Alt-Christmas… it’s becoming a fairly contentious issue.
Holiday purists argue that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie (it is) while cineastes argue that Love Actually isn’t actually very good (it isn’t, but who cares?). It’s led to the alt-Christmas designation for movies like Batman Returns or Gremlins… those where the Christmas holiday plays a central role, but are devoid of the Frank Capra-esque cheer that denotes traditional holiday favourites.
But when it comes to the music of Christmas, and particularly the music of Christmas movies, the people behind the modern yuletide canon don’t seem to stray very far from the staples.
So, as an alt-Christmas offering of sorts, let’s look at a few times pop songs – year-round, good, honest hits – have worked their way into holiday favourites. Here are five key musical alt-Christmas moments, presented in chronological order of the songs themselves.
The Capitols – “Cool Jerk” (1966) from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
“Now you’re cookin’, Frankie!” Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) somewhat pervily creeps in on his uncle absolutely murdering this song in the shower and later uses the recording as part of his elaborate ruse to thwart the Plaza Hotel staff’s efforts to boot him from his room.
The first two Home Alone movies traded heavily on Christmas standards (from The Drifters to “The Carol of the Bells”), so it’s nice to see them veer a bit further into the Atlantic Records catalogue beyond just the seasonal fare.
Maxine Nightingale – “Right Back Where We Started From” (1976) from The Family Stone (2005)
Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker) heads from the big city back to small-town Connecticut for the holidays wanting none of her family’s brand of seasonal cheer. She finally starts to loosen up on a night out, when “her song” comes on at a local dive.
An ironic song choice from one of the better entries from the ‘home for Christmas’ sub-genre, no one’s going to confuse Nightingale with any kind of musical titan. That said, it gets the people dancing and actually serves as a pretty important shift in the narrative. So, good work, guys!
The Pointer Sisters – “Jump (For My Love)” (1984) from Love Actually (2003)
The British Prime Minister, David (Hugh Grant) gets cozy at 10 Downing Street and lets loose like nobody’s watching (spoiler: They are). Grant is a classically British goof here and it’s one of the funniest moments and best musical moments in a movie littered with them.
The interesting thing looking back on the Love Actually soundtrack is that it’s supremely hit or miss in a very-2003 way. The Pointer Sisters, The Bay City Rollers and, yes, even Mariah Carey all play central roles and are cleverly deployed. But, those that haven’t seen the movie in ages have probably also forgotten about ham-fisted decisions like using Dido in a moment of emotional crisis or the unforgivable decision to include Santana featuring Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty.
Tag Team – “Whoomp! (There It Is)” (1993) from Elf (2003)
There will eventually be a think piece written about how 2003 revolutionized the modern Christmas movie, since Elf and Love Actually were released just one week apart. The former took a more classic approach to its soundtrack, reinvigorating a Stevie Wonder Christmas classic, re-popularizing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (so maybe it’s to blame?) and peppering in healthy doses of Frank Sinatra and Louis Prima.
Will Ferrell’s Buddy is such a piece of comedic genius that it’s tough to peg down which moments from the film are the best, but getting drunk in the mailroom and doing the Hopak to Tag Team has to be up there.
Want a break from talking about “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in 2018? Here you go, talk about Tag Team instead.
Kanye West – “Runaway” (2010) from The Night Before (2015)
Time will tell where The Night Before ranks in the Christmas canon, but everything that is great about it can be summed up in this one scene. Ripping on the foot piano scene from Big and emerging into a full-on NSFW celebration, using Kanye West is a genius move in a movie that could maybe best be described as post-Christmas.
It’s still got the Yuletide flavour, but the film’s darker undertones and a willingness to embrace festive debauchery make it the perfect vehicle for Kanye to get his mitts on Christmas, to say nothing of the best use of Run-D.M.C.’s “Christmas in Hollis” since Die Hard.
(Clip contains some NSFW language)
Bonus track: My Morning Jacket’s cover of “Our World” from Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977)
Look, this has nothing to do with the rest of the article, but this special is criminally under-loved, and alt-country rockers My Morning Jacket offered a magnificent cover of one of its most beautiful moment.
So, here it is: Soundtracking’s Christmas present to you.