The Muppet Movie is 40 now. And I could tell you that this makes me feel old, but it doesn't. It oddly makes me feel just right. The music has been with me from when I was little until right now, and I can still listen to it and discover new things. How could you not? It has "Rainbow Connection" in it.
You probably know all this, but The Muppet Movie is a musical, and "Rainbow Connection" is what musical theater people would call its "I Want" song. It's an unusual one. Often, characters who want things in a musical, even if they're ultimately on a quest of self-discovery, express a desire for adventure and exploration (The Little Mermaid's "Part of Your World") or greatness (Hamilton's "My Shot") or comfort (My Fair Lady's "Wouldn't It Be Loverly"). At their most philosophical, they tend toward restless searches for freedom from other people's expectations (Pippin's "Corner of the Sky").
This one is a little different. We swoop through the sky, through clouds and a rainbow, until we hear the banjo phrase — dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk-a dunk-a-dunk — that at first goes unanswered. And as much as it will make you feel like a college first-year with an altered mind lying on a dorm room floor to realize it, the song that follows is really pretty ... deep. Kermit the Frog longs not for stardom and riches, though he will embark on a quest for both. His "I Want" song is about hoping to learn that belief in the power of uncertain and ethereal things — rainbows, for instance — is not unfounded.
Who said that every wish
Would be heard and answered
When wished on the morning star?
Somebody thought of that
And someone believed it
And look what it's done so far
What's so amazing that keeps us stargazing?
And what do we think we might see?
Someday we'll find it
The rainbow connection
The lovers, the dreamers, and me.
His "I Want" is not just for his own dreams to come true. It's for those who believe in the enchanting myths that we've all written together to be proved right. Someday, he hopes, we will find a thread that makes all this make sense. You know. Life. It's almost a "We Want" song.
Hey, pass me a beer, dude.
Of course, this is not what I heard as a child who was 8 years old when this movie came out, right in the sweet spot of its generational wallop. As a kid, I heard a little ditty about rainbows, lovers, dreamers, wishes, dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk and the way "amazing" and "stargazing" sound so pretty pushed so close together. My sister and I had this soundtrack album, and we listened to it exhaustively (and, to my parents, probably exhaustingly). Not only that, but we hauled out the family's manual typewriter and pecked out all the lyrics. This was our version of trying to crawl inside music, I think, to see what was going on. There were words on the album we most definitely either didn't understand or had to have explained to us: I don't think we knew what "aurora borealis" meant, let alone why "Aurora borealis shining down on Dallas" was a trippy lyric in "Can You Picture That?" — part of the oeuvre of the rock band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.
And by the way, I'm certain I didn't understand what a funny band name Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem is.
This is, in large part, the genius of both the music and the movie. It's a sophisticated piece of art, brilliantly made, that has complicated themes and winky jokes that are for parents. But at the same time, it not only appeals to kids but almost teaches kids how to watch movies and how to listen to music.
That music, in this case, comes from Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher. Williams has found himself maybe best remembered for this contribution to the world, despite the fact that he wrote or co-wrote a truckload of music, especially popular stuff from the '70s: "We've Only Just Begun," "An Old Fashioned Love Song," "Evergreen" and "Rainy Days and Mondays," among others. He even wrote the lyrics to the theme song from The Love Boat.
(Allow me to take a moment to recommend most highly a documentary called Paul Williams Still Alive, which I wrote about in 2012 and which is currently available streaming on Amazon Prime Video or for rent elsewhere.)
Williams and Ascher aren't afraid to give you songs that are packed with jokes, often a combination of kid level and not. In the barroom piano number "I Hope That Somethin' Better Comes Along," Kermit and Rowlf the Dog share their woes about women, and there are both dog puns and frog jokes. Women get "under your collar," says Rowlf. "It's fun when they're fetching and agree to see an etching that you keep at your lily pad," muses Kermit. "What could be better than a saucy Irish setter when puppy love comes on strong?" And my personal favorite, "A lover and wife gives you a new leash on life." (To which Kermit asks, "Was that a new leash on life?" — a joke I'm sure I did not understand at 8 even with the frog pointing it out, and one that does not even appear in the film, which shortens that song considerably.)
The whole album walks a line between sophistication and silliness, profundity and playfulness. And all of it seems designed to draw kids into a story they will love and gradually learn to understand. Several songs include what you might call "singalong" elements, where you hear characters singing along with the music, even when there are no words. Not in the same way as a carefully chosen "hey la" refrain like you might hear in pop music, but more like the nonsense you might make up as a kid. You know, like dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk. It happens at the end of "Rainbow Connection" when Kermit sings, "Laaa da da deeee, da da dooo, la daa da da da dee da doo."
Maybe my favorite example is in the road trip song "Movin' Right Along" that Fozzie Bear and Kermit sing together. The first time you hear the chorus, they sing, "Movin' right along," and then there are two beats accompanied by a banjo strum, like dig-a-dum, dig-a-dum. But then next time you hear it, Kermit sings along with his own banjo. He sings, "Movin' right along, dig-a-dum, dig-a-dum." It happens too when Fozzie sings "America the Beautiful." He sings, "America, America, God shed his grace on thee," and then as if he simply can't help it, he sings along, "Bup-bup-bup-buh!" — right along with the swelling music.
Kids are musical empaths, for lack of a better term. They're not just listening to the music; they're often trying to make it at the same time. They want to sing along, drum along, wave their arms — they want to be the music-maker. They want to painstakingly clack-clack-clack the words onto a page in a pantomime of writing lyrics.
And in The Muppet Movie, the avatars on the screen are both making the music and hearing the music. Fozzie hears the orchestra swelling. Kermit noodles around with nonsense words at the end of his own big number. This is a kid-friendly entry point into movie music and music in general.
Fozzie's rendition of "America the Beautiful" raises another delicate matter, which is that he's not particularly in tune. Frank Oz, as Fozzie, just lets it rip. In sharp contrast to Disney's animated films, for instance, where if you don't have a perfect singing voice they will have the music performed by someone who does, Muppet music stays in character. Fozzie belts it out, just like you do, and while Oz can sing much closer to on key, even while affecting very different character voices (as he does for most of Miss Piggy's "Never Before, Never Again"), it's not relevant to this performance. Fozzie is not sweating pitch. And his stuff is still great — listenable, relistenable, hummable, singable. The point of being moved to offer a rendition of "America the Beautiful" in the car, the film posits, is to do it at the top of your lungs. Some singing is meant to be pretty, and some just deeply felt. Again: It's teaching kids how to relate to music in a lot of different ways.
And when music itself is a character expression, it can also be a joke. I admit to being endlessly entertained — perhaps too entertained — by Animal, the rock band drummer (and another Oz creation) who never says much more than "DRUUUUMS!" or "WOMAAAAN!" In "Can You Picture That?", late in the song, the band is singing the kind of call-and-response section where they all sing "Can you picture" and then different lines follow. ("Can you picture? You gotta see it in your mind!/Can you picture what's quick and easy to find?") If you listen carefully, you can hear that Oz's almost tuneless growl is there in the chorus as Animal, singing (essentially) "CAAAAA YAAAA PICKCHAAAAAA." It's so, so funny, and you'd barely notice it listening to the album unless you are, like me, an Animal partisan.
And yet, there are songs on the album that are just searching and beautiful and thoughtful, ones that go back to that "Rainbow Connection" mood. "I'm Going to Go Back There Someday" is Gonzo's song as he looks at the night sky, reminiscing about being accidentally set adrift hanging onto a bunch of balloons. Even after he has been rescued, he can't forget the experience: "You can just visit, but I plan to stay; I'm going to go back there someday." This is a startlingly abstract, melancholy moment in the middle of a road movie, complete with a lonesome cowboy harmonica and a sense that what we are able to see and know on Earth is always going to be less than what we could see from anywhere else.
As the film approaches its finale, the characters get their big break — from Orson Welles, no less. (In this and some other cases, the big-name cameos in the film operate not only as treats for parents but as a gentle meta-commentary on who these figures were in the larger celebrity universe at the time, as when Steve Martin appears as an incessantly sarcastic waiter.) They work on their movie, and they begin to perform what seems like a classic finale song of satisfaction called "The Magic Store," which traces the path from weird, misunderstood kid to person (or frog, or pig, or bear, or dog, or whatever Gonzo is) with a shot at fame. "Somebody out there loves you," they sing. "Stands up and hollers for more/You've found a home at the magic store."
But just as this is happening, an accident destroys the set, which collapses around the collected Muppets. A hole in the roof, though, reveals — yes — a rainbow. And as everyone gawps at the rainbow, Kermit turns to the camera and tells us what he has learned, in a moment that gives me chills every single time, to this day:
Life's like a movie
Write your own ending
These two lines are sung to sound suspended and haunting, two notes only a half-step apart, bumping up against each other. But then on the next phrase, the rest of his friends join in the song, and the piano stops doubling his melody and starts giving him an ever so gently jaunty one-two, one-two:
We pull back to a shot of hundreds of Muppets singing, and as the song ends — now it's "the lovers, the dreamers and you," of course — you get another taste of movie music as it always is and always must be. Because the last thing you hear is the timpani. BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM!
It's movie music that knows it's movie music, in the same way that the film observes such a porous boundary between the movie you're watching and the movie the Muppets are making that at one point, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem find their friends by consulting a copy of the script. It's not even breaking the fourth wall; it's sort of breaking the pit under the stage.
Perhaps puppetry — Muppetry? — has changed less in less obvious ways than animation in the past 40 years. Maybe that's why it's hard for me to believe an updated Muppet Movie (not other Muppet movies, but a remake of this one) would be anything except just ... this. It doesn't need photorealism or fresh movie stars.
That banjo is already calling.