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Elvis Costello’s new muse is a forgotten Hollywood starlet

An image from the video for Elvis Costello's song,
An image from the video for Elvis Costello's song, "You Shouldn't Look at Me That Way," from the movie, "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool."
Mary McCartney

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Elvis Costello has been a dedicated explorer of musical styles since his days as a founding father of punk and new wave in the late 1970s.

His 1998 album with Burt Bacharach, “Painted from Memory,” showed his versatility as a vocalist. Since then, he’s collaborated in a range of styles, from the experimental orchestra Metropole Orkest to the hip-hop group The Roots.

Costello's latest single is called “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way.” It's a song he composed for the movie, "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool.”

The film is based on Peter Turner's 1986 memoir of the same name. It’s about his relationship with an older woman — the eccentric actress Gloria Grahame, who starred in classic films like “The Big Heat” and “Oklahoma!” Annette Bening portrays Grahame in the film.

Costello was a fan of Grahame’s even before he was enlisted to compose a song for the film. When The Frame's John Horn met Costello at the Hotel Roosevelt in Hollywood, he asked how this latest collaboration came about.

Interview Highlights:

On how he got involved with writing music for the film:

I had very coincidentally used a publicity still of Gloria in my show "Detour," which employed the prop of a giant television set that was located behind me. Barbara Broccoli, who produced this film, and Paul McGuigan, who directed it, come to the London Palladium to see my show. They're 20 minutes into the show and Gloria's picture [appears]. They must have thought I was a mind reader. 

On what attracted him to the project:

One of the interesting things I responded to about this movie is the way in which we hold people in our memories in their most celebrated period. Then we forget that they're real people who live beyond that moment. And here in Peter Turner's memoir, it's not that [Grahame is] portrayed as an elderly woman. She's only in her early 50s. And here she is now in very different different circumstances, living in London in rented rooms. They're using the tagline from "Oklahoma!" as a way of identifying her for a theater audience. I think that's what attracted me to the story — when I read the script and when I saw the rough cut of the film — was how it makes the connection between the mythic Gloria and the real person.

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell portray the relationship between Gloria Grahame and Peter Turner in
Annette Bening and Jamie Bell portray the relationship between Gloria Grahame and Peter Turner in "Film Stars Done Die in Liverpool."
Sony Pictures Classics

On how he wrote the song:

When I saw the way Annette Bening portrayed that look of anger, where the look of seduction or affection that Peter was casting to her character, she realized that it could contain judgement and it offended her vanity. When the distance in their ages was pointed out, even when he did it as a joke — all these things were great clues to a songwriter. I don't want to make it sound easy, but the song kind of wrote itself in the sense that you only had to pay attention to what's going on between the characters and you have this tension that's in the emotion.

On the elements in "You Shouldn't Look at Me That Way" that were inspired by his work with Burt Bacharach: 

I certainly learned a tremendous amount about what was possible with a ballad. I learned from the fact that he would sometimes combine unusual combinations of instruments to make a sound. So flugelhorn, alto flute and bass clarinet play the motif in this song. Something that he would sometimes do would be to introduce a really unexpected dissonance. There is, in the second verse, a high counter melody [in the violins], which is a little unsettling. It comes where I'm singing, "Don't take more than I offer, all my love or I'll make you suffer." It feels like that's what music should do. It should hint at what that feeling is.

"Film Stars Don't Die In Liverpool" opens Dec. 29.

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