What's it all about?: “Alfie”
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
“My understanding of women only goes as far as the pleasure. When it comes to the pain I'm like any other bloke – I don't want to know. ”
As title characters go, Michael Caine’s Alfie (1966) falls somewhere between Dustin Hoffman’s The Graduate (1967) and Charles Denner’s The Man Who Loved Women (1977): he lives in a blithely self-deluded eternal youth, and uses the opposite sex to fulfill his needs. If he thought of someone other than himself for a change, he would be James Bond. (This was Caine’s breakout role, making him the most sought-after man in 1960s England this side of his best friend Sean Connery.) He begins growing up when his common-law wife leaves him to marry a kinder man, taking their son with her; in a standout scene, he arranges an illegal abortion to cover up his affair with a friend’s wife and breaks down on seeing the foetus, convinced he has "murdered" a "perfect" being. By the end of the film, it dawns on Alfie that his philosophy has destroyed him:
“When I look back on my little life and the birds I've known, and think of all the things they've done for me and the little I've done for them, you'd think I've had the best of it along the line. But what have I got out of it? I've got a bob or two, some decent clothes, a car, I've got me health back and I ain't attached. But I ain't got me peace of mind - and if you ain't got that, you ain't got nothing. I dunno. It seems to me if they ain't got you one way they've got you another. So what's the answer? That's what I keep asking myself - what's it all about?”
This last phrase became the springboard for the film’s title song, one that was almost never made. Director Lewis Gilbert already had a score by Sonny Rollins featuring an all-star jazz group, and felt a song would detract from the film unless it was left for the end credits. When approached by United Artists, who were distributing the film, songwriters Burt Bacharach and Hal David were intrigued enough by the character to give him a song despite being put off by his name.
United also wanted an English vocalist to suit the film's setting, and "Alfie" eventually found its way to Beatles cohort Cilla Black. Although Black was thrilled by the idea of working with pop royalty, she wasn’t keen on the song itself and demanded that Bacharach arrange, conduct and play piano on the recording. She didn’t expect him to agree, and certainly never imagined he would end up asking for at least eighteen takes. (Black reportedly said she “would have fucking killed him but he was so fucking gorgeous.”) Even George Martin, nominally producing the session, told Bacharach “I think you got it on Take 4.”
It isn't hard to hear why Black had such a trying time: "Alfie" requires huge leaps in both pitch and volume (something Cher, whose version was featured in the American release of the film, couldn't pull off). Bacharach insisted on writing music to David's words, and uses his pet devices – mixed meters, ambiguous harmony and asymmetrical form – to portray Alfie's predicament: when the song seemingly drops down a half-step from B-flat to A for the bridge (which, while really in the key of F major, never uses that chord), it feels like the ground has fallen out beneath Alfie's feet. His arrangement uses a 48-piece orchestra to mirror the ebb and flow of the lyrics, with the piano standing in for Alfie's state of mind: it plays a sigh-like descending figure that answers the voice in the verses, and an ascending whole-tone scale (already film-music shorthand for dreams) before the last two – and most optimistic – lines. The result is an aria disguised as a pop song, and Bacharach's perfectionism ensured that Black's recording is the definitive one.
"Alfie" has since become one of Bacharach's best-known songs: he considers it his personal favourite and one of David's best lyrics (and in his memoir Anyone Who Had a Heart, he recalls being elated when Miles Davis told him it was “a good tune.”) Its use in the film, however, elevates it to a realm beyond mere music: if the score depicts Alfie's brash façade, the song shows him at his most vulnerable, stripped of all posturing. In just under three minutes, it sounds like Alfie has finally come of age.
What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give?
Or are we meant to be kind?
And if only fools are kind, Alfie
Then I guess it’s wise to be cruel
And if life belongs only to the strong, Alfie
What will you lend on an old golden rule?
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie
I know there’s something much more
Something even non-believers can believe in
I believe in love, Alfie
Without true love we just exist, Alfie
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie
When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you’ll find love any day, Alfie, Alfie
Music by Burt Bacharach
Words by Hal David
Performed by Cilla Black
From the original soundtrack of Alfie (1966)