Scene Stealers: “Jessie’s Girl” in Boogie Nights

Great cinema elicits unadulterated reaction. Music may be its most integral component. Not only does it serve as narrative progression, but it also supports a desired overall effect. Adam Grybowski, Director of Communications at Rider University, puts it like this: “Music in film serves several functions. Among them, it helps shape emotional responses, creates a rhythm to scenes and segments, and comments on the action. Music is often crucial to the experience of a scene and, in some cases, becomes as iconic as the movies themselves”. This series does not focus on movie scenes that feature good songs; it highlights rare instances where the song makes the scene. This is scene stealers.

“Jessie’s Girl” was released by Rick Springfield in 1981. It remains the Australian rocker’s signature tune. According to the Australian Music History website, “Rick Springfield was born Richard Lewis Springthorpe in 1949 in suburban Merrylands near Sydney. In 1969 he joined popular Australian band ‘Zoot.’ As a guitarist at age 20 and after a few years of success, he started to chase a solo career. ‘Speak to the sky’ was his first solo [work] and went top ten in Australia prompting him to move to the U.S. In 1981 he broke through with “Jessie’s Girl”. Around this time, he was offered various acting roles which eventually saw him take up a role in General Hospital as Dr. Noah Drake while simultaneously touring with his music”. At the 1982 Grammy Awards, Rick won Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for “Jessie’s Girl”.

A lot of good songs have been written about love. More have been written about heartbreak. “Jessie’s Girl” falls into the latter category. Springfield penned the tune based on personal experience, stating: “It was a brief relationship I had when I was making stained glass. I met this guy and his girlfriend. I was completely turned on to his girlfriend, but she was just not interested. So I had a lot of sexual angst, and I went home and wrote a song about it. Then I lost contact with them. The only thing I remember is his name was Gary, so I changed the name, because ‘Gary’ didn’t sing very well. But the whole thing is absolutely what I was feeling. He was getting it and I wasn’t, and it was really tearing me up. Sexual angst is an amazing motivator to write a song”.

“Jessie’s Girl” was a genuine hit. It peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in August of 1981. The timing could not have been better. As Songfacts.com points out, it “was the #1 song in the United States when MTV launched on August 1, 1981. The video became a favorite on the fledgling network, as the photogenic Springfield starred in a well-produced promo where he used his acting skills to portray his angst. Springfield says it’s his only video where he took creative control, storyboarding it himself”. 16 years after Springfield first released the song, it was implemented to perfection on screen. The tune is used in an insanely intense scene in one of the most seminal films of the 1990s. Everybody who has ever seen “Boogie Nights” remembers the “Jessie’s Girl” scene.

Springfield’s 1981 album Working Class Dog (which contained “Jessie’s Girl”) was his breakthrough effort. In the same way, 1997’s “Boogie Nights” was director Paul Thomas Anderson’s breakout film. It features a brilliant ensemble cast including Mark Wahlberg, Bill Macy, Julianne Moore, Burt Reynolds, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. A synopsis by movie historian Garin Pirnia relates that the film centers around “a group of 1970s Los Angeles Valley-based adult film actors. The 155-minute feature was writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s sophomore feature…It received three Oscar nominations and was a modest hit at the box office. The movie was loosely based on the life of legendary porn star John Holmes, and a short film Anderson made when he was still a teenager, 1988’s ‘The Dirk Diggler Story’, about a well-endowed porn star”.

25 years after its initial release, “Boogie Nights” is now considered a classic. As with most classic films, the soundtrack plays a huge role. Cinema expert Ronald Ross says, “Music can tell the story and explain the plot, filmmakers use it very carefully to build the tone and mood of a film. Also, music is used to expose feelings of characters, actions, tensions…the emotional ups and downs of a film. And help the audience relate with the emotions being portrayed on screen.” PTA mastered this in “Boogie Nights”. Pop culture writer Brian Soares states, “Anderson begins to add harmless ‘80s pop into seriously unsettling scenarios to create further disconnect, and to convey a non-sexual loss of innocence…Rick Springfield’s ‘Jessie’s Girl’ has never quite sounded the same since.”

Columnist Jerry Papandrea also sings PTA’s praises: “Paul Thomas Anderson really used the music to accentuate the film, as a great director should. His usage of music in this film went beyond that. The selection of ‘Jesse’s Girl’ for the scene in which it is used and the way in which it was used examples this.” Papandrea sets the scene: “Dirk Diggler, played by Mark Wahlberg, had made it big in porn. He followed a downward spiral of cocaine use. And somehow got wrapped up in a plot to rob a drug dealer, played by Alfred Molina, by an ominous character played by Tom Jane. Jane’s character’s plan is to enter the dealer’s home for a deal and demand money. The tension builds, the plan is foiled, and they have to escape gunfire.”

Alfred Molina was unfamiliar with the songs when he accepted his now legendary role in “Boogie Nights”. Once again according to Pirnia, “The London-born actor played drug dealer Rahad Jackson (supposedly based on Eddie Nash). During the firecracker scene he sings along to two 1980s classics—Rick Springfield’s ‘Jessie’s Girl’ and Night Ranger’s ‘Sister Christian’. ‘When I said yes to the part, they sent me those two songs … I knew neither of them because neither was released in England,’ Molina told Grantland. ‘So I had to sit down for like three days on my own, playing those songs over and over and over so that I knew them backwards because they became so emblematic for the character.’”

Film scholar Naomi Fry lends further analysis to the scene: “Rahad is wearing only bikini briefs, gold chain, and a flapping satin robe. [He] greets the trio affably, singing along to Night Ranger’s ‘Sister Christian’ and Rick Springfield’s ‘Jessie’s Girl.’ But the scene thrums with menace. The Top Forty mood disrupted by Rahad taking hits on a freebase pipe and playing Russian roulette with a loaded handgun. And by the loud firecrackers”. Fry continues, “Every detail in the scene is spot-on…The heart of the scene, though, comes about midway through. When ‘Jessie’s Girl’ moves from its second verse to the chorus. The camera lingers on Dirk’s face for nearly forty seconds.” The genius is that PTA incorporates the song into the actual scene as opposed to overlay music. This invests the viewer. It puts the audience on equal footing with the characters, free to suffer the same miseries.

American critic and author Steven Hyden is effusive in his admiration for the scene which features the Springfield hit. He states, “It’s pretty much a given that this is the greatest sequence in ‘Boogie Nights’. And possibly PTA’s entire oeuvre…When the awesome mixtape switches over from ‘Sister Christian’ to ‘Jessie’s Girl’. This works brilliantly on multiple levels. It sounds cool. Second, it adds to the unpredictable tension of the setting.” Anderson’s use of “Jessie’s Girl” not only makes for a near flawless scene, but it also introduced the tune to a new generation. When asked to state his case about his song’s impressive longevity, Springfield says, “I’m thrilled by it. As a writer, all you can ask is that a song has legs. It has an appeal that keeps coming back”. In the case of “Boogie Nights”, people will always come back to the “Jessie’s Girl” scene.

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