Everybody loves Christmas carols and everyone loves Christmas movies, but did you ever consider how your favorite films use your favorite music? Fourth in a 12-part series.
I have it on good authority that Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” was originally published on this date, way back in 1843. (OK, a friend posted it on Facebook. Don’t judge me.) Assuming this is true, there won’t be a better day to talk about Scrooged in this 12-part series. So here we go.
Has another holiday tale been told and re-told more often at the movies than “A Christmas Carol”? The magic of the story is right there in the text, but the secret of its appeal is hardly a secret at all. Christmas is a state of mind that wraps nostalgia and hope in a blanket of benign nighttime mystery. Something amazing happens after a child goes to bed on Christmas Eve, so it’s perfectly reasonable to presume that amazing things could happen to grown-ups, too. Even a grown-up who seems absolutely irredeemable.
In Scrooged (1988) that grown-up is Frank Cross, played by Bill Murray at an interesting time in his career: after the hilariously subversive comedies that made him a star, but prior to Groundhog Day, Rushmore and the films that would mark his emergence as a genuine actor. Richard Donner’s update of the Dickens classic is fiercely modern, and aggressively meta – the live telecast of “A Christmas Carol” being prepped by Frank’s TV network is constantly popping up in the periphery, winking at us while our antihero is being visited by his own set of “actual” Christmas spirits.
Frank’s constantly venal behavior is complemented by the vulgar excesses gleefully embraced by the TV show he’s producing – and, heck, by Donner’s own film, when you get right down to it. But amid a cacophony of hoary celebrity cameos (Lee Majors! Buddy Hackett! Robert Goulet! Mary Lou Retton! John Houseman!), the classiest is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance by jazz musicians Miles Davis, Larry Carlton, David Sanborn and Paul Shaffer, as unnamed buskers playing “We Three Kings” for spare change on a busy Manhattan sidewalk. Their entire screentime is barely 20 seconds – plenty of time for Frank to lob an annoyed bon mot their way, and for their rendition to take root in the film’s musical soul.
More than the Al Green-Annie Lennox cover of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart” that closes the film, that Miles Davis moment is Scrooged's musical apex. It's the splash of rum in the cinematic egg nog, and an elegant grace note that punctuates the pleasantly acidic rat-a-tat sarcasm. My only regret: even 25 years later, I still wish we could have heard the whole song.