So, farewell then, R.E.M.. Athens’ finest – the other Athens, the one in Georgia – called it quits yesterday after 30 years and 15 albums. Their forays into the world of film weren’t as pronounced as some other artistes; Peter Buck and Mike Mills were so camera-shy towards the end of the band’s career that you were more likely to glimpse Osama bin Laden riding on the back of the Loch Ness Monster in an R.E.M. video. But they did delve into it. Michael Stipe, of course, is a producer, with the likes of Saved and Velvet Goldmine on his CV, while Mike Mills has dabbled in the world of soundtracks. But besides that level of involvement, and all the films that share names with R.E.M. songs – King Of Comedy, Drive, Let Me In and Hollow Man to name but four – the band have been influenced by movies, primarily lyrically. Take the following, for example…
The name of the band’s fourth – and, in some ways, best – album, taken from a Peter Sellers quote from A Shot In The Dark, “It’s all part of life’s rich pageant”. The sub editor-baiting title, which really should have an apostrophe, is down to an error by Stipe, who typed it up manually and then, being a daffy stream-of-consciousness sort, decided he liked it. And why not? Clouseau would approve.
The group’s most famous contribution to the world of film, they – or, at least, Buck and Mills – wrote the soundtrack for Milos Forman’s excellent biopic of Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey), who was immortalized in the R.E.M. song of the same name. The soundtrack is at times haunting: Miracle is excellent, as is the instrumental version of the title track, while an in-character Carrey duets with Stipe on the jaunty 'This Friendly World'.
A paean to the late actor, Montgomery Clift, whose career went downhill following a horrendous car accident in 1956. “Don’t you waste your breath for the silver screen,” sings Stipe in the chorus, which could be interpreted as a growl from Clift’s POV. A raw deal, indeed.
Arguably the best track off their underrated penultimate album, Accelerate, this brilliant, dark fever dream – a distillation of all Stipe’s dream world imagery throughout his career as a lyricist – paints a future dystopia where submarines are powered by song, and namechecks Blade Runner’s “Tyrell and his mechanical owl”, all part of the happy funtime dreamland that is Stipe’s subconscious. Most of us just eat giant marshmallows.
In this strange howling track from 1987’s Document, Stipe incorporates very deliberate filmic imagery into his lyrics: ‘show some water, pan the track’ and ‘close up hands, silhouette’; evocative stuff in one of the band’s most cinematic-sounding tracks.
The penultimate cut on their last album, Collapse Into Now, sees Stipe ruminate on the nature of fame and heroism, reimagining the setting of Neil Young’s 'Pocahontas', which recounted a fictional meeting between Young, Pocahontas and Marlon Brando. Best Come Dine With Me ever.
The most glorious love letter to movie stardom and Hollywood in R.E.M.’s career comes in the second verse of this swooning ballad, the last track on their magnificent 1996 album, New Adventures In Hi-Fi. Imagining a scenario where the listener is swooping spectrally through Los Angeles, Stipe identifies with the pretty young hellraising things that lit up Mulholland Drive over the years: “I’m Martin Sheen,” he sings, “I’m Steve McQueen, I’m Jimmy Dean.” OK, it doesn’t hurt that their names rhyme.
Essentially a song about the late River Phoenix, one of Stipe’s closest friends ('Let Me In', from Monster, is about Kurt Cobain, in a similar vein), this raucous rocker from New Adventures may seem impersonal in the verses (“Bus punch avalanche!”) but comes together for a howling lament in the chorus, that can only have come from the heart for Stipe. “Here it comes!” he cries, while Mike Mills wails in the background, “I’m carried away.” And then the kicker in the last verse – “You will be young forever; there’s so much that I can’t do.” Naked, helpless, powerful.
Another track from Collapse Into Now, this barnstorming rocker is short but sweet, which means that Stipe has to work hard to cram a flotilla of movie references into the second verse. But he manages it anyway. You can make up your own minds about whether the reference to the "'74 Torino" is a tip of the hat to Clint Eastwood, but there's no doubting the namechecking of "Sharon Stone Casino" and "Scarface Al Pacino". Have we been given an inadvertent insight into the ultimate Friday night double-bill chez Stipey?