Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Alex Loves Ellen…and Billy Vera and the Beaters

It was a romance that lasted a season on television but until death do us part in real life – and it had the song to match.

It was the romance between Alex P. Keaton (played by Michael J. Fox) and Ellen Reed (played by Tracy Pollan) that bloomed in the fall of 1985 on “Family Ties”. A year later the song that punctuated their relationship topped the Billboard charts.

The episode “Alex Loves Ellen” and the song “At This Moment” by Billy Vera and the Beaters were like nothing witnessed before that time, a cross-pollination of TV and music.

Alex falls in love
The 1985-1986 season of “Family Ties” opened with a two-part episode that turned poor Alex P. Keaton’s world on its ear. In his quest to romance a beautiful freshman, who returns his affection, everything seems to be going perfectly for Alex except for one thing: he finds himself attracted to her mousey roommate Ellen.

He comes to this realization near the end of part one. He dances with Ellen, then kisses her. They linger for a second, but she leaves. As Alex comes to terms with his feelings, he daydreams during an exam, failing it because he did not write a single word before the time was up.

He vows to tell Ellen, only to discover she has left. She is taking an all-night train to meet her boyfriend, who she plans to marry. Ultimately he does tell her, and they begin a relationship that lasts the rest of the season – a first for Alex.

At this moment
What gave the two-parter more emotional impact was the use of a song recorded five years earlier by an unknown California band called Billy Vera and the Beaters.

We first hear the song at the dance with Alex and Ellen kissing at its climax. It is then the soundtrack for Alex’s daydream scene during his exam, playing while images of Alex and Ellen flash on the screen. It was the perfect song for the occasion.

Back then there was little inter-play between TV and music. What I mean is if you heard a song on a TV show, your only chance to hear it again was by recording the song off TV. That had begun to change a bit in the late-70s and early-80s with “Believe it or Not” by Joey Scarbury from “The Greatest American Hero”, The Rockford Files Theme” by Mike Post, and “Welcome Back” by John Sebastian from “Welcome Back, Kotter”. But these songs were the exceptions. As the 80s progressed there would be more and more, such as “Moonlighting” by Al Jarreau, “As Long as We Got Each Other” by B.J. Thomas and Jennifer Warnes from “Growing Pains”.

What really hastened that shift was the meteoric rise of “At This Moment” up the charts.

Climbing the charts
“At this Moment” was originally recorded in 1981, and charted on the Billboard Hot 100, but stalled at number 79. After its appearance on “Family Ties”, it was re-released and began a climb that eventually landed the single on top of the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard Adult Contemporary charts in January of 1987.

Tonight’s the Night and beyond
While "At This Moment" was climbing up the charts, Billy Vera was in production for a TV movie called "Tonight's the Night". He and the Beaters  initially had a small part as the house band for the bar the movie takes place in. As the single kept climbing, the network executives kept pushing for a bigger role. It was kind of neat to see. I found some of Billy Vera and the Beaters' other music from "Tonight's the Night" and have embedded it here.

The last time I heard of Billy Vera was back in the early 1990s when he was the house band for Rick Dees' short-lived late-night show "Into the Night".

Parting thoughts
The reason that "Alex Loves Ellen" and "At This Moment" stick with me is simple: the boy gets the girl in the end. What made it even more powerful was the way the creators used a video montage sequence set to stirring music. Every time I hear "At This Moment" it conjures up images of Alex and Ellen kissing on the dance floor. That is the power of music.

And their love for each other seemed so real – because it was. It still is. Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan got married after that. They remain together to this day, raising several children and sticking together through Fox's heroic and very public battle with Parkinson's Disease.

How can you not love Alex and Ellen, and Billy Vera and the Beaters, and Michael and Tracy.

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