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Casablanca Goes to the Oscars

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Casablanca Goes to the Oscars


While not a critical success, Thank God It’s Friday (1978) spawned a Top Ten gold soundtrack and earned Donna Summer, who starred in the movie, a Top Five gold hit when “Last Dance” landed at number three on the pop charts. Casablanca’s other film property of 1978, Midnight Express, was directed by Alan Parker (and written for the screen by Oliver Stone) and garnered favorable reviews from critics while Giorgio Moroder’s accompanying soundtrack was as bracing as the film. Chris Bennett wrote the lyrics for the vocal version of the theme and David Castle contributed a number of songs to the project, but it was Moroder’s “Chase”, a pulsating, claustrophobic composition, that was extracted for single release and hit the Top 40. The movie was the first of many successful and memorable film scores Moroder would compose throughout his career.


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Giorgio Moroder: Neil Bogart and Peter Guber co-financed Midnight Express. They presented the song “I Feel Love”, with Donna Summer, to Alan Parker, who liked the idea of having a synthesizer soundtrack for the movie.


Chris Bennett: Giorgio comes into town. I happened to be in America. He calls and says, “I’m doing this music for this film about this guy smuggling drugs and I need a lyric by tomorrow”. I thought, “Could you be a little more specific?” (laughs) I know I didn’t really ever get a script, or, I may have gotten a little more of the story out of him. I co-wrote the theme song.


Castle: I felt from the beginning that it was going to be a big picture. The script was fabulous. I really enjoyed reading it. I wrote several songs but I read into the romanticism between Billy Hayes and his girlfriend Susan and what was going down. I didn’t realize that they were shooting it in a very realistic way. I believe that’s why they used “Istanbul Blues” because some of my other songs were more romantic and it wasn’t that kind of movie. It’s difficult when you just have the script to go by, even though I figured it was going to be very realistic. I’m a romanticist at heart so I just read that into it. I was very grateful and flattered that Neil Bogart chose my song. The lyric was actually in the script and I figured, “Well the guy that it happened to wrote the script. How can I outdo that?” I just went with that lyrics and put a blues melody to it and they used it. Neil asked me to sing it on the soundtrack.


Summer: Never in my life have I heard a soundtrack be so unbelievably attached to the movie in just about every moment of the movie where the music comes up. It is so part of the movie that it’s not incidental. It really makes your body almost part of the movie. When I watching the movie, I had no idea that Giorgio had done the soundtrack and I was sitting in the movie and I kept saying to Bruce (Sudano) – I think I went to see the movie with Paul Jabara and Brad Davis, who was in the movie – “This music blows my mind. Who did the music?” We wait until the end of the movie and I see Giorgio’s name go up. I kept talking about the movie and the music the whole time. It’s a powerful movie. They should re-make that movie today because it’s very pertinent and relevant especially with all that’s going on in the world. Just the whole concept of that movie is really scary. Terrifying, actually. It would work today.


Bennett: It was 1978 but that still holds up. It was such a classic score and I still hear it played.


Castle: I was invited to a special screening of Midnight Express. My manager and I, and I believe the promotion guy for Parachute Records, were there. He sat with us. The funny thing is we watched the picture then after the credits rolled we got up and we turned around. The guy that played Hamidou (Paul L. Smith), the real mean guy, was standing behind us. My manager went, “Oh my God, you’re the bad guy!” We all walked out to our cars together. He told us that it took him a week of taking those two little twin boys that played his sons in the movie out for ice cream after the shooting to get them to believe he was a nice guy and that he was just play-acting. Afterwards, we just laughed. He’s really a nice man.


Echoing the kind of variety Casablanca had with its music repertoire, Midnight Express and Thank God It’s Friday couldn’t have been more different. The former was a gritty translation of a real-life account about Billy Hayes’ imprisonment in Turkey for smuggling drugs, the latter was a PG-rated extravaganza documenting one night at a Los Angeles discotheque. Yet, when the nominees for the 1978 Academy Awards were announced, both films were represented: Paul Jabara for “Best Original Song” (“Last Dance”) and Giorgio Moroder for “Best Original Score” (Midnight Express). Both won the award.


Moroder: Winning the Oscar for Midnight Express was one of the most incredible days of my life. Not only had I never dreamed of winning one but then it almost came too fast. 


Summer: I remember that I was standing in the back. I was supposed to be in Vegas at that time and they pushed the show back so that I could do the Oscars, but I had to still go and do the show. It was tedious. Everything had to be precise because I was on a private jet going back and I had to be dressed. From that show, I was going right onstage so I didn’t even have time to get dressed. I was backstage and I was standing there with Melissa Manchester and Olivia Newton-John. Lee Marvin was sitting over at the bar. Paul Jabara was sitting either beside me or behind me and at some point Paul and I looked at each other. They hadn’t announced who had won yet but they were standing there getting ready to announce it. I just could not take it another second, I just screamed out loud. I couldn’t take it. At the end of the scream, they said “Last Dance” and we just freaked out. I just started screaming. We didn’t know we would win. We were running around in a circle, acting crazy.


Hart-Winer: That Oscar…we were over the moon.


Chotin: I just remember us at the company were all like, “Do you believe it? We have an Oscar! We’re a record company and we have an Oscar”.


D’Ariano: Paul Jabara won an Oscar! How did that happen? The song was in this movie that Bogart put together. I’m taking nothing away from Paul’s talent or Donna’s talent but part of Neil’s talent was his ear and finding these talented artists. Once he had them, he knew how to take them to levels and heights that nobody else could.

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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