The movie soundtrack (or OST) isn’t what it used to be. That “O” has been dropped for a reason: these days movies tend to come with pre-packaged popcorn musical accompaniment, cobbled together from whatever chart hits are considered appropriate. Pulp Fiction wasn’t the first example but it was probably one of the best and it’s been pretty much all downhill since then. When a film like Wolf Of Wall Street is lauded for its soundtrack, you know that something’s rotten in the state of Hollywood. But it wasn’t always so: once upon a time, scoring movies looked like the promised land for a whole host of classical composers who’d been left high and dry as the tide of public taste retreated. Miklos Rozsa won Oscars for Spellbound, A Double Life and Ben Hur, while Eric Wolfgang Korngold won for The Adventures Of Robin Hood and Aaron Copland, Malcolm Arnold, Franz Waxman, Bernard Hermann and Dimitri Tiomkin all feature on the list of winners. In 1954 the nominations list consisted of the winner Tiomkin as well as Max Steiner, Larry Adler, Leonard Bernstein and Waxman! They don’t make ‘em like that any more…
Yet, since the mid-90’s it has become a vanishing art. Barely a year goes by without John Williams, John Barry, Hans Zimmer or all three featuring on the nominations list (sometimes several times) and while the Oscars are certainly not universal indicators of quality, it’s the films that win that are worrying – or more importantly, the films that don’t. Big box-office and great scores are becoming increasingly rare bed-fellows: it’s just so much easier to grab a bunch of ready made pop tracks and pay the royalties – besides which you might even be able to spin off a hit and boost the gate that way – normally with a chart single that has nothing to do with the movie itself and just plays over the end-credits
All of which has allowed the OST to fall from view, which is a shame because there’s some fantastic music been written and arranged for the movies – if you know where to look. Indeed, just recently there have been signs of a revival – in quality at least – with wins for The Artist and this year, Gravity. There’s no denying that great music makes for a great movie, with Gravity being a particular case in point, but the nature of the medium means that it’s also prone to magpie tendencies, often weaving familiar themes or material that was contemporary with the action into a single atmospheric whole. The first rule of film music is simple: “If you are going to steal, steal from the best.” Just ask Hans Zimmer and John Williams – neither Star Wars nor Gladiator would have been quite the same without the influence of Holst’s Planets. In fact, film scores are so often marriages of musical convenience that their motto might well be, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”.
Throw in the fact that sound tracks (at least in their original form) don’t need to take the constraints of airplay or domestic audio systems into account and you’ve got recordings that at least start with the sort of dynamic range that gives them a real chance of dramatic intensity and musical impact. Which brings me to my own personal list of favorite film scores, musical collages all. Leaving aside the obvious and done to death, here are five hidden (and not so hidden) gems that are well worth seeking out whether you’ve seen the movie or not. So let’s start at the beginning with the OST that kicked it all off, at least as far as this article was concerned – a worthy Oscar winner that dragged the musically inventive and downright dramatic right back to center stage – or should that be screen?
Silva Screen Records CD SILCD 1441 (2013)
If you haven’t seen the movie, do yourself a favor and get to the cinema while you still can. This is a headlong adrenalin rush that needs to be seen 3D (yes, I know, I’m normally allergic to tricksy 3D effects too) on a big screen and without interruptions or comfort breaks. “Immersive” doesn’t even begin to describe this cinematic experience and a huge part of that is the music, a score that underlines the episodic nature of the action and steadily ramps up the tension, one notch at a time. In keeping with the “strangely familiar” environment of being able to see the earth but being distant from it, this music eschews the normal dramatics of more earth-bound action, eliminating percussion in favor of layered keyboard textures, juddering rhythms and soaring harmony vocals and strings. It’s a heady mix that allows Price to build massive slabs of heavily textured musical intensity that he kills with a heart-stopping flick of a switch. Play this on a big system and those tracks fall off a musical cliff with all of the sudden finality of an air lock slamming shut. They literally seem to suck the air from the room.
But it’s not all dynamic slam-dunks. There’s subtlety of pace and texture here to put many a classical masterwork to shame. While the whole album is consistently impressive there’s no escaping the dramatic tension and momentum that builds step by step towards the two final tracks, “Shenzou” and “Gravity”. These weld the whole atmosphere and all of the dramatic devices deployed in the previous 14 tracks into two shatteringly effective musical toboggan rides that will, quite literally have you holding your breath! Buckle up and enjoy: this music is quite a trip…
Charisma LP CAS 1158 (1982)
This score for Peter Greenaway’s Draughtsman’s Contract is as enigmatic as the film it underpins. What appears at first as a comedy of manners soon spins out of control, the glib artist whose sharp-tongued observations appear to give him a positioned of superiority soon discovers that nothing is as it seems and the price agreed and what you pay differ in terms of currency and degree. This is all about the dark underbelly of polite society, the excess and moral turpitude hidden behind the airs, graces and good manners. Greenaway’s script seems to be an essay on class and sexual mores but is ultimately concerned with the vulnerability of women, their exposure through primogeniture and the desperate steps they (might possibly) take as a result. The lesson is clear, even if the plot isn’t: the more exquisitely cultured and mannered a society becomes, the deeper flows the violence and corruption.
Scoring a film that is at once an exaggerated period piece and a metaphor for modern political reality should present quite a challenge but it is one that Nyman meets with ease, creating music that complements the action and appearance on screen to perfection, while also hinting at the deep-lying sub-text and the darker currents beneath the glittering surface. The score is highly stylized and built on themes drawn from the high-baroque music of Henry Purcell, but Nyman handles those themes in his own modern idiom, heavily repetitive and rhythmically insistent, yet woven around with complex undercurrents of counterpoint, the formal structures and contrasts the perfect metaphor for the movie’s dark happenings. The genius lies in the nagging familiarity of those themes, melodies and phrases that sound like they should slip effortlessly into something written by Handel that always gets played at weddings – yet not quite. Catchy, hinting at familiarity and yet disturbingly off-beat, the music captures the mood of the movie perfectly. The carefully structured thematic development proceeds with all the choreographed predictability of a period dance, yet somehow it seems to end up somewhere off the rails. Delightful, fascinating, entertaining and invigorating this is a luxuriously bijou taste of baroque music spun into a compact guilty pleasure. If you don’t know Nyman’s music, this is possibly the easiest way in. If you try The Draughtsman’s Contract and like it, just wait until you hear what the Greenaway/Nyman creative axis does to Mozart in Drowning By Numbers…
Original music by Trevor Jones, featuring Courtney Pine, Saxophone
Island Records LP AN 8709 (1987)
If The Draughtsman’s Contract swirls with hidden menace, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart is overhung by a brooding air of open malevolence, with increasingly frequent and unexplained acts of savagery, played out against a creeping shadow of deepest darkness. Mickey Rourke’s descent into a living hell is as graphic as it is inevitable, his insouciant manner no defense against the evil machinations that drive events, even the one ray of apparent innocence (played by Lisa Bonet in a post-Cosby Show change of direction that simply adds to the emotional impact of the role) ends up accelerating his demise, the final denouement as complete as it is inescapable.
Supplying music for anything this dark, violent and disturbing gives the composer plenty to work with and Trevor Jones seizes the opportunity with relish. It’s no mistake that music plays so well at the darker end of the emotional spectrum and this is as dark as it gets. A classic collage of original music and period tunes, the 30’s hit “Girl Of My Dreams” is pivotal to the plot and supplies a haunting, repetitive theme throughout, underpinned by other older numbers, performed by Bessie Smith, LaVern Baker and Brownie McGhee. But what really make this score are Jones’ own swirling compositions, overlaid by the sax improvisation of Courtney Pine: the hollow, church acoustic, the subtle use of atmospheric vocal backing and that ever-present theme. Haunting doesn’t even start to cover it, while snatches of dialog, including DeNiro at his most casually menacing, all help to conjure the movies darker tones, even when listening to the music in isolation. Angel Heart was probably Mickey Rourke’s finest hour – certainly until The Wrestler – and the sound track is definitely the best thing Pine ever did, a forgotten gem that’s well worth seeking out.
Warner Bros Records LP 9362 48085-1 (1968)
Was anybody ever as cool as Steve McQueen (the original – not the director of Twelve Years…)? Was Steve McQueen ever as cool again as his character in Bullitt?
There’s something indefinably ‘60s about Schifrin’s film scores, perhaps because they were so often imitated (but rarely equaled). By the time Bullitt came around he’d already provided music for McQueen’s downbeat Cincinnati Kid (as well as Newman’s Coolhand Luke and the theme for Mission: Impossible) but it was the San Francisco cop thriller with the car chase that was to set new standards. Although advertised on the sleeve as the motion picture sound track, the recordings here were actually laid down after the fact and differ from the ones used in the movie, the producers wanting a tighter, pop-ier feel for the album release. It was a decision that worked in the music’s favor and perhaps helps explain the way it crossed over into the mainstream. Schifrin went back into the studio with a stellar band including the likes of Mike Melvoin (who played piano and contributed the standout Hammond parts) Howard Roberts on guitar and Ray Brown on bass. The end results stand as a testament to Schifrin’s skills as an arranger as much as a composer. Whilst the music is so obviously of its time, it manages to escape both cliché and pastiche. Just when you think it’s all going horribly wrong and Peter Sellers is about to put in an appearance, a deft instrumental line, a phrase or switch in rhythm lifts you away from the expected and onto a whole new path.
The opening tracks capture the mood of the swinging sixties perfectly, but it’s the second side of the album where things get really serious. Opener “Ice Pick Mike” (surely the inspiration for every cop show theme tune for years after) is followed in quick succession by the ethereal beauty of ‘A Song For Cathy’ and the high drama of ‘Shifting Gears’, tracks that all stand the test of time and would happily stand alone. The piano steps center stage and its minor chords add an air of brooding menace to the glittering brightness of side one’s brass. The Burke/Webster composition “The First Snowfall” is the only track here not written by Schifren, but again he gives it a beautifully balanced arrangement, building on its lighter balance and deft flourishes to provide the necessary contrast with the main score. The final track revisit’s the main theme, its sparse guitar and rhythm core offering a slower, more mellow and reflective mood, in stark contrast to the upbeat tempo and stabbing brass tuttis of the title piece. It’s a fascinating insight into the way a film composer can use a single theme but different arrangements to affect the on-screen atmosphere and emotional pay-off.
The decision to rework the tracks leaves us with a pop/jazz-suite that stands alone, redolent of the movie’s cool but making its own points along the way. There is some great music here and if it sounds familiar that simply reflects just how influential it was. Its place in history might ultimately have been eclipsed by the microcosmic perfection of the “Mission: Impossible” theme, but here you have the real deal. Incidentally, if you are interested in the differences between the film versions and the sound track recordings, there’s a 2009 double-CD release from Film Score Monthly that contains both, although I’ve never actually seen a copy.
United Artists LP 1A062-83091 (1980)
When the virtually unknown Michael Cimino (with just one feature film under his belt) swept the Oscars with The Deer Hunter, Hollywood lined up to let him write his own check – with possibly predictable results. Ignoring the artistic issues with the sprawling, slow-paced Oscar winner (not to mention its politically questionable sub-text – at least as far as Hollywood was concerned) giving Cimino a free hand was to result in what was one of the most catastrophic financial disasters in movie history, a movie that was long, late and massively over budget. From a then massive cost-base of $44 million, it only grossed $3 million at the box-office, a performance that virtually destroyed the United Artists studio. Cimino had broken every rule in the book, from extending shooting schedules, to endless retakes, rewriting history as seen by Hollywood (in this case, Shane) to employing unknown foreign actors. But worst of all, the movie was widely viewed as “un-American”. No wonder it bombed…
But like many things in Hollywood, that assessment was over simplistic and since then, the critical standing of Heaven’s Gate has slowly but surely been on the rise, until it is now seen in some circles as a maligned masterpiece. I’m not sure I’d go that far: for me it is more of a gloriously heroic failure. Overlong (the director’s cut runs out at well over three hours) and self indulgent it also contains some of the most stunning cinematography and elaborate set stages ever shot, all accompanied by a tenderly luminous sound track.
Keeping things in the family, Cimino employed (Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate) producer Joann Carelli’s partner David Mansfield to create and arrange the music, based on traditional themes, a task that Mansfield undertook entirely alone, playing and recording every note of every instrument. In stark contrast to the explosive bombast that typifies so many movie scores, with hours of footage to work with (Cimino shot over 220 hours of film) Mansfield’s music is gentle, almost languorous in its pace. Entirely acoustic, it’s traditional, middle-European roots and folk themes, beautiful use of rhythm and slowly building changes of pace give it a real, lasting quality – one that illuminated the movie as surely as it allows it to stand alone.
As beautiful as it appears on screen, Heaven’s Gate is also gut-wrenchingly lawless and violent – the West as it really was, as Cimino would surely have it. Which makes the delicacy and tonal beauty of Mansfield’s music all the more remarkable.
And While You Are about It…
It seems almost criminal to exclude Messrs Williams, Barry and Zimmer from proceedings, so if you don’t possess the following discs you should certainly give them a go:
Out Of Africa
MCA LP 11327 (1985)
Simply beautiful melodies and arrangements that show just why Barry was considered a master of his craft.
Raiders Of The lost Ark
DCC Compact Classics Double Album LPZ-2 2009 (1981/1995)
Spielberg and Williams and just as familiar as Star Wars, but this is so, so much better. Get past the main theme and there’s considerable range, delicacy and nuance…
The Thin Red Line
RCA Victor HDCD 09026-63382-2 (1999)
More dramatic, less derivative and less bombastic than Gladiator, this shows Zimmer’s range to far better effect – and it will still shoot your woofers across the room if you let it!