The 25th anniversary version of National Lampoon’s Animal House comes out on DVD tomorrow. I talked about the film here – the soundtrack recording is also very noteworthy. Yes, I have spent way too much time over the years thinking about this.
The Animal House Soundtrack features material from seven different categorical sources – I believe this to be a record.
1. The first category consists of original rock ‘n’ roll standards taken from the period depicted in the movie (the early ’60s). These songs include “Twistin the Night Away” by Sam Cooke, “Tossin and Turnin'” by Bobby Lewis, “Hey Paula” by Paul and Paula, “Let’s Dance” by Chris Montez, and “What a Wonderful World” by Sam Cooke.
2. The second category: “period” remakes recorded for the film with John Belushi on lead vocals: “Louie Louie” and “Money (That’s What I Want).”
3. “Shout” remake, produced by Mark Davis as performed in the film by “Otis Day and the Knights” with Lloyd Williams on lead vocals.
4. Original period piece written and produced by Davis, as performed in the film by “Otis Day and the Knights,” with lead vocals by Lloyd Williams, “Shama Lama
5. Original period pieces written and performed by Stephen Bishop, “Dream Girl”
and the title track, “Animal House.”
6. Original orchestral music written and conducted by Elmer Bernstein, “Faber College Theme.”
7. Dialogue snippets from the movie.
Let us explore these derivations further:
1. The oldies on the soundtrack are well-chosen, but none were particularly
revived in real life as a result of their placement within the movie or on the soundtrack.
2. Things get very interesting in a confusing way with the “Louie, Louie” and “Money” remakes recorded for the film with John Belushi on lead vocals. Not only are they crucial to the movie, (“Money” follows “Louie, Louie” in the introductory party scene which identifies Animal House with the origination of rock ‘n’ roll itself), but Belushi’s version rejuvenated the popularity of both of these songs, especially “Louie, Louie.” Many people under the age of 35 recognize and prefer the Belushi version over the Kingsmen original.
As the character Bluto, portrayed by Belushi, interacts with the song “Louie, Louie,” as recorded by lead singer John Belushi, some complex questions of ontology come to the fore. Ontology is the philosophical study of the layers of reality, i.e., what it is that makes something, or someone, real.
John Belushi recorded these two songs in a recording studio, presumably before the movie was shot. But in the movie, Belushi-the-actor, interacts with Belushi-the-recording-artist, as though he were singing along with the original recording. In the film, he sings along with “Louie, Louie” as the Deltas do a kind of line dance, involving nudging and head-butting, at the pledge initiation party.
As Belushi was acting out the scene he probably faked the singalong, and then, after the fact, he probably dubbed the Bluto singalong vocals over his own recorded version of “Louie, Louie” so that the scene you see and hear in the theater is Belushi singing along with himself lip-synching a prerecorded version of “Louie, Louie,” upon which he was the lead singer. He was in the studio twice and acted it out a third time. You have to be Socrates to figure this stuff out.
3. A good case can be made for Animal House as a musical: characters perform and interact with songs at key and pivotal parts of the film. Actors portray musicians performing musical numbers. This happens in the bizarre Belushi sense, and in the more conventional Otis Day and the Knights scenes.
The two Otis Day scenes are among the most vividly remembered scenes from the film. The scenes flow smoothly from the action so that the audience is barely cognizant of the fact that these are staged musical numbers. The first number, “Shout,” is a group of actors portraying a band entertaining at a fraternity party.
The actor portraying Otis Day is DeWayne Jessie. He is not the singer on the recording though, Lloyd Williams is. So DeWayne is just lip-synching to a recording by another singer, as did Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.
Animal House succeeds because it reproduces the liberation and ecstasy of rock ‘n’ roll in story form. “Shout” is where the rock ‘n’ roll metaphor becomes reality. The movie is no longer about rock ‘n’ roll emotions, it suddenly is rock ‘n’ roll.
The band, Otis Day and the Knights, performs “Shout” in the basement of the Delta house for their toga party. Everyone dances riotously. The band circles around the singer like Indians around a wagon train, spurring him onto even greater vocal bedazzlements. The crowd crouches down to the ground during the “little bit softer now” segment and rises accordingly to “a little bit louder now, a little bit louder now,” pausing at the bottom to gator – to writhe spastically on the ground.
The crowd raises its hands and shouts when the lyrics call for it. The character Boon (Peter Riegert), who is sans date, mimics Otis Day’s every nuance, not out of mockery, but out of deep respect and a desire to fit in with the revelry.
This scene has been recreated in real life, thousands of times, all over the country. People want to participate in the feeling of that scene with their bodies. They want their lives to imitate this art. There is something tribal and fundamental about participating in group ritual, a ritual of solidarity against what is often vague and nonspecific in real life – the forces of repression and routine and boredom and authority. In the movie these targets are made real, specific and absolute, Dean Wormer and the Omegas. People dance with vigor and animation to this song as though they are trying to physically eliminate these foes. They stomp them into the ground, they crawl all over them, they fight them.
25 years after the release of the film, “Shout” is still the most popular audience participation number at parties. People still act out the scene from the toga party. As a DJ, I have had 2,000 people simultaneously crawl down on the ground in the middle of the street and raise their hands and yell “Shout” at the appropriate times, the whole bit. The DJ, the conduit, can feel the power flow as people are united into a unanimous, joyous unit.
Essentially then, Animal House is a naturalistic musical with “Shout” as its centerpiece.
4. Animal House’s second-most memorable scene is the one in the black bar, again featuring Otis Day and the Knights. In this one, Otis isn’t so happy to see the lads as they stumble in to where they shouldn’t oughta. The scene perceptively points out that a performer must wear many faces, one for each crowd that he entertains. This is not the Otis Day of the fraternity party. This is the Otis Day that is a black man performing for other black people. They do an original written for the film (by Mark Davis) entitled “Shama Lama Ding Dong” (not to be confused with “Rama Lama Ding Dong” by the Edsels). The song is an excellent R&B finger snapper with a Fats Domino feel.
Another remarkable tribute to the power of this film and to its impact upon popular culture, is the Otis Day phenomenon. Otis Day and the Knights were not a real group. By now that should be obvious. They were a group of actors portraying musicians. Mark Davis assembled the musicians to record “Shout” and “Shama Lama Ding Dong.”
DeWayne Jesse, the actor portraying Otis Day, had nothing to do with the recordings. As “Otis Day” he was only onscreen for six minutes. And yet the impact of those six minutes was so great that there arose a demand for Otis Day and the Knights in the real world: the Otis Day and the Knights as seen in the movie. This created a problem. How to reconcile the appearance with the sound? Fortunately, as his manager put it when I booked Otis Day and the Knights into high school dances and frat parties, “It’s a damn good thing that DeWayne can sing.”
Jesse assembled a backup band and hit the college circuit as “Otis Day and the Knights.” He was Otis Day, and he sounded enough like Williams (the singer on the soundtrack) to make it work. DeWayne made a good living as Otis for many years thereafter. Every college wanted to prove it could live up to the Animal House tradition, and Otis Day had to be there to sanction the event – like the NCAA. There was even an Otis Day and the Knights album, produced not by Davis, the rightful heir to this good fortune, but by George Clinton! It failed, but the VHS tape of the live Otis show is much better.
5. Stephen Bishop wrote the girl-group-like original “Dream Girl”, which plays during the two “submarine race” scenes in the movie, and the title track, “Animal House”, which closes out the end credits. Both are effective and inoffensive but neither has created any impact outside of the movie theatre.
Where Bishop made the most impact is in a cameo role within the film. He plays the mondo-sincero folk singer who croons, “I gave my love a cherry,” at the toga party. By the time he gets to “I gave my love a story that has no end,” Bluto has zeroed in on the source of this aural annoyance. He wrests the guitar from Bishop’s aggrieved hands and smashes it to smithereens. “Sorry.”
6. Elmer Bernstein wrote incidental music and the appropriately pompous “Faber College Theme,” which opens and closes the soundtrack album.
7. Also on the record are lines from the movie, like the “I gave my love a cherry” scene, the “Do ya wanna dance” intro to “Shout,” and the “It’s so good to be back at the Dexter Lake Club” intro to “Shama Lama Ding Dong.”
I don’t know which, among all of these audio selections on the soundtrack, is the most “real.” The very fact that so many ontological questions are raised by the film and the soundtrack points to the depth and the impact that Animal House has had on the American public, or at least on me. Certainly, no film has had more impact upon our party habits and rituals.