The haunting melody from the Christmas tree scene has lived a few lives

Andrew Haigh’s newest film, All of Us Strangers, which played at the Telluride and New York Film Festivals this autumn and is out in theaters just in time for Christmas, has been called melancholy, haunting and a heart-wrenching drama about the lasting trauma of grief, isolation and the all-too-human fear of loneliness, so it’s good to be prepared with some Kleenex before heading into this one.

The story, which I suppose could be called “supernatural,” but that doesn’t quite fit the tone, follows a character played by Andrew Scott, who lives alone in an empty high-rise and travels back to the cozy home where he grew up. There, he interacts with his frozen-in-time parents, played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell.

The gimmick works in subtle ways (which is to say it took me a minute to figure out what the hell was going on) but reaches an emotional plateau during a stunning sequence in which Scott re-experiences the perfect moment from his childhood, just before the finger of fate comes to radically upset his life.

The scene comes a few days before Christmas, as he joins his parents at the tree to add some modest decorations. The radio is playing, and since it is some time in the late 1980s, it’s the Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Always on My Mind.”

Lyrically, it couldn’t be more perfect, as Scott’s character is unable to move on from the loss of his innocence, but this particular version is one I’ve always found strange. The melody is as gorgeous as ever (and Claire Foy singing along in a motherly way is what really sets the scene over the top), but the high-tempo rhythmic beat and synthesizer bursts (typical of the hi-NRG subgenre of the time) are unusual to those that know the earlier versions. But a memory is a memory — and the 50-year-old Haigh surely has a connection to this period hit.

It was the number one single in the U.K. for four weeks (including Christmas) in 1987and reached number four on the U.S. Billboard Top 100. It was the fifth Pet Shop Boys single to make the American Top 10 after “West End Girls,” “Opportunities,” “It’s a Sin” and “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” In case you are unfamiliar (or just want to hear that unexpected key change at the end of the refrain), here it is.

It’s entirely possible that this is the only version of the song you know and are unaware that there is a long history behind it. The Messenger is here, however, to blow your mind.

“Always On My Mind” was written in 1972 by the songwriting team of Wayne Carson, Johnny Christopher and Mark James. Several people have recorded it, but the first to do it were Brenda Lee and then Gwen McCrae.

And that right there speaks to the song’s versatility. Brenda Lee is the foremost interpreter of AM-friendly pop country, while McCrae’s version has a more soulful, gospel quality. Here they are back-to-back.

Neither of these, however, is the definitive version. We’re getting there, though.

A few weeks after he split with his wife Priscilla, Elvis Presley took the melancholy track for a spin and sold a million copies in 1972. Please take a moment to pay homage to The King.

Elvis’s twangy version cemented this as a country tune, and it reappeared in 1979 as a Country hit for John Wesley Ryles (check it out here.)

You would think that would be enough of a life for one song, but that’s where you’d be wrong. In 1982, the great Willie Nelson did something few others could ever dream of doing. He improved on the work of Elvis.

The track spent 21 weeks at the top of the Country charts and also hit number five on the Billboard Top 100. The track won Song of the Year at that year’s Grammys and won Willie Best Country Vocal Performer, Male. The album on which it appeared, “Always on My Mind,” was nominated for Album of the Year, and the track was nominated for Record of the Year, but lost both to Toto. Toto?!?! What the hell, man?

With hindsight, it’s incredible when you realize what a big swing the Pet Shop Boys’s version is. But somehow, it worked. And its placement in All of Us Strangers, a movie that, I believe, will be remembered for a long time to come, only adds more resonance.

I mentioned the “several” versions of the song (some sources say as many as 300), so let’s wrap this up with some diversity. Behold a bossa nova, cocktail jazz and Danzig (!!) spin on the tune. Merry Christmas!