This night in 1993 was quite a big one in Hollywood…and in turn, a day worth noting in music. The movie Philadelphia opened, just in time for Christmas… for those who wanted to limit their holiday cheer just a little. The movie about a lawyer with AIDS continued to elevate Tom Hanks status as perhaps the leading “everyday man” actor, getting him his first Academy Award for Best Actor (he’d follow up the next year with Forrest Gump) and was a box office smash, taking in over $200 million. As well, it achieved director Jonathan Demme’s objective of opening many people’s eyes to the tragedy of AIDS and its human toll at a time when it was still largely viewed as always fatal and its victims as contagious and frightening. A worthwhile movie, but why it’s mentioned here is that it also had a very worthwhile soundtrack, which Sony released days later.
Bob Clearmountain was brought in to mix and do final production on the soundtrack, but the idea was very much Demme’s. He wanted impactful songs by big-name artists not traditionally associated with the AIDS cause; no Queen songs for instance. One of the first names that came to mind was Bruce Springsteen.
Demme told The Boss about the movie idea and asked him to do the title track. Springsteen replied “I’m interested, if you give me some time I’ll see,” adding “I’m not very good at scores.” Turns out he was. He came up with “The Streets of Philadelphia,” a brooding ballad which would have seemed quite at home on The River or Darkness on the Edge of Town. He had a sax player called Ornette Coleman on the demo, but by the time it went to the album, it was all Bruce, playing all the instruments, with just a few backing vocals thrown in. Billboard called it “a powerful song with or without the image of the film to support it,” the L.A. Times seemed surprised to find he “can still write purposeful songs that connect on a deeply personal level.” The song was the lead single off the soundtrack, and connect it did. It was a #1 hit in Canada (his first one there), France and Germany and at home in the U.S., it got to #9 and earned him his first gold single since ones from Born in the U.S.A. nine years earlier. It also meant Bruce likely had to get a few new hardware shelves installed at home. It won him the Oscar for Best Original Song as well as four Grammys including Best Song.
Bookending The Boss was another song with the city in its name. In fact it was the name of the song from Neil Young, also hand-picked by the director. Demme originally wanted a song like it to open the film. “What we need is the most upto the minute guitar-dominated, American rock anthem about injustice to start the movie,” he said. “Who can do that? Neil Young can do that!” He showed Young a rough cut of the film with his “Southern Man” played to open it, to give the artist an idea of what the song should sound like. Young agreed and came up with “Philadelphia,” a song allmusic suggest is “arguably a better song” than Springsteen’s. Not quite the hard rock blast Demme had in midn perhaps, but still a song that he said made him cry the first time he heard it. It got shifted to the ending of the movie but didn’t go unnoticed. It hit the British charts as a single and earned Neil an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song, which as we noted Springsteen’s took. Young played it on piano at the Awards show.
A third noteworthy new song for it was Peter Gabriel’s “Lovetown”, one that sounded quite like songs of his previous album, Us. It was a top 20 in New Zealand.
Add in some cover songs from the likes of Sade and Spin Doctors (who took a run at CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” and you have one of the better soundtracks of the first-half of the ’90s. And like the movie, it was a hit, getting to #12 in the U.S. and going platinum. In Canada, it was triple-platinum. Just like Hanks next movie went on to eclipse the popularity of this one, so too did its soundtrack. Although it had no new hit songs on it, the Forrest Gump soundtrack which came out months later would go on to sell over 10 million copies.