The definitive interpretation of the jazz standard that is the Rom-Com.
Jazz music is defined by two things: theory and practice. The theory is the rules that govern the written music; the practice is the virtuosity of the musicians who play the music. Classic jazz songs are called “standards”: they’re the songs all jazz musicians know, and which each artist can express their individual style with their own “interpretation”.
Interpretations can range from being rigidly structured, to heavily improvised. At one end, all the players, from the rhythm section to the horns, must follow the band leader’s direction; at the other end, the individual players lean on their years of learning, practise, understanding and thinking about the myriad relationships between notes, scales, modes and rhythms, to “riff” on the music as written, to play with the form, to whimsically explore ideas. In short: interpretation can range from sticking to the script, to playing with or around it. As a result, there’s the adage, “There are no wrong notes in jazz” – yet even if that were true, were it so simple it would mean that anyone could do it, everything would be jazz, and no single interpretation would stand out, much less be considered definitive. Yet even a casual listener can hear a difference between Ella Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, when each interprets the same standard.
If the romantic comedy is a standard in movies, then When Harry Met Sally is, from Nora Ephron‘s script, to Rob Reiner‘s direction, to Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan‘s performances, the full spectrum of interpretation. The film announces itself as a romantic comedy, but it plays with, and around, just about every trope of its purported genre. Harry and Sally’s meet-cute happens more than once, over more than a decade; the obstacle to their romance is not some contrived sub-plot, but their own friendship; and that friendship is all about the unromantic aspects of their personalities. (In the original ending, which Reiner changed during production, Harry and Sally don’t end even up together.) The comedy in their dialogue is all about demystifying and disappointing romantic expectations – which, in the final film version, makes their romance all the more inevitable.
Like the best romantic comedies, When Harry Met Sally isn’t all that romantic, and is actually a comedy.
It’s no coincidence that director Rob Reiner specifically requested, for the film’s soundtracks, new versions of classic jazz standards – and he got them in the fresh, youthful-yet-timeless arrangements of young prodigy, Harry Connick Jr. Everything you need to know about the movie can be found in its main theme song, ‘It Had To Be You’, which launched both the film and the singer into the public consciousness back in 1989: it announces itself with a wildly playful intro, which is suddenly yanked away in favour of a soft, intimate croon; it steadily builds with all the virtuosity and confidence of the masters, before finally crescendoing with the well-earned grandiosity of a modern classic – in other words: a standard form meets definitive interpretation:
Michael from Lessons from the Screenplay, quoting John Truby, identifies the charm and sophistication in When Harry Met Sally comes from dialogue that “goes from what the characters are doing to who the characters are”:
The real-life Harry and Sally, director Rob Reiner and star Billy Crystal, describe how the “I’ll have what she’s having” scene came to be – the result of the film’s collaborative process (via AFI):
28 years later, director Rob Reiner and writer Nora Ephron, reflect on how their discussion about friendship and romance became the film they ultimately made: