Q: Can you read my mind?
A: To be honest, I’d rather not, but if you insist, I don’t suppose there’s much I can do about it.
Yesterday, we were talking about Superman and Lois’ night flight through the sky, which is beautiful and puzzling, and the closest we’re going to get in this movie to a real love scene. And now I’ve come to the spoken-word musical number, which means I’m going to have to start getting more critical in a hurry.
I mean, do I have to say that this part of the scene gets a mixed reaction from audiences, or does everybody else just hate this as much as I do? In my opinion, “Can You Read My Mind” is the worst part of the film, and it comes smack in the middle of one of the best parts.
Now, I’m not coming at this as some square incel troll who can’t stand having girly stuff like dance numbers in the middle of his he-man superhero movie. I love musical numbers more than I can express. My entire extended childhood was and still is dominated by my love for The Muppet Show, which took hold of my consciousness as of age 5 and permanently wired me to value funny, surprising and visually kinetic musical numbers wherever I can get one.
And that very much includes my taste in superhero media. I love the musical numbers that pop up in Legion and The Umbrella Academy, and I’ve watched Baby Groot’s brilliant dance number at the beginning of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 more times than anything else produced by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you want to put some song-and-dance into any given superhero film, I am here for it.
And yet, I hate “Can You Read My Mind” like I hate cancer and World War II. I think it’s likely that you do as well, so let’s see if we can unpack what’s gone wrong here.
Well, the obvious place to start is the fact that it’s a spoken-word piece by Margot Kidder, rather than an actual song. The lyrics, written to accompany John Williams’ love theme, express how Lois feels as she glides above the clouds with her superdate, with a special focus on her low self-esteem, compared to the good-looking space monster in the pilot’s seat.
The original idea was that they’d have ’70s pop star Toni Tennille sing the song, but director Richard Donner didn’t like having somebody other than Margot Kidder expressing Lois’ inner thoughts.
Here’s the backstage story, as told by Kidder in the book that accompanied the Superman: The Music box set.
“Donner called and said, ‘Margot, you gotta do this song; can you sing?’ and I said, ‘No, not really.’ But he said, ‘Well, I want you to go over to Johnny Williams’ house.’ So I go and John has Oscars and Grammys and Emmys on every square inch of mantle or tabletop, all over the house, and he gave me these lyrics and I tried to sing, and his face just fell. And he called Donner and said, ‘She can’t sing; she’s not going to sing this!’ But Donner just kept insisting, so I took the music and practiced.
“A week later, they had me come into a little studio in Manhattan to record. So I sang my heart out, and I got louder and I thought, ‘Oh, I must be doing great, nobody’s saying anything!’ And finally Donner came up and said, ‘Um, sweetie… could you talk it?’ They brought Chris Reeve in so that I could talk it to him, to get the mood right. It was one of the most mortifying experiences of my entire career! But I thought the final scene was beautiful.”
So what we have is Kidder taking song lyrics that weren’t designed to be normal human speech, and trying to say them out loud, as naturally as she can. And it just doesn’t work as dialogue. The biggest stretch is probably the part where she walks up and tells somebody, “Will you look at me, quivering, like a little girl, shivering,” which is a low point in American cinema.
Because, let’s face it, the lyrics are not helpful. They’re all about how small and worthless Lois feels in this moment, which is the opposite of what’s happening in the scene.
The point of this five-minute-long sequence is that Superman is sharing his power with Lois — allowing her to experience something that nobody born on Earth ever has — and he’s doing it because he adores her, and thinks that she’s the most special person he’s ever met. But the song lyrics dwell on how insignificant she thinks that she is.
Can you read my mind?
Do you know what it is you do to me?
Don’t know who you are
Just a friend from another star.
Here I am, like a kid out of school
Holding hands with a god, I’m a fool
Will you look at me, quivering,
Like a little girl, shivering,
You can see right through me.
Can you read my mind?
Can you picture the things I’m thinking of?
Wondering why you are
All of the wonderful things you are
You can fly, you belong to the sky
You and I could belong to each other.
If you need a friend, I’m the one to fly to
If you need to be loved, here I am.
Read my mind!
The narrative purpose of a musical number is to express the character’s feelings, in a way that they couldn’t express through dialogue and action. In this case, the feelings that are being expressed are not appropriate for this moment of satisfaction and triumph.
And it doesn’t even rhyme very well, which you’d think would be the bare minimum for inserting unnecessary song lyrics into a scene that was perfectly fine before Toni Tennille came along. They rhyme “who you are” with “star” in the first verse, and in the second verse, they use “why you are” and then can’t come up with any other rhyme than “wonderful things you are”. I’m pretty sure they could have done something with the word “far”, if they’d bothered to take the time.
When producer Michael Thau was putting together the 2000 Director’s Cut, he asked Donner if they could cut “Can You Read My Mind”. Donner said no, which is just another reason why director’s cuts are not helpful. So we’re stuck with this, I’m afraid. Luckily, this is the last example of a song being shoehorned inappropriately into a superhero movie, so it’s nice that we’ve got it out of the way so soon.
Why doesn’t Lois realize that
Clark Kent is Superman?
1.75: The Other Stupid Question.
— Danny Horn