Various Artists

Paul Wong
Cast of HBO”s version laughingly discuss Meg Ryan.<br><br>Courtesy of HBO

“I Am Sam” Soundtrack

V2 Records

The soundtrack to “I Am Sam,” the film starring Sean Penn and dealing with the legal and moral issues of a mentally-handicapped father”s claim to his daughter, gathers 18 artists” covers of songs originally written and recorded by the Beatles. Apparently, these Lennon-McCartney songs were running through the head of co-screenwriter/director Jessie Nelson as she conceived of the movie and saw it to fruition. What followed was a soundtrack that includes 17 Beatles” songs recorded specifically for the project. While there are some memorable tracks, the strategy of British V2 Records, to enlist the help of some of their own up and comers, resulted in more than a few miserable failures poor enough they are to send me scampering for my own revolver.

Any artist attempting a cover faces a penumbra. He or she can remain faithful to the original, reproducing the song in a way that pays tribute to the tune”s influence and persistence as a damn important song. Or, the artist can try something that falls under the heading “interpretive.” He or she can use the original as a starting point and explore the song in a way that pays homage differently. Both methods have their hurdles, and both methods have their virtues.

Some have pulled off a Beatles cover: Joe Cocker did it, Cheap Trick did it, and bands such as the Black Crowes and Oasis have regularly added a Beatles song to their live repertoires. There are some songs, however, that should never be touched. Some songs are such kin to the figure of the Fab Four that this culture holds in its collective conscience that to reproduce them is almost, I regret, an act of debasement. Take a listen to the Black Crowes” attempt at “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” It”s not that the Crowes aren”t a fine rock band. It”s that “Lucy” is an emblem of the Beatles” transformation from mop-tops to adults and that gives the song its power. And Ben Harper, love him or hate him, fails just as badly in reaching for another untouchable, “Strawberry Fields Forever.” I hesitate to even mention the desecration that is Nick Cave”s cover of “Let it Be.”

Chocolate Genius turns “Julia” into a funk-rock ballad, if such a thing exists. This borders on disrespect for Lennon”s deft finger-style tribute to his mom. Space-rockers Grandaddy”s version of “Revolution” lacks the distorted, bluesy punch not to mention the intro of the original. Heather Nova sounds like Lisa Loeb and messes up “We Can Work It Out.” Fratboy fave Howie Day does the same to “Help!” he just doesn”t have the vox to pull it off. And Sheryl Crowe”s version of “Mother Nature”s Son” makes us all wonder how many more good songs she”s going to ruin. British trio Stereophonics slow down and strip “Don”t Let Me Down” in a way that loses the original”s soulfulness. McCartney”s “Blackbird,” originally recorded with just an Epiphone Texan and a metronome, is tinkered with by Sarah Mclachlan to the point that it sounds kitsch and contrived.

For the most part, the songs are toned down probably part of the larger scheme of the movie. A nice exception is “I”m Looking Through You” by the Wallflowers, the soundtrack”s only upbeat number. Eddie Vedder is nice and sad on “You”ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” backed by only a 12-string, bass, tambourine and harmonica. Paul Westerberg plus an acoustic equals a decently-listenable version of “Nowhere Man.” And Ben Folds delivers a cover of “Golden Slumbers” soaked in emotion.

There are two gems on this soundtrack. Permanently-sad Aimee Mann teams up with Michael Penn for a melancholy “Two of Us.” And Rufus Wainwright”s cover of “Across the Universe,” is a fine version of a fine song. The sensitive/affected/nerdy hipster”s whiny croon is powerful. It”s surprising that he plays the guitar instead of the piano, but Rufus stays true to Lennon”s original.

The lasting effect of this soundtrack is an affirmation of the power of these songs. It”s too bad that there aren”t any Harrisongs on here, but George”s tunes, like those on the soundtrack, certainly don”t need to be covered to be remembered. Other than Rufus”s brilliant cover, I will be back to listening to the originals. Nothing”s gonna change my world.

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