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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

When iTunes Met Jason

I went to Hawaii with my family a few weeks ago. (In case you missed it, I got to take some underwater pictures with an iPhone for the first time.) We took advantage of a quirk in our local school schedule—our children both had the first week of January off—to vacation right after Christmas week, which is presumably one of the busiest tourism weeks of the year.

This meant that we would be spending New Year’s Eve on Kauai, making us one of the last time zones to celebrate the new year. (Just to give you some idea of what this means, we were frolicking on the beach in the early afternoon when London was celebrating, and eating dinner when the ball dropped in Times Square. GMT -1000 is a funny place to be.)

One of my wife’s and my New Year’s traditions is a viewing of the 1989 romantic-comedy classic, “When Harry Met Sally,” which is largely set during the holidays and ends at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. (We also usually watch the Marx Brothers classic “Duck Soup”, but that’s an entirely other story and is entirely the fault of my friend Philip Michaels. Hail Freedonia!)

Of course this year we’d be in a Hawaii condo on the night. I had meant to just bring along a digital copy from my home media server, when I discovered to my shock that I didn’t seem to own the movie on Blu-Ray. It was too late to order the Blu-Ray and have it with me in Hawaii, so I decided to buy the movie on iTunes instead. I even brought an HDMI cable and adapter so I could play it straight from my iPad onto the TV in Hawaii. We would not be denied our tradition!

After some spectacular fireworks over Poipu Beach, we walked back to our room, the kids went to bed, and I started the movie. It’s one of those movies I’ve seen a few dozen times, so I know most of the dialogue, beat for beat, as well as all of the music.

So we’re watching the movie, and about 45 minutes in something extremely weird happens. A thing happens in the movie that has never happened before. This isn’t me noticing a small detail—that happens nearly every time I closely re-watch any movie. This is a change to a film I know by heart. In the scene—which immediately follows the single funniest line in the movie, “I’ll have what she’s having”—the film jumps to Christmas, and we see skaters at Rockefeller Plaza and snow covering Central Park. Newly minted friends Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are buying a tree from a lot on the sidewalks of New York. All the while, “Winter Wonderland” by Ray Charles is playing in the background.

Except this time it isn’t. It’s some weird, unintelligibly quiet piano noodling. And I get this sinking feeling that I know what’s going on: A lot of movies and TV shows originally licensed music without specifying future formats like streaming video or even home video. And the choices for the distributors are either to pay more money to re-license the music, or change the music in the work itself.

The thought is just hanging in the air there, like a speech balloon in a cartoon, when the scene shifts to the film’s first New Years Eve sequence, in which Harry and Sally dance at a party. In the background, Harry Connick sings “I Could Write a Book”, which culminates in a couple of Meaningful Stares just as Connick sings the line “To make two lovers from friends.” This emotionally charged moment sets off the entire second half of the movie, as the nature of the two leads’ relationship changes—and it leads directly to the second New Years Eve sequence that ends the movie.

In the iTunes version, Connick’s version has also been replaced with generic jolly party music. Losing Ray Charles was bad, but this is worse, because it’s not just ripping mood out of the movie, but actual subtext that’s supporting the entire structure of the film.

Somewhere between 45 minutes and all night, my wife fell asleep, but I kept watching. Perhaps the universe was showing her some kindness, because she didn’t witness the worst change of all. The film’s climax features Billy Crystal, walking alone on the streets of Manhattan on New Year’s Eve, flashing back through his relationship with Meg Ryan. At the moment he realizes that he really does love her, the music suddenly swells and Frank Sinatra sings “It Had to Be You”, which plays over the entire final scene of the film and counterpoints the jaunty Connick piano version that plays over the opening credits.

You can guess what happens in this haunted iTunes edition: Nothing. No swelling of music. Instead, Billy Crystal’s life-changing realization is accompanied by a slow droning of saxophone noodling. It is a complete disaster. Crappy New Year everyone!

visual saxophone
visual saxophone

So this is my iTunes movie horror story. Does it have a happy ending, despite all appearances? Yes, in a few ways. The rest of our vacation was great. I went to iTunes as soon as the credits rolled and discovered that almost all of the reviews gave the film one star and cited the changes in music from all other editions as the reason. (I also found a great NPR article about this very issue, in this very film.)

And, finally, I ended up with a fantastic experience with iTunes email support. That very night I requested a refund from iTunes. On January 2 I got an email from Apple support saying they would immediately refund my money, and on January 5 I got a second note saying that the refund had been processed. At the time I wondered—how many people have this as a New Year’s Eve tradition and also requested refunds? And how long would it take for someone at Apple to realize that this generally loved film was hoving just above one star on iTunes for a very particular reason?

Turns out that might be the happiest ending of all. Last week I checked iTunes for “When Harry Met Sally,” and the movie is gone. Apparently enough was enough? Even more baffling is that the film is still available for viewing on Hulu, and appears there with all the music intact.

So here’s what I learned. First, digital purveyors of movies and TV shows need to clearly label when the content has been changed from its original version. That was standard practice on home video—my old VHS copy of “Wayne’s World” had a note to indicate that Led Zeppelin had forced them to remove the first few notes of “Stairway to Heaven” from the scene in the guitar store—but seems to have vanished in the world of streaming? Second, there’s no value in releasing an utterly stripped version of a classic film—Apple and other digital providers should save themselves the grief of offering refunds and not bother. Third, Apple has a refund policy—I have always known that, but never used it—and it seems to work seamlessly.

Oh, and I ordered the Blu-ray of the movie on Amazon and will watch that—or a digital version of it—from now on. I’m done taking chances with streaming services and old movies I love.

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