Reality Bites Soundtrack Pt. 1 of 2, Big Mountain

Few movies encapsulate an era like Ben Stiller's Reality Bites. That's not necessarily a compliment. I'd argue that only 1995's Empire Records bests it in the "middle-aged studio exec attempts to cash in on the humor and angst of the grunge generation using sub-John Hughes script, indie actors and eclectic soundtrack" department.

Released in 1994 and starring Gen X superstars Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder, the film tells the story of four twenty-somethings living in Houston, TX in the mid-90s. Though Stiller and producers would later deny it, the initial idea was to make a film about the Generation X crowd and everything that went along with that lifestyle:
  • shitty 9-5 jobs - Ryder is a morning show PA, Hawke is unemployed for the 13th time in two years while roommate/friend Janeane Garofalo works as a manager at the ultimate '90s microcosm, The Gap.
  • relationships - Ryder's stuck in a love triangle between the wannabe philosopher, grunge rocker and all around loser Hawke, and the educated, successful yuppie-ish sell-out Stiller).
  • pop culture-centric conversations - endless references to '70s kitsch--half of Hawke's lines are either quoting a commercial jingle ("I'm a Pepper", "This girl is cukoo for Cocoa Puffs!") or throwing down some trivial tidbit about Good Times or Diff'rnt Strokes.
  • modern, sexually-based fears - at one point Garofalo takes an HIV test and fourth roommate Steve Zahn struggles with his sexuality.
  • living off fast food - Ryder at one point works at a burger place and, while on a date with Stiller, pontificates on the joys of 7-11's Big Gulp.
  • the fear of selling out and becoming like their parents, i.e. doing something not in the arts - Hawke repeatedly fails to live up to his potential due to the fear of selling out to "the man," Ryder sabotages her own job and later breaks up with Stiller when he dares to allow the MTV-like network he works for to edit a boring yet artistically sound documentary she made about her friends' lives into something commercial and entertaining.
  • Janeane Garofalo - does anything scream "'90s!" more than the grungy, sloppy, deadpan, cynical, "I'm studying for an M.A. in gender studies so fuck 90210" humor of Ms. Garofalo? MTV even made a cartoon based on her persona with Daria--and to make her even angrier, didn't give her any credit.
Of course, all of this was done better two years earlier in Cameron Crowe's Altman-esque survey of Seattle singles in the grunge era, titled, er, Singles. Audiences' initial reaction to Reality Bites was markedly less than Stiller and co. had hoped. Despite the indie-cred the film gained by playing at Sundance Film Festival, Reality Bites failed to connect with the ever-cynical Gen X crowd, and didn't really connect with anyone else either, grossing a reasonable-but-not-impressive $20 million at the box office. In recent years it has become something of a hit on video and DVD, buoyed by the meteoric rise of '90s nostalgia in the latter half of this decade. If nothing else, the film is extremely entertaining as a time capsule of the brief time period when Doc Martens with Guess Jeans shorts was considered the height of fashion, Kurt Cobain was the new Jim Morrison and the worst thing post-adolescent white people had to worry about was how bad it would look if they worked at The Gap.

The soundtrack, however, was a different story. A mish-mash of '80s new wave and indie, '70s hits, new covers and contemporary alternative rock, the album played like your average '90s college student's mixtape, and somewhat inexplicably birthed two left-field hits: Lisa Loeb's "Stay" and Big Mountain's cover of Peter Frampton's "Baby I Love Your Way."

This week we'll focus on the latter--next week, Loeb will get her own entry.

So, Big Mountain was a reggae band formed in the early 1990s and hailing from the decidedly un-Jamaican land of San Diego. For some reason, early '90s audiences welcomed non-Jamacian white dudes playing reggae (see also: UB40) and believe it or not, Big Mountain had hit the Hot 100 a year or so prior to Reality Bites. "Touch My Light," from the album Wake Up, had reached #51 on the Hot 100. The minor hit spurred Bites producer Ron Fair to approach the band about recording a cover of Frampton's song for the soundtrack.

Why didn't they just include Frampton's original recording? I honestly don't know. The original Frampton recording (which reached #12 on the Billboards) is featured in the actual movie during a scene where Stiller playfully berates Ryder for not knowing Frampton Comes Alive! (the metaphorical overtones of Stiller's yuppie-ish love for corporate rock are not lost on this viewer). My guess is that licensing Frampton's original recording would have cost the producers too much money, and reggae bands--as anyone who has ever eaten at a restaurant in the islands can attest to--are dirt cheap. It's also probable that the producers were looking for a hit single for the soundtrack and took a page from the 1993's Sliver soundtrack, which featured a UB40 cover of Elvis' "Can't Help Falling In Love With You."
I'm convinced the black guys were hired for the picture and are not actually members of Big Mountain

Turning Frampton's song into a reggae jam wasn't much of a stretch--the original was clearly influenced by reggae with Frampton doing a sad white man's imitation of an island singer. Still, Big Mountain's version turns into a full-on soft rock reggae jam, with lightly plucked acoustic guitars, a prominent saxophone and three-part harmony. And if there was any doubt in your mind that this wasn't a group of non-Jamaican white (and Mexican) dudes with dreads from So. Cal, the video--which looks to have been shot at a lame resort in Sandles--quickly changed that.

If reggae didn't die after this video, then it must have already been long dead, and this was merely another long, cheesy nail in the coffin. Any lingering memory of reggae that had concerns about injustice, poverty, religion (or basically that it had anything do with anything other than act as a soundtrack to your rockin' the gange and making love to your second wife on a beach in Sandles while a guy with dreads brings you a margarita) were washed away by this video. Dashikis, Steinberger guitars, unwieldy headset microphones, shots of Winona Ryder's ass in jeans...doesn't get much better than this, folks.

But as awesome as this version may be, it has nothing on the Spanish version, "Baby Te Quiero A Ti." Oh yeah, this actually happened.

Full disclosure: I recall loving the shit out of this song when I was all of 10 years old. As cheesy as it may be, it's infectious. That key change used to blow my mind. It made me want to play sax for about five minutes, and it very well could have been the first reggae song I ever really listened to (This could explain why I have no real use for reggae these days).

The song was a smash crossover, hitting #6 on the Hot 100, #1 on the Top 40, #10 on Adult Contemporary, #19 on Hot Latin Tracks (huh?) and #8 on Rhythmic Top 40 (double huh?). And thanks in part to that amazing Spanish version, the song was a worldwide hit. To make matters stranger--this wasn't the first time a cover of Frampton's song charted: in 1988, Will to Power had a #1 hit with their cloying medley of "Baby" and Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird."

The Reality Bites soundtrack sold 1.2 million units and reached #13 on the Billboard charts. The track was also included on their album Unity, which reached #174 on the album charts.

So where did Big Mountain go from there? They released two more singles. The first, an original called "Sweet Sensual Love" was very much in line with the sound of their hit; that is, safe, soft-rock reggae with all the edges smoothed out. The problem? It wasn't a cover! It stalled at #80 on the Billboard charts. Lead singer Quino and co. must have had their dreads tied too tied if they thought folks wanted to hear their original music. Luckily, the group smoked some of that Jamaican Gold and decided the public wanted a smooth-reggae version of another classic feel-good favorite.

They chose The Youngbloods' "Get Together," which in 1995 was somewhat popular again, having been featured on the monster-selling Forrest Gump soundtrack. Featured on their 1995 album, the vaguely political sounding Resistance, "Get Together" featured production that would have sounded dated in 1988, but brought the goods on the "feel-good smooth reggae" front, so I guess for that reason it could be called a success. As far as I can tell, there's not much to separate it from any of those Reggae Tribute to Paul Anka album. Listening to this song makes me feel like I'm in a shitty bar in inland Florida, watching some sunburned middle-aged fat guy in a sales rack Tommy Bahama shirt order up yet another Pina Colada with one hand while he gropes the frizzy haired 35-year-old divorcee in the bikini top and belly jewelry with the other hand. If that's not a ringing endorsement, I don't know what is.

The cover trick worked a second time and "Get Together" did surprisingly well, reaching #44 on the Billboard charts, and #28 on the Adult Contemporary charts.

The band was dropped from Warner Bros. after on more album, Free Up, in 1997. Since then they've been recording some originals, but have mostly fallen to recording reggae cover albums that no doubt are played in Jamaican themed restaurants throughout the midwest. So check out the lazily titled Versions Undercover for Big Mountain's take on John Lennon, James Taylor and others, or just sit near the speakers next time you go to Bahama Breeze (order the West Indies Ribs!). Hell, Big Mountain might even be playing at your location! (They live off tips, people! Have a heart!)

One love!

Next Week: the sexy librarianness of Lisa Loeb
Download: Big Mountain - Baby, I Love Your Way
Download: Big Mountain - Sweet, Sensual Love
Download: Big Mountain - Get Together

Big Mountain website