The Review/Short Read/

A Tale of Two “Serás”: How Heathers references Doris Day and Sly Stone’s non-family affair

Two soundtrack cuts from the teen classic slyly cite a long-running Hollywood rumour

by
Nov 22, 2018

Heathers screens on Friday, November 23 as part of TIFF Cinematheque Special Screenings.

Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988) begins and ends with two different versions of the same song: Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ “Que Será, Será (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” which was debuted by Doris Day in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956.

Doris Day, “Que Será, Será,” 1956

As Heathers opens, the song is performed in a style evocative of Day by singer Syd Straw (Day had reportedly refused permission for the filmmakers to use her recording because of the profanity in the movie’s script):

At the film’s end, Sly and the Family Stone’s gospel-inflected 1973 version is heard.

Sly and the Family Stone, “Que Será, Será,” 1973

By bookending the film with these two versions of the same song, the “square” and the “hip,” the filmmakers echo the journey of the main character, Veronica (Winona Ryder), from (more-or-less) innocence to empowered (if gore-spattered) experience.

Winona Ryder in Heathers

The contrast is perhaps an easy one, but certainly not unwarranted. As exemplars of their respective cultural moments, few artists could be further apart than the white, blonde Day — whose career as a wholesome-yet-knowing “girl-next-door type” (a term she hated) began in the 1940s and peaked at the height of the Eisenhower era — and ’70s superstar Stone, whose integrated funk juggernaut of a band seemed to herald a future multiracial utopia unlike any seen before.

Doris Day

Sly and the Family Stone

Despite the distance between their respective eras, Stone was following a well-trod path when he recorded his cover of Day’s signature song (it had been used as the theme for the actress’ sitcom The Doris Day Show beginning in 1968). Since its 1956 debut, “Que Será, Será” had inspired an array of international cover versions. A Tamil version with a slightly altered melody, titled “Chinna Pennana Pothile,” appeared in the 1957 film Aaravalli:

Renata Bogdanska recorded a Polish version in 1957:

Dave Cash recorded a Yiddish version in 1958:

1965 saw not just one, but two Mandarin versions, the first by Bai Guang (in which the title translates as “Things of the World are Fickle”), the second by Grace Chang (“The Future is a Riddle”).

In Australia, the song rose to prominence in a Merseybeat version by Normie Rowe from 1965:

And an Italian version (which resembles the original in name only) was recorded by Ricchi e Poveri in 1971:

Needless to say, Stone and his musical “family” brought their own spin to this old chestnut when they recorded their own cover for Sly’s superb, minimalist comeback album Fresh in 1973. In its contemporary review of the album, Rolling Stone wrote that “Rose Stone [Sly’s real-life sister] does the line of the song in pristine Doris Day style, then Sly comes in and wrings from the chorus every drop of its blood-from-a-stone funk.”

Funk-wringing aside, why did Stone decide to record this seemingly quite off-brand song? It’s often been suggested that it was meant to fan the flames of a rumour that he and Doris Day had once had an affair.

Opening credits for Season 2 of The Doris Day Show, 1969

Sly and the Family Stone perform “Higher and Higher,” 1969

While Day was 21 years older than Sly, their paths did indeed cross thanks to Day’s son, record producer and music executive Terry Melcher. Stone spent a good deal of time at the Melcher house in the late ’60s, where, in addition to Day, he more than once encountered music-biz hopeful Charles Manson. (Melcher vacated the property in 1969 and rented it to newlyweds Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate; in August of that year, the house became notorious as the site of the first of the Manson murders.)

In a 2009 interview on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Electric, Stone recounted his friendship with Day, but wouldn’t say anything more about her than “She was a nice lady.” In a 2010 interview with MOJO, he once again coyly danced around the question: “Doris Day is cool. She was a good friend.”

MOJO #196, March 2010

Despite these consistent denials, the long life of the Stone-Day rumours demonstrates the salacious cultural interest in seeing symbols of “innocence” undermined. And at first listen, this is what the filmmakers seem to be doing with the two versions of “Que Será, Será” in Heathers, contrasting Syd Straw’s update on the “naïve” Day original with the funked-up Stone version and all its attendant associations of ’70s-era sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. But when listened to in succession, it becomes clear that the two versions do not differ so much in their intent: both, in their own ways, are quite sincere. And their inclusion in this film that arrived at the end of the 1980s is a telling testament to that decade’s complicated, ambivalent relationship to ’50s-era innocence: alternately yearning for it and affectionately mocking it.

As for Syd Straw, her major-label debut Surprise was released around the same time as Heathers, the promotion of which included an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.

Incidentally, Straw’s father was actor Jack Straw, who appeared in the hit 1957 musical The Pajama Game — opposite none other than Doris Day.

Doris Day and Jack Straw perform “Seven and a Half Cents” in The Pajama Game (1957)