SoundTreks | Space Jam
Joe Pytka’s feature film Space Jam, based on a series of Nike commericals from the mid ’90s, was released in theaters in November of 1996 to enormous commercial success (it made $230 million on its $80 million budget) and overwhelming critical disdain (it currently holds an unfairly high 36% on Rotten Tomatoes). The youngsters who saw Space Jam in 1996 have now grown into late-20s nostalgia junkies who have come to canonize the film as one of the more important films of their childhoods.
It’s also one of the worst feature films ever made.
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I know the phrase “worst ever made” is bandied about casually these days – especially among a certain spectrum of cranky, young internet users – and is most often used merely as a form of colloquial hyperbole. In the case of Space Jam, however, I think the phrase may actually be apt. Space Jam represents the true horrors of Hollywood commercialism run amok. It’s an abrasive, witless piece of ugly idiocy, completely devoid of humor, charm, or intelligence. It’s also based on a series of TV commercials, and it can never shake off its horrid pandering origins. It came out at a time when Warner Bros. had their own studio stores in malls, and the Looney Tunes characters were being overexposed almost to the point of ruination. The film looks and feels like a 30-second TV spot stretched unbearably to 88 minutes.
Oddly enough, some people consider this film to be entertaining.
There was one thing that may be worth salvaging from this dumpster fire, however: the soundtrack record. The Space Jam soundtrack was part of the commercial enterprise (it went sextuple platinum and earned R. Kelly two Grammys), and contains some awful “hit” inclusions, but, upon reflection, it may be worth more than we remember. SoundTreks has decided to delve in and see for sure. Let’s listen.
Track 1. “Fly Like an Eagle” – Seal
A cover of the Steve Miller Band hit, of course, which may be a hump for some. If you’re not into moody ’70s rock, then I can’t push you into “Fly Like an Eagle.” Seal, however, may be able to. His cover is funky, languid, and almost lounge-y. His cover feels, in certain ways, like a lost Stevie Wonder track. It may not be hip to say this, but I am fond of the original, and find this funky, organ-backed rendition to be more than mere pop embellishment. I think Seal knew the song beforehand, so he knew how to handle it. It’s a good kick-off for the record.
Track 2. “The Winner” – Coolio
Coolio was one of the hottest rappers in the world in 1996 thanks to the ultra-success of “Gangsta’s Paradise,” which is actually an excellent song. Coolio is also a pretty dang good rapper; he is more than the silly hairdo and goofy name. For reasons unfathomable, Coolio has been cordoned off to the realm of campy nostalgia (he acted in a few episodes of Futurama, f’rinstance), when he should be considered a legitimate rap talent. “The Winner” is a positive and optimistic song, largely because of its sample of the 1967 song “We’re a Winner” by The Impressions (a fact I learned from the instantly invaluable WhoSampled.com).
So far, this record is moody and funky and almost appropriate for making out.
Track 3. “Space Jam” – Quad City DJ’s
Guilty by association.
I know little about The Quad City DJ’s, and they may be appropriately referred to as a two-hit wonder, as this song, and their “C’Mon and N’ Ride It (The Train)” are their only charting singles. I cannot say if this is representative of their song, but “Space Jam” is pretty fun, but ultimately dumb kid-friendly dancefloor pap. It occupies the same cognitive space as “Who Let the Dogs Out” and “Tootsee Roll.” I hear the makings of a greater song in there, mostly in the vocals of JeLana LaFleur, but “Space Jam” has nothing going for it beyond its energy and its nostalgia.
Track 4. “I Believe I Can Fly” – R. Kelly
How did we let this one happen? R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” is catchy, super-sappy, “adult contemporary” balladeering at its most generic. This song drips with perfume and maple syrup. For some reason, when I hear it, I picture R. Kelly showering in slow-motion. Despite its gooeyness, “I Believe I Can Fly” became one of the most massive pop hits of its time. It’s been covered by several other bands, was featured on several singing game shows, and I have heard it more than once at a karaoke bar (a turgid experience to say the least). I don’t know of the song raised the film’s success or vice versa, but these two awful pop towers likely had to lean on one another.
I can’t point to why a sing like this becomes a hit. It’s not the sort of music I listen to while driving, or when I’m at home. I don’t even know what sort of function it serves, aside as something to play over memorial film reels.
Track 5. “Hit ‘Em High (The Monstars’ Anthem)” – B-Real, Busta Rhymes, Coolio, LL Cool J, and Method Man
I miss group raps. They don’t seem to be common anymore. There was a time when rappers traveled in packs, and they would take turns rapping different verses to their songs, and you’d be treated to a variety of vocal stylings, all reliant on – and supported by – each other. And why not assemble what is essentially a supergroup of hot rappers? Although I get the sense that none of the men featured on this track were terribly interested in Space Jam or the space aliens therein. They are supposedly rapping as the evil basketball aliens featured in the flick, but don’t seem to quite grasp the premise of the film, or what role they’re supposed to be playing. That disconnect saves the song. Can you imagine an earnest narration rap of Space Jam?
Actually, we probably all can.
Track 6. “I Found My Smile Again” – D’Angelo
The amount of genuine soul that’s coming out of this record is astonishing. The music supervisors could have easily cobbled together a team of blank-faced pop youths who were active in 1996 and plopped out a nondescript collection of dull, vague dance numbers. Think of what happens with every single Disney Channel original movie. But, no, when they went for soul, they hired a talented polymath with attitude and talent like D’Angelo. The track doesn’t have much in the way of poetry or lyrics, but it does have that make-out quality I mentioned above.
Track 7. “For You I Will” – Monica
Monica has been making music – and acting – since 1993, and has gathered up numerous musical accolades in that time. I also know nothing about her. Monica’s brand of echoey, emotional R&B is far outside of my circle of musical experience. It all sounds about the same to my untrained ear. I can, however, recognize that Monica’s work is more interesting than many of her contemporaries’ by dint of her sincerity. Monica has talent, and that’s hard to ignore.
It’s also a track that sucks the energy out of the room. I was getting used to the soul, rap, and dance, and we had to slow down?
Wait a moment. I’ve solved it. The Space Jam soundtrack is a specially curated playlist for a 1996 Junior High prom. It’s all new songs or new covers, it’s mostly high-energy dance, has some hip rap which could be used for dance, and, as of Track 7, also includes the slow song where 13-year-olds can hug and sway romantically. Monica disappears into the background, and all you can worry about it how far toward your partner’s buttocks you will allow your hands to stray.
Track 8. “Upside Down (‘Round-N-‘Round)” – Salt-N-Pepa
Almost all of Salt-N-Pepa’s songs are about sex. They’re also great. If you’re interested in hip hop and you have no Salt-N-Pepa records, your collection is incomplete.
Their inclusion here may seem a little uncool, however. By 1996, Salt-N-Pepa were fading from the public consciousness and were only a short ways away from what was to be their final record. After 1997, the group scattered, each attempted unsuccessful musical solo projects, and one was involved in a brief marriage to the guy from Naughty By Nature. I welcome them here, but I’m an old man who knew Salt-N-Pepa back in the day. I can’t imagine young people seeking out Very Necessary after watching Space Jam. And if they did, they were treated to “Shoop.”
Track 9. “Givin’ U All That I’ve Got” – Robin S.
Robin S., like Monica, is clearly a talented vocalist. But, wow, what is that dated house beat she is singing over? By 1996, house music had – if I’m recalling correctly – evolved past these bloopy synth sounds. And the repeated vague lyrics about being free and giving love are largely meaningless, making the song a bit annoying overall. It’s a good thing Robin S. has such amazing pipes, otherwise this track would be largely disposable. It’s the dance track that lets the 13-year-old prom-goers take a surreptitious cigarette break behind the gym.
Track 10. “Basketball Jones” – Barry White and Chris Rock
Not that you’d know this from listening to it, but this may be the hippest and most fun track on the record. “Basketball Jones” is a silly cover of a Cheech and Chong song from the 1970s about a squeaky-voiced kid who is obsessed with basketball. If you haven’t seen the animated short that accompanies it, watch it immediately. The original may technically be a novelty hit, but there is a lot of spirit and, yes, a smattering of genuine feeling lurking somewhere inside of it.
This new version is a slapstick riff on the original narrated by Chris Rock and backed up by Barry White. It’s not as good as the original, but it was clearly commissioned by someone who was hip enough to give it homage. Also, since this is a film about basketball, why not include songs about it? Not that there are very many (the theme to “The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh” maybe?).
Track 11. “I Turn to You” – All-4-One
This is the anthem of the post-apocalyptic future, when boy bands have taken over the Earth.
Track 12. “All of My Days” – R. Kelly, feat. Changing Faces and Jay-Z
Did you know that the Space Jam website, set up by Warner Bros. in 1996, has actually remained completely unchanged for 20 years? This is of special personal significance, as 1996 was the year I first touched the internet, and this was likely one of the first movie websites I personally came into contact with. This is what the internet looked like before streaming and downloading technology was sufficiently advanced enough to allow for actual casual use. The ‘net was static and stilted, especially compared to the slick multiverse it has become. Go to the site, use it, and imagine the loading times to be quadrupled. That’s what we Gen-Y-ers were doing in college.
Oh yeah. A song. It’s boring.
Track 13. “That’s the Way (I Like It)” – Spin Doctors, feat. Biz Markie
The original, by KC and the Sunshine Band, was released in 1975 and is considered by many to be an indelible classic. It’s a funk standard to be sure. This cover is, like “Basketball Jones,” a jokey, slapstick rejiggering that intentionally drains the original of its earnestness (however little it may have had). Biz Markie (the “You Got What I Need” guy) was a comic act, and the Spin Doctors were a playful mid-’90s college rock band out of the take-nothing-seriously school of the era.
I kind of love it. It’s silly, and I like silly. The fun of the original is still there, but it has a raucous, drunk-at-a-party vibe. If the Space Jam soundtrack is a Jr. High prom, this is the kids singing along late into the night, belting as loudly and as happily as they can into the gymnasium rafters. They’re just having fun at this point, and are happy to croon along.
Track 14. “Buggin’” – Bugs Bunny
And why not end the record with a track that makes you want to murder all of humanity?
Yes, we are faced with the sad, sad, maddening, horrifying fact that Bugs Bunny raps on this record, and that it’s about 700% as obnoxious as “The Crypt Jam.” This makes Partners in Kryme’s “T-U-R-T-L-E Power” sound like Public Enemy. The movie already makes audiences want to shove their thumbs in their eyes. Did you need an aural equivalent as well? This very track may be the nadir of Looney Tunes overexposure. It was this that the Looney Tunes needed to spend a decade recovering from. Not that Looney Tunes sings the Beatles record. Not the sweatshirts or the collectible drinking vessels. Not the weird deification of The Tasmanian Devil. This was it. “Buggin'” was the bottom.
If this is a 1996 prom soundtrack, then “Buggin'” must be either a prank from a jerk class clown, or the GTFO track to play at the very end of the night to shoo the kids home.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
The soundtrack is better by default, since the movie is such a stinker.
As an independent entity, however, the soundtrack is actually a pretty worthy mix of soul, funk, dance, and mid-’90s hip-hop. It’s not the richest or most textured album, and it certainly could have benefitted from a greater variety, but it serves well enough, in spite of its missteps and periodic annoying tracks. It also has a playful attitude, as it included a few comedic songs to balance out the occasional dull slo-jamz.
Here’s how you flesh out the Space Jam soundtrack: Include a few orchestral Carl Stalling pieces, throw in one or two rock songs, and omit “Buggin’.” You just made a pretty good record that would have lasted more than a single prom.
Now, if you will excuse me, I need to spend a full 90 minutes surfing that website.
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. 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.