How Sheryl Crow Helped Birth a Burt Bacharach Anthem for Autistic Children

PO Still - Bacharach Inset - H - 2016
Courtesy of 888 Films; David M. Benett/Getty Images

The Oscar-winning composer scored the music for 'Po,' a drama about a boy with the complex disorder: "[The song] comes from looking at that kid. And if it breaks my heart a little bit, maybe I can break somebody else's heart."

Sometimes you merely ask for the moon and end up getting the stars. That's what happened to director John Asher, who saw Burt Bacharach on a plane and inquired about licensing the master's song "Close to You" for Po, a drama about a boy with autism and his newly widowed dad. The composer had a better idea. "The more I looked at the film, the more I kept getting drawn into it," says Bacharach. "I started to think, 'Maybe I'd like to score it for you.' "

The result was the Oscar winner's first score in 16 years, and a song to go with it, "Dancing With My Shadow." This time it was personal. Bacharach had a daughter, Nikki, who suffered from Asperger's and took her own life in 2007, as recounted in his memoir. For "Shadow," he hooked up with lyricist Billy Mann, who has a son with autism. Bacharach's choice of singer was Sheryl Crow, and not just because she had a pre-fame background teaching music to children with the disorder. The no-budget self-assignment, with the entire score recorded at Capitol Records over two days, was a labor of love that's "still reaching into my heart now," Mann says. "You could ask, would that be the case if he hadn't gone through those hard times with Nikki? I have to say, yeah. Even if you didn't have an autistic child and just saw the film, I think it'd be heartbreaking."

Mann says his 88-year-old collaborator "was as deep in it with hard work and devotion as anybody I know who's making records today. Imagine how I felt getting lead sheets that were handwritten by Burt in my inbox." He felt a responsibility to capture Bacharach's and Asher's feelings about being parents of autistic kids as well as his own feelings, while addressing a narrative that deals with the loss of a parent. "If you asked most parents who have children with autism their biggest concern, it really is: What's going to happen to my child/young adult when I die? The concept of dancing with your shadow is essentially putting the best light on the fact that when you're a parent of a child with a disability of any kind, you really do shadow that child forever. The song represents my best effort to articulate an infinite watching-over."

"For me and for where I've been, it's a very unchallenged melody and simpler than many songs I've written," says Bacharach. "But then, this kid is very simple — and complex." The song is different from his other movie themes in its source, he says, but not set apart in every way. "I mean, it's not 'The Look of Love,' yet those songs all came from direct situations in those films. With 'What's New Pussycat,' I kept looking at Peter Sellers' faces, and that theme never would have been written without seeing his craziness, and the result was a very awkward, funny, offbeat song that Tom Jones first heard and said, 'I don't want to do that!' And this is not so different, because it comes from looking at that kid [in Po]. And if it breaks my heart a little bit, maybe I can break somebody else's heart."

A version of this story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.