Ahead of Friday’s Fringe Awards show, Alison Kerr talks to Joe Stilgoe about how satisfying it is to mine the 1980s for tunes from cinematic blockbusters
THE highlight of many music and movie lovers’ Fringe last year was singer-jazz pianist Joe Stilgoe’s joyful, classy, five-star show Songs on Film, a loving and stylish homage to the films he grew up with. In true Hollywood style, he’s back this week with a follow-up, Songs on Film – The Sequel, which runs from Wednesday until Sunday.
He says: “The strapline for this show is: ‘Like all good sequels, the cast is the same, most of the themes are the same – there are just more explosions and fight scenes.’ Since we’re only doing a short run this year, we will probably get some of the same audience from last year so we wanted to make it a bit different – but we have kept some of the greatest hits from the first show.”
Of course, as Stilgoe points out, songs from films is “a rich genre to mine” – so where do you start? “The reason I thought the show worked was because I related it to my own experience of watching cinema – why I went into music, I think that made it cohesive. So this time we’ve got a section about growing up in the 1980s, and celebrating the mullets and the massive jackets, I’m thinking Ted Danson…”
Not only that but whereas most of the standards we hear being played in jazz concerts began life in the great movie and stage musicals, many of the songs with which Stilgoe fills his show are from non-musicals. “We want to choose songs that people remember films by – whether it’s Goodnight Sweetheart from Three Men and a Baby or the waltz from Pixar’s Up. Those really give you that nostalgic burst – and people came up to us last year and said how much they enjoyed that aspect.”
What was also striking last year was the fact that we got to hear songs which most of us had probably never heard performed live before. One stand-out in that department was Arthur’s Song, from the 1981 comedy Arthur. “I love playing that one so much because I love Dudley Moore and I love that film.
“It’s not a song that people play over and over again but it is very evocative of that film and the era.”
At the age of 36, Stilgoe is too young to have seen Arthur in the cinema when it came out; The Jungle Book was the first film he saw on the big screen. “I loved it, specifically because of the music – I went on to be a huge fan of Louis Prima and the Sherman brothers who wrote the songs.”
Very much a chip off the old block (Stilgoe’s father is songwriter and broadcaster Sir Richard), he jokes: “As a teenager I went through a period of hating musicals. I thought they were silly. So I guess my teenage rebellion was just not liking musicals for a few years, which must have hurt my dad. But then I came back to them and realised that this is the family business!”
It must, therefore, have been a dream come true to find himself – as recently as Saturday – on stage at The Old Vic in High Society?
“Yes, I’m still on a bit of a cloud because it was such a wonderful experience and High Society is the film that made me want to be a jazz musician.”
Playing a character (named Joey) specially created for him, but performing the same sort of function in the show as Louis Armstrong did in the film, Stilgoe “played a Nat King Cole/Mel Tormé kind of figure who would have been booked for the party in the film.
“Basically, I started the show by mucking around with the audience asking them to shout out songs and take part in a singalong.”
So he brought anarchy to High Society? “Yes! Some nice anarchy – because at the start you want to get the audience into a party atmosphere. I got to sing the title number and some other songs including my favourite, Well Did You Evah? … yes, I admit it, I gatecrashed the Sinatra-Crosby duet!”
He also learned to dance for High Society.
So should we be on alert for a spot of Fred Astaire-style dancing in this year’s Songs on Film? “The problem with that is, if I’m dancing, who’s playing the piano?” Still, maybe it’s an idea for the third part of the trilogy – or further down the line when his six-month-old daughter has joined the family business?
But back to this year’s Songs on Film. Are we talking a superior sequel, a Godfather 2? “Absolutely,” laughs Stilgoe who is driving up the motorway as we speak. “We’re talking Godfather 2 and Toy Story 2; definitely not a Jaws 4 – or even 2 or 3!”
• Joe Stilgoe: Songs on Film – The Sequel is at Assembly George Square Gardens until 30 August at 4pm.