In large suburban areas in the late 1980s and early 1990s, certain albums seemed to become standard issue. The Greatest Hits of Queen was in everyone’s collection at the time. Bob Marley’s Legend. For some reason, most of my peers and I found ourselves exposed to a lot of Harry Belafonte. And, on the year of my ninth birthday – 1987 – many of us were listening time and time again to the soundtrack for Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam, a biopic about Adrian Cronauer, a comedy DJ who broadcast pop music and satirical jokes to the troops serving in Vietnam in 1965.
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The soundtrack to Good Morning, Vietnam was punctuated by funnier bits of dialogue from the film, interspersed with 12 songs that, even at the time, were referred to as Golden Oldies. For us kids, this soundtrack was an introduction to what we considered “old” music (which was only about 25 years old at the time), and for adults, it functioned as nostalgia.
But was there more going on? I think the time has come to reexamine the soundtrack and see if there’s something deeper at play than mere warm fuzzies. SoundTreks will strap in and give a listen.
Track 2. “Nowhere to Run” – Martha and the Vandellas
You may find that, from a modern perspective, this soundtrack is made up of obvious choices and songs that have appeared prominently in other films since. The use of Motown classics in movies became gauche following the massive success of The Big Chill. “Nowhere to Run” is a sweet love song, and has sort of folded itself into the pop consciousness in a way that many of the songs on this record have. In the context of the film, it stands as a recent hit. I’m not sure how much Motown soldiers in Vietnam were listening to, but it’s not outside of the realm to think this would be in the rotation.
Track 3. “I Get Around” – The Beach Boys
From 1964, this was one of the The Beach Boys bigger hits (in a catalogue full of them). Given what I’ve seen in films like Apocalypse Now, it’s easy to believe that Vietnam soldiers were into surf culture.
“Nowhere to Run.” Is that a message to soldiers who felt trapped in a hellish warzone? “I Get Around.” Is that a message for how much damage they’re doing overseas? They leave home and “get around” to killing? I think each song may serve as nostalgia, but also as an ironic comment on wartime evils.
Track 4. “Game of Love” – The Mindbenders
Well, maybe except for this one. This is an underrated classic with a jaunty tune and fun lyrics. Although I know a few gay friends who bristled at the opening lyric of “the purpose of a man is to love a woman.” I love this song, and I rarely hear it in other collections of “oldies but goodies.” It was a hit at the time, anyway.
Track 6. “Sugar and Spice” – The Searchers
Another sweet love song from the mid-1960s, also a hit in 1965.
Perhaps the soundtrack is not so much reveling in oldies, but trying to recreate actual playlists as they appeared in Vietnamese radio in 1965. Cronauer was famously one of the only DJs to really hip up overseas radio stations, so the liberal use of big hits would be understandable; isn’t that what you would play for people who didn’t have access to pop music for months at a time?
Track 8. “Liar Liar” – The Castaways
I don’t know if the soundtrack to Good Morning, Vietnam was based on Cronauer’s actual playlists, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were.
This song was particularly hip at the time, as audiences in 1987 would likely remember a cover of it from Debbie Harry five years earlier. So hearing the original provided some actual hipster cred to the Good Morning, Vietnam soundtrack.
Track 9. “The Warmth of the Sun” – The Beach Boys
Are you okay with a repeat of The Beach Boys? I am. This was a lesser-known hit too, so here’s a little more hipster cred. This record is beginning to sound less like outright Boomer nostalgia, and more like a legitimate examination of hit radio in 1965, including more obscure cuts.
Track 11. “I Got You (I Feel Good)” – Jame Brown
Track 13. “Baby Please Don’t Go” – Them
Please don’t go. Another allusion to soldiers?
This was a song originally written in 1935 as a blues song, and has been covered in various iterations throughout pop history. This version by Them, featuring Van Morrison, seems to be tipping the record away from the friendly Motown pop of the previous tracks toward something darker and more psychedelic. The 1960s went from “Love Me Do” to The Doors pretty quickly, and the psychedelia was heard in tracks like this one. It’s a turn for the dark.
Track 15. “Danger, Heartbreak Dead Ahead” – The Marvelettes
The title is most certain an allusion to soldiers. This Vietnam conflict, we now know, wasn’t destined to end well. Heartbreak is ahead. It’s hard to listen to this song and even think of it as a love song in the context of the movie. After the last track, this record has started on a new path of darkness, and, in the movie, the music is now all ironic. Adrian Cronauer can’t be happy or funny anymore. There’s heartbreak dead ahead.
Track 16. “Five O’ Clock World” – The Vogues
Like “The Game of Love,” this is a catchy one that doesn’t make its way into oldies rotations a lot. Maybe it sounds too much like “You Can’t Do That” for modern audiences to enjoy it anymore. Me? I like both songs.
Track 17. “California Sun” – The Rivieras
In the context of this soundtrack, something like “California Sun” feels like a song of longing. This is a crave to be elsewhere, to be far away from Vietnam. To be in the warm California sun. It’s one of the happier songs I have ever encountered that’s not totally insufferable, and hence, easier to play ironically.
Track 19. “What a Wonderful World” – Louis Armstrong
Try not to cry. Try.
Which is Better: The Soundtrack or the Movie?
the movie is better, as it has more comedy, a better commentary on Vietnam, and a fantastic performance from the late, great Robin Williams. Like many films for grownups to come out of the 1980s, it’s a very fine film that is rarely referred to anymore. It’s worthy of revisitation.
The soundtrack was, upon revisitation, better than it one might assume. It feels like a Sessions Presents roll call, but it’s really more complex than that. It may be a roll call from 1965, but only as a way of examining what radio sounded like at the time, and not a blast of feel-good hits. It serves as comfort food, perhaps, but also as an actual clinical study.
I’m not sure if it entirely works as an ironic comment on the Vietnam war, but it’s lurking there. There more substance than you might think.
Top Image: Buena Vista Pictures
Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.