Hello there! This is another entry in our series “Tim’s Cover Story Goes to the Movies.” Here we review a pop tune that features prominently in a movie.
This week’s entry is I’m A Believer, a great pop tune that was written by Neil Diamond. We will begin with Neil Diamond’s performance of the song. We’ll next look at the most famous version of the song, a cover by The Monkees. We will conclude with a cover of I’m A Believer by Smash Mouth, and discuss its appearance in the computer-generated cartoon Shrek.
Neil Diamond and I’m A Believer:
We recently discussed Neil Diamond in our blog post on his song Red Red Wine. So here we will briefly review his life and career.
Neil is a pop singer-songwriter superstar. His records have sold over 135 million copies over a 50-year career, and he has won a series of major awards for his accomplishments.
Neil Diamond was born in Brooklyn in 1941, the son of Polish and Russian immigrants. He attended Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, where he was a member of the school’s Chorus and Choral Club along with classmate Barbra Streisand.
While he was in high school, Neil attended a summer camp in the Catskills where he experienced a concert by legendary folksinger Pete Seeger. This inspired Diamond to buy a guitar and become a songwriter.
Neil enrolled in New York University. However, he soon began cutting pre-med classes to hang out at the Brill Building, where he attempted to sell his pop songs. In his senior year at NYU, he was offered a 16-week job at $50/week to write songs for Sunbeam Music Publishing. Neil took the job and dropped out of college.
Below is a publicity photo of Neil Diamond from 1970.Embed from Getty Images
Apparently Diamond’s early years were fairly rough; at one time, he says that his food budget was 35 cents per day! However, despite the fact that he was quite literally a starving artist, he managed to write a number of songs during that period.
Diamond’s first big success was as a songwriter. In late 1965 he wrote a hit song that Jay and the Americans released, and then “I’m A Believer” and several other hits for The Monkees.
The song I’m A Believer describes a man who was initially cynical about love; however, he meets a woman who completely changes his mind, converting him into a believer in love at first sight.
I thought love was only true in fairy tales
Meant for someone else but not for me
Love was out to get me
That’s the way it seemed
Disappointment haunted all of my dreams
Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind
I’m in love
I’m a believer, I couldn’t leave her if I tried.
Here is Neil Diamond in a live performance of I’m A Believer. This took place in 2008 at Madison Square Garden.
Neil and his band have a lot of fun with this version of his tune. They treat it as a tasty morsel of bubble-gum pop.
Neil is accompanied by a big band with a full horn section and backup singer/dancers. They produce a high-octane version of I’m A Believer, to the delight of Neil’s legion of loyal fans in his native New York City. The horn section clowns around while Neil paces the stage singing his famous tune.
I’m A Believer was significant in the careers of both Neil Diamond and The Monkees. This was a monster #1 chart hit for the Monkees. Following on the heels of their first hit Last Train To Clarksville, I’m A Believer marked The Monkees as a group on the rise. For Diamond, this song established his credentials and made him a valuable commodity as a pop songwriter.
Capitalizing on his songwriting success, Neil Diamond signed a record contract with Bert Berns’ Bang Records in 1966. There, he was able to establish himself as a solo performer with tunes such as Solitary Man, Cherry, Cherry and Kentucky Woman.
Eventually, Diamond and Berns clashed over his musical direction. Diamond wanted to write deeper, more introspective songs while Berns wanted catchy pop tunes. When Diamond attempted to leave, a series of lawsuits ensued.
It took Neil a couple of years and a dip in his career to resolve his situation with Bang Records, but in 1968 he signed a contract with what is now Universal Records.
And then Diamond was off and running. He hit it big with songs like Sweet Caroline, Cracklin’ Rosie and Song Sung Blue. And beginning in 1971, Neil started playing a series of concerts at LA’s Greek Theater.
After that tour, and some live concerts on Broadway, Neil took some time off from touring. He wrote the score for the film version of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. That had a curious history; although the movie was a colossal flop, the soundtrack album was a big hit – in fact, the album grossed more than the movie!
Neil Diamond went on to become a pop superstar. However, in 1979 he collapsed onstage in San Francisco and endured a 12-hour operation when a tumor was discovered on his spine. After a significant period of rehab, Diamond then starred in a remake of the Al Jolson movie The Jazz Singer.
Neil identified with the Jewish heritage of the star, and wrote several songs for the movie that became pop hits, notably America. However, Diamond had never acted before, and it showed. For his performance in this movie Diamond was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor, and also won a Razzie Award for Worst Actor.
2011 was another significant year for Neil Diamond. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and later that same year he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors.
So, to Neil Diamond and his legion of fans, we say “Neil, now I’m a believer!”
The Monkees and I’m A Believer:
In 1962, filmmaker Bob Rafelson pitched the idea for a TV show about a group of young rock musicians. The idea went nowhere, until the surprising and phenomenal success of the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night in 1964.
Shortly after that, Rafelson’s idea was green-lighted by Screen Gems Television. At that time, Rafelson envisioned writing scripts using The Lovin’ Spoonful as the pop group. However, Spoonful lead singer John Sebastian was already under a record contract, which meant that Screen Gems would not own the rights to that band’s songs.
So instead, The Monkees were assembled from an ad run in Daily Variety that read:
Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running Parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21. Want spirited Ben Frank’s types. Have courage to work. Must come down for interview.
Screen Gems already had Davy Jones under contract. He had been nominated for a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical for his performance of The Artful Dodger in the Broadway musical Oliver. Over 400 people applied for The Monkees, and eventually Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith and Mickey Dolenz were chosen to join Davy Jones in the band.
Below is a publicity photo of The Monkees from 1968. From L: Mike Nesmith; Davy Jones; Peter Tork; Mickey Dolenz.Embed from Getty Images
The choices were somewhat unusual in that none of the Monkees had a lot of musical experience. Mike Nesmith had played bass with a few bands, Peter Tork had appeared in a few Greenwich Village nightclubs, and Mickey Dolenz played a bit of guitar. On the other hand, Stephen Stills was rejected as a songwriter for the group (!)
Presumably the lads were chosen predominantly for their quirky personalities and their superficial resemblance to The Beatles.
The Monkees TV show became a monster hit. The show combined wacky antics by the lads, together with music videos of their pop songs.
The Monkees show was a blatant rip-off of the Beatles films (which in turn borrowed heavily from the Marx Brothers and The Goon Show). However, The Monkees TV episodes were cleverly written and generally humorous. As a result of their show and their records, The Monkees became international superstars.
The group divided up the singing responsibilities. As a general rule, Mickey Dolenz ended up singing lead on the hard-rocking songs while Davy Jones took the lead on slower ballads.
The music was overseen by rock impresario Don Kirschner, who was the head of music for Screen Gems. Kirschner assigned Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart to produce the records for the group.
The early Monkees music was the product of Kirschner’s Brill Building experience and knowledge of the industry. Boyce and Hart wrote several songs for the group, including The Monkees’ first big hit, Last Train to Clarksville. They also wrote The Monkees Theme and (I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone.
Neil Diamond wrote I’m A Believer and A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. Carole King and Gerry Goffin wrote Pleasant Valley Sunday, while Kingston Trio member John Stewart wrote Daydream Believer.
At first, The Monkees sang on their records, but the instrumental work was handled by experienced professionals. Occasionally the instrumental work was done by the West Coast session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew. More frequently, the session musicians would be drawn from Boyce and Hart’s studio band The Candy Store Prophets.
Here are the Monkees and their music video of I’m A Believer. This was issued in late 1967, at a time when the single was released.
The song features Mickey Dolenz on lead. Although the various Monkees are shown “playing” instruments (Dolenz on drums, Peter Tork on keyboards, Mike Nesmith on guitar and Davy Jones with a tambourine), none of the Monkees actually played on the record.
Once the Monkees became pop stars, criticism of their musical inexperience intensified. I particularly enjoyed the moniker “the Pre-Fab Four” bestowed on them by a cynical British press.
The subsequent events mirrored the plot of “Pinocchio” – the puppets yearned to become human. Led by Michael Nesmith, the Monkees agitated to write their own songs, play their own instruments and accompany themselves when on tour. Don Kirschner, on the other hand, took the position that the Monkees were never a genuine band, and that they should continue to release music that was written and recorded by industry professionals.
Since Kirschner did not consider the Monkees to be serious musicians, he tended not to consult them when producing an album or issuing single records. This led to Kirschner’s being dismissed as music supervisor shortly after the release of the Monkees’ first album.
After being bounced by the Monkees, Kirschner produced the animated TV series The Archies. In this show the cartoon characters Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica form a garage band. The Archies actually had a #1 hit with the bubblegum-pop song Sugar Sugar. Kirschner didn’t have to worry about cartoon characters fighting him to seize creative control of their music!
Producers Boyce and Hart shared Kirschner’s initial view of the Monkees. They regarded them primarily as actors, and saw themselves as the songwriters and record producers.
Well, the Monkees did learn to play instruments, and eventually accompanied themselves while on tour. They had a significant number of pop hits before they eventually imploded.
In 1968 NBC announced that they were not renewing the Monkees TV show. The Monkees then shot a movie called Head. I have seen bits and pieces of this film, and cannot imagine watching it all the way to the end.
The film makes no sense whatsoever, and what were intended to be clever surreal scenes come off as pointless. The movie was co-written by Jack Nicholson (presumably while on an acid trip prior to his next movie, Easy Rider), and Head was a commercial disaster. At the time, it was also a critical disaster as well; but apparently some recent critics consider Head to be a psychedelic cult classic. I would like to know what those critics are smoking.
While Monkees albums were still reaching the top 10 on the Billboard charts, a number of those songs turned out to be essentially solo performances by one member of the group.
Peter Tork left the band, followed by Michael Nesmith. From time to time after that, The Monkees (or various members) re-grouped for a special performance or a tour.
In 1997 the group re-united for a TV special, Hey, Hey It’s The Monkees, written by Michael Nesmith. I saw a few minutes of this show, and it was painfully awful — badly written, not funny, essentially unwatchable.
In my research for this post I read the Wikipedia entry on The Monkees. That article goes to considerable lengths arguing that The Monkees were terrific artists whose music had a significant impact on many of the greatest groups of the time.
This article quotes John Lennon as saying that the Monkees were “the greatest comic talent since the Marx Brothers,” and claims that artists such as Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, and U2 were major Monkees fans. Give me a break. I’m surprised this article doesn’t argue that the Monkees inspired the guitar work of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page!
Don’t get me wrong. When The Monkees were churning out hit records and had a top-rated TV show, I really enjoyed them. Their records had catchy melodies and first-rate production values. The Monkees caught the tsunami generated by the British Invasion and rode it to fame and success.
Furthermore, The Monkees were the template for every synthetic boy-band that followed them. Groups like New Kids On the Block and ‘NSYNC copied every detail from The Monkees playbook; and these later groups enjoyed the same commercial success as the Pre-Fab Four.
Davy Jones died of a heart attack in 2012. We wish the remaining three Monkees all the best in either their solo or re-united configurations.
Smash Mouth and I’m A Believer:
Smash Mouth is a rock band that formed in 1994 in San Jose, California. The band initially consisted of lead singer Steve Harwell, guitarist Greg Camp, bassist Paul de Lisle and drummer Kevin Coleman.
The band signed a record deal with Interscope, and their first album featuring the single Walkin’ On The Sun went double platinum. Shortly after the group’s second album was released, Kevin Coleman dropped out due to back problems and was replaced by Michael Urbano.
Below is a photo of Smash Mouth appearing at the 28th annual People’s Choice Awards show in 2002. From L: Paul de Lisle; Michael Urbano; Greg Camp; and Steve Harwell.Embed from Getty Images
The Smash Mouth version of I’m A Believer was released in 2001 as part of the Shrek soundtrack. A second Smash Mouth song, All Star, was also included in the Shrek soundtrack. The Smash Mouth cover of I’m A Believer was quite a success for the band.
Smash Mouth continued to place songs in animated movies when their cover of the Sherman Brothers tune I Wanna Be Like You was featured in The Jungle Book 2 soundtrack.
In 2003, Smash Mouth was dropped from Interscope Records. Since that time, the group has bounced around. The band signed with Universal Records and subsequently with 429 Records. They have also experienced somewhat of a revolving door with several band members leaving, being replaced, and sometimes returning.
Smash Mouth still has their original lead vocalist Steve Harwell and bassist Paul de Lisle. Michael Klooster on keyboards has been with the group since 1997. I quite enjoy the group’s energy and hard-rocking style, and I wish them well.
I’m A Believer in the film Shrek:
Shrek was a computer-animated film released in 2001. It was based on the 1990 book of the same name by William Steig. Shrek might be considered a “fractured fairy tale,” after the tongue-in-cheek revisionist versions of fairy tales popularized in the Rocky and Bullwinkle TV series.
Shrek turns several traditional fairytale tropes on their head. The film contains a number of sly cultural references, and in addition to the standard Disney fairytale lore Shrek incorporates adult sexual themes and flatulence jokes.
The rights to Shrek were originally owned by Steven Spielberg, who envisioned making an animated film from Steig’s book. Spielberg had Bill Murray in mind as Shrek and Steve Martin as his comrade Donkey.
However, when Spielberg joined David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg in founding DreamWorks, that studio obtained the rights to Shrek and actively developed the concept.
Katzenberg enlisted a number of stars to provide voices for the various characters in the film. Chris Farley was Katzenberg’s choice for the ogre Shrek, the title character of the movie. Farley had nearly completed the voice work for this character when he died of a drug overdose in 1997.
At that point, the producers brought in Mike Myers to provide the voice for Shrek. Myers had nearly completed his own vocal work on the movie when he decided that Shrek should have a Scottish accent, like Myers’ Austin Powers character. This required Myers to repeat all of Shrek’s dialogue.
The same team that provided the computer-animation work for the film Antz also worked on Shrek. Apparently the film includes many advances in computer-generated surfaces and visual effects.
The plot of Shrek follows a traditional fairytale motif but with a number of wry plot twists. The ogre Shrek (Mike Myers) discovers that several fairytale characters have been exiled to his swamp by the evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow). Shrek travels to Farquaad’s palace in Duloc to request that the characters be allowed to return.
Shrek joins up with a Donkey (Eddie Murphy). They travel to Duloc where they are recruited to rescue the princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) from a dragon, so that Farquaad can marry her. When the two arrive at the dragon’s lair, the dragon (a female) falls in love with Donkey.
On their trip to Duloc, Fiona and Shrek gradually fall in love; however, a misunderstanding leads to a falling-out. During this period, Donkey discovers that Fiona is under a spell. Every night she turns into an ogre herself, and only true love’s kiss will return her to “love’s true form.”
Shrek and Fiona separate. However, at the last moment Shrek re-appears in Duloc just as Fiona is to be married to Farquaad. Just then, the sun sets and Fiona is transformed into an ogre. With the help of the dragon, who eats Farquaad, Shrek rescues Fiona and kisses her. To her surprise, she remains an ogre; however, Shrek considers her to be beautiful, and the two are eventually married.
Shrek incorporated covers of 60s music into the film. Shortly before release of the movie, the producers decided to add another 60s cover to end the movie with a bang. I’m A Believer was a natural choice, as its first line (“I thought love was only true in fairy tales”) perfectly fits the premise of the film.
Here is the Smash Mouth cover of I’m A Believer, as it appeared in the movie Shrek.
I’m A Believer initially features the wedding kiss of Shrek and Fiona. However, the producers continue by showing the entire cast dancing along to the song, which is performed by Smash Mouth in rollicking hard-rock style.
Eddie Murphy’s character Donkey is given some vocals near the end of the song. We see Donkey together with the dragon, who clearly has the hots for him. The song includes brief glimpses of several stock characters from traditional fairytales – Fairy Godmother; Pinocchio; the Gingerbread Man; the Three Little Pigs; and the Three Blind Mice.
Mike Myers portrays Shrek as a well-meaning misfit whose main goal is to gain acceptance despite his differences from ‘normal’ society. Myers allows Eddie Murphy to weigh in with an over-the-top characterization of Donkey. This is similar to the way that Andy Griffith played straight-man to the zany antics of Don Knotts.
The producers of Shrek considered themselves to be in fierce competition with Disney, the dominant animated studio up to that time. Shrek is filled with sly references to earlier Disney pictures.
Note that the dragon in Shrek is extremely similar to its counterpart in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, and the town of Duloc has an eerie resemblance to Disneyland,
even in so far as parodying the famous ‘It’s A Small World After All’ musical ride in a scene with the singing puppets.
In fact, DreamWorks issued the DVD for Shrek on the same day that Disney’s partner Pixar released their animated film Monsters Inc. And Radio Disney was barred from allowing ads for Shrek to air on their stations.
Shrek was a commercial blockbuster. It grossed over $484 million worldwide against a $60 million production budget. The film spawned three sequels, two holiday specials and a spin-off (Puss in Boots), with reportedly a fifth Shrek film due in a couple of years.
Shrek won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, beating out – you guessed it! – Monsters Inc. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture in the Musical or Comedy category.