I originally watched Midnight Cowboy on video because I was 17 and I’d heard it was X-rated (later rated R on reissue).
And, though my teen mind was hoping for some bow-chicka-wow-wow, I was met with an entirely different (and far less erotic) type of dirty film.
Midnight Cowboy is dirty, but only in a sad and disquieting way. It’s about prostitution and dark desperation and vulnerability. Not nearly as much fun as 17-year-old me was hoping.
Among other layers, the film is a trenchant inquiry into class dynamics. The wide array of choices available to those born into privilege vs. the narrow array of choices available to those who were not.
The film centers around the arc of a relationship between two damaged characters. One (Jon Voight) is a tall, laconic, handsome Texan from the South who’s in New York City hoping to screw wealthy women for money. The other (Dustin Hoffman) is a native New York grifter, not nearly as cunning as he wishes, who has struggled with his ethnicity (Italian, which the film assigns the slur “provoloney”), his class , and his physical limp.
We watch Voight and Hoffman, two “low lifes,” as they attempt to seduce and con their way into NYC upper class society, burdened by (respectively) their naivete and physical countenance. Ultimately, it becomes a very moving journey in a way that neither expects.
It’s a poetic and layered movie, and worth your time (it’s still the only X-rated film to win an Oscar), but I mainly love it now for the music it brought to the world. The name of this essay series is “One Song,” and I have stayed within that boundary for the length of the series, but for this piece, I’m thinking of two particular pieces of music. I will try to advance my argument that they are, essentially, one song.
The first is “Everybody’s Talkin’,” a gorgeous, countryish tune you will find familiar even if you never knew where it came from. It was originally written and sung by a guy named Fred Neil (who I suspect may have underestimated its eternal magic), but revived for the movie and sung with panache by Harry Nillsson. The lyrics are mysterious—there are lots of haunting, surreal images like “only the shadows of their eyes”—but it automatically instills a driving-into-the-sunset vibe, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. That’s what it’s famous for ,and that’s why it was a hit.
The second is John Barry’s “Midnight Cowboy Theme.” A wistful, transporting instrumental. A towering, perfect composition. Its iconic, deathless, lonely harmonica melody suggests yearning and hope and sadness at once. That guy was very, very good.
Please observe: These two very famous pieces of music, written by two different people at two different times, both seem to evoke the same exact dusky feeling. And unlike sadness or happiness or anger, that feeling is too complex to be captured by a single English word. (Or not one I know anyway.)
That feeling is the exact, inimitable blend of melancholy and yearning and innocence and knowing and dreaming and joy and anguish that imbues the movie itself.
When you hear either “Everybody’s Talkin’” or “Midnight Cowboy Theme,” you imagine a whole movie in just those few minutes, whether you have seen the actual movie or not.
John Barry himself was the music supervisor on the film. I sense that he had the same feeling I have. He features “Everybody’s Talkin’” at several points in the film. Clearly he understood its sweet power. By contrast, he features his own (utterly brilliant and haunting) theme very sparingly. It appears at only a couple of moments. This speaks to Barry’s humility and vision.
It’s kind of miraculous (and worth celebrating) that these two songs—that bear no compositional similarity—both give you this same, powerful, mysterious, human feeling. It’s as if they are truly, er, one song.
If you haven’t seen the movie, I strongly recommend it. Don’t be lured by the original X rating. And don’t be repelled by it, either.