Will Smith’s latest jump at Oscar gold comes in the form of King Richard, the sports biopic that chronicles the early attempts of Richard Williams to get his daughters, Venus and Serena, to the highest level of tennis. Despite its thick layer of hagiographical cheese, the film is a successful look into the inner workings of a sport as restrictive and privileged as tennis. The film is at its most successful when it highlights how an atypical personality like Richard is needed to break through in such a white-dominated area.
Part of the way the film communicates this culture clash is with its eclectic choice of music. Whether it’s 1980s new wave or ’90s punk rock, the film alternates between putting the viewer in a specific place and time and confounding their expectation with strange needle drops. While the songs used can sometimes distract, more often than not, they successfully highlight the bleed-over of different walks of life that the Williams family are attempting with their daughters’ successes.
King Richard only gets a single original song, but it’s quite the pull: an original Beyonce track entitled ‘Be Alive’, which is the kind of coup you only get when Will Smith is the star of your movie. While ‘Be Alive’ works for the film’s ultimate message of triumphing over adversity, and is an early frontrunner in the ‘Best Original Song’ Oscar race, it slots nicely within the movie’s established narrative. Almost too nicely, in fact.
That’s because the previous two-and-a-half hours were filled with wacky soundtrack choices. Let’s look at five of the most seemingly strange songs used in Kind Richard and attempt to dissect what effect they’re supposed to have within the film’s pacing and flow. Some work better than others, but they’re all unorthodox choices in a relatively straightforward film.
1. ‘I Shall Be Released’ – Nina Simone
In one of the film’s more brilliant moves, the gospel-tinged track that plays as Richard goes to his shift as a night shift security guard is Nina Simone’s cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’.
In a subtle nod to the largely white world that he’s trying to break his family into, Richard is soundtracked with one of the most emotionally gifted black singers of all time giving her interpretation of a white man’s gospel song. The film replicates this later on with Bobby Womack’s cover of ‘California Dreaming’, but Simone’s take has just a bit more resonance.
2. ‘Lunatic Fringe’ – Red Rider
How are we supposed to view Rick Macci, the uber-successful tennis coach who takes on the Williams sisters? Is it a hotshot mastermind or just a pawn in Richard’s game? Perhaps it is a manic ball of energy that can’t quite channel it to overtake Richard’s own homespun plan?
Whatever theory you subscribe to, the juxtaposition with the sleek new wave of Red Rider’s ‘Lunatic Fringe’ represents Rick’s stylish Florida world with Ghostface’s ‘Born Killer’ representing the hard-scrabble grind of the Williams’ Compton is an effective 180-degree turn.
3. ‘The Gambler’ – Kenny Rogers
This is the film’s single most effective use of music, even more so than the Nina Simone needle drop. To have Richard Williams, a Black man obsessed with tennis and putting all his energy towards getting his daughters within the elitist country club world, sing along to one of the whitest songs ever written is just pure cinematic genius.
Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler’ could be more surface level, like Richard gambling his future on the success of his daughters, but to see this man struggle with black identity throughout the entire film makes his sing-along all the more satisfying. He can enjoy the things he likes, whether it’s tennis or country music, without having to fit them into what might traditionally be seen as being a white man’s interest.
4. ‘Plush’ – Stone Temple Pilots
Is there any other song in the world that sums up 1993 more than Stone Temple Pilots’ grunge-aping ‘Plush’? I happen to be an STP defender, and I think they’re one of the more underrated bands of the ’90s and, much to my joy, ‘Plush’ gets played when the Williams sisters arrive at Rick Macci’s camp in Florida.
Is this supposed to be Rick’s go-to jam? Is it just to remind us that the year is 1993, even though the Williams family moved to Florida in 1990? This is one of the more confounding choices for the film, and I’m sure whoever picked ‘Plush’ wasn’t giving it as much thought as I am at this current moment, but that doesn’t give me any solace.
5. ‘Welcome to Paradise’ – Green Day
This was the choice that I could go one of two ways with, and my attempts to interpret its meaning within the scene has led me to these conclusions:
- The song is meant to place you squarely within a kid’s mindset in 1994, just as Venus is turning 14 and beginning to turn pro.
- The song works as a sarcastic comment on Rick Macci’s camp and/or the training process that Venus’ father is putting her through.
I’m definitely leaning towards the former: Venus is a young kid who wants some kind of emancipation from her father’s strict guidance plan, just like how the song’s lyrics detail leaving home for the first time.
The year of the song’s release lines up with Venus’ age, and so does the message, but would a kid who was singing Whitney Houston just a short time before really be sticking her tongue out with punk rock? Probably not, but the effect is all the same – Richard lets go of some of his control, and Venus begins to make decisions for herself.