The Muppet Movie is an iconic film for the generation of kids that grew up in the 70’s. It was highly original and special, and it created a creativity sparking magic for kids who saw Kermit the Frog ride a bike and believed it was as real as it looked. 1970’s kids rooted for Kermit and worried for him as he led a band of misfit creatures toward their shared dream of Hollywood. While The Muppet Movie boasts a roster of famous comedic actors that 1970’s adults could appreciate (including Mel Brooks, Orson Wells, Bob Hope, and Steve Martin), for young kids the broadest slapstick and the best laughs came from the Muppet characters themselves, with the likes of Mel Brooks reduced to bit parts.
If you get the chance to see this in a film festival setting, don’t miss it. We screened it as part of Canadian Music Week (CMW)’s small, timely and well-curated film program. At one one unforgettable screening for this felt head, festival goers were treated to The Muppet Movie (1979).Viewing the film on the big screen with an audience today adds to the enjoyment of this beloved film. The interactions between people and Muppet characters add texture and depth as these interactions form the main areas of conflict and drive the story. The Muppets take a tangential road trip, the group growing to include chickens, a bear, a pig, and a buzzard (The Great Gonzo), along with their reluctant but natural leader Kermit, their calm center whose only weakness is a woman (Miss Piggy, a calculating and abrasive actress/model, easily recognized by modern audiences as a nightmare celebrity in training, an idea that still seems fresh, as does their prediction of Starbucks). Along with a tongue in cheek parody of Hollywood stereotypes, the larger narrative centres around the pure ideals of unconditional friendship and community, a naive optimism that gains ground the more it is shared by a group of friends.
The film holds up very well over thirty years, its handmade felt faces and puppetry a welcome shift from the too smooth CG imagery that dominates many films of today aimed at adults, children and families. A funny thing has happened in film – in little more than a generation, these creatures are now more “real” than what is shown on film, a detail that adds interest. The audience laughs out loud even at the groaniest jokes and puns (Fozzie Bear’s stock in trade) quite simply- because they (still) love him. Nostalgic filmgoers are not disappointed – they tap into that rare place of childhood wonder again and allow their enthusiasm to show. These felt creatures have some hard won, timeless wisdom to share with us: that happy endings are hard work but possible with tenacity in the face of obstacles and failures, that music helps, and that success is meaningless without friends to share it with.
The film and its original soundtrack express the finer points of the bittersweet side of 1970’s schmaltzy sentimentality, and stand up as well as the best music of the era (a sketchy period). The film, a musical in the classic sense, gets a large portion of its spark from the original music compositions and score by Kenneth Asher and Paul Williams. Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “The Rainbow Connection” 1979, Williams had won earlier for the iconic Barbra Streisand hit “Evergreen” in 1976. He also had written some major hits for The Carpenters and was a musician and personality seen often on T.V. throughout the decade, including as a frequent guest/writer with The Muppet Show.
Williams, speaking after the Canadian Music Week screening, expresses that upon reflection, his greatest, most lasting achievement is his “Rainbow Connection” and work on The Muppet Movie. “I think I’ve got felt in my DNA” says the still easily recognizable, youthful musician with a smile. His appearance belies his 71 years. After the heady 70’s and a retreat from Hollywood life in later decades (due to a long struggle with alcohol addiction), Williams has found peace and pleasure in his legacy and his fame. Working on The Muppet Movie was “as good as it gets writing music for a movie in Hollywood” he says.
Williams must make a fantastic dinner companion. In just a short Q&A session, he generously tells the festival audience a number of anecdotes about working on The Muppet Movie and shares insights about his friend and collaborator, visionary Muppet creator, the late Jim Henson. Williams is a survivor who has reentered public life after working hard to regain sobriety, he shares with the crowd. The darker stories set aside in this happy room, Williams delights with his insider knowledge of the making of this film, a project that was uncommonly collaborative and free.
Williams was one of the rare, privileged few artists to have his own replica Muppet made for him, something that in the pre-collectible era he let fade in his office window for years. “We jointly got old and wrinkled together” Williams says with a grin, demonstrating the spark that his 1970’s fans will remember and reminding them of his lively wit that is clearly seen in the film’s score.
Having written “Never Before, Never Again” for Frank Sinatra, Williams was compelled by Jim Henson to give the song to Miss Piggy to sing in the film (sung in a hilarious, or nerve shattering, falsetto by Frank Oz). “Oh Paul…” Henson said “Piggy wants to sing…”. The song is a high point of farce in the film as it accompanies a dreamy montage of Piggy and Kermit, courting, falling in love, and getting married. It also includes a subtle note of Kermit struggling not to drown while Piggy is oblivious. It’s a high toned and very funny joke, that clearly originated with potential as a great Sinatra number. Such is the wit, depth, quirk, and genius of Paul Williams. Such is pop culture.
Williams, in telling of this project from his unique position, lends additional depth to a reading of The Muppet Movie. Gonzo, a flightless bird, gets an unexpected taste of flying thanks to some helium balloons and wistfully “hopes to go back there someday” in one of the film’s most touching moments.
The film’s iconic theme “The Rainbow Connection” was well thought out, its creation a touching story in itself. The song was written, says Williams “to show Kermit has a soul”. The writer asked “what is there in a swamp? Light reflections. Somehow, he knows about culture.” Kermit’s character sees rainbows, from his limited vantage point on his lily pad, as an illusion, something initially negative. But also, “Kermit speaks to children” and possesses “a handful of hope”. It’s a song about questioning illusions, from an outsider position. Ultimately, and happily for the audience, Kermit braves the larger world and leaves his lily pad behind to get a look at the full spectrum of the rainbow that may be out there.
Most importantly, Williams describes the effort of the movie makers as “trying to build a rainbow”, reminding the audience in a small screening room of a way of looking at the world that was earnest, hopeful in spite of bad experiences, and fearlessly brave. Not so long ago, these qualities converged in an unlikely film classic that was at once an unlikely combination of sincerity, subversive wit and uniquely cool, with an unmatched heart and soul of its own. The message to write your own ending and never give up on the power of imagination not only touches the inner child, but fueled an entire generation of kids who grew up to become the creatives of today across global culture.
Paul Williams is the subject of a 2012 documentary film Paul Williams – Still Alive that was featured at TIFF in 2011 and the Oscar winner is actively working on musical theater projects.
This feature references a screening and Q & A session attended at CMW in 2012 and reprinted here as part of Step On’s series Lust For Life: The Music of Film.