The Playroom, a movie made in Dallas, relies heavily on music to establish its tone. In fact, one classic song matches the story of the movie almost perfectly. But instead of using one of the many recordings of the song, the film’s creators decided to reinvent it and make it their own.
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When Julia Dyer was looking for songs to use in The Playroom, “Up on the Roof” seemed like a natural fit. In the movie, a teenage girl cares for her three siblings upstairs as their parents engage in a night of boozy debauchery with another couple down below. And one point, the kids literally climb out the window for a little escape up on the roof.
“So it was very literally related thematically to the film,” Dyer says. “But also I think tonally there was something so wistful … that really resonated with the tone we were hoping to achieve in the film.”
Dyer and the movie’s music supervisor, Bruce Richardson, poured through the many versions of the song that Rolling Stone named one of the 500 greatest of all time. The Drifters’ doo-wop recording is probably the most well-known. But James Taylor’s live take from the early ’70s came closest to what they were looking for.
Richardson says even it wasn’t quite right.
“We thought it would be cool to go about 40 percent more laid back and wistful and kind of spacey,” he said.
Still a radical approach to something familiar is risky.
“It wouldn’t have any life if we didn’t try to bring something to it that hadn’t been brought before. But you can also really screw up going that direction, too. There are boundaries very close to you on either side; you can’t go too far, you’ve got to go far enough.”
But Richardson and Dyer had an ace in the hole: Olivia Harris. Dyer cast the Booker T. Washington High School graduate as Maggie, the oldest sibling. Harris had never acted in a film. But she had spent her whole life singing.
When the trio gathered for the first time, it was magic.
“We were sitting in Bruce’s home studio and she literally sat down in a chair and sang it out the first time,” Dyer recalls. “You sort of felt like, ‘I think that was extraordinary. Was it? Did that just happen?’ ”
“I could exhaust the entire supply of superlatives talking about what kind of singer Olivia is,” Richardson says. “With her, it’s really kinda like a cat playing with a ball of string when she’s playing with a song. She can approach something a zillion different ways.”
Harris is now a senior majoring in musical theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. And there’s a good reason why her “Up on the Roof” sounds nothing like those recorded by Neil Diamond, Ike and Tina Turner and others. Before Dyer played it for her, Harris had never heard the song. But it didn’t take long for her to embrace it.
“A lot of people I know can relate to feeling overwhelmed by the world and by their immediate circumstances. So just to be able to find a place – like a safe place – to get away and to find a little bit of perspective is always nice,” Harris said by phone from Pittsburgh. “I don’t know if everybody’s place is to go up on the roof, but everybody I’m sure has somewhere, someone or something that’s like an escape, just to take a breath.”
In his New York Times review of The Playroom, Neil Genzlinger singled out Harris, calling her singing “the eeriest, loveliest version of ‘Up on the Roof’ you’re ever likely to hear.”
Considering the company of singers she now joins, that’s quite a compliment.
The Playroom opens tonight at the Texas Theatre with special events each night. Olivia Harris’ recording of “Up on the Roof” is available on iTunes. Also, check out our earlier report on the film from 2011.