Four decades later, the music of Paul Williams casts a rainbow connection on a new generation of Muppet babies
My first word was this: “Baadaazz” (pronounced ‘BAH-DAWZ”.) It meant “Muppets.” I said it often.
The first complete sentence that ever left my lips occurred when I went into my father’s cabinet shop at age two. I addressed my father by his Christian name:
“I like Kermit.”
I still like Kermit. Obviously, I wasn’t an outlier.
Not a lot of scenes in the history of cinema can be claimed as early childhood memories for two generations- but you’d be hard-pressed to find a Gen-Xer or Millennial who doesn’t have this one etched into their lizard brain, whether via the silver screen, VHS or DVD.
We can probably add streaming to the list now to account for Gen-Z.
So as The Muppet Movie turns 40 this June, Jim Henson’s lovingly created multimedia universe stretching from Sesame Street to Farscape shows no signs of flagging in influence or omnipresence.
Nor do the songs. Henson’s world was always filled with music, from Sesame Street’s Pointer Sisters disco-funk arithmetic workout, to the bouncing, soulful earworm of a theme song, to The Muppet Show’s endless supply of big-name musical guest stars, a list that included the likes of Harry Belafonte, Debbie Harry, and Johnny Cash.
But it was one famously short-statured guest star in particular who would form an especially meaningful bond with Henson after hosting an early episode of the show.
Songwriter, actor, and implacable Hollywood personality Paul Williams began his career in the mid-late 60s after meeting writing partner Biff Rose on the set of a comedy show. Soon they’d penned “Fill Your Hearts”- a saccharine but memorable soft-shoe shuffle that would later be covered by Tiny Tim on Tim’s 1968 mega-selling LP God Bless Tiny Tim and notably (and faithfully) by David Bowie on Bowie’s classic Hunky Dory.
By then, Williams was already well into a career that showcased a certain flair for combining the schmaltzy and earnest with an undercurrent of knowing world-weariness, as exampled in hits for The Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun,” “Rainy Days And Mondays Always Get Me Down”) and moustache-boogie impresarios Three Dog Night (“Just an Old Fashioned Love Song.”)
But where those songs leaned a heavily on the schmaltz, “The Rainbow Connection,” as sung by Henson for the film, encapsulates the essence of The Muppets’ enduring appeal- wide-eyed innocence cut through with snark, but never cynicism. It’s a tone that the rest of the original soundtrack- penned entirely by Williams and largely sung by Henson Muppet second-in-command Frank Oz- keeps throughout.
There’s Gonzo’s number, “I’m Going To Go Back There Some Day”, something of a cowboy song by way of Kurt Vonnegut (“There’s not a word yet for old friends who just met” is an aphorism worthy of the author- or Will Rogers, depending on how you look at it.) goes a long way toward making Gonzo a sympathetic tramp rather than weirdo comic relief.
Then there’s the necessarily over-the-top Miss Piggy er… fantasia “Never Before, Never Again.” Sung with tremulous, glassy gusto by Frank Oz, it recalls Williams’ Barbara Streisand hits than anything else- but to good comic effect.
It’s important to understand, though, that as much as The Muppet Movie belongs to the world and will likely continue its status as a cultural juggernaut for generations to come, it was, like much of Henson’s work–as deeply personal to its creators as it was universal.
When Henson passed away tragically (and unnecessarily- he was a consummate workaholic who wouldn’t take a break even for a cancer diagnosis) in 1990 at the age of 53, Dave Goelz, the voice and hands behind Gonzo, Bunsen Honeydew, and several other longstanding Muppets, sang Gonzo’s signature song at his memorial.
For its 40th anniversary, The Muppet Movie is returning to the big screen at over 700 locations starting in July. See local listings for show times, and bring a kid if you can.