Good grief, Charlie Brown! A soundtrack album almost an hour long? FIVE different musical styles? You’re out of your mind, Charlie Brown!
A BOY NAMED CHARLIE BROWN
Selections from the Soundtrack
Columbia Masterworks OS-3500 (Stereo) (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / 1969)
Producer: John Scott Trotter. Assistant Producer: Vince Guaraldi. Original Music Score: Vince Guaraldi. Conductor: John Scott Trotter. Engineer: Phil Macy. Running Time: 54 minutes.
Songs: “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” “Failure Face,” “Champion Charlie Brown,” by Rod McKuen; “’I’ Before ‘E’” by John Scott Trotter, Bill Melendez and Al Shean.
Instrumentals: “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” “Champion Charlie Brown,” by Rod McKuen; “Charlie Brown’s All Stars,” “Blue Charlie Brown,” “Linus and Lucy (Track Titles: Time to Go to School, Found Blanket)” by Vince Guaraldi; Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 (Sonata Pathétique / Track Title: Do Piano Players Make a Lot of Money?)
In his superb When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA, Adam Abraham quotes John Culhane regarding the key talent that transitioned from UPA to Playhouse Pictures and to Bill Melendez Productions: “Peanuts is a UPA cartoon.”
Let’s take it a step further and suggest that A Boy Named Charlie Brown is, in a sense, UPA’s first feature since Gay Purr-ee. The feature takes Charlie Brown, Linus and Snoopy out of their familiar surroundings and into a stylized UPA-ish New York City. By 1969, UPA also might have enjoyed the cinematic trend of tinted live-action footage (in Snoopy’s hockey game), split-screen sequences (the baseball game) and especially Schroeder’s extended piano piece that takes the viewer in a completely different creative direction than the rest of the movie.
As the first Lee Mendelson/Bill Melendez production—as well as the first Peanuts feature—A Boy Named Charlie Brown has several distinctions. It’s the only feature that stays focused on Charlie Brown (Snoopy or Peppermint Patty usually take the reins in later features); features Vince Guaraldi’s and Rod McKuen’s music; contains numerous sequences that could just as easily been in TV specials; and has a true-to-the-comic-strip bittersweet ending.
As a cohesive full-length feature, A Boy Named Charlie Brown has the marks of a creative team feeling their way through the challenges—conquering most of them but missing out on a few. The spelling bee plot, taken from a series of strips, is thin by feature film standards, making the film a series of set pieces tied by a slim thread. However, a simple story is very much the classic Schulz style and all the subsequent features moved outside that narrative style, perhaps from necessity.
Both the film and the soundtrack album strive to be all things to all people, and for the most part, succeed. Rather than producing an album of pure music and songs, Columbia’s release contained massive amounts of dialogue, telling the entire story. Because of its length, Columbia had to cut the master with very thin grooves, like a classical album. This makes the overall volume level very low; any scratches or stray vinyl noises are all the more intrusive. Finding a clean copy is quite the treasure hunt (unless Sony releases it digitally, please, please!).For the Peanuts fan, this album is a feast because it presents so much in almost an hour of playing time. There is scant narration by Peter Robbins and Glenn Gilger to cover a few visuals and transitions. For music fans, there might be some disappointment that most of the instrumental material is covered by dialogue and sound effects, making one dream of a music-only version of the soundtrack (please, please). The music cuts are also not in film sequence; the opening Cinema Center Films logo and main title versions of “Champion Charlie Brown,” for example, don’t appear until side two. Fortunately, the most recent DVD of A Boy Named Charlie Brown was released in full stereo (thank you), so it is possible to get a little more of the music free from interruption.
The film and the album are also unique in that they combine five different kinds of music. The aforementioned Guaraldi themes played in the piano jazz style, the Beethoven orchestral piece, Rod McKuen’s songs, and John Scott Trotter’s full arrangements of both Guaraldi’s and McKuen’s melodies. There’s even a Guaraldi-style piano rift on McKuen’s “Champion Charlie Brown.” Most of the time, the disparate musical forms make sense in a Peanuts way.
The most unusual, if not jarring, elements are McKuen’s three songs. The title song is a perfect fit in a melancholy, Charlie Brown way. The other two songs, though short, must have been a surprise for Peanuts fans who had never heard the characters sing “book musical” numbers. TV Guide critic Judith Crist was exceptionally cruel in her assessment of the songs—and McKuen’s voice—but her view may have been reflective of McKuen’s “no longer cool” status to most critics in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Whatever one may think of the songs, the melodies work themselves into the instrumental score very well.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“’I’ Before ‘E’”
This patter song gets little attention as an original work, yet it’s a nice moment in the film. What’s even more notable is that Melendez and Jay Ward veteran Al Shean are the lyricists, with music by Trotter. The album version is easier on the ears than that of the finished film because there is no “Snoopy Harp.” (These were sold in stores, among the handful merchandise items tied in with the feature. Not too easy on the teeth.)