A good landmark of an artist’s prestige is when they start doing music for films. A new star will show up on the scene and filmmakers will take advantage of their star power to grab a young, hip audience for their movies. There was a period a few years ago where young bands like Florence + the Machine and Paramore gained traction by recording songs for the Twilight Saga. Of course the inverse is also true, as long-established stars are also likely to help a film earn more press. The UK’s bestselling single of 1979, Art Garfunkel’s “Bright Eyes,” is inextricable from its haunting appearance in Watership Down. Just as a song can mark a film, a film can mark a song.
Of course, this is in no way an assurance of a song or movie’s quality. A song and a movie can both be deservedly forgotten. Such is the case with “Magician,” which, while a footnote in Kate Bush’s wider career, still marks the beginning of a trend for her.
“The Magician,” or “Magician” as it’s usually called, was written by lyricist Paul Webster and composer Maurice Jarre for the virtually unseen film The Magician of Lublin. An adaptation of Nobel-winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yiddish novel of the same name, it was such a critical and commercial bomb that it’s nearly impossible to see now unless you find either the world’s best torrent site or fork over $226 USD for the VHS. Its near-unseeability causes the near-unlistenability of Bush’s song for it, as “Magician” has never been commercially released either. “Magician” exists as a low-quality audio clip from the movie, with static and diegetic noises all over it (someone says “cow” or a similar-sounding word at one point). It’s easier to hear than, say, the Phoenix demos, as it’s a professional recording rather than a home demo, but it’s possibly even more obscure than them.
If we’re being honest, the lack of HQ ways to listen to “Magician” is no great loss. This isn’t a lost gem, just a mediocre film track that happens to set a precedent for Bush. Webster and Jarre give Bush a slog of a track to sing through, a bogstandard piece of carnival music set in a minor key like a particularly manic depressive Dresden Dolls song, with lyrics strung together by tedious aphorisms and hackneyed couplets. How did someone read Webster’s lyrics and decide that “When you reach for a star/only angels are there/and it’s not very far/just to step on a stair” wasn’t a laughable opening? The rest of the song is a series of banal vignettes about whimsical creatures and individuals having downbeat times in “the circus of life,” where “life is bitter and gay.” It’s hard to imagine any vocalist making this work, and Bush doesn’t do much to elevate it, opting for a Shirley Bassey impression that she only utilizes in her worst work. The whole thing sounds like a parody of itself, and what’s more, it’s a boring one.
But while “Magician” isn’t good, but it has some significance for Bush. This is the first time Bush has been the original singer of someone else’s song. She’s done covers before (as we’ve seen), but previously those covers have been just that: tributes to artists or fillers in setlists. “Magician” marks the first occasion someone has trusted Bush to sing a song of their own. In the Never for Ever chapter we’re going to see a lot more of this, albeit with more established collaborators and vastly better songwriters. For all that “Magician” fails, it’s not quite the most worthless failure of this era.
The nature of The Magician of Lublin is also worth noting for our purposes. The film tracks a Jewish stage magician in the 20th century, who tours the Russian Empire and wreaks havoc in the lives of his loved ones with his many affairs. Unlike the book, which is fairly lacking in mysticism, the film of Lublin has some light esoteric aspects, with a prophetic vision from the movie’s protagonist Yasha and his transformation into a goose at the end (really). Yet these contrivances, however absurd, can both be considered aberrations in the movie. It’s not a straight fantasy movie on the whole, as its source material is a work of literary realism. The esoterica is confined to individual plot beats rather than a running theme.
This sort of lightly esoteric non-fantasy is a consistent aspect of Bush’s work. A lot of movies she’s consciously influenced by are ghost stories, lightly fantastical without quite throwing a real spectre at the audience. Don’t Look Now, Man of a Thousand Faces, and The Innocents all have elements of the supernatural, but they don’t tip into outright fantasy. Instead, horror is a largely internal phenomenon, caused by the psychological demons of their protagonists. The supernatural elements are avenues to explore that.
Bush also largely utilizes the mysterious as a mirror, providing reflections of a character’s soul. There’s rarely outright magical entities in her work, but her characters dwell in mystical worlds. Bush rode into the charts on the back of a ghost story, and she just ended her sophomore album with a Gothic horror song. She lives in a world of spectres, often created by paranoia. Does this make Bush a magician, a conjurer who summons spirits from the deeps of the human soul? It’s not impossible.
Bush has often acted as a sort of curator of her favorite niches of taste, often integrating her favorite books and films into her music. This is not dissimilar to how “Magician” walks through different ways of life, strange individuals and entities going about their business miserably. “Magician” doesn’t especially forward Bush’s key themes, but does it fit with the ideas she’s explored across her first two albums? Sure. It’s compatible. It’s just the dullest iteration of her most interesting ideas.
Recorded in February 1979. Heard by the public in The Magician of Lublin, premiering October 1979. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals. Paul Webster — lyrics. Maurice Jarre — score. London Symphony Orchestra — all instruments.
June 18, 2019 @ 2:00 pm
Very interesting – thank you! I love how you find deeper meaning even in such superficially uninteresting corners of Bush’s career. And how strange to see the name of a city from my country, Lublin, in connection to Bush. I never would’ve thought. Thanks once again, keep up the good work!
June 22, 2019 @ 11:35 am
Maybe I’ve just been listening to too much Divine Comedy recently, but I detected traces of Kurt Weill influence in this, and maybe because of that, felt less dismissive of it than you are here. Not by any means as enthusiastic as the commenters on Youtube, though, of course!