- Author Simon Lucas
- Published August 5, 2014
The five greatest comebacks
Everyone loves a hero. Everyone loves a returned hero more. What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision editor Simon Lucas lists his five favourite comeback stories…
“There are no second acts in American lives,” wrote F Scott Fitzgerald and while it’s a snappy line it’s simply not the case. Not these days, anyhow – these days ‘The Comeback’ is a celebrated Thing. Sid Waddell, who was never lost for words and is entirely deserving of mention in the same breath as Fitzgerald, created (perhaps) the phrase “the greatest comeback since Lazarus”… the comebacks that follow may not be of literally Biblical proportions – but they’re all eminently noteworthy. And with Chef in the box-office top 10 at the moment, where better place to start than…
1 Robert Downey Jr
Downey Jr had been a child actor (appearing in his father’s film Pound aged 5) and scored his first leading role in 1987’s The Pick-Up Artist. Better and more prestigious work followed, with his turn as Charlie Chaplin in 1992’s Chaplin rewarded with an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
By 1996, though, it’s a toss-up as to whether Downey Jr’s life was in free-fall or was spiralling out of control. Either way, numerous busts for cocaine, heroin and weapons, numerous stints in rehab and more than one stretch in jail rendered him, at best, a liability. Fired from his role in Ally MacBeal in 2001, unable to work due to an entirely warranted reputation and unconvinced he even wanted to act, Downey Jr lurched from crack-house to court-house to rehab in an all-too-predictable loop.
But after finally getting sober, Downey Jr began the mother of all comebacks with 2003’s The Singing Detective. By 2008 he was starring in the commercial juggernaut Iron Man and followed it up with 2009’s Sherlock Holmes (for which he received a Golden Globe). This year Forbes magazine announced that, for the second year running, Downey Jr was the highest-paid actor in the world. He’s currently starring in Chef in your local multiplex…
2 Johnny Cash
From the late 50s, through the 60s and 70s, Johnny Cash seemed to get it all and on his own terms. The Man In Black was a mainstream outlaw, a rebel with a TV show, a cult figure with a huge following. Country, folk, gospel, rock’n’roll… nothing was off-limits and everything was an artistic, or at the very least commercial, success.
By the start of the 80s, though, his credibility took a decisive downturn. His songs lacked inspiration; Columbia (Cash’s record label of 30 years) didn’t want to know. His addictions, which had been dogging him for years, began to get the upper hand. In every way (artistic, personal, financial, health-wise), Cash looked to be on the skids.
But by signing with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings (who bid for Cash in the face of no competition whatsoever) and releasing 1994’s American Recordings, Cash was reinvented as a sort of singing Mount Rushmore. He presented as a man of unarguable gravitas and self-knowledge, able to wring poignancy from songs the writers didn’t even know was there. Certainly his late-90s readings of songs by Nick Cave, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Nine Inch Nails, U2 and others are, arguably, definitive. Endless critical acclaim followed to his death in 2003 and beyond.
3 Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead
In 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, the Munchkins (characters scarcely less disturbing than the witch herself) sing ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ as the centrepiece to what we should probably refer to as a suite of songs celebrating the death of the Wicked Witch of the East. In 2013, driven no doubt by patriotic fervour, the single reached No.2 in the UK Singles Chart in the wake of the death of Margaret Thatcher.
At less than a minute it’s the UK’s shortest-ever top-10 single and even then the BBC wouldn’t play it all (there were memories of other poptastic (and alleged) BBC censorships, such as the sound-tracking of 1977’s Silver Jubilee celebrations by Rod Stewart’s No.1 ‘I Don’t Want To Talk About It’ despite The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’ supposedly out-selling it three-to-one on its way to No.2). ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead’ was No.1 in Scotland in 2013 though, don’t you worry about that.
4 John Travolta
Obviously half-a-decade in theatre and on TV discounts the idea of an actor/singer coming ‘from nowhere’ but when John Travolta appeared in 1976’s Carrie it led rapidly to leading roles in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and 1978’s Grease. His turn as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever led to him being one of the youngest ever nominees for the Best Actor Academy Award. He was 24.
It all turned to dreck pretty quickly after that, though. Turning down roles in hits-in-waiting American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman was bad enough, making Perfect and Two of a Kind was worse. Travolta became persona non grata throughout the 80s.
In 1994, though, Quentin Tarantino cast him as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction (a performance that included a post-post-post Saturday Night Fever dance scene so perfectly judged and played as to make one’s hair stand on end). It was a huge hit, Travolta was reborn and, the Scientology and aeroplanes notwithstanding, he’s never looked back.
5 Lasse Viren
Proof that comebacks can still be comebacks even if they take next-to no time. In the 1972 Munich Olympics 10,000m men’s final, Finland’s Lasse Virén fell on the 12th lap when he ran into the heel of Belgian runner Emiel Puttemans. Tunisia’s Mohamed Gammoudi fell over the prone Virén and retired immediately.
Virén picked himself up, though, and in the space of 150 metres had made up the 20 metres he had lost. With 600 metres to go he kicked for home – an awful long way to sprint after putting in 9400 hard metres already. Puttemans responded but couldn’t live with the Finn. Virén came home in a time of 27:38:40, breaking a seven-year old world record.
Simon Lucas is the editor of What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine