When a movie character performs a song he or she's written, we're always curious who on the film actually wrote it. Sometimes it's the film's composer, sometimes it's the actor playing the character. (In the case of the country-themed "Nashville," director Robert Altman encouraged his cast to develop tunes in their characters' voices.) One of the standout moments of "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is when John Hawkes' cult-leader character Patrick performs a song that he's written for Martha called "Marcy's Song." (Marcy is her name in the cult.) The song works so well in the context of the film -- haunting and loving, yet also spooky and intense -- that we're embarrassed to admit that we didn't know the song's been around for decades. It's the work of a forgotten folk singer named Jackson C. Frank.
Filmmaker interviewed "Martha Marcy" director Sean Durkin about how he chose "Marcy's Song." It sounds like it was one of those fishing expeditions that turned out greater than could have been expected:
I had a scene in the script, I just wrote "Patrick plays a song that wins over Martha," it was very simple. But I didn't know what the song was. So a month before shooting I was just searching songs under "Martha," "Marcy May" or "Marlene" at my computer at home. I have a long playlist of names that matches the title of the movie. So the one I absolutely fell in love with was the Jackson Frank song, "Marlene" and it's the song in the end credits. So I bought the album and the song before it is called "Marcy's Song" and I couldn't believe it. Songs back to back on an album recorded in the '60s! I loved "Marcy's Song" and John was really into that part of the script and we gave him the cords and the lyrics and he sort of spent a couple of weeks playing it. I don't think I listened to it until the night before shooting. It's John's own rendition, it's different from the actual recording. It's one of my favorite parts of the movie.
Doing a little research into Frank's life, it appears he only put out one self-titled album in 1965. It was produced by Paul Simon and was a hit overseas but a commercial disaster in the States. From there, Frank never managed to find much of a career, living in a senior center with severe disabilities before his death in 1999 at the age of 56. He was also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was severely burned at age 11 because of a school fire. The man had a hard, hard life.
If you've never heard Frank's original version of "Marcy's Song," we've included it below. It's definitely its own creature but just as enthralling as Hawkes' rendition.