Good movies are born of bad books. Fannie Hurst’s chick lit inspired two versions of a classic film (Imitation of Life), Robert Bloch’s potboiler became cinematic history (Psycho), and Hollywood quickly learned that sometimes, the less directors have to work with, the more their creative juices actually work.
Ditto for musicians. Great cover songs—like winning screen adaptations—transform underrated, overlooked, or flat-out awful material into masterpieces. Success hinges on the difference between inspiration and imitation: a remake that makes you forget the original versus one that makes you crave it; Barbra Streisand doing Elaine Paige’s “Memory” versus Boys in the U.S.A. belting out “Dancing in the Dark” at a dive bar near you.
Two recent compilations put such theory into practice. The soundtrack for 50 First Dates, Adam Sandler’s newest bit of cinematic juvenilia, offers reggae-inflected interpretations of ’80s pop songs—and thus rides the current nostalgia wave (soon to climax in a Sixteen Candles sequel and a “We Are the World” remake). The soundtrack employs a stellar recipe: tacky oldies by Spandau Ballet, Modern English, and the Outfield that, co-opted by respectable artists like Wyclef, Seal, and Ziggy Marley, you can now admit you love.
Jamaican musicians, who’ve long struck gold by sifting through American music’s triumphs and trash, could easily pen a scholarly tome on the art of the cover, from Ken Boothe’s edition of Marvin Gaye to Celine Dion as read by Elephant Man. The title of a recent release—volume two of R&B Hits Reggae Style—is thus apropos for reggae records galore. Jamaica and cover songs go together like rice and peas.
Of course, rotten peas sometimes spoil a classic dish. Duds on R&B Hits Reggae Style, for instance, falter by tackling material beyond anyone’s reach. Finding a new take on intractable classics by Al Green or Luther Vandross is futile—a fact made painfully clear by JD Smooth’s un-smooth “Let’s Stay Together,” or Mikey Spice’s Vandross spin-off, “Dance With My Mother.” On 50 First Dates, a handful of less than stellar songs err differently: by substituting replication for interpretation. Though Wayne Wonder—whose career was launched back in early-’90s Jamaica on sublime cover tunes—does a dulcet job on the Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” its standard reggae bassline, tacked-on dancehall finales, and accentual switcheroo (“old my art,” Wonder smoothly croons) aren’t enough to make this cover song more than mere simulacrum. Wonder’s rendering—like Seal’s “Lips Like Sugar,” with its Mikey Dread interlude, or 311’s version of the Cure’s “Love Song”—doesn’t transcend the overly familiar.
Getting it right, on the VP compilation and in his career, is reggae romeo Sanchez, possibly the only artist who can turn Britney Spears’s “Sometimes” into something profound and sincere. His voice is seductive, his arrangements basic; you’ll groove to his jams a dozen times before you recognize them as the tawdry, overdone, irksome ditties they used to be. Or take Pam Hall, whose “Never Can Say Goodbye” and “Time for Love” are ’70s throwbacks. Hall’s sweet, childlike soprano—reminiscent of old-time rocksteady femmes Millie Small and Susan Cadogan—merges with dub-tinged instrumentals to create a new guise for an old genre.
Like VP’s, the film compilation succeeds when it innovates. Wyclef—master of hip-hop with a reggae soul—crafts perfection from bits of imperfection: A dancehall beat (a bit too Diwali-esque), a pop melody (un-impeccably sung), and a hip-hop verse (courtesy of an artist, Eve, who sounds a bit too severe) cooperate flawlessly on 50 First Dates‘ prime track, “Your Love (L.O.V.E Reggae Mix).” Finishing a close second is Elan Atias’s Marley-esque rendition of Roxy Music’s “Slave to Love,” featuring Gwen Stefani on backup and proving that Atias, a Jewish Angeleno who once fronted the Wailers, can do Bob, pop, and pop à la Bob. Alien Ant Farm frontman Dryden Mitchell converts “Friday I’m in Love,” the Cure’s one-time-only experiment with joy, into a surprisingly peppy third-wave ska song. And ultimately, both albums suggest that it sometimes takes a foreign context—or a foreign artist—to yield a fresh crop of sounds from a field of American has-beens.