Not Fade Away: The ‘Philadelphia’ Soundtrack Helps Change the National Conversation

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Bruce Springsteen

(Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

By Brian Ives 

In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we look back at  he soundtrack to ‘Philadelphia,’ released 20 years ago this week.

Earlier this week, Jared Leto won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for his role as Rayon, a transgender woman with AIDS, in Dallas Buyers Club. The same night, Michael Douglas took home the Globe for Best Actor in a TV Mini-series for his portrayal of Liberace in Behind The Candelabra. Both actors were applauded for playing roles of complex, gay characters. In 2014, that’s notable but not completely rare: from Boys Don’t Cry to Brokeback Mountain, there’s been several high-profile actors playing LGBT characters in recent years. That wasn’t always the case.

Progress has been made in the national conversation about HIV/AIDS and homosexuality in the last two decades. but in the early ’90s, those topics were taboo in many public and private circles. In the early ’90s, a major motion picture about a gay man losing his job at a law firm because he has HIV/AIDS was a difficult sell. But Jonathan Demme, coming off of his Oscar-sweeping film The Silence Of The Lambs wanted to take these difficult subjects, and put them into the national conversation in a way that would engage with mainstream Americans with Philadelphia. That was an ambitious goal.

Movie soundtracks have at least two main functions: to provide music that helps enhance the story, but also—let’s be real—marketing. Had the film’s soundtrack contained the opera music so beloved by Andrew Beckett (played famously by Tom Hanks), it would have missed an opportunity to appeal to a more modern audience. Demme, a rock ‘n’ roll fan who’d directed the celebrated Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, decided to aim high for the soundtrack.

Enter Neil Young. By 1993, he was riding high on a surge of accolades from a new generation of rockers: while many of his peers were being swept aside as relics, Young had toured with the cream of the alt-rock crop, including Sonic Youth, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Demme said in a 1993 issue of Rolling Stone that he’d edited the film’s title sequence to the legend’s classic “Southern Man,” and sent it to Young himself, asking for a new guitar-heavy rock anthem. Young’s response: a gorgeous, delicate piano ballad with no guitars or drums. As Demme told the magazine, “[I thought] ‘Oh, my God, Neil Young trusts this movie more than I do.’”

From there, he turned to Bruce Springsteen. While he was a decade past his commercial peak of Born In The USAand coming off a tour that saw him using a new band, occasionally playing houses that weren’t quite sold out, Bruce was still one of the biggest rock stars in the land, and was someone who mainstream American men trusted and identified with. Again, Demme asked for a raging guitar anthem. Needless to say, that’s not what Springsteen delivered.

“Streets Of Philadelphia” was a quiet, somber, almost whispered song over the most minimal of drum beats. As Demme told Rolling Stone, “Springsteen, like Neil Young, trusted the idea of the movie much more than I was trusting it.” 

Young and Springsteen were both right to trust the film. While Philadelphia’s impact can’t be quantified, it was an important cultural moment where Americans who didn’t know anyone with HIV/AIDS, or didn’t know anyone who was gay (or didn’t think they did; it was even harder to come out of the closet then than it is now) took a hard look at something they avoided seeing before that.

A piece of music that was central to the film’s story involved an opera legend: Hanks’ character describes to his homophobic lawyer, Ben Miller (played by Denzel Washington) what Maria Callas’ “La Mamma Morta” means to him. Beckett asks, “Do you like opera?” Miller replies, uncomfortably, “I am not that familiar with opera, Andrew.” Beckett plays the aria while discussing it. Miller looks at his watch, impatiently. “Do you hear the heartache in her voice?” Beckett asks. “Can you feel it, Joe?” Miller nods, beginning to understand.

Beckett loves this music deeply; it lifts him, even as he’s staring down his own death. By the end of the scene, Miller’s eyes are welling up; he doesn’t have to say anything, he understands. Or, at least, he understands a little bit more than he did before.

And that, it can be argued, was the effect that Philadelphia had on America. It was a story that needed to be told, and thanks to Demme, Hanks and Washington —as well as Springsteen and Young —that story reached a wide audience. And allowed people to stare directly at something that they hadn’t really looked at before. Which, it can also be argued, is the highest purpose of art.

philadelphia soundtrack 1993 Not Fade Away: The Philadelphia Soundtrack Helps Change the National Conversation (Courtesy Sony)

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