Songs are a form of storytelling, so it stands to reason that most great or even good songs have at-least-good stories attached to them. One of the most popular songs by composer Jimmy Van Heusen and lyricist Johnny Burke, was, for instance, inspired by an argument that the songwriting team overheard their friend and collaborator Bing Crosby having with his first son Gary.
According to Van Heusen biographer Christopher Coppula, Burke and Van Heusen were dining at Crosby’s home; Gary, who was about ten at the time, was expressing dissatisfaction with having to go to school. The elder Crosby upbraided him, saying, “So you want to be a mule, be a mule.” Burke was thunderstruck. He and Van Heusen had been stuck for quite a while on their latest assignment, writing songs for an upcoming Crosby picture, Going My Way, directed by Leo McCarey. McCarey had instructed the duo to concoct a pop song version of the Ten Commandments, wisdom that Crosby’s priest character could infectiously impart to his young charges at the church’s school. “So you want to be a mule, be a mule” was not exactly “thou shalt not,” but it flipped a switch for Burke, and “Swinging On A Star” was born.
There’s no such lore surrounding “Like Someone In Love,” the beautiful ballad by Van Heusen and Burke that debuted in 1944, the same year as “Swinging On A Star.” In the midst of one of their busiest years, the team composed it, and a couple of other songs, for an RKO period comedy called Belle of the Yukon. An amiable trifle directed by veteran William Seiler, Belle stars Randolph Scott and Gypsy Rose Lee as a couple of quasi-grifters in the late-19th-century Great White North. The juvenile romantic leads are William Marshall as Steve, a new-in-town piano player, and radio discovery Dinah Shore as Lettie, daughter of a saloon owner. About 22 minutes into the picture, Steve is tinkering with a tune at the piano and Lettie comes down the stairs; Steve says he’s been working on a song, and he plays the head of “Like Someone In Love.” Lettie says “It’s lovely,” and Steve says “Why don’t you try it?” She picks up the sheet music and starts singing. Two verses and two refrains later, you have a new addition to The Great American Songbook.
A confection in appealing Technicolor, Belle is one of those movies whose narrative evanesces even as you’re watching it; it must have been something of a tonic to U.S. audiences in the waning but still uncertain days of late World War II. It says nothing dishonorable about the great Randolph Scott to note that he more or less sleepwalks through his role; the part of “Honest John Calhoun” demands nothing more. If you’ve ever wondered why burlesque great Gypsy Rose Lee never had the film career of her sister June Havoc, Belle will answer all your questions in that department. Shore is the most engaging presence in the film. Her features are not those of what was considered a classic beauty at the time, but she’s terrifically attractive and projects a personality both earnest and sly. And she sings like a bird; as the performer who gave birth to “Like Someone In Love,” she delivers something absolutely beautiful. Oddly enough, though, the Van Heusen/Burke song from Belle that made a bigger splash, initially, was the now largely forgotten (but still delightful) “Sleigh Ride In July,” which earned the duo an Oscar nomination for 1945. (Belle was released on December 27, 1944, which apparently pushed it ahead for Academy consideration at the time.) “Like Someone In Love” became a hit in spring of 1945 via its recording by Bing Crosby.
Burke and Van Heusen were among Crosby’s favorite songwriters; they of course wrote the tunes for Crosby and Bob Hope’s Road pictures. In the final Road picture, The Road To Hong Kong, made in 1962, after the Burke/Van Heusen team dissolved, Hope’s character was named Chester Babcock—which had been Van Heusen’s birth name. (The one-time bordello piano player was known for, among many other things, making elaborately hilarious ribald sport of that birth name.) For his stage name, the composer “chose Van Heusen, the name of a famous line of men's shirts, because he felt it was a name associated with old money, elegance and class,” David Lehman notes in his book A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs. “What he didn't realize was that the Van Heusen line was the creation of a German-Jewish peddler named Israel Phillips."
Crosby’s rendition relocated the song at the crossroads of pop and jazz, as the crooner’s singing tended to do. About a dozen years later—on August 16, 1957, to be exact—the young tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, with bassist Earl May and drummer Art Taylor, recorded a version of the tune at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Hackensack, New Jersey. There’s a peculiar notion among some younger folks about jazz musicians like Coltrane and Miles Davis—that they made their recordings of pop and musical theater songs out of some mission to apply a veneer of “hipness” to white bread or just plain white music. At its most extreme, this presumption posits that Coltrane cut his revolutionary version of “My Favorite Things” mainly to troll Sound of Music fans. This is mistaken thinking. What attracted Davis, Coltrane, Charles Mingus (his playful retitling of “All the Things You Are” notwithstanding) and so many other great musicians to these songs was a musical deftness that intertwined beguiling melody with a harmonic complexity that opened up all manner of improvisational doors. Van Heusen biographer Coppula writes of “Like Someone In Love:” “This tune, like ‘Darn That Dream,’ has enjoyed broad pop/jazz crossover popularity, with recording by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Stan Kenton, Coleman Hawkins, and Stan Getz (among many others). The appeal to jazz artists is explained in part by the linear structure of Van Heusen’s melody, permitting the artist to utilize all variety of harmonies in a chromatic bass line. It offers a suitable vehicle for the artist to express his creativity in fashioning harmonies while providing an interesting enough melody in its own right.” Indeed, Coltrane’s rendition of the song begins with the saxophonist playing alone, as if in mid-solo, extrapolating on a phrase from the verse in a near-keening cry, and fluttering in that register for a couple of bars before the bass and drums come in and Coltrane states the theme itself.
Ella Fitzgerald recorded her version two months later, October 15, 1957, in Los Angeles. She and/or producer Norman Granz also titled the attendant album Like Someone In Love. The LP was made after one of her grandest masterpieces, the still-amazing four-LP Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Duke Ellington Songbook. This album is less thematically ambitions, but Fitzgerald’s singing is no less exacting or elegant than it ever was in this period. Burke and Van Heusen appear throughout, albeit in differing permutations; “I Thought About You,” by Van Heusen with lyrics by Johnny Mercer is here, as is “What’s New,” lyrics by Burke, music by Bob Haggart. “Like Someone In Love” is the sole Burke/Van Heusen tune. The orchestral arrangement by Frank De Vol is more Hollywood sound stage than Cotton Club or any other swinging locale; the impeccably tasteful De Vol never had the swinging brashness of a Nelson Riddle or the Debussy leanings of early Gordon Jenkins but he gets the song…as Ella, of course, also does. She begins the song with a bit of a fake-out after the string intro, singing the opening word “Lately” as if to explicitly rhyme it with “stately.” But the very slight hiccup she makes at “myself” lets her completely melt into “out gazing at stars” and from that point on the whole thing’s like a beautiful dream. Her version is still, arguably, the definitive vocalization.
“Nowadays we don’t like watching an old man, especially an old man in love,” the Iranian film director Abba Kiarostami says in a making-of documentary included on the Criterion Collection edition of his 2012 feature Like Someone In Love, the picture that would be his last. It was the second that he shot outside of his native country, a French/Japanese co-production. It tells a necessarily incomplete story of an elderly academic, a young prostitute he awkwardly procures for an evening, and the disturbed, possessive boyfriend of the prostitute, who the professor meets even more awkwardly on the day following the night of his assignation. Kiarostami, as seen in photographs, exuded the kind of cool one associates with certain cinematic masters, aided in no small part by his ever-present sunglasses. But in interviews, it’s clear that the character with whom he most identified in this film is the decidedly not-chill Takeshi Watanabe (Tadashi Okuno, playing his first lead in his early eighties after, according to Kiarostami, a career of bit roles and extra work), the widowed professor who is, among many other things, hugely clueless about sex workers, even a sex worker as ingenuous as Rin Takanashi’s Akiko. “When I started searching for music for the moment the girl enters the old man’s apartment,” Kiarostami told Dennis Lim in an interview for the New York Times in 2012, “it came naturally that as someone from my generation, he would listen to jazz. The first album I took off my shelf was Ella Fitzgerald and I just bumped into this song, ‘Like Someone in Love,’” In pre-revolutionary Iran, Western music was widely known, and the artistic cognoscenti of Tehran was well-versed in jazz, as was the case in other cosmopolitan centers throughout the world. Kiarostami scored his first short film, 1970’s Bread and Alley, with a Paul Desmond version of the Beatles tune “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da.”
Kiarostami (who presumably held on to his jazz record collection after the revolution, whose regime’s animus to all things Western very definitely extended to music) went on to explain to Lim that he also thought that song title would be a better title for the film itself; in script form the movie was called The End. “The phrase itself sounds good to me too,” the director continued in his conversation with Lim. “There is nothing determined and definitive about love. It’s better to say that we are like someone in love rather than asserting that we are in love. Death or birth are definitive; love is nothing but an illusion. We have in this film four people who are like some people in love.”
Akiko arrives at Takeshi’s apartment in a confused rush, and doesn’t even take off her coat after he invites her to have a seat in the living room of his cozy, book-lined apartment. After Takeshi tries to make small talk with Akiko—their conversation, while amiable, is also nearly mortifyingly awkward—she hops into his bedroom. A Duke Ellington & His Famous Orchestra rendition of “Solitude” plays softly on Takeshi’s stereo. Takeshi follows Akiko into the bedroom, seats himself on a chair facing the bed, and we see a soft-focus reflection of Akiko in the dresser mirror next to the chair. Takeshi tries to lure her out of bed…with the promise of a soup he’s cooked, a specialty of her region (he knows where she’s from because her pimp, a former student of his, told him). While we can’t see Akiko’s face, we can practically see her wrinkling her nose as she tells him, “I’ll hate that. My Gran made it all the time when we were little.”
He’s a little crestfallen; he gets up and goes back into his study/dining room. He’s been getting vexing business-related phone calls all evening, so he unplugs his desk phone. He looks out his front window. Some interesting stuff happens with the sound mixing; the noise form the street outside, including a honking horn, is foregrounded, and the strains of Ella Fitzgerald singing “Like Someone In Love” almost seep in to the audio track, very nearly inaudible at first. As Takeshi putters around, the song gets louder, and more distinct, but it never reaches what one might call an aggressive or even definite volume. Nevertheless, Takeshi turns down the volume on his amplifier. And the phone rings again—the landline in the bedroom is still plugged in. Takeshi, concerned with letting Akiko sleep, goes into the bedroom and disables the phone. A clock on a shelf above the bed indicates that it’s 11:30 at night. Who’s calling at this hour?
Takeshi leaves the room after tucking Akiko in, so we can assume they did not sleep together, but he still looks pretty pleased with himself as he drives her around the next morning (taking her to her college, where she has an exam), smiling as he watches her put her grey leggings on. Soon enough Akiko’s sweaty, strung-out looking boyfriend Noriaki (Ryô Kase) enters the picture, and everybody acts with spectacularly bad judgment. “When you know you may be lied to, it’s best not to ask questions,” Takeshi says to Noriaki even as he sort-of masquerades as Akiko’s grandfather. The flimsy webs of deceit escalate a situation that ought never have come into being in the first place, and when Akiko expresses worry, Takeshi sings “Que Sera Sera” to her, in Japanese translation, and elicits one of her final (slight, tentative, and, hell yes, awkward) smiles in the movie.
The movie ends in Takeshi’s apartment, with a wounded, traumatized Akiko sitting in his living room and Takeshi scrambling around, with Noriaki raging outside, letting them know that he knows that they are (still) lying: “Don’t pretend you can’t hear me.” Things are going from bad to worse both on screen and on the soundtrack. As Noriaki yells, the microwave in which Takeshi was warming milk for Akiko beeps to signal the end of its heating cycle, and then continues its periodic reminder beep. A rock comes through the front window, and the shattering of glass is terribly disturbing, as is Takeshi’s disappearance from the frame. And at this time the Fitzgerald recording of “Like Someone In Love” comes on again, louder than it was the first time it was heard. “Lately I find myself,” Fitzgerald sings, as all three characters in the scene seem as lost as they’ve ever been. Is the music diegetic or extra-diegetic? While it’s not likely that the stereo has somehow turned itself back on, there’s so much madness going on that this is not entirely outside the realm of narrative probability. The credits begin to go up, and the screen goes black, and soon Fitzgerald sings “sometimes the things I do astound me.”
Kiarostami told Dennis Lim, “I’ve said before that fortunately or unfortunately, I’m unable to be a real storyteller. I’m sure that we can never be the witness of a story from its beginning to its end. I would say that this film doesn’t have an adequate opening and it doesn’t have a real ending either, but it also proves my idea that all films start before we get into them and they end after we leave them.” The filmmaker presses this point more insistently in Like Someone In Love than in any other film, including his previous feature, the spectacularly knotty and moving Certified Copy.
“Like Someone In Love” was conceived and written in Los Angeles, recorded there years later by Ella Fitzgerald, and then many years later than that, Abbas Kiarostami pulled that Ella Fitzgerald album off of his shelf at home in Tehran. And subsequently played its title song on the stereo of an imaginary elderly man in the vicinity of Tokyo/Yokohama, where American jazz is well-loved by substantial (albeit possibly quickly disappearing, these days) pockets of its population.
It is an incidental irony that the song’s composer Jimmy Van Heusen, an aviation enthusiast from the thirties on (despite the fact that he did quite well both professionally and personally in Hollywood, he never much liked the place, and would fly himself back to New York between movie assignments), safety-tested American fighter planes for Lockheed prior to and in the early days of World War II.
In memoriam Abbas Kiarostami, 1940-2016.