the film was released on home video in the US, this fact came to the attention of Jimmy Page who subsequently took legal action. As the cost of licensing ‘Kashmir‘ in order to retain Schoolly D’s track on the low-budget film was prohibitively expensive, Ferrara was forced to remove or replace it on all subsequent home video versions. Because of the debate about screen violence that followed the murder of James Bulger, the latest in a series of moral panics that have swept the country over the years, the UK video release of Bad Lieutenant was delayed by 18 months. Due to this delay, the original theatrical version of the film has never been available here on home video. Initial screenings of the film on TV in the UK, though censored did feature the original soundtrack, but even these have now been replaced with the altered version. The re-scored version simply does not have the same power the original version of the film had. The bitter coda to this mess is that Jimmy Page was clearly inspired by Schoolly D’s ‘Signifying Rapper‘ when he collaborated with Puff Daddy for the song ‘Come With Me‘ used in Roland Emmerich’s 1998 version of Godzilla. While the song was a huge moneymaker for both its wealthy artists, the relatively little-known Schoolly D ended up having to pay a reported $50,000 for the rights infraction even though the song had been available on the album without issue for seven years.
The case of Bad Lieutenant shows that even now music rights have the potential to impede or wreak havoc with old movies. Here are some more examples.
All current DVD and blu ray releases of Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain, the third part of the Harry Palmer trilogy have been altered to remove The Beatles’ track ‘A Hard Days Night‘. In this case, re-scoring was not an option as the song is used diegetically, so the entire 32-second shot was omitted.
The theatrical version of the coming-of-age comedy Little Darlings starring Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol included songs by artists such as Blondie, John Lennon and Supertramp. All the music was actually intact on the initial Paramount VHS release, but this was withdrawn shortly afterwards and reissued with many of the original songs replaced. Though the film has been screened on Turner Classic Movies in its original theatrical version, it has never been released on DVD or blu ray.
Gordon Douglas’s sequel Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off with Jim Brown was another of those difficult Orion/AIP titles, having its original James Brown soundtrack replaced with miscellaneous music from AIP’s other blaxploitation titles including Coffy. In addition to all home media releases, the original soundtrack is also missing from cable screenings.
Charles Burnett’s classic 1977 film Killer Of Sheep finally achieved long overdue recognition when it was restored in 2000 by the UCLA Film And Television Archive, but one alteration had to be made to both film and video versions. The film originally ended with Dinah Washington’s ‘Unforgettable‘ played over the final slaughterhouse sequence, but clearing the publishing rights to this track proved impossible. Burnett himself chose to solve the issue by replacing the song with a reprise of Dinah Washington’s ‘This Bitter Earth‘ used earlier in the film. As a result, the damage is pretty minimal.
The Criterion Collection has released several of John Waters’s classic seventies movies on disc, but two have had music clearance problems. The original video releases of Pink Flamingos back in the eighties all included the original music, but several of these tracks including ‘Sixteen Candles‘ by The Crests & Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Rite Of Spring‘ were replaced in 1997 when the film was re-released by Criterion on their original laserdisc, and on tape by New Line. Criterion’s new 4K Blu-ray features the same 1997 version, and their new 4K version of Multiple Maniacs also had several of its original songs replaced, notably two Elvis Presley tracks, ‘Jailhouse Rock‘ & ‘Just Because‘ which were substituted with similar sounding tracks by George S. Clinton. Though Criterion seems to have a good relationship with Waters, it’s highly unlikely we will see his début feature Mondo Trasho released on the label any time soon. It was released intact on VHS back in the eighties but as Waters himself has said, the cost of clearing the rights to the huge amount of unlicensed music he used in the film would now cost somewhere in the region of $1 million, so a future Blu-ray release would seem unlikely.
We’ll end with perhaps the two most infuriating examples of films that are still plagued by seemingly unresolvable licensing issues: Milton Moses Ginsberg’s Coming Apart and Robert Altman’s California Split.
Coming Apart is an experimental black & white film starring Rip Torn as a psychiatrist in New York who secretly films his sexual escapades with a series of patients. Originally released with an X rating in 1969, a large part of the film’s intensity came from its use of several tracks taken from Jefferson Airplane’s live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head. The 35mm revival screenings in 1999 included the original soundtrack, but when the film was released on home video by Kino the following year, licensing the original Jefferson Airplane tracks proved impossible, so the entire soundtrack was replaced by Francis Xavier & the director himself. The problem was that because the songs were played on set using a stereo system, the replacement tracks had to be layered over the originals to obscure them, but in order to retain the film’s original dialogue the replacement tracks had to be muted in those sections. If you listen closely, you can hear the original Jefferson Airplane tracks bleeding through under several of the dialogue exchanges. Twenty years later, the new Blu-ray release from Kino is still missing the original audio.
California Split has long been a cult favourite among film fans and is often regarded as one of Robert Altman’s best works. The film had been screened on TV many times over the years, and while these screenings were often cut for language or had the 2.35 aspect ratio compromised, the soundtrack was never an issue, so it was a shock when Columbia was forced to cut over three minutes of footage from their letterboxed DVD release in 2004 due to an inability to secure the music rights. Altman himself said it was because they were just too expensive, but one of the cuts was to omit the characters singing ‘Happy Birthday To You‘! In the last few years, the UK Blu-ray label Indicator caused some excitement when announced they were working on a restored version of California Split. When the uncut and correctly letterboxed version showed up on Amazon Prime in 2020, it did seem as though the publishing rights were finally resolved only for Indicator to cancel the upcoming release again citing an inability to resolve the soundtrack problem.
When it comes to music rights issues, there are some baffling ironies at work. Artists undoubtedly benefit from the exposure of having their music included on a movie soundtrack, so re-scoring them reduces their exposure and therefore reduce potential sales, but there is also the fact that the period of time where this first became an issue pretty neatly coincides with era of the music video, an art form where the intersection of music and image is at its most explicit, and one that is both influenced by the cinema, and a significant influence on it.
Many of the films discussed here had their original soundtracks restored many years ago, and while the ongoing difficulty of releasing California Split on Blu-ray is frustrating, the correct version is at least available. This is not the case with the two other key examples here, Bad Lieutenant and Coming Apart, and the fate of the original versions of these films is extremely dire. Both were shot and released in the pre-digital era and their last theatrical engagements were only on 35mm film and with fewer and fewer venues having the ability to screen old 35mm prints, there is the real danger that the original versions of both these movies, complete with their crucial original soundtracks will be all but erased from film history. As the correct version of Bad Lieutenant was at one time available on home video, bootlegging of those old tapes and laserdiscs does have the potential to keep the original version of the film alive in some way, but Coming Apart is not even afforded this flimsy lifeline. It’s a tragic situation and one that few people are in a hurry to resolve.
It can be a frustrating and complicated subject to explore, and the facts are often not easy to get at. If you have any additions, spot any errors or have corrections to anything you’ve read here, let us know. We’d love to hear them.
1. Universal ended up paying $90,000 to secure the rights to Lucas’s original music choices by offering the record companies a flat rate for each song. Only a few refused which is why there are no Elvis Presley tracks included in the film. Twenty years later, Universal would end up paying approximately $1,150,000 to secure the rights for music used in Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused, one-sixth of the entire budget. Scorsese was heavily influenced by Kenneth Anger’s use of music in his classic short Scorpio Rising. Contrary to popular myth, Anger did in fact clear the music rights prior to its release at a cost of $8,000, twice the film’s original budget.
2. An interesting side note to this…while Passer’s Crime And Passion had its Vangelis score replaced on home video, Gary Graver’s classic 1977 adult movie V – The Hot One with Annette Haven used two unlicensed Vangelis tracks, ‘Pulstar‘ & ‘Alpha‘, both taken from his 1976 album Albedo 0.39, and the tracks appear to have been included on all known home video releases. The use of unlicensed music in seventies adult cinema is a topic all by itself.
3. The reason Cameron Crowe’s request could not be fulfilled seemed to be because the first five Led Zeppelin albums including Led Zeppelin IV were released by Atlantic whereas Physical Graffiti was the first album they released on their own Swan Song imprint. The problem with this theory is that when Crowe approached Zeppelin again to license tracks for his autobiographical film Almost Famous, the band agreed to licence five tracks including four from those Atlantic releases: ‘That’s The Way‘, ‘The Rain Song‘, ‘Misty Mountain Hop‘ & ‘Tangerine‘. A scene deleted from the film was to have used ‘Stairway To Heaven‘ in its entirety, and can be seen as an extra on the DVD with an on-screen prompt about how to synch up your CD playback as the actual music could not be used in the extra. The Swan Song name itself caused its own problems. In Brain De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise, the record company owned by Swan (Paul Williams) was originally called Swan Song, so in order to avoid legal action, the name was changed to Death Records and the company’s dead bird logo was added to obscure the original name using a crude optical effect. It’s most noticeable during Beef’s introduction, but if you look closely the original name can still be seen elsewhere in the film.
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