Calypso in the Afterlife: Beetlejuice Brought New Life to the Music of Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte is known as the King of Calypso, but he would never refer to himself as that since he had no ties to Calypso royalty. His premiere album, Calypso, was released in 1956 but he had been featured in film before that. He started singing in clubs in the 1940’s. In his first performance, he was backed by the Charlie Parker Band. His early career did not prevent him from political activism. He worked with Civil Rights Leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and more. President Kennedy named him cultural advisor to the Peace Corps. Later he was an organizer of “We Are the World” in 1985. He was a vocal critic of President G. W. Bush and continues to work in politics at the Sanders Institute at the age of 93 (December 2020). Belafonte enjoyed the peak of his popularity in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The first televised performance of his signature song, “The Banana Boat Song” (Day-o), in 1978 in episode 314 of The Muppet Show. Despite his constant activism, Harry Belafonte has not always been a household name. In 1988, silver screen blockbuster, Beetlejuice, featured many of his songs peppered throughout. The Calypso sound is symbolic of the afterlife in this movie. It is intriguing to know that Belafonte’s music was not chosen for the movie until the third rewrite of the script.

Beetlejuice is a unique movie, with an unique director. It was an interesting choice for a film. This was Tim Burton’s second feature film; the first was PeeWee’s Big Adventure. He read the script and knew he needed to take the idea somewhere. He hired a series of writers to rewrite versions of the script. In the process, one of the rewrites was based on soul/ R&B music at the core of the afterlife. In that version, Percy Sledge‘s “When a Man Loves a Woman” would have been the feature song rather than “The Banana Boat Song.” This would have been a much different movie, as would all of the scripts. What was settled upon brought a spotlight on Harry Belafonte and his presentation of Caribbean folk music that he learned as a child living with his grandmother.

Prominently featured songs that are credited and available on the soundtrack are “The Banana Boat Song” and “Jump in the Line” (Shake, Senora) but, hiding in the background, you will also find “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” and “Sweetheart From Venezuela.” It is a treasure box with so much to discover. Take some time to watch and enjoy the movie.

The unanticipated success of Beetlejuice launched careers. It established Burton as a household name and gave him the Hollywood clout to finally make 1989’s big-budget Batman. It helped turn Ryder into a Gen-X icon, a status she solidified the following year with Heathers. Most curiously, it revived Belafonte’s career, which had peaked more than 30 years prior—before Burton had even been born.

https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/how-a-calypso-anthem-became-the-surreal-centerpiece-of-beetlejuice/

Beetlejuice exalted the success of Tim Burton and opened the door for his unique style to become mainstream and change the expectations of the industry as well as allowed a new generation to enjoy music made famous more than a generation before. If you are interested in a little more trivia or background information on this film, take a look here.

The Banana Boat Song

As first televised:

In Beetlejuice:

Harry Belafonte has had a diverse career and performed with opera star Nana Mouskouri

With Nat King Cole

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