Darth Used to Know

Aretha Franklin does a grisly mean cover of The Band’s “The Weight” with Duane Allman on slide guitar. Hopefully you’ve heard it. It’s a soulful three minutes that takes the instantly high-making hippie jam and transforms it into a heavyweight punch delivered with a drizzle of honey. Beyond its intrinsic value, what makes it an excellent cover is that it doesn’t merely echo a popular song. Instead, it proves how malleable great music can be while putting the Franklin stamp on it. Franklin grabs it and makes it her own.

By now, we fully accept cover songs. We even expect them. It’s a phenomenon that grew from the humble roots of “traditionals” – songs that were wholly communal, sung by all sorts of artists until the original writer seemed to disappear behind a fog of different versions.  At a certain point, more variety was favored and covers became a sort of clever way to share the language of music. A big-name band covering someone else’s work at once showed reverence to the original, proved it could be twisted into the performer’s wheelhouse, and exhibited a kind of unselfish knowledge to the audience. It said, “I’m a musician, but I’m a fan, too.”

At this point, we look forward to covers not only from prominent musicians but from everyday fans wanting to share their enthusiasm and talent. Karmin scored over 71m views of their cover of Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now,” and they’ve graduated from making cute versions of hip hop songs into creating their own Top 20 work. The undisputed ouroboros moment, though, came when Gotye made a “Somebody I Used to Know” Remix version made from fan covers of “Somebody I Used to Know.” The original artist used fans’ interpretations of his work in order to make a new version of that work. In essence, Gotye covered himself.

So, if we can celebrate covers in the music world, why can’t we appreciate remakes in the movie world? After all, they’re the same exact concept. Someone has created a piece of art, and now someone else is going to make the same piece of art with their own vision. That’s why covers and remakes both straddle the weird judgement line of having to be similar enough to the original to deserve the mantel but different enough to warrant existence. However, even though they’re structurally the same, there are a few main reasons why covers get a pass while remakes get nothing but grief.

Criminal Intent

We’re at a numb place in regards to remakes. They’ve been going on as long as movies have been around, but it seems that we’ve never been as rawly exposed to them as we are now. Judging purely from the news cycle, the studios are spending every hour digging through the archives to figure out what owned property they can remake next. Even if that’s not true, it feels like it, and that matters. There are two key reasons to make a remake:

  1. Using name-recognition to create a sales boost or advertising advantage in order to make money
  2. To riff stylistically on another piece of art for the challenge of adding something new to an older conversation

Clearly studios are greatly concerned with the first, which is why it’s easy to be cynical about remakes while jamming out to They Might Be Giants doing Chumbawumba. It’s specifically in knowing the intent behind the remake that discredits it as a creative work. Even if the film turns out to be stellar, it was born from the accounting department. And, yes, It Was Born From the Accounting Department would make an amazing 1930s creature feature. And when it gets remade, we’ll all groan – even if we know in the back of our minds that the original won’t get erased and that new fans might find it. These are the mantras we’ve learned to repeat so that our ears don’t bleed.

On the flipside, the newly announced prospect of a Videodrome remake represents a craven height of misunderstanding both reasons for remake existence. Universal trying to cover Cronenberg is foolish because it serves neither purpose. Anyone who recognizes the name will (and probably already has) spit on the project, negating any potential monetary help name-recognition brings. In fact, it’s lose-lose because, at best, fans will stay away, and at worst, the negative clamor will drag it down before it even starts rolling.

This seems obvious, which is all the more frustrating. If a major studio is trying to remake a cult icon with troubling techno-philosophical and psychological implications with one of the Transformers writers, but there’s no way to benefit from the monetary impetus to make a remake in the first place, what are they trying to do exactly? If the team wants us to believe it’s for the artistic pursuit, the whole affair comes off looking a lot like your cousin who does caricatures at the county fair proclaiming that he wants to make his own version of “Guernica.”

Just keep repeating: the original still exists and it can gain more fans.

Whose Line Is It Anyway?

The gut reaction to remakes goes beyond intent – all the way to the originator of the idea. When Sum 41 does Metallica doing Queen, it’s because the band got together and decided to toss it into a show or two. It, at the very least, seems less likely that a manager or record executive came up with the idea and told them to do it. Now, it’s perfectly plausible that some filmmakers approach studios in 2012 with designs on a film that studio owns, but is that really how we as fans see things happening behind the scenes? Of course not. It’s not even simply the intent behind the project, but that it doesn’t come directly from a creator that diminishes it.

But maybe we’re just in the middle of the transition. Maybe we’re the middle children of remake history and they will slowly gain acceptance the way cover songs have. There’s also the numbers game to consider; Hollywood churns out anywhere from 250-300 movies a year while recording artists make four-hundred-million-thousand-billion songs a week. Making a cover is a lot easier, less time-intensive and can be done with less manpower, so when we hear one, we can enjoy it or not without much outside implication. It’s most likely not keeping our favorite recording artist busy for 6 months or a year. When we hear a studio is planning another remake, we know that it comes at the expense of another project in an all-too-finite line-up.

So what would happen if we started to deny the dissimilarities and simply looked at movie remakes as their cover song counterparts? Would we lighten up a bit about them or would it be a case of smiling while taking a poison pill? If this trend is here to stay, perhaps the best plan is one of appeasement. We don’t have to buy tickets to the remakes, but we also don’t have to riot in the streets whenever a new one is announced. Perhaps there will come a shining time when a studio announces a remake and has done right by fans so often that we’ll smile knowingly and await a cool new twist on an old favorite.

Or maybe Cronenberg was right all along.

Either way, I – like Gotye – look forward to thousands of writers re-writing this article in their own style.

Top Image from Teddie Films’ “The Star Wars That I Used to Know


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