September 7, 2012
Guest: Hal David
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. Hal David, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning lyricist, died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 91. David's best known for his prolific collaboration with composer Burt Bacharach, which lasted from the late '50s to the mid-'70s. Many of their songs were recorded by Dionne Warwick, who had a string of hits in the 1960s.
They also wrote the songs for the Broadway musical "Promises, Promises" and won an Oscar for the song "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" from the film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
Today we'll listen to Terry's 1997 interview with Hal David, but let's begin with some of his songs, starting with one both David and Bacharach described as a favorite.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) What's it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live? What's it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) If you see me walking down the street, and I start to cry each time we meet, walk on by, walk on by.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Make it easy on yourself. Make it easy on yourself 'cuz breaking up is so very hard to do.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) The look of love is in your eyes, a look your smile can't disguise. The look of love, it's saying so much more than just words could ever say, and what my heart has heard, well, it takes my breath away. I can hardly wait to hold you, feel my arms around you. How long I have waited...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINDROPS KEEP FALLING ON MY HEAD")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) Raindrops keep falling on my head, and just like a guy whose feet are too big for his bed, nothing seems to fit. Those raindrops are falling on my head, they keep falling...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup, I say a little prayer for you. And (unintelligible) and wondering what dress to wear now, I say a little prayer for you: Forever, forever, you'll stay in my heart, and I will love you forever and ever with (unintelligible). Together, together, that's how it must be to live with you (unintelligible) mean heartbreak for me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's new, Pussycat? What's new, Pussycat? Pussycat, Pussycat, I've got flowers and lots of hours to spend with you. So go and follow your cute little pussycat nose. Pussycat, Pussycat, I love you. Yes, I do.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near? Just like me, they long to be close to you. Why do...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROMISES, PROMISES")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Promises, promises, I'll all through with promises now. I don't know how I got the nerve to walk out. If I shout, remember (unintelligible). Now I can look at myself and be proud. I'm laughing out loud. Oh, promises, promises, this is where those promises, promises end. I don't pretend that what was wrong can be right. Every night, I sleep (unintelligible).
(Singing) Oh, promises, their kind of promises can just destroy (unintelligible). Oh, promises, those kind of promises take all the joy from life. Oh, promises, promises, my kind of promises can lead to joy and hope and love, yes, (unintelligible).
DAVIES: That's of course Dionne Warwick in the medley of just some of the hits lyricist Hal David wrote with Burt Bacharach. The medley also included Jerry Butler(ph), Dusty Springfield, B.J. Thomas(ph), Aretha Franklin, Tom Jones and Karen Carpenter. Hal David died Saturday at the age of 91. Here's the interview Terry recorded with him in 1997.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Now, you met Burt Bacharach when you were both writing for the publishing company Famous Music. How did you meet each other there?
HAL DAVID: Well, we were both associated with Famous Music, which was the publishing arm of Paramount. We had offices if not next to each other very close to each other, and we were friendly, and people tended to write with different collaborators, trying to find that magic combination.
Burt and I thought we would try a few songs together, and we did. Very soon, almost from the beginning, we started to succeed together.
GROSS: Do you think that you and Burt Bacharach consciously or unconsciously did things together that were different typical song form of the time?
DAVID: I would say unconsciously, yes, we did. We broke through the normal 32-bar pattern, the normal A-A-bridge-A, I guess A-A-B-A or A-B-A-C, which most of the great songs and great composers and lyricists wrote in that form. And we started to go into different forms.
But it just seemed to happen. Whatever - we wrote in a way that seemed natural to us, and very often being natural didn't fall into that pattern of the past.
GROSS: Burt Bacharach often wrote in tricky time signatures and in changing time signatures. For instance in the song "Promises, Promises," I guess it's in the bridge, in the part promises, their kind of promises can just destroy your life, every measure, the time signature changes. It goes from three-quarter to four-quarter to six-quarter to three-quarter to four-quarter to six-quarter again.
GROSS: Did that affect your writing? I mean, do you have to keep this in mind when you're writing the lyric?
DAVID: It never occurred to me that we were changing time signatures when I was writing a lyric to Burt's music, nor did it occur to me when I was writing lyrics first that led to that kind of change in time signatures. Everything always seemed natural.
I never had a problem in listening to the music because I didn't hear the time signatures changing, and Burt wrote, you know, he would have to speak for himself, but essentially that's the way he wrote, that's the way he thought. I don't think he thought in terms of changing time signatures, it just came out that way.
GROSS: So did you have all these, like, triplet kind of notes and decide that that would be one word, promises, promises, promises, as opposed to, like, come to me, come to me, or, you know, three one-syllable words?
DAVID: Well, we knew the title was going to be "Promises, Promises."
GROSS: Oh, so you knew that already, OK, right, because it's the title from the show.
DAVID: That was the title of the show, and Burt wrote the melody that way, promises, promises. And then I wrote the rest of the lyrics to the music. Another song we wrote for that show, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," which again has some time signature changes in it, it was a song we wrote in Boston.
It was the night before we closed in Boston on our way to Washington, D.C., with "Promises, Promises." And Burt had just come out of the hospital, he'd been very sick with pneumonia, and he'd come out of the hospital, and we needed a new song, and I wrote the lyric for that "I'll Never Fall In Love Again."
And I gave it to Burt, and he sat down in the piano in his room and wrote the music to that.
GROSS: And that's why there's that line about pneumonia in it.
DAVID: Yeah, but I must say it probably is the reason for the line about pneumonia, but it didn't occur to me that I was doing it. I did it unconsciously.
GROSS: Yeah, and you rhymed it with phone 'ya, I'll never phone 'ya.
GROSS: Well, what would you rather hear, "Promises, Promises" or "I'll Never Fall In Love Again"? I'm going to let you choose.
DAVID: "I'll Never Fall In Love Again."
GROSS: Let's hear it. This is Dionne Warwick.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL NEVER FALL IN LOVE AGAIN")
DIONNE WARWICK: (Singing) What do you get when you fall in love? A guy with a pin to burst your bubble That's what you get for all your trouble. I'll never fall in love again. I'll never fall in love again. What do you get when you kiss a guy? You get enough germs to catch pneumonia. After you do, he'll never phone 'ya. I'll never fall in love again. Dontcha know that I'll never fall in love again?
(Singing) Don't tell me what it's all about 'cause I've been there and I'm glad I'm out, out of those chains, those chains that bind you. That is why I'm here to remind you. What do you get when you fall...
GROSS: Lyricist Hal David is my guest, and right now we're talking about his long collaboration with Burt Bacharach. "Do You Know The Way To San Jose?" a song that has a really interesting lyric to it, and although it's - the melody is kind of cheerful, the lyric is really about failing and wanting to go back home because things weren't working out. Tell me about writing this lyric.
DAVID: Well, you know, the idea of doing a lyric that is essentially kind of sad to a very up and optimistic melody is something I've done a lot, and I've always thought it was an effective way of writing a song. Burt played this melody for me, and music says things to me and should say things to me.
I heard the phrase do you know the way to San Jose, and from that I began to create the storyline that became the person who comes to Los Angeles to make his or her career in the entertainment business and has dreams of being a big star, and for most people it does not turn out to be quite that happy.
GROSS: Well, here's Dionne Warwick again singing your lyric to "Do You Know The Way To San Jose?"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU KNOW THE WAY TO SAN JOSE?")
WARWICK: (Singing) Do you know the way to San Jose? Ive been away so long. I may go wrong and lose my way. Do you know the way to San Jose? I'm going back to find some peace of mind in San Jose. L.A. is a great big freeway. Put a hundred down and buy a car. In a week, maybe two, they'll make you a star. Weeks turn into years. How quick they pass, and all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas.
(Singing) You can really breathe in San Jose. They've got a lot of space. There'll be a place where I can stay. I was born and raised...
DAVIES: Dionne Warwick. We'll hear more of Terry's interview with lyricist Hal David, recorded in 1997, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 1997 interview with lyricist Hal David, who died Saturday at the age of 91.
GROSS: One of your songs that I really love is "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence." I'm just a - I'm a real sucker for these big Western themes. I've always really loved this, you know, big Gene Pitney(ph) vocal. And this is not - this song is not used in the movie "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence," it was just inspired by the film. Why did you decide to write a lyric inspired by the story of a movie?
DAVID: We were asked to write it for Paramount. There was a movie called "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence," a John Ford movie.
A great movie. And they were called exploitation songs in those days. The film companies had you do those songs to have a song come out and perhaps become a hit and exploit the film. Every time the title song was played, people would hear the title and think of the film.
The song turned out to be a rather good song, and the Paramount Publishing Company, and we made every effort to try to get the song into the film. John Ford resisted it because he didn't conceive of a song being in the film at that point. As much as Paramount pressed him to put it in, they were not successful and we were not successful.
So, the song came out. Gene Pitney recorded it, did a very good record, and became a big hit. And I suspect Mr. Ford may - might have been a little regretful that he didn't have it in the film.
GROSS: OK. One of the lines that I really like in the lyric: 'cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood. When it came to shootin' straight and fast, he was mighty good.
GROSS: It's such a different style, then, like, your sophisticated love songs.
GROSS: Tell me about finding the language for this, you know, Western anthem.
DAVID: I don't know. I seem to hear those things. I find it kind of natural for me to do. I've never had a problem writing Western songs, country songs. You know, most of the work we do as songwriters or any kind of creative person is really done in the imagination. And I guess I imagine things like "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence."
GROSS: Well, here's Gene Pitney to sing "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence," music by Burt Bacharach, lyric by my guest Hal David.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE")
GENE PITNEY: (Singing) When Liberty Valence rode to town, the women folk would hide, they'd hide. When Liberty Valence walked around, the men would step aside because the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood. When it came to shootin' straight and fast, he was mighty good.
(Singing) From out of the East a stranger came, a lawbook in his hand, a man, the kind of man the West would need to tame a troubled land 'cause the point of a gun was the only law that Liberty understood. When it came to shootin' straight and fast, he was mighty good.
(Singing) Many a man would face his gun, and many a man would fall. The man who shot Liberty Valence, he shot Liberty Valence, he was the bravest of them all.
GROSS: That's Gene Pitney, singing "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence," with a lyric by my guest Hal David.
You and Burt Bacharach had such a great deal of success together. Tell me why you ended up breaking up.
DAVID: Well, breaking up is sort of a very strong view of what happened. We had been writing together forever, it seemed. We began to have divergent interests. We had a contract with Warner Brothers to make records for Dionne. There wasn't always time to make those records. Dionne was kind of upset about that.
And suddenly we found ourselves going in different directions, and that's exactly what we did. We just went in different directions. We never broke up in the sense that we got angry with each other, we were mad at each other, we didn't talk to each other. There may have been a time where it was somewhat a little touchy among the three of us, but we really always remained friends.
And today, as for many, many years, we are very close and firm friends.
GROSS: Burt Bacharach was considered the sex symbol, and he, you know, had the celebrity marriage to Angie Dickenson for a while. He was always, and still is really, the more famous one. How do you feel about that?
DAVID: Well, he's a performer.
GROSS: Right, that's true, right.
DAVID: And a very good performer. And he's much more visible than I am. And that's the way it is. Our songs are collaborations between the two of us, and my wife thinks I'm a sex symbol.
GROSS: So I mean, did you want more fame? Did you want...?
DAVID: Well, everybody wants a certain amount of - you know, they say you're never too thin, you're never too rich, and I guess you're never too famous. But I'm very grateful for the career I've had and have.
DAVIES: Lyricist Hal David, speaking with Terry Gross in 1997. David died Saturday in Los Angeles; he was 91. We'll hear more of their interview in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS GIRL'S IN LOVE WITH YOU")
WARWICK: (Singing) Tell me now. Is it so. Don't...
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's 1997 interview with Hal David, the Oscar and Grammy-winning lyricist who died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 91. David is best known for his collaboration with composer Burt Bacharach, which generated hits from the late '50s to the mid-70s, many of them recorded by Dionne Warwick.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALK ON BY")
WARWICK: (Singing) If you see me walking down the street and I start to cry each time we meet, walk on by, walk on by. Make believe that you don't see the tears, just let me grieve in private 'cause each time I see you, I break down and cry. Walk on by. Don't stop. Walk on by. Don't stop. Walk on by.
I just can't get over losing you and so if I seem broken and blue. Walk on by. Walk on by foolish pride, that's all that I have left. So let me hide the tears and the sadness you gave me when you said goodbye. Walk on by. Don't stop.
DAVIES: Dionne Warwick. Let's get back to Terry's 1997 interview with lyricist Hal David.
GROSS: I want to hear a little bit about your background. I know that your parents were from Eastern Europe, I believe.
DAVID: Eastern Europe - from Austria.
GROSS: And your father opened up a deli in, what, Brooklyn or Manhattan?
DAVID: In Brooklyn, a delicatessen and restaurant.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. And you - you and the family lived upstairs from the deli. What was the best part and worst part about living upstairs from your parents' deli?
DAVID: Well, the best part of living upstairs, it was easy to go home from the store. And we did tend to have our meals upstairs, rather than in the store, as a family. The store in our home is about two to three streets away from elementary school, where the four of us - we were four children, three brothers and one sister - went - all went to the same grade school; all went to the same high school.
And everyone knew us. It was kind of a lower middle class area; lower middle class, maybe to poor. And, but it was kind of a very nice and friendly atmosphere to grow up in.
GROSS: And what was the worst part living above the deli?
DAVIES: I don't remember - well, I think it was a cold water flat and so we had sort of a stove in the kitchen and we have a stove of some sort. It would be like a Franklin stove but I'm sure it wasn't, she was sitting room. So it was that. We lived in what was called a railroad flat and you went through from one room to the other to the other rather than through foyers. So there was probably a lack of privacy but I don't remember that too well.
GROSS: Do you think that you paid a lot of attention to lyrics when you were a kid listening to music?
DAVIES: Well, my oldest brother, Mack David, was a songwriter.
GROSS: I'm going to stop you right there, and name some of the songs that he wrote the lyrics to the - this, he wrote the lyrics to "Blue and Sentimental," "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White," "Lili Marlene," is that right?
GROSS: "It Must Be Him," that Vikki Carr hit, "let it please be him, it must be him"...
GROSS: "I'm Just A Lucky So and So," and the lyrics for the TV theme "77 Sunset Strip," "Hawaiian Eye," and "Surfside Six."
DAVID: And "Candy" and "I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine."
GROSS: Yeah. That's pretty impressive. So he was what, your older brother?
DAVID: My oldest brother. I had two older brothers.
GROSS: So when did you start thinking that you wanted to do that, too?
DAVID: Well, I don't know. It seems to me always. I was always interested in writing - more lyrics than music. I played - we all studied music. We all played the violin. When I say all, the three brothers. I had a little band. I don't recall if my brothers did or not, but I had a band that used to play for weddings and bar mitzvahs and things of that nature, in Brooklyn.
And used to work in the Borscht Circuit in the Catskill Mountains during summers. And finally got a job writing advertising copy for the New York Post, which is where I thought I was going to wind up being a newspaper person.
GROSS: I think when you were in the Army, you ended up writing songs for the USO?
DAVID: No, not the USO - the Central Pacific Entertainment Section, which was an Army special service unit which was based in Hawaii, in Honolulu, at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.
GROSS: So, you basically had a show-biz job in the Army?
DAVIES: Oh, that's what I did.
GROSS: That's great.
DAVID: I was very lucky.
DAVID: I think the Army was very lucky to have me away from guns, too.
DAVID: And that's what I did for about three years. I worked writing shows, musical shows, songs, sketches. And it changed my life because when I came out of that, I knew that's what I wanted to do.
GROSS: So, did you have to write like morale boosting kind of songs?
DAVID: No, not really. We were writing entertainment for the Army camps all over the Central and South Pacific.
GROSS: So, remember any of the lyrics that you wrote for the Army?
DAVID: Well, my famous lyric - the one I'm most proud of - and it was a hit in the Pacific, though I'm sure it's not known by your audience, was called, send the salami to your boy in the Army. It's the patriotic thing that everyone should do. "Send the Salami to Your Boy in the Army." Don't just send him things to wear. Send him something he can chew.
GROSS: Oh, this is written by the son of a deli man.
DAVID: It's written by the son of a deli man, and it was a hit. And I remember being with my wife at some function, and somebody came over to our table and said: did you write "Send the Salami to Your Boy in the Army?" 'Cause he had been in the Pacific. And I said I had. And he just wanted to shake my hand.
GROSS: So, it really was well-known during the war?
DAVID: Well-known in the Pacific.
DAVIES: Hal David, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1997. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU KNOW THE WAY TO SAN JOSE")
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 1997 interview with lyricist Hal David who died Saturday at the age of 91.
GROSS: Your first real big break as a lyricist was writing material for Sammy Kaye. And then Sammy Kaye. Was one of the first people to record one of your songs. Your, I think second hit was magic moments, which Perry Como recorded. So it just seems to me you started out writing material for one generation, the Sammy Kaye, Perry Como performers and you ended up writing material that became like really famous with the rock 'n roll generation, songs recorded by The Drifters and Gene Pitney and Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin, Jackie DeShannon, Jerry Butler. So what was that switch like for you to go from, you know, one type of her former to another, from one generation to another?
DAVIES: It never occurred to me that, you know, I, you know, after, with Sammy Kaye I had a song called"The Four Winds and the Seven Seas" that became my first hit. But then I had many songs. I mean I had a song called "American Beauty Rose," which was a hit for Frank Sinatra, "Bell Bottom Blues," which was a number one song for Teresa Brewer. "Broken Hearted Melody," which was a hit for Sarah Vaughan. So it was an ongoing thing. They were the stars of that period, and by the time Burt and I were together were writing for the stars of our period. And later on I wrote "To All The Girls I've Loved Before" which was for Julio Iglesias, which became a star of another period. It just - I'd like to think I keep growing mentally and creatively all the time. I'm very much interested in everything that goes on today and I hope tomorrow as well.
GROSS: There's a song of viewers called "My Little Red Book" and the only version I know a bit is by the band Love. And it's a great, you know, kind of like pre-punk rock version of it. And I don't know the original version, which I believe was written for the movie "What's New Pussycat?"
DAVID: That's correct.
GROSS: What was your reaction to hearing this Love recording of "My Little Red Book?"
DAVID: Well, I liked it. I happen to like that song.
GROSS: Yeah, that's a very good song.
DAVID: It's probably the most rock 'n roll song that Burt Bacharach and I ever wrote.
GROSS: Did you see it as a rock 'n roll song when you wrote it?
DAVID: Yeah, because we wrote it for a rock 'n roll group in the picture. It was Eric Burdon I think of The Animals.
GROSS: Oh. They performed in the movie.
GROSS: You could see I haven't seen the movie.
DAVID: It's a fun movie, Woody Allen's fun movie. And I remember recording that song in London and, you know, it was a kick. You mentioned earlier about writing in the rock 'n roll period. But if you listen to our songs, even though we wrote it in that period, and we wrote in what I would think in a very contemporary style, the songs really weren't rock 'n roll.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. The songs themselves.
DAVID: Yeah. They were just very individual and I think that's one of the things that helped make them popular. But "Little Red Book" was a real rock 'n roll song. I always had a lot of fun with it.
GROSS: Let's hear the Love recording of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY LITTLE RED BOOK")
LOVE: (Singing) I just got out my little red book the minute that you said goodbye. I thumbed right through my little red book. I wasn't gonna sit and cry. And I went from A-Z. I took out every pretty girl in town. They dance with me and as I held them, all I did was talk about you. Hear your name and I start to cry. There is just no getting over you, oh, no. There ain't no...
GROSS: Music by Burt Bacharach, lyric by my guest, Hal David. The group is Love.
You and Burt Bacharach have each said that "Alfie" is your favorite song, or at least right on top there.
GROSS: Why is "Alfie" your favorite?
DAVID: Well, in writing songs, we're always trying to be as good as we can be - try to be at our very best. We're not always at our very best. I think that's an impossibility for anyone. And then there are time constraints when there are recording sessions to go into; films where the song has got to be produced in a given amount of time; and then the theater piece where it's got to go in very quickly.
So consequently, you let go of songs sometimes before it's every bit as good as you hoped it would be. I think with "Alfie," in my case at least, that song came as close to being the way I wanted that - a song to be.
GROSS: Now, in the bridge there's - it doesn't really rhyme? You know, as sure as I believe there's a heaven above, Alfie, I know there's something much more - something even non-believers can believe in. Tell me about doing that without a rhyme?
DAVID: Well, now that you ask the question, I hadn't even thought of it, and I don't think I even thought that it didn't have a rhyme. You bring it to my attention. That's just exactly how I heard the lyric going. I wrote that lyric for the most part first, and Burt wrote the music afterwards - he wrote a brilliant melody. I just heard those lines and it - the structure of the lines was the way I thought it should fall, in the bridge of the song. And I now know I didn't have a rhyme in the bridge, and that's interesting for me.
GROSS: You know, you said in a 1973 interview - you said, "one thing I never do is think in terms of rhymes. I'm not a rhymester; a technical virtuoso, like Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter. If I do use a rhyme, it's like paste - only to keep a line from falling off a cliff."
DAVID: Well, that's true. I - perhaps that's why I didn't notice I didn't use a rhyme in the bridge of "Alfie" - because there was no need, in my ear and my mind, to get something to hold that bridge together. It seemed to hold itself together. Very often, in a lyric to a melody, it can go on - and ramble on - and lose a sense of structure. And you need a rhyme to sort of hold it together, or else it sort of feels like it's going to fall off a cliff. That's the only way I can picture it.
GROSS: If I were a lyricist, this is an assignment I don't think I would have wanted - write a title theme for a movie called "Alfie," about a womanizer who, you know, really mistreats the women in his life. It seems like a tough assignment.
GROSS: You did good. (LAUGHTER) What did you think, when you got this assigment?
DAVID: Well, I thought to myself, my God, why do they keep giving me these terrible assignments?
DAVID: DAVID: It seemed such an odd phrase - "Alfie." It was not a name that spelled any sort of romance, whatsoever. It sounded almost like a music hall - a British music hall kind of song. And it took me awhile to find my way into the song - which was the opening line: What's it all about? And then suddenly, I had a sense of where I should go.
DAVIES: Lyricist Hall David, speaking with Terry Gross in 1997. David died Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 91.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALFIE?")
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Leslye Headland is best known as a playwright and for her work on the cult FX series "Terriers." Her debut as a screenwriter and film director is the dark comedy "Bachelorette" in which three unmarried women - played by Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, and Lizzy Caplan, confront their demons at the wedding of a high school friend. The film also features Adam Scott, Caplan's co-star from the short-lived Starz cable series "Party Down." Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Long before "Bridesmaids" convinced studio executives that a raunchy, female-centric comedy could find a huge audience, Leslye Headland was busy adapting her play "Bachelorette" into a movie. So this isn't a copycat rom-com, but the themes do overlap.
Each film turns on a female rivalry. In "Bridesmaids," it's between Kristen Wiig's maid of honor and the bride's rich friend, played by Rose Byrne. In "Bachelorette," the rivalry is more complicated, more ugly. It's between the three, 30-ish, unmarried central characters and the bride.
Her name is Becky, she's played by Rebel Wilson, and she's fat. In high school, everyone, including her so-called friends, called her Pigface behind her back. As the movie opens, one of those friends, Regan, played by Kirsten Dunst, is building up Becky's self-esteem when Becky drops the bombshell.
Her wealthy boyfriend, who, until now, hasn't even told his friends he's dating her, has proposed. And she wants Regan to organize the wedding. Which is fine, says Regan, great - except she's thunderstruck. Pigface wasn't supposed to get married first.
Already you can tell that "Bachelorette" is not about, quote, "nice" girls the way "Bridesmaids" was, and the prevailing emotions are anger, resentment, self-hatred and a compulsion to drink too heavily and take massive amounts of drugs.
Isla Fisher's Katie is an out-and-out cokehead and alcoholic, and Lizzy Caplan's Gena is almost as unhinged at the thought of meeting up with the high-school love, played by Adam Scott, she thinks ruined her life. All they can think about when they're reunited with Becky before the wedding is getting bombed at the bachelorette party.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BACHELORETTE")
REBEL WILSON: (as Becky) You guys are all here at my wedding. Me. Isn't it just crazy? Did Regan tell you guys just how excited I am?
KIRSTEN DUNST: (as Regan) You're the first, Pigface, to get married. Oh.
WILSON: (as Becky) Oh.
ISLA FISHER: (as Katie) Oh.
WILSON: (as Becky) I'm going to cry.
FISHER: (as Katie) No, don't cry. Because then I will cry too.
LIZZY CAPLAN: (as Gena) Like, when we all watched Princess Di's funeral together. You remember that?
FISHER: (as Katie) Too soon.
CAPLAN: (as Gena) That's like 15 years ago, pal.
FISHER: (as Katie) Uh, that was like four years ago.
CAPLAN: (as Gena) It was 15 years ago, Katie.
FISHER: (as Katie) It was five...
DUNST: (as Regan) You know, I think I know when Lady Dianna died.
WILSON: (as Becky) Did Regan explain it to you about the party tonight?
DUNST: (as Regan) I was just trying to tell them that...
WILSON: (as Becky) Yeah. Well, OK, it's a little last minute but we are having champagne.
FISHER: (as Katie) Whoop.
WILSON: (as Becky) And ice cream in our suite after the rehearsal dinner.
FISHER: (as Katie) Great. And then we're going to, like, party, right? Like ugh. Like, like, ugh.
WILSON: (as Becky) Yeah. It's just that a lot of the bridesmaids came from out of town so I just had to keep it really low key. And besides, I'm not a big partier anymore. Not like some people.
EDELSTEIN: What follows isn't fun debauchery, as in "The Hangover" and its ilk, or the scene in "Bridesmaids" when Wiig gets adorably stoned on a plane. When "Bachelorette's" three central characters get blotto, something monstrous takes over. The word Pigface is inevitably hurled. Then, two of the gal-pals decide to snap a photo of themselves sharing Becky's tent of a wedding gown, which doesn't fully survive the experience.
The hell-night that follows takes the trio all over the city, to a bridal shop, a strip club to locate the men in the bachelor party and their old high school. Headland's tone is all over the place, lingering on the women's humiliation and then steering them into fairy-tale rom-com pair-ups. But I think the wobbly tone doesn't hurt material this feverish. And this is, despite a long, hard look into the sadness of these women's lives, a comedy.
It's also a showcase for its three leads. "Bachelorette" features yet another superb performance from Dunst, whose booze-reddened face gets slack with self-disgust as Regan contemplates the cumulative effect of years of trying to make herself attractive to men, including James Marsden as the latest man to fancy her.
Isla Fisher can be exuberantly nutty without making Katie's drug abuse remotely attractive. And this could be a breakout movie for the saucer-eyed Lizzy Caplan, who moodily stews as Gena's poise collapses into grief. "Bachelorette" won't give "Bridesmaids" a run for its money at the box office - it's too abrasive. But I loved its headlong pace and all the dark emotions it dredges up. I enjoyed it less than "Bridesmaids," but I respected myself more in the morning.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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