Taking a look at every time a director has used Barry White’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ in film history.
Last weekend I watched eight movies. It wasn’t all of the Star Wars films. I watched another classic film saga: a saga that includes Think Like A Man, Charlie Wilson’s War, Semi-Pro, and five other films. The one common factor between these films? They all include Barry White’s 1973 banger “Never Gonna Give You Up” in their soundtrack. Today is White’s birthday, and to honor the birth of the smooth-talking recording artists I’m going to dissect why some of these movies use the song effectively and why some of them do not.
The variety of films that use the song is pretty impressive. The genres span out and out comedy to hard drama. When I looked up how many times this song has been used in film the number eight seemed both too high and too low. On one hand the song is a natural choice for a passionate love scene, but on the other hand, the song seems too obvious. It seems to parody itself. What director would risk the distraction of having this song play during one of their scenes? Honestly, the now-cliché sexy melody overpowers most scenes it is laid over.
In case you need a refresher on just who Barry White is: he’s whom Rolling Stone calls, “The Godfather of bedroom soul.” His hits I’m Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby and It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me in league with “Never Gonna Give You Up” show the range of his lyrical subject matter. He’s the kind of person who talks about himself in the third person. These three facts should give you a rough sketch of just whom we’re dealing with in this article. Now, for the movies.
Surprisingly, the first narrative feature film to use “Never Gonna Give You Up” was released 22 years after the single. The 1995 film Dead Presidents presents the life of a young African American man from the Bronx who spends four years in Vietnam, only to come back to the Bronx to find life in the borough is just as hard as it was in Vietnam (albeit for different reasons). The film spans many years and uses period songs to demarcate the change in time. For the year 1973, directors Albert and Allen Hughes use White’s track. Being the first time the track was used in a feature, it is utilized in a relatively nuanced manner. The scene over which the song plays is in a bar, and the mix suggests that it is being played diegetically, meaning the song is part of the characters’ world.
Anthony Curtis, our hero, meets with his girlfriend’s sister (Delilah) who has joined the Nat Turner Cadre (a group of black communists). She’s had a crush on Anthony since they were kids, and in her infatuation agrees to help him rob an armored truck. While the scene is short, and their backstory is not drawn out in dialogue, the plot points are helped out by White’s sensual crooning. The scene starts with the chorus of “never, never gonna give you up” setting the stakes for the encounter.
The line speaks to multiple relationships in the scene. First, Anthony has just returned from Vietnam where he was tasked to kill communists, and now he is being courted to join the communist party. He can’t escape the political turmoil he thought he was leaving when he ended his tour. The other relationship the song speaks to is between Delilah and Anthony. Delilah’s failure to give Anthony up will eventually lead to her involvement in the armored car robbery and her ultimate death. The song takes on a foreboding quality in light of these two relationships.
Another film that utilizes the love ballad’s foreboding quality is 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War. Director Mike Nichols uses the song to set in place themes carried throughout the film. The song is about making love (per White’s explanation), and while Charlie Wilson exists in a world in which he has access to all the women he would like to make love to, by the end of the film what he actually ends up screwing (pardon the phraseology) is Afghanistan and the Middle East. The film quite literally ends with a quote from Wilson saying as much, “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we fucked up the endgame.”
The parallel between Charlie Wilson’s view of global politics and Barry White’s view of women don’t end there. White’s idea of women could be characterized as patronizing. He believed he had the authority to characterize women as a whole, that he knew what women as a monolith wanted and did not want. An example comes from a profile by Rolling Stone. The magazine published an interview with White in 1995 (coincidently, the same year the first feature film including his track was released). In the interview White confidently says that all women do not like caviar (oddly specific generalization, I know). Backing up his claim he says, “They have a different nature.”
Wilson has a similarly simplistic view of political relations in the Middle East. His entire campaign to arm Afghan soldiers is predicated on the belief that after the Afghani soldiers beat back the invading forces from the USSR there will be peace. Turns out that wasn’t the case. Wilson blames the American government’s lack of follow through for the instability in the region after the USSR was pushed back, but even if the US had given aid to Afghanistan there is no guarantee the Middle East would have more stability. Just like White’s outdated, sexist view of women, Wilson has an outdated, neo-colonial view of foreign relations.
Moving on to an example of lazy soundtracking, the 1996 film Bullet simply lays the track over the main characters experiencing a drug trip. The song plays over the radio and the characters drive around the city singing the song, seeing wobbly buildings and multi-colored train tracks. The only point of the song is to communicate, “Yeah, our main character is a junkie. Yeah, he’s never going to give up heroin and coke.” But really, we could get the same information without the song. There’s no added information provided by the soundtrack.
Similarly, the Will Ferrell comedy Semi-Pro uses the song to comedic effect, but it doesn’t really add to the overall story. The song is used when a minor character finds his wife cheating on him with one of the titular semi-pro basketball players. The joke of the scene is that the husband does not mind. Granted, many of Will Ferrell’s films are structured like a string of sketches with a narrative through-line, and in this capacity, the song works well to sell the joke of this particular sketch—the tension built with the song’s string intro is released when we see the husband not mind his cheating wife. However, each sketch should also have an emotional payoff that drives the narrative forward. In this particular scene, the joke muddies the narrative.
Another unfulfilling use of “Never Gonna Give You Up” is found in the 2012 comedy Think Like a Man. This is probably the laziest use of the song in film history. Lauren, a COO who is dating a struggling chef runs into an old schoolmate, and the song swells to give the audience the feeling of, “Wait, she’s not… is she going to leave her perfect boyfriend for this guy??” Spoiler: she is. The song adds nothing that the characters don’t reveal in exposition dialogue, and because of the uninventive usage of the song, the song itself feels extra cliché.
A comedy that hits close to the mark in terms of a soundtrack to characterization is Bruce Almighty. The film employs the song in a Meta way in which Bruce (who is setting the mood for a night with his girlfriend) says, “Barry, help me out here,” and the song starts playing. Though the song is nothing more than a tool for Bruce, the use of the song says something about his character. Just as Barry White represents an insufferable masculinity, Bruce is an insufferable God. Barry White portrays himself as being the master of the bedroom where Bruce is quite literally the master of the universe. However, in both cases, that doesn’t mean that they are infallible. Like I have previously stated, White was incredibly patronizing to women, while Bruce makes decisions that have negative global consequences (when he enlarges the moon it triggers a tsunami in Japan).
The best example of a comedy that utilizes White’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” is the 1996 Australian film Love Serenade. Definitely the oddest film on this list, Love Serenade centers on the romantic relationship of two sisters and a radio DJ who plays slow jams—most frequently Barry White. “Never Gonna Give You Up” is featured at the top of the film. The film begins with the song playing over an image of a fish getting hooked by a fishing line. It next cuts to DJ Ken Sherry who is moving into a small town in Australia. The song plays over the entire sequence and foreshadows his relationship with his new neighbors, two sisters who quickly fall in love with him. The song ties together the images of fish and Ken Sherry, which are sprinkled throughout the film and return in the third act for an incredible twist.
Finally, the most recent use of White’s song is in this summer’s Baby Driver. Edgar Wright uses the song to its fullest potential. First of all, Wright starts the song at the beginning, which is rare (most directors start the track after the string build up). Baby opens three doors in time to the bass hits, so immediately the song is tied to the action. Then the most poignant piece of the sequence is Buddy (Jon Hamm) singing along to the track, lamenting his fallen love. Like the song’s use in Dead Presidents and Charlie Wilson’s War, the song is being used in multiple facets. It literally propels Baby to enter the diner, it evokes emotion from Buddy, and it explains the resolve Baby and Debora have in keeping their relationship all without heavy dialogue.
Happy birthday, Barry. Even though “Never Gonna Give You Up” isn’t always used well, when directors get it right, they get it oh so right. I hope the film world never, never gives up putting the song on the big screen.