But when I think of Burt Bacharach and film music, my mind goes first to an earlier movie. For years, I had the notion that “Alfie” was a comedy, and in 1966 I guess it played that way to a lot of people, including lead actor Michael Caine, who said he knew “Alfie” would be a hit when he heard laughter floating out of the cinema during dailies. By the time I saw it, imagine my surprise. “Alfie” is incredibly sad, the tale of a man who can’t love or be loved in return, a damaged character who does nothing but damage other people. Such jokes as there are fall squarely in the “wry chuckle” range.
Listen to Bacharach and David’s title song, and see if you don’t think they perceived the film the same way I did. Cher sang the version that plays over the end credits of the American release, and it was Dionne Warwick whose rendition became a hit. Myself, I prefer Cilla Black, who sang “Alfie” for the British release. She wasn’t as good a singer as Warwick, which Bacharach later acknowledged, but Black’s version is the most haunting. Maybe the emotion in her voice came from her familiarity with London, with the scene, with men like that. Maybe it was exhaustion. Black recalled doing almost 30 takes of the recording, until George Martin, in the studio as producer although Bacharach was running the show, said gently, “Burt, I think you got it in take four.” I don’t know which take is here on YouTube, but Black was right, they all look done in, even the dapper Bacharach, clad in one of his signature turtlenecks. But Bacharach was also right, whatever he was doing, because this song will rip your heart out.
He was known for his charm, which must have come in handy around take 20. His candor, his graciousness and ease of manner, seemed genuine, whatever flaws came with the package. Bacharach, as he eased into his eighties, was more than willing to tell you which things had been his fault. Things like the breakup with Hal David, over profit “points” on 1973’s calamitous film “Lost Horizon” that were never going to happen anyway. The breakup with Warwick, which came shortly after, when Bacharach bailed on a planned album with her because, post–Hal David, he was just too damn depressed. The breakups, plural, with three wives (the fourth marriage lasted) and a host of girlfriends. To his colleagues in the Brill Building, Bacharach was known as “the playboy of the western world,” the kind of nickname that’s hilarious, if you find “Alfie” hilarious. And Bacharach was heartbreakingly open about the mistakes he made with Nikki, his daughter with Angie Dickinson. Born prematurely in 1967, and diagnosed far too many years later as on the autism spectrum, Nikki died by suicide in 2007.