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The story of how Belafonte’s ‘Day-O’ made ‘Bettlejuice’

You can’t have “Beetlejuice” without Harry Belafonte.

The music from the entertainer, who died Tuesday at 96, is forever intertwined with Tim Burton’s 1988 comedy about a couple of ghosts (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) who hire a deranged bio-exorcist (Michael Keaton) to rid their home of its new tenants (Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones).

Belafonte popularized the Jamaican folk song “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” by recording it for his hit 1956 album “Calypso,” which helped bring the music genre to the masses. Then the song, and several of his others, achieved an afterlife in Burton’s runaway hit movie.

The oddball feature utilized the King of Calypso’s infectious mid-century tunes — “Jump in the Line (Shake Señora),” “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” and “Sweetheart from Venezuela” — to comedic perfection that juxtaposed the film’s stuffy newcomers with the quaint old guard who appeared to be Belafonte fans.

Using the songs in the movie was a strange ask for the Jamaican American star, but one Belafonte didn’t mind, particularly because the request came directly from music and movie magnate David Geffen. Geffen reportedly called Belafonte and told him that he wanted to use the singer’s original recordings of the songs for the film.

“I never had a request like that before,” the musician and civil rights activist told Pitchfork in 2018. “We talked briefly. I liked the idea of Beetlejuice. I liked him. And I agreed to do it.”

The Emmy and Tony Award winner was intrigued and flattered, Pitchfork reported. A deal was made and the rest, as they say, is Hollywood history: one that showcased Belafonte’s smooth baritone for “Day-O” memorably emerging from the mouth of O’Hara’s Delia during a kooky dinner party set piece.

The suggestion to use the song came from O’Hara herself, according to co-star Jones, because she wanted to bring more energy to the scene, which had originally planned to use an old-school R&B song. Belafonte’s recordings were reportedly cheaper to license too, although Belafonte declined to comment on the licensing matters, telling Pitchfork, “If I get into my personal finances, you’re gonna want to kidnap me!”

Elsewhere in the film, Delia’s goth daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder) jubilantly levitates to Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line,” further giving the offbeat horror spoof the playful lightness and specter of mischief that made it a cult classic.

“It’s a ghost story taking place in a New England-style house,” screenwriter Larry Wilson, who wrote the original story with late novelist Michael McDowell, told Pitchfork. “Then here comes Harry Belafonte! Why? Why not? That’s the secret of ‘Beetlejuice.’ No one was afraid to take things to the most most far-out places.”

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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