Monday, December 25, 2006

London Song of the Day: I need Santa beside me ("Christmas is All Around" by Billy Mack)

This one's not a London song "per se," folks, but it comes from one of the great London movies of our time, and I've been listening to it all day on my Brit-Chrit playlist: "Christmas Is All Around" by Billy Mack, as played by the great Bill Nighy in the heartwarming and heartbreaking movie Love Actually.

Love Actually spins several simultaneous plotlines of love and loss together through the course of its couple hours covering the weeks leading up to a Christmas in London. Almost every one of these plotlines is connected with familial and friendship ties: Hugh Grant's Prime Minister subplot ties into Emma Thompson's tempted husband subplot when we find Hugh is Emma's brother, for example. One character that remains separate from each of the others, however, is Bill Nighy's past-his-prime, desperately-trying-to-make-a-comeback rock star Billy Mack. Billy and his long-suffering manager are putting all their hopes on a Mack comeback based on a Christmas single remake of the classic "Love Is All Around," a song that most every character disparages as universally awful (complete with its cheesy, saucy, Robert Palmer-flavored music video), but which is actually a catchy and sentimental tune.

In the UK there's a major race among pop stars to have the "#1 Christmas single": the top-selling record in Christmas week. Billy's comeback shot is running on the hopes that "Christmas Is All Around" will be this year's #1 Christmas single; if it is, he's made it back. If it isn't, he falls back into obscurity, "Christmas Is All Around" no better than a novelty tune. Not every story in Love Actually has a happy upbeat ending, but Billy's does: against all odds his song hits the top, and it's back on the glitter wagon to the pantheon of stars for Billy Mack. But on Christmas Eve, he ducks out of a fabulous party at Elton John's to be with the only person who's stood by him thick and thin: his home-alone manager.

I like Billy's subplot, and I love Bill Nighy's performance as the larger-than-life Billy Mack. If you only know Nighy from his hidden-from-view-by-rubber-makeup role as Davy Jones in the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie you owe it to yourself to see him in this or in the sublimely quiet but lovely The Girl in the Cafe. But I've watched the movie dozens of times and while it's always been obvious that Billy's character doesn't intersect with the other major characters personally, it took me a few viewings until I realized that he influences the direction of other plots as well: he inspires young Sam to take up the drums to be closer to his unrequited love, and his video distracts Heathrow officials long enough to let Sam slip past them to say goodbye to that love before she returns to America. His role is, just like Rowan Atkinson's two brief but important scenes, almost like an angel—admittedly a foul-mouthed, cheerfully unrepentant one—that brings other people together and benefits not just himself but the whole cascade of subplots down the line. That's the beauty of Richard Curtis's careful writing and character development on this movie, and that's the wonder of a poppy, hummable Christmas single: it'll inspire you in ways you don't know, and even if it's playing in the background and your co-workers are saying "Oooh, what's that racket?" it—and more important, the good and happy seasonal feeling of joy and love it leaves you with is still part of your life, surrounding you, everywhere. As Hugh Grant narrates: "If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling that love, actually, is all around."

And remember kids, don't buy drugs:

Other songs in heavy rotation on my London playlists today (any links will open in iTunes, unless you don't have iTunes, in which case they won't.):

"Father Christmas" by The Kinks, from the album Come Dancing with the Kinks
"Merry Christmas Everyone" by Shakin' Stevens
"Thank God It's Christmas" by Queen, from the album Greatest Hits III
"Do They Know It's Christmas" by Band Aid
"Another Rock and Roll Christmas" by Gary Glitter
"Mistletoe and Wine" by Cliff Richard
"Last Christmas" by Wham!
"December Will Be Magic Again" by Kate Bush
"I Believe In Father Christmas" by Greg Lake
"The Coventry Carol" by Alison Moyet, from the album A Very Special Christmas
"I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday" by Wizzard

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