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.

1 comment:

  1. I have indeed heard Chinese Democracy, and although at first I agreed with Chuck Klosterman's review (at least three tracks are "astonishing") I have settled into a feeling that the album, though long awaited, is terribly unnecessary and uneven, and in a few years, used CD bins will brim with copies.