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The Motels- Total Control (1979)

How have I not stumbled upon this song before? Catching a clip from Johnathan Demme’s 1986 film Something Wild, the song plays at the tail end of a scene where the story is mutating from a quirky, loose romantic comedy odyssey into slightly darker territory with a young Ray Liotta the psychotically jealous ex-boyfriend also named Ray catalyst of this sudden pivot in the films plot intruding on the sweet, unpredictable romance developing between Jeff Daniels regular guy yuppie banker Charles and the impulsive, free spirited minx Roxie portrayed by Melanie Griffith.

Liotta’s unstable character ingratiates himself with the affable Daniels and then without warning involves him in a spur of the moment convenience store robbery and then beats him up a bit for good measure to establish his dominance before they make a messy getaway. As they take off, Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto show us the stores security camera capturing all of this conflict as the Motels’ 1979 song “Total Control” plays in the background, it’s steady, warm New Wave beat, the sensual female vocal, it’s delicate interplay of aching and loss, desire and pain, discipline and abandon subtly emphasizing and contrasting the shifts of emotion and tone within the scene itself.

As for the Motels themselves? Well, they had a few hit singles in the early Eighties, becoming progressively more slick after the release of their eponymously titled debut album before dissolving in 1987. In fact, I do recall “Only the Lonely” of one of their biggest hits being played somewhere during my childhood but it’s lead singer Martha Davis’ highly stylized, breathy enunciation that makes “Total Control” such a memorable work of romanticized anguish. In reality it should sound forced, artificial but the tremble in her voice, the conviction in her phrasing and the spacious, minimalist groove underneath it all complete with an unlikely but majestic, forlorn saxophone solo produce a bittersweet emotional tension.

 

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