If you’re a pop music fan of any kind, I highly suggest you check out Grace Of My Heart, the 1996 movie that prominently features “God Give Me Strength,” the collaboration between Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach that led to Painted From Memory. It’s fun to watch the film and spot who the different fictional characters are supposed to represent. It would take only casual knowledge of that era in music to recognize stand-ins for Carole King, Lesley Gore, Brian Wilson, and Phil Spector. I don’t know if the 60’s were really like that, with every major musical personality haphazardly interacting with each other, but it’s a fun fantasy to indulge.
In the film, the main character, a King stand-in played by Illeana Douglas, gets up the courage to perform a composition she wants to record herself in front of the Wilson stand-in, played by, I kid you not, Matt Dillon. Eventually, she does record it, with the help of the Spectorian producer, but it turns into a “River Deep-Mountain High”-like flop because it’s just too personal for mass consumption.
Listening to the song in the Costello-Bacharach version, you can sort of hear it in that context, as this massive account of a break-up that may cut a little too close to the bone for everyone in the audience. The verses are an eloquent evocation of sorrow, as would be expected from a songwriter like Elvis and a tune-spinner like Bacharach. In the bridge, however, things are amped up to a harrowing level, as the emotions turn to the darker side: “See, I’m only human/I want him to hurt,” sings Costello, and his barely-controlled voice bellow betray the wounds accrued from this experience that no span of time could ever hope to heal.
In the first two refrains, Costello uses a soft falsetto to sing the title phrase. In the last one, he uncorks another powerful howl, one you might call cathartic if you actually believed it would lessen the narrator’s pain in any way. “God Give Me Strength” manages to transcend the specificity of its Hollywood origins, even as it hangs onto its stature as a work of unbearably painful honesty.
(The full Elvis Costello list is now available in e-book form. Here is the link:)
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