It makes sense that the final year of the 90s would mark the return of perhaps the most successful and popular franchise in the history of film: Star Wars. In this instance, the franchise went backwards in its narrative by doing three prequels to the original Star Wars films. The hype for the new films lasted for years and in 1999, with the release of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace, the franchise returned with a roar. I personally remember going to an evening showing in Westwood Village where the line to get in stretched around two blocks. Riddled with criticism from die-hard fans, Phantom Menace was still far and away the number one movie of ’99, taking in more than $924 million worldwide.
Phantom Menace may have been the top movie of ’99, but there were quite a few more that reaped in buckets of dough at the box office. In second place that year was M. Night Shyamalan’s Sixth Sense, a film still known for one of the best twist endings ever as well as the classic movie quote, “I see dead people.” It didn’t do too shabby at the box office with more than $672 million worldwide. One of the better sequels in film history took third place as Toy Story 2 pulled in more than $485 million. Keanu Reeves’ and The Matrix wound up in fourth place with more than $463 million while Disney’s animated feature, Tarzan, ended up in fifth place with a little more than $448 million. Rounding out the top ten were The Mummy ($416 million), Notting Hill ($364 million), The World is Not Enough ($362 million), American Beauty ($356 million), and the independent found-footage horror hit, The Blair Witch Project ($312 million). Speaking of which, Blair Witch, made for a measly $60,000, remains one of the most profitable films of all time.
1999 was a heck of a year for music too. There was a bevy of hit singles that year, perhaps none bigger than than “Livin’ La Vida Loca” by Ricky Martin. Selling more than 8 million copies, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” remains Martin’s biggest hit to this day. As successful as that was, Christina Aguilera’s breakout hit, “Genie in a Bottle” wound up selling more than 10 million copies worldwide, making it the biggest single of the year in retrospect. Other big singles of ’99 were “I Want it That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, “No Scrubs” by TLC, and “Heartbreak Hotel” by Whitney Houston, Faith Evans, and Kelly Price. Truth is, I wish I could find some sales figures on “Smooth” by Santana and Rob Thomas because it was one of the most popular songs of the entire decade. Based on the information I’ve researched, it did not have the sales that the aforementioned singles had, but I find that hard to believe, something I’ll point out in the next paragraph.
If albums are any measure of success, ’99 was one of the most successful years not only of the decade, but in history. The top album of ’99 was Santana’s “Supernatural, selling more than 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. This is why I find it hard to believe that the hit single “Smooth” wasn’t one of the biggest singles of ’99. The big time albums don’t stop there, however. While “Hit Me Baby One More Time” was released in ’98, Britney Spears’ album …Baby One More Time was released in ’99 and would go on to sell more than 25 million albums. In third place, Backstreet Boys’ third album Millennium was more than just popular as it wound up selling more than 24 million albums. Another big one was Ricky Martin’s Ricky Martin, selling more than 15 million copies while TLC’s FanMail didn’t do too shabby with over 10 million albums sold. The five albums above cumulatively sold at least 104 million albums. In short, ’99 was a fantastic year for albums.
As for debut albums, it gets a bit tricky because ’99 is a rather weak year for debuts unless we include some with technicalities added. The biggest example of this would be Eminem’s Slim Shady LP, which would easily be the biggest debut except he released the Slim Shady EP in ’97 and his first studio album in ’96 called Infinite. Therefore, I’m leaving Eminem out of this. Obviously the biggest debuts of the year came from female pop stars Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, whose self-titled debut Christina Aguilera went on to sell more than 14 million copies worldwide. Other than that, however, ’99 was not notable for debut albums. Some noteworthy debuts, at least in my opinion were from Mos Def, Ja Rule, Jessica Simpson, Lil Wayne, and Dido.
In the TV world, a new show immediately took over the top of the Nielsen ratings, taking the reins from such heavyweights as ER, Friends, and Frasier. That show was none other than Who Wants to be a Millionaire, a game show hosted by Regis Philbin where contestants have to answer increasingly difficult questions to win one million dollars. Almost 20 years later, that show continues chugging. It aired three times a week and all three nights placed one, two, and three on the Nielsen ratings. The show had everyone hooked and on the edge of their seats hoping to witness someone make it all the way to the $1 million dollar question. The first show aired August 16, 1999, but it took until November 19 until someone would win the million dollars.
’99 had a great number of debut shows that wound up being staples in American pop culture. For starters, the mafia show The Sopranos would debut on HBO and go on for six seasons. Often in the discussion for best television drama series of all time, The Sopranos was the first cabe TV series ever to be nominated for (and win)an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. It also won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series every single time it was nominated. Impressive to say the least. Three other iconic shows debuted in ’99, shows that I have to mention or it’d be a travesty. One of those, Spongebob Squarepants, is a kid’s show but one of the most popular ones of the last few decades. On top of that, both Family Guy and Futurama debuted, both adult cartoons that would amass legions of fans and remain relevant today. Other notable debuts of ’99 were The West Wing, Judging Amy, Judge Mathis, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which was renewed for its 20th season in May.
As you know, with all of those debuts comes a lot of endings, and ’99 had some big goodbyes. The biggest of all would be Home Improvement, which had the 12th most-watched series finale of all time. Other big finales were the Paul Reiser-led Mad About You, Homicide: Life on the Street, The Nanny, and Melrose Place. While they may not have had the big series finales of the aforementioned shows, other popular shows that would finish their run were Sister, Sister, The Wayans Bros., Unhappily Ever After, The Parent Hood, The Sentinel, and Mystery Science Theater 3000.
In sadder news, the celebrity world lost some big names in ’99, starting with Roger Ebert’s film critic counterpart, Gene Siskel. While he probably was never as big as Ebert, Siskel was a fantastic movie critic and the show was never quite the same without him. It was only a few weeks later that renown director Stanley Kubrick passed away, making Eyes Wide Shut (also released in ’99) his final film. In addition, Mario Puzo passed and if it weren’t for him, we would have never been blessed with The Godfather. The sports world lost a legend in bigger-than-life Wilt Chamberlain, still regarded as one of the greatest basketball players of all time. The music industry had significant losses with legendary crooner Mel Torme passing at 73 and Dusty Springfield dying at a young 56. Country legend Hank Snow died after a career that sold more than 80 million albums over six decades. Perhaps the biggest death happened at the end of the year with Curtis Mayfield dying at the age of 57 a day after Christmas. Not only was he a double inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with The Impressions in ’91, and as a solo artist in ’99), Mayfield’s Shaft soundtrack remains arguably one of the greatest alums in the history of music.
In a year where a kid could “see dead people” and Keanu Reeves tried to figure out the Matrix, there was also the tiny indie film Blair Witch Project that took on Hollywood and won. One could say that ’99 was the year of kings with Phantom Menace atop the box office and the debut of The Sopranos which would rule the TV for the first few years of the millennium. It was also quite a big year for albums as 3 of the top ten biggest albums of the decade were released in ’99 (Human Clay, Supernatural, and Millennium). While it’s not from the same decade, it’s only necessary to use the classic Mel Brooks’ quote to sum of the year: “It’s good to be the king.”