Heaven Can Wait (1978): Here Comes Mr. Grusin

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It’s funny how film scores go through stylistic transformations every decade, and how you can almost always pinpoint the year a film was made (within a year or two) based on the music you hear. Case in point: Dave Grusin, whose sound was so omnipresent in the 1970s and 1980s you can barely throw a rock at a movie theater without hitting a poster from one of his titles. Here at FilmStruck we’re tipping our hats to Mr. Grusin, whose distinct sound isn’t something you hear too often in theaters anymore—which is a loss for us all. One of his most infectious and upbeat works, Heaven Can Wait (1978), is a prime example of the Grusin soundtrack and boasts one of his most memorable themes, though incredibly, it wouldn’t have an album release in any format until 2013 when it finally hit CD paired up with another of his unreleased scores, Racing with the Moon (1984). I’m still waiting for someone to put out his majestic score for My Bodyguard (1980), too, but you can’t have everything!

This was the first of two collaborations between Grusin and Warren Beatty, who not only stars in the film but served as its co-director (with Buck Henry) and co-writer (with Elaine May and Henry) as well. Grusin would return to score May’s Ishtar (1987) starring Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, which has only started to emerge from its disastrous reputation in recent years to be appreciated as a very caustic critique of American foreign policy. No such hostility greeted Heaven Can Wait, a crowd pleaser if there ever was one and a sunny tonic in a year where most awards contenders were on the somber side thanks to The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Days of Heaven and Midnight Express. Grusin’s warm, faintly jazz-inflected score is a major part of the film’s easygoing charm, sandwiched as it is between two of his other most signature scores, The Goodbye Girl (1977) and The Champ (1979). It’s exactly the kind of movie that used to show on HBO every afternoon around two o’clock; once you get the basic premise at the beginning of L.A. quarterback Joe Pendleton (Beatty) being accidentally summoned to the afterlife during a near-death incident and sent back in the body of a recently murdered, philandering millionaire, there’s little stress involved in following the plot and savoring the performances from a killer cast of 1970s veterans.

Most classic movie fans worth their salt know this is a close remake of the Oscar-winning 1941 celestial comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which depicted Pendleton as a boxer played by Robert Montgomery and had a somewhat different resolution. Otherwise the story beats are the same, with this film retaining the original title of the source play by Harry Segall (and no relation to the Ernst Lubitsch comedy Heaven Can Wait from 1943). It’s always fun to play “what if” casting with films like this, and there are some crazy ones along the way in the history of this film. Originally Warner Bros. wanted to make it in 1972 after buying the rights from Columbia, keeping the boxer angle with Muhammad Ali approached to star. At the time, the project was being produced by Dick Shepherd who tried to get it going again in late 1974 with Bill Cosby and Carl Reiner expected to star. Just try to picture that one. Oddly enough, when the third version came out in 2011 as Down to Earth (which shares its title with a Rita Hayworth-starring sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan… confused yet?), it finally did have an African-American star courtesy of Chris Rock.

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Just as a fun aside, anyone who was alive in the late 1970s couldn’t get away from Heaven Can Wait’s aggressive, striking marketing campaign by Paramount Pictures featuring a unique, eye-catching painting of Beatty. Producer Robert Evans was fond of telling a story about that poster, including in his autobiography. “There’s a huge picture of Warren in a sweat suit, with wings behind his back,” Evans recalls. “Warren says, ‘What you do you think of it?’ I say, ‘It’s okay.’ He says, ‘What do you mean okay? What’s wrong with it?’ I tell him I’m looking at the sweat suit, and there’s no crease on either side of the crotch. Warren calls the head of distribution, the head of marketing. All the ads are printed, and he refuses to let them go out. It was the most expensive crotch retouch in the history of the motion picture business. They put in a half-million-dollar wrinkle.” That same image was run without the film’s title or any ad copy in the weeks leading up to the release, which prompted an unprecedented amount of reader feedback wondering why a guy in sneakers with angel wings was popping up in their newspaper. This was in the days before social media, of course, but the ploy worked, building enough buzz to get millions of people in theater seats on opening weekend.

This was the first Beatty film I ever saw, since I was just a little kid when it started hitting TV and most of his previous big hits had been rated R. It had been three years since his last film, the bizarre pairing of Shampoo and The Fortune in 1975, and this would turn out to be one of his most popular films. Beatty himself snagged four Oscar nominations for this film along with his co-collaborators, a feat he repeated again incredibly enough with Reds (1981), though the film only took home a statuette for its Art Direction by Paul Sylbert, Edwin O’Donovan and George Gaines (presented by Shirley Jones and a little Ricky Schroeder standing on a big transparent box). Grusin was nominated, too, for the very first time; he’d be nominated seven more times, eventually winning a decade later for The Milagro Beanfield War (1988).

Despite the popularity of Grusin’s music, it’s interesting how his sound almost seems to come from a different world now that melodic scores (especially with jazz elements) have become the exception rather than the norm. He comes from the same well that allowed composers like Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Alex North and Michael Small to freely play around with what a film score could sound like, and though I can’t say I’m a fan of everything Grusin ever wrote (how he got so much attention for 1993’s The Firm is a mystery to me, but it’s still a popular one), he turned out an incredible body of work with more than enough highlights to solidify his status as a living legend. He hasn’t scored a major theatrical release since Sydney Pollack’s Random Hearts in 1999, though he’s popped up on a few other projects since then including Jay Roach’s cable TV film, Recount (2008). However, his scores continue to resonate with reissues and soundtrack premieres now more than ever keeping his name alive among film score fans.

Nathaniel Thompson

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2 Responses Heaven Can Wait (1978): Here Comes Mr. Grusin
Posted By Doug : August 2, 2017 4:27 pm

You could almost-ALMOST-put the composers in the same class as the poster makers in two small points: usually they do their work after the film is finished. And they both work to make the product more salable, turning many a pig’s ear into silk purses.
Quarterback syndrome:
Director: “I’m the star-fans flock to MY Movies!”
Star: “I’m the STAR-fans love me and come to MY movies!”
Composers:”What is this? They want sad music here, playful for the seduction scene-tense, harsh stuff underscoring the big confrontation and then a happy out to the credits?”
Take one of your favorite movies down off the shelf and watch it with the sound off, captions on. You’ll probably still have the music in your head, but it will be less without the emotional cues of the music.

Posted By George : August 3, 2017 7:31 pm

I like some of Grusin’s scores (Three Days of the Condor, even The Firm), but his obtrusive scores for Absence of Malice and … And Justice for All nearly ruin those movies. Those scores belong with some cheesy made-for-TV movie of that time.

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