Review Summary: That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
The holiday season can be a fatiguing time of year. While the act of getting together with those close to you, exchanging gifts, and/or having a veritable feast may negate the fatigue for most who are fortunate enough to be a part of such activities, many find it impossible to mentally escape from the sea of advertisements, sales, and oh-so-repetitive holiday-related media. The unrelenting beast known as Christmas Commercialization Culture has been increasingly successful at tarnishing a holiday that possesses significant meaning to numerous people, religious or otherwise. Naturally, such an admission is demoralizing to those people, so it takes effort on their/our parts to find the purity in this black hole of commercialization.
Why, then, does A Charlie Brown Christmas
stand out among its contemporaries, despite being one of the most popular and merchandised pieces of holiday media in existence？ The answer lies in the intent: A Charlie Brown Christmas
was not made by an established film studio, but by a cartoonist with no experience in film who, despite owning Peanuts (the most popular comic strip in the U.S.A. at the time), was firmly based in cold, hard reality. That was the entire premise of Peanuts: its characters were real, and the emotions they experienced were real emotions. The cartoonist in question, Charles M. Schulz, had a knack for making deep, substantive subjects such as depression, bullying and the misery of life in general, very popular, accessible and immersive for the average reader. It should come as no surprise that someone with that ability could also make an animated TV special satirizing the commercialization of Christmas into one of the most popular and commercialized holiday films ever.
This write-up is not a review of the TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas
, so I will take this time to pause and say that if you have not seen the special for whatever reason, you absolutely must take the time to do so. If you watched it, but didn't care for it, I encourage you to give it another go. Listening to the soundtrack album sans the context of the special doesn't hurt it much (although the context does help), but more importantly, the contrast between the music and some of the content of the special is really crucial to pick up on. Both the sunnier sides and the more melancholic aspects of Christmas are represented in the soundtrack, and seeing how the tracks are deployed in the TV special emphasizes this all the more. Plus, I think it's just an extraordinarily sweet flick in general. (:
As for Vince Guaraldi's role in the Charlie Brown Christmas
extravaganza, Guaraldi was hired by producer Lee Mendelson to compose the soundtrack after the two had previously worked together on a Peanuts documentary project (A Boy Named Charlie Brown
, which also contains a wonderful soundtrack). A San Francisco native, Guaraldi had developed a reputation in the local scene for his fusion of jazz with Latin and Cuban genres such as bossa nova, peaking with the Grammy Award-winning song "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" in 1962. That song would later serve as an inspiration for the track "Linus and Lucy", originally recorded for the A Boy Named Charlie Brown
soundtrack in 1963 and re-recorded for A Charlie Brown Christmas
two years later. Driven by Guaraldi's syncopated piano playing and the subtle brush-work of drummer Jerry Granelli, the infectious melody has given the track immense stature, often being considered the unofficial "Peanuts theme".
As jazz purists will be all too inclined to tell you, A Charlie Brown Christmas
is nothing if not ridiculously accessible. While Guaraldi knows the jazz chord book as well as anybody and doesn't shy away from using obscure 9th or 11th chords whenever he pleases, he never obscures the melody in the process. If anything, he makes his melodies jump out of the speakers, with his right hand piano work authoritatively taking the reins of songs such as the ethereal "Skating". This is not to say that the record is a one-man show, even if Guaraldi is pretty clearly the featured performer. Drummer Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall lay down a firm rhythm section that allows Guaraldi's piano to glide over it, although occasionally they are allowed to groove in the forefront of the mix, as in the "Linus and Lucy"-esque "Christmas Is Coming".
Of course, it is important to remember that A Charlie Brown Christmas
is a soundtrack album, so the occasionally choppy flow of the record must be taken with a grain of salt. The inclusion of Beethoven's "Für Elise" in abridged form doesn't logically make any sense until you realize how it is utilized in the TV special, and the mediocre, occasionally off-key children's choirs used in "Christmastime Is Here" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" will also likely jar any listener who hasn't seen the special (the former song opens the special, the latter closes it). By contrast, however, standout numbers such as "What Child Is This" and "The Christmas Song" have no place in the special at all, while "O Tannenbaum" and the instrumental version of "Christmastime Is Here" are only heard in snippets as interlude music. The album manages to strike a balance of incorporating important musical moments from the special itself while also giving the listener complete access to songs that were only teased in the special.
By this logic, one might think I am implying that context is, in fact, required for this album to be an enjoyable listen. I don't believe this to be the case. A Charlie Brown Christmas
does an excellent job of encapsulating many sides of Christmas into a 40 minute time-span, and despite the flow not always being super consistent, there is nevertheless a thread of continuity that runs throughout. I can think of no better example of this than the decision to include arrangements of both "What Child Is This" and "Greensleeves" at the front and back ends of the album, respectively. Both songs are traditional numbers that utilize the exact same melody, and Guaraldi's arrangements of both are clearly patterned off each other to a great degree. Having said that, the two arrangements are fundamentally different in mood: "What Child Is This" is more optimistic, featuring numerous piano runs and arpeggiations by Guaraldi to emphasize this jubilation, but "Greensleeves" is more brooding and toned down, taking a much more reflective (if not necessarily pessimistic) approach to the earlier arrangement. This single piece of motivic continuity completely excuses any other fault the album may have had as far as its flow is concerned, and the thoughtfulness behind this decision is much of why I believe this album is structured well enough to function as a standalone piece.
Have you gathered by now that I love this album (and TV special) very much？ I hope so. Speaking for this reviewer and this reviewer only, I have sat through many a Christmas album and Christmas film throughout the years, and as time goes by, the appeal of most of these items lowers drastically. I've heard Bing Crosby's crooning too many times to count, the Messiah
is old hat, and I'll be damned if I ever care to see A Christmas Story
again. But somehow, despite the numerous repeated viewings/listenings, A Charlie Brown Christmas
remains eminently fresh. I've tried as best as I can to quantify exactly why that is in this review, but truth be told, I don't know if I really can. The connection I have with this music is one that I can't sufficiently express; it is just too deep, too ingrained in my core. This album is
Christmas to me. It embodies the spirit of the season in a way nothing else possibly could. If that isn't the highest compliment I can give it, I don't know what is.