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The Review/ Feature/

Deep Cuts: "Wild is the Wind"

Anna Magnani's magnificent melodrama yielded a title track that enchanted Nina Simone, Cat Power and David Bowie

by Chris Cummings
Feb 6, 2017

In this ongoing series, Chris Cummings — a.k.a. Toronto chamber-pop sensation Marker Starling — unearths some of the film songs, scores, and musical moments that have helped shape his love of cinema, and explores their afterlives beyond the film frame.

If you’re wondering whether you should take the time to go see George Cukor's magnificent Wild is the Wind, you need only watch this tense, naturalistic, doomed-romantic scene where Anna Magnani seeks answers from her new brother-in-law (Anthony Franciosa) about the death of her sister, the first wife of her husband Anthony Quinn. (For more Magnani magnificence, check out our Volcano: The Films of Anna Magnani retrospective.)

Or this one, where La Magnani tames a horse:

The music you hear is by the great Hollywood composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who also wrote the film’s famous title song with lyricist Ned Washington — a song which had a long and fascinating life after its first appearance in this film, as sung by Johnny Mathis.

The most glaring difference between this and subsequent versions is the chord change at the end (“wild is my love for you”), which goes abruptly into a major key, like a tacked-on happy ending. It comes across as false, but this must have been Tiomkin’s original (perhaps studio-imposed) intention; also of note is the use of a bouncier rhythm (not unlike that of The Beatles’ “Michelle”), which doesn’t appear on subsequent versions. The dramatic harmonica is a nice touch as well, perhaps a reference to the film’s western setting and Tiomkin’s fame as a composer of western soundtracks.

Tiomkin and lyricist Ned Washington collaborated frequently in the 1950s, and won an Oscar for the song “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” from High Noon. It’s interesting how Tiomkin submerges a Rachmaninoff-like Europeanness (brought to the fore in the minor-key/diminished chords of “Wild is the Wind”) within the American major-key folk idiom in the melody of “Do Not Forsake Me”:

Tiomkin also seems to have been a frequent presence on ’50s television, judging from the number of YouTube clips that exist of him. Here is a staged interview at the piano with Gig Young in a promo piece for George Stevens’ Giant, wherein Tiomkin displays his genial yet quietly intense personality, recounts and re-enacts his Oscar speech for High Noon (where, instead of thanking the producers of the film, he thanked a list of composers), talks about his love of American folk melody, and shows off his formidable piano chops.

It would seem that “Wild is the Wind” was initially conceived as lighter entertainment — dreamily breezing along in the film’s opening credits — but later interpreters of the song found depths in it that don’t exist in the original Mathis version, lovely though it is.

Nina Simone recorded two versions of the song: a live version in 1959, two years after the film’s release, and a studio version released in 1966.

It’s interesting to note the differences between the two versions: although both begin the same way, each has moments that don’t occur in the other version. The 1966 version is longer by three minutes and contains a more elaborate “wind” effect on the piano which the other version only hints at, as well as many more dramatic vocal moments — but the earlier version has an allure of its own.

Nancy Wilson’s rendition from 1961 is more crisp and polished than the Simone versions: it has a veneer of polite, perfectly played and sung jazz, yet with an emotional depth as well. (I particularly like the use of vibraphone.)

Ahmad Jamal and Voices’ uptempo cover from 1967 is a particular favourite of mine, with its strangely cheerful atmosphere; the addition of the crisply enunciating jazz choir makes me think of Christmas albums of the period. It also manages to keep the major-key happy ending without breaking the trance-like feeling (although the single tympani hit at the end does break the spell).

Probably the most famous version of the song was David Bowie’s, which served as the closing track on his 1976 album Station to Station. Apparently Bowie had wanted to record the song for three years before the September–October 1975 sessions for Station in Los Angeles; online lore has it that Frank Sinatra, who was recording in a nearby studio, heard a bit of Bowie’s session, raved about it, and convinced Bowie to put it out. (The full story can be found here.)

In this shorter version of the song released as a single in 1981, it’s amazing how Bowie’s vocal performance reaches into the past and the future simultaneously, harking back to a melodramatic cabaret style reminiscent of Jacques Brel (by way of Scott Walker) and forward to Simon Le Bon and seemingly every pre-teen male who heard this song in the ’80s and formed a band — New Romantic begins here. It’s also amazing how Bowie more or less updates Simone’s 1966 version with R&B instrumentation and feel, taking it out of the jazz/cabaret realm and making it accessible to the younger generation who, at this point, were hanging off his every utterance.

Here’s Cat Power’s minimal yet lush reinterpretation from 2000, with a different melody and rhythm.

And finally, here’s my version, shot against the atmospheric backdrop of TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Cinema 1.