Wednesday, March 31, 2010

3:10 to Yuma: the Enni-Phant in the Room

. . . But first, let's talk about Ennio Morricone. How can you avoid it? The modern notion of a "Western" movie has been wrapped indelibly in Morricone's musical signature - not to mention the imagery of the Spaghetti westerns of Leone and others - for forty years now. The eerie whistle from the main theme of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is perhaps the most widely recognized cinematic motif, behind only the infamous Jaws ostinato. (Yeah, I deliberately linked you to the cheesy Hugo Montenegro pop version of the TGTBTU theme.)

Morricone's Western music is in our collective unconscious, just as big a cliche now as Clint Eastwood's flinty eyes and unshaven jaw. Film and popular music alike were rocked by Morricone -- I don't know if bands like Calexico or Devotchka would exist if he had never written a note. Quentin Tarantino has slathered his last few films with liberal dollops of Morricone, whether they needed it or not. I even went to a show by a new Indy burlesque company over the weekend, in which a dancer's "cowgirl" routine was set to the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - and there she was, with a serape, wide-brimmed flat hat, and cigarillo (and little else).

Okay, I've made my point. Every Western movie made since the '60s must confront Leone's legacy somehow, and every Western score must deal with Morricone. You have to make a decision to embrace or resist the Morricone sound if you want to score a Western -- which is why it's so interesting that Marco Beltrami appears to have chosen to do both with his score to 3:10 to Yuma. (Even Eastwood himself, and his composer Lennie Niehaus, consciously chose to push against the Morricone style with Unforgiven.)

James Mangold's 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma reaches back past the "spaghetti" tradition to an older Western story, a morality play with black hats and white hats, about the choices that men make, and that make men. Beltrami's score, for most of the film, follows along with the clenched jaws and husky whispers of its two "Westerners" by way of Australia and England. You can hear echoes of a spaghetti-ish style in the restrained guitars in the background of the opening two tracks . . . At 2:34 of Track #2, "Ben Takes the Stage/Dan's Burden," the film's main theme makes a statement on electric guitar that's still chastely held back from the rock-operatic style that it echoes.

Beltrami's instrumentation tells the real story of where he's going with this score. Along with the strings, brass, and guitar, he throws in a hammered dulcimer to accompany quieter moments, and embraces all kinds of unorthodox percussion. The very brief but intriguing Track #4, "Bisbygliando," begins with percussion that sounds like some object scraped across a wood floor, and later throws in crazy rhythms punctuated by a Jew's harp. These folk instruments and improvised sounds are simultaneously older and newer musical choices than the '60s spaghetti style. The music of the 21st century is wildly open to pastiche -- you'll hear sampling from a surprising variety of sources coming from producers of Top 40 music, let alone the kooky niche genres like gypsy punk or 8-bit techno -- and this is a 21st-century Western score.

So, Beltrami throws a wild bunch of very well-selected instruments and styles to throw into the base of Morricone's spaghetti sauce . . . then he boils it all waaay down, into a sound that jangles and echoes and swirls dissonantly, with occasional bursts of percussive violence and glimmers of vintage badassery. Even when the trumpets blaze into the action track "Chinese Democracy*," (Track #8) they're offset from one another in a strangled echo. Beltrami has made a new kind of Western score out of the old, by reducing it to its essence. I won't call it "minimalist," since that's a label only properly applied to people like Steve Reich and early Philip Glass and anything else that induces seizures after the 14th minute of hearing the same three notes. But it's "minimal" in its choice not to exert itself too obviously upon the film.

I won't say that this is my favorite score album, though. Beltrami's music does make a terrific accompaniment to the film - which I have not seen for a few years now and don't own - but as a stand-alone album it has a tendency to fade into the background. (As I listen to it right now, it's lending an unusually suspenseful air to my office work, despite the cheerful, sunny day.) That's somewhat typical of the trend of action film scoring in the '00s, actually. (We'll get to my love/hate relationship with the new Batman scores soon enough.) Seriously, how many movie themes from the last ten years can you hum from memory?

All the tension and restraint does pay off, though, when Beltrami finally builds to an action-packed climax in the two penultimate tracks, "Bible Study," and "Who Let the Cows Out*?" and the denoument in "The 3:10 to Yuma." When a big, bold trumpet melody comes soaring in over the end of "Bible Study," my goose bumps tell me, "Yeah! That's what we've been waiting for!" (Clearly, my reflexive sensory reactions to film scores have been primed by the musical collective unconscious. Thanks, Ennio. And Carl Jung.)

Now I return to another exciting day of email-slinging . . .

*One thing I love about certain contemporary composers is their sense of humor in naming cues. Chinese Democracy is, of course, the long-delayed Guns 'n' Roses album that was finally released in 2008, for which Beltrami provided orchestral arrangements. I haven't heard that album, but I bet John has.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Music in Film (National Public Radio Milestones of the Millennium)

Any compilation, collection, or "best of" list is always at least as notable for what's omitted as for what's included. The collection that I've chosen to kick off this blog is no different. You won't find some noteworthy composers here: No Max Steiner, no Ennio Morricone, no Jerry Goldsmith, no Maurice Jarre, no Lalo Schifrin . . . among many others. But for one disc that purports to cover all of film music history and has just 80 minutes or so to do it, it's not so bad.

As this release was made through Sony Classical under the aegis of NPR and released in 1999, all of what appears here is stuff that Sony Classical had available to them through their own catalog at the time, I suspect. That accounts for the appearance here of several 20th-century composers who were much more famous for their concert and ballet works than for their film scores: Sergei Prokofiev, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. I'll deal separately with Prokofiev's blasting and highly influential choral score to Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, represented here with a song of breathless praise for the film's titular Russian hero (Track #2).

Aaron Copland did just a few film scores, including the film adaptation of Steinbeck's The Red Pony, heard on this disc (Track #5), but his style defined what "American" classical music sounds like to most ears of the 20th century, and was arguably one of the biggest influences on film scoring for Westerns, before Leone and Morricone rewrote the book and the music forever -- or at least to date. Listen to the main theme from The Magnificent Seven (Track #12) by the other Bernstein, the prolific film composer Elmer (no relation to Leonard) and you can hear echoes of Copland's Rodeo all over the place. (Most people probably know a bit of Rodeo nowadays as "The Beef Commercial Song." Copland. It's what's for dinner.)

This makes me want to pause to grouse about the general way that film composers are treated within the world of classical music. With a very few exceptions, those composers who earn their stripes by scoring films as opposed to "serious" concert compositions are regarded with barely concealed condescension by the classical music cognoscienti. Their works draw huge audiences to pops concerts by major symphony orchestras, including lots of people who otherwise would have no interest in showing up at a classical concert. I'd venture a casual bet that orchestras have played and recorded the main theme from Star Wars (Track #18) as often as Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in the last 30 years. Yet few composers have switched with ease between the concert or opera hall and the movie theatre. The only one I can think of in recent memory would be Philip Glass.

Back to the CD - that Film/Classical schism opens the disc, actually -- the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the Jewish Austrian expatriate who practically invented scoring for Hollywood sound films, is represented here with a rollicking suite from The Adventures of Robin Hood. (If you haven't seen the classic Errol Flynn film, do yourself a favor and watch it. It's a barrel of fun.) Korngold was unfairly pooh-poohed by critics for his gorgeous violin concerto, into which he wove themes from some of his film scores.

Most of the first two-thirds of this CD is in fact a great introduction to the world of film music from about the '30s through the '60s. Some of the other patron saints of the genre are included, like Bernard Herrman (Vertigo and Psycho in Tracks #13-14), Nino Rota (Track #15 from 8 1/2), and a brief fly-by of an intriguingly jazzy piece by Franz "Bride of Frankenstein" Waxman, from A Place in the Sun (Track #6).

This is also the only place in my collection - unless I buy something during the course of writing this blog - that you'll find anything by Alfred Newman. ("Captain from Castile", Track #4.) Despite his nine Oscars, 40 nominations (four in the same year!), over 200 film score credits, and the fact that he was music director for 20th Century Fox for twenty years, I've got nothin.' Nothing, that is, besides his expanded version of the 20th Century Fox fanfare that appears on all my Star Wars CDs, as re-recorded by John Williams (who is the only human being with more Oscar nominations than Newman).

Oddly enough, the last quarter of the 20th century is represented very poorly on this disc. Perhaps in 1999, the selectors just didn't have enough perspective to judge the best of the years between about 1975 and the present. Otherwise, why would there be not one, but two tracks dedicated to music from the Star Wars trilogy (Tracks #17-18), but only two tracks at all of any music written after 1980. Certainly a few more years' perspective might have caused someone to think twice before including a track from Titanic (Track #20), which isn't even James Horner's best score (that would probably be Krull, actually). It definitely wouldn't deserve to be included before anything by Jerry Goldsmith, Danny Elfman's Batman theme, Vangelis' Blade Runner or Chariots of Fire . . . et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Fortunately, that accounts for the largest portion of my own collection.

But we have to start somewhere, and this is at least a good place to get the lay of the land.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Here's the score . . .

Okay, I really don't have a lot of time to do this right now, but I'm doing it anyway, just for a writing outlet if nothing else. (See my "about me," and that part about being an inveterate overachiever.) After all, I can't rely solely on clever Facebook status updates. But, since I'm listening to scores and soundtracks all the time anyway, it's something I can do with a minimum of additional effort. That's good, since at the moment I'm involved in a major project at work, planning to direct a play in a couple of months, shopping for a house, and planning a wedding for the fall with my lovely fiancee.

In order to facilitate that, here are the ground rules of what you can expect from this blog:

  1. I'll be going through my catalog of film and television music in alphabetical order by album title, from A-Z.
  2. Numerical titles will be right up front, so you can expect to see 3:10 to Yuma and 2001: A Space Odyssey coming up really soon.
  3. Compilations by various artists will fall into the same order.
  4. I'm interested almost exclusively in original music for films, i.e. stuff that musicians have created exclusively for a film. Despite the title of this blog, I have never really been interested in those "Music From and Inspired by . . ." albums, which are mostly compilations of crappy pop music with little to no relationship whatsoever to what you'll hear in the movie. So, even though I own the "soundtrack" CD to Wayne's World*, I won't be writing about that.
With that said, I'm going to break Rule #3 right out of the gate, and begin with an entry for a compilation called Music in Film (National Public Radio Milestones of the Millennium). On to the next post! Follow me . . .

*It was the first CD I ever bought, when I was 13 years old. Don't judge me! And actually, that CD has more claim to being a legit "soundtrack" than some, since most of that music does actually appear prominently in the film. But I don't really have anything interesting to say about Alice Cooper's "Feed My Frankenstein."

You can read along with me in your book! (Or, starting at the beginning)

Quick, what's the first thing you think of when you see this picture?

Baaaaa-dum! Baaaaa-dum! Bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum (ad infinitum)!

Of course it is. Movie soundtracks are burned into your mind just as thoroughly as they're embedded in mine. I just think about them more often than you do. Case in point: you've probably said at some time, "I wish my life had a soundtrack like a movie." Well, mine does . . . at least in my mind. As far back as my memory can reach, that soundtrack has literally come from the soundtracks of the movies.

My family didn't go to the movies a lot when I was young, and most of my first eight or nine years were in the pre-VCR days -- or at least in the days before my family owned a VCR. What we did have was a lot of audio from movies, in the form of soundtrack albums themselves, and the book-and-record sets for kids that told the stories of Disney movies. (These later changed to book-and-tape sets, and now I guess the books read themselves with a chip or something . . . if they bother to make these anymore, now that kids can watch the DVDs of the actual movie any time.)

One of my early childhood memories involves twirling around on the living room floor with my sister, making ourselves dizzy by staring at the patterns on the green carpet runner while listening to the "April Shower" song from the Bambi soundtrack LP. I remember playing the record for the Nutcracker Suite and The Dance of the Hours as recorded for Fantasia a lot as well, and some musicals like The Sound of Music and The Music Man. At some point we got our hands on Dad's soundtrack album from 2001: A Space Odyssey. That was an ear-opener, as it were. More on that pretty soon, when I get to that score in this blog.

My earliest memory of going to a movie in the theatre is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, which traumatized me for life and cemented my love of John Williams forever. I own, adore, and will write about that soundtrack, but I can hardly ever listen to it without crying, so it doesn't get a lot of rotation.

So, for all of the life that I can remember, I've been obsessed with the music of the cinema. Now I can hold forth on the greatness of semi-obscure composers like Basil Poledouris or film score specialty record labels like Varese Sarabande and Silva Screen Records. But there aren't too many people I can talk to about that sort of thing. I'm not a musicologist and have little formal training in music. I'm not quite hard core enough to hang out in forums for truly fanatical and knowledgeable film score geeks, and I always have things to say that may relate only tangentially to any particular score.

In January, my friend John started up his "Little Round Mirrors" blog, in which he's currently plowing through his mammoth DVD collection and writing about them, one by one. He and I are geeks of a feather, and we think in oddly similar ways sometimes. So, following the advice attributed to T. S. Eliot, or Picasso, or somebody, that great artists steal, I'm ripping off the concept wholesale and writing my way through my collection of film (and television!) scores and soundtracks. I don't even have a solid idea of how many I have, in formats ranging from vinyl to MP3 -- but I guess I'll find out. And you will, too. You'll probably find out more about me in the process, but let's not get all psychological about this just yet. For now, let's set down the ground rules and get to the fun part. On to post #2 . . .