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Remixes, Remakes, and Retreads
One of the many unfinished stories I wrote in high school started with two people sitting at a musical keyboard. One of them would play something and the other would reply:
“Nope, that’s Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”
“Uh-uh. God Save the Queen. Sex Pistols.”
“Seriously? The Shaggs? Every knows My Pal Foot Foot.”1
It was the distant future, every combination of musical notes had already been written, and musicians were struggling to come up with something new.
The problem was that while this scene was mildly amusing, I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Other than slip in a Rick Astley reference, I still don’t know.
I’m no musician, but I imagine it’s impossible to really “run out” of songs. The use and reuse of ideas is common in music. Rock and roll started as a swipe of the Blues and Rhythm & Blues genres of African-American music, as well as Country. Much of Soul borrows from Gospel, and Folk is every culture's public library of music.
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Also, I had this idea back in 1980 or '81, well before we gained the ability to listen to nearly any song we wanted in seconds or music search apps like Shazam or Midomi, so the idea of someone needing to recognize a song by ear was a key part of the gag.
This incomplete tale came back to me while I was listening to the remastered version of The Police’s Regatta de Blanc. A few songs sounded “wrong” to me. Was it my memory? Was it the sound system in my RAV-4? Or did someone "improve" the mix by going a little overboard?
Like borrowing, remasters have always been a part of our culture. Mythologies and religions were borrowing and stealing from each other before writing was common. Folk tales, like folk music, have been shared, reworked and reshared for at least that long, too.
But remakes and remasters seem to be more common that ever now. Disney is remaking some of its best animated movies as live-action films. Taylor Swift took her music back from a sleazy manager by re-recording it. There are more versions of Spider-Man than I have fingers to count on. (If you count the cartoons.)
When is a remake "good" and when is it "bad?"
The obvious answer seems to be that a remake is "good" when it has something to add to what it's remaking:
Wednesday, the Netflix series based on the Addams Family movies/TV show/New Yorker cartoons took a relatively minor supporting character and made a hilarious coming of age story with a unique viewpoint and deep commentary about gender roles.
Taylor Swift, a talented singer/performer/songwriter, took control over her creations by remaking them.
The Beatles: Stereo Box Set gave fans a stereo version of their favorite music.
But a list like this is always going to be subjective. Was Wednesday really something new?2 Should we care about Taylor Swift getting paid more money for her work?3 Why change the way we listen to Beatles after 40 or more years?4
Science fiction and fantasy are fertile ground for remixes and remasters, too. Bram Stoker created the modern vampire myth from folk tales in Dracula. Tolkien's set out to create a new mythology in Lord of the Rings, and it would be impossible to count how many copies, homages, and spin-offs he made possible.
There's a set of (in)famous remakes in the sci-fi/fantasy world, too: the first three Star Wars movies, AKA A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Even the title of the first movie is a redo, since for those of us of a certain age or older it's title is, well, Star Wars.
In 1997, George Lucas released a "Special Edition" of Star Wars after he realized that issuing new versions were a license to print money. He changed the movie. Some alterations were ham-handed attempts to shoehorn in "better" special effects. But, at least one changed the story and led to the infamous Han shot first controversy.
Han's shooting is an old debate that's mostly faded away. For many fans it's just another example of how Lucas was always a bit of a hack more interested in toy sales than craft. His scripts are awful5 and when he released a DVD version a few years later he doubled down on the "Han shot f̶i̶r̶s̶t̶second scene) scene, managing to figure out a way to make it laugh out loud worse.
But there's a catch.
In this age of digital content it's never been easier to release a remake. It's also never been easier to erase an original.
You can't buy a copy of the 1977 release of Star Wars, unless you can find a used VHS that's still watchable. You can't download a copy of the 1979 release of Regatta de Blanc. You need a used CD or LP.
Got a favorite book on Kindle? Remember: you don't own it. Amazon can modify it whenever they want. They can delete some objectionable (to them) words. They can alter an entire chapter or just delete the entire book at will, and if it's a Kindle-only release...bummer. It's gone.
One of the many reasons I am often late with my weekly posts is that as much as I enjoy writing I enjoy going outside and doing things, especially hiking or cycling, more.
So, I'm starting a regular feature: Touching Grass. I'll share where I've been lately, with a photo or two.
Last weekend, my wife and I hiked the George Washington Bridge. It was only about a 4.5 mile walk, including to and from the car, but we had a great time with perfect weather.
The GWB has a new bike and pedestrian path on its northern side now, and I was eager to check it out.
This new northern path is an exciting development. I used to ride over the bridge to commute to work, and the old path was narrow, uneven, and arguably unsafe. The new path addresses these issues with an elevated, smoother, surface with more room for bikes to maneuver.
They also added ramps to both approaches for both bicycle and disabled access.
One complication on the old path was narrow passages around the bridge’s suspension arms. The new path adds enough area for bikes, wheelchairs, and pedestrians to safely coexist.
We walked from the New Jersey side to New York City for a cup of coffee and a sandwich. I was playing with my wide angle lense in the restaurant. This shot is pretty good for a low light lense and no flash.
I had better luck getting a shot from the observation deck on the New York end:
Technically there was no grass to be touched, but we had a great time.
Yes, but still subjective.
Yes. Don't @ me.
Yes, but still subjective.
Compare The Empire Strikes Back, which he didn't script, with the other five movies he scripted or cowrote. If you can stomach it.