Movies

The Big Bad Swap: The Problem With Replaced Music

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Imagine that you pay for a copy of a movie you particularly like. You've loved it forever; you know it by heart. You fire it up on your TV — or your iPad, or your computer — and you discover that the locations are all different. A scene that once took place on the streets of New York has been digitally transformed so that it takes place on a suburban cul-de-sac. Instead of a car chase through the streets of San Francisco, it's a car chase over a golf course in Phoenix.

You'd want your money back, right? Of course you would, because you didn't get what you paid for, which was the movie you know.

While that doesn't routinely happen with scenery, it does happen with the music. It's most notoriously been a problem with television shows that didn't secure the rights they needed to release on DVD — and sometimes even in syndication — resulting in very unhappy purchasers of shows including WKRP In Cincinnati who found that all or most of the contemporary music was replaced, often with generic substitutes.

Sometimes, the effect is primarily on background music, but sometimes it's on elements as fundamental as theme songs, including the Joe Cocker cover of "With A Little Help From My Friends," which was swapped out when The Wonder Years came to Netflix. Quite frankly, until relatively recently, it wasn't clear that ordinary television shows would have a life on commercial home video, and it's not necessarily surprising that the necessary music rights weren't secured. With some shows, it seems to have kept them off DVD altogether — music rights seem a likely culprit for why you can't buy China Beach, an absolutely critical step in the development of strong broadcast dramas and specifically those starring women.

Movies don't have quite the reputation for this kind of thing that TV on DVD does, though it's certainly not unheard of for it to happen with movies. But now that movies are going beyond home video releases, which have been a known issue for a very long time, and are being sold via online streaming, even movies that were always lined up for home video are suffering in the translation to streaming.

This was brought home to me this weekend when I checked out a digital download of When Harry Met Sally that I got through Amazon. While some of the standards from the soundtrack survive — they appear to have been able to line up the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong stuff — much of the rest of the music is substantially different, including just about everything that accompanies the last ten or twelve minutes of the movie. A Bing Crosby cover of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" is replaced with a dull "O Tannenbaum" for piano. The wonderful Harry Connick, Jr. "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" — which introduces the upbeat and quintessentially New-York-y New Year's Eve party, and the driving energy of which is carefully chosen to contrast hard against Harry's night at home alone — goes away, replaced by a sedate bit of band business.

We briefly reunite with the original soundtrack for Connick's plinking piano on "But Not For Me" and a quiet "Isn't It Romantic?" And then back to "But Not For Me," and then ... and then in the movie, there is a climactic moment when Frank Sinatra kicks in: "It had to be you." This is the moment that drives the entire concluding sequence of the film. Frank Sinatra is it. The alpha and the omega of love in New York on New Year's Eve, and instead of freaking Frank Sinatra singing a standard, the digital download gives you ... generic saxophone noodling.

It's pretty much an entirely different sequence, without any of the sense of inevitability and destiny — not to mention, you know, romance — that you get from Frank Sinatra kicking in.

More than WKRP, more than The Wonder Years, more than any of the other similar problems I've run into, this felt like simply not getting what I paid for. TV fans are used to it; there are climactic sequences on a lot of shows that have suffered from music changes. But something about getting people to buy a movie and changing this much of its tone and rhythm feels like it shouldn't be sold without a label.

It's not that replacing music here and there is always bad. I'm glad The Wonder Years is on Netflix; it's better than nothing. I wouldn't have wanted endless haggling over the theme song to prevent its being seen. At the same time, it does feel like it's time for a label of some kind that tips off a purchaser that there are music edits, the same way you'd expect to be warned if scenes had been cut or profanity had been dubbed over. What goes on in the digital download of When Harry Met Sally disrupts the artistic choices in the film as much as or more than bleeping swear words, after all, and nobody would sell you a DVD with bleeped swear words without telling you.

What we need, I think, is a system of putting people on notice along with the other format information. You're told whether you're getting widescreen or not; there's no reason you can't be told whether you're getting original music or altered music. Perhaps there should be an allowance for a minimal shift here or there that doesn't have to be flagged — ten seconds of music, or 30, or whatever is fair. But changing a sequence of music choices that were undoubtedly slaved over by everyone involved, and not notifying buyers that what they're buying (or renting, or whatever) is an edited version of the movie doesn't seem at all kosher at this point.

All I'm asking for is information. "Some music has been replaced." "Some music has been edited." "Some music has been replaced with a lot of soulless pantsing around on the saxophone." Whatever seems fair.

Because it no longer seems fair to pass off a substantially different product as the real thing.

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