Saturday, September 24, 2011

Batman Begins: Or, Hans Zimmer Standard Score Variaton #7

Batman Begins was the last film I ever saw at the dear departed Clermont Drive-in, where I had grown up watching movies and of which I still have fond memories. As dark and murky as most of the picture is, an outdoor venue at night was not the ideal setup for watching that movie - but it didn't matter; I still had a blast watching with a bunch of friends out on that gravelly lot.

What a great movie it is, too, finally taking Batman seriously, but still managing to spin a ripping yarn out of the story. Christopher Nolan and company had just the right instincts about the property, and Nolan's deliberate Richard Donner-esque strategy of grabbing an "A" list supporting cast paid massive dividends. When you've got the likes of  Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Rutger Hauer all showing up for relatively minor parts, you get instant gravitas. Maybe it's cheating a bit, but if you've got a movie studio chomping at the bit to reboot a cash cow franchise, and willing to throw a pile of money at you to make it happen, why not?

One thing didn't sit well, though, even though I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and still think it's an excellent entry in the Caped Crusader's filmography. I had figured out during the movie that the soundtrack was a Hans Zimmer product -- his usual bag of tricks was on display and obvious from the start. What I didn't know was that James Newton Howard had co-written the score. Yes, somehow it took two people to score a film in which the main theme consists of two notes. Two stinking notes. Not even modulated, altered in tempo, or anything throughout the film. Just the very same two notes, always played at the same tempo, on various instruments, sometimes louder than others. As the credits rolled and I saw the two names listed for the score, I remember yelling at the screen, "did each of them write one note?" (It was a drive-in; I could yell without being a complete jerk. Besides, the movie was over.)

You've got to let go of Remote Control

The problem with Hans Zimmer isn't so much that he's a talented but often lazy composer who repeats the same simplistic musical constructs over and over, regardless of the style and tone of the film he's working on -- though that is a problem, it's hardly unique to Zimmer. No, it's that he has an army of acolytes in his "Remote Control" studio* who all collaborate, and many of whom have dissipated out into the film scoring world in the last decade and spread very similar sounds all over the world of cinema -- especially the world of big, blockbuster movies, whose producers generally want simple, unchallenging sounds.

Remote Control is sort of like the Rembrandt school -- lots of Rembrandt's students painted in a very similar style to Rembrandt, to the point of making it very difficult in some cases to distinguish a genuine Rembrandt from the works of his school. Substitute some not-too-challenging musical tropes for Rembrandt's trademark chiaroscuro and you get a reasonably accurate comparison to Remote Control's output. Since they all collaborate, and Zimmer himself works in varying capacities on many scores, it all ends up sounding fairly homogeneous. Since there are so many of them, and Hollywood has loved the commercial appeal of the sound, the Remote Control style has come to dominate what the layman thinks of as "movie music." That's why, say, Transformers (Steve Jablonsky) sounds so much like Iron Man (Ramin Djawadi), and both aren't too far removed (once you filter out the superficial maritime trappings) from Pirates of the Carribean (Klaus Badelt/Hans Zimmer).

And now, The NFL This Week With Jack Sparrow and Iron Man

The trouble is that this style doesn't really fit all movies equally. Sometimes it is indeed fairly effective, or at least serviceable -- as it is, honestly, in significant chunks of the new Batman movies. It's amazingly simple - lots of 4/4 ostinatos for low strings, broad thematic statements on electronically-boosted brass, and so on - so it's just adaptable enough to fit a lot of different kinds of films. Then again, I often get the impression that the music is forcing the film to fit its pattern, rather than truly serving the film. I feel much the same way about Leonardo DiCaprio -- In the right film, he's great (see Catch Me if You Can or The Departed), but he often feels shoe-horned into roles that are well outside his range to play believably, just because he's a bankable star. (If you don't believe me about that, take a look at the trailer for the new Clint Eastwood biopic about J. Edgar Hoover. Yikes.)

It doesn't help that the style is absolutely everywhere, too, even beyond the movies. Between the Remote Control/Media Ventures brand of ballsy epic music, and the influence of a band called E.S. Posthumus, most of the blockbuster movie genre of the '00s sounds like a melodramatic orchestral rock concert. Even if you've never heard of E.S. Posthumus, you have heard their orchestral choral rock music in dozens of movie trailers, TV shows, even sports broadcasts. It's very close in style to the Zimmer brand, to the point of making the whole entertainment scoring industry sound like it has been taken over by some tedious Goth version of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

Seriously, if you listen to it out of context, you can just as easily imagine a track from Batman Begins forming some dramatic intro music for an NFL football broadcast. In fact, try this one called "Molossus" (Track 10) . . .

Once those synthesizer-enhanced trombones kick in around 0:12, can't you just see some flashy sports graphics and highlight reel shots, perhaps accompanied by Bob Costas dramatically introducing the combatants in this week's Big Important Prime Time Game?

The big problem here is that when everything "cinematic" sounds so similar, then there's little room to carve out an individual identity for any given film - which is precisely the failing of a score like Batman Begins.

"It's not who I am underneath; it's what I do that defines me."

The music does have a heart somewhere, though, and to the extent that it does, I suppose it's probably due to the influence of James Newton Howard on the writing. Zimmer is a frequent collaborator, and it's not unusual that the distinctions between his scores often have to do with the contributions of his collaborators within and around his habitual stylings - like, for example, Lisa Gerrard's haunting, earthy vocals in Gladiator. (Not surprisingly, there are portions of Batman Begins that strongly resemble portions of Gladiator, especially sweeping melodic statements by low strings like those near the end of "Lasiurus" (Track 12).)

In Howard's case, it seems his contribution helps anchor some of the gentler, more intimate moments of the film. There's a fair bit of tinkly-piano sweetness that accompanies Bruce's memories of his parents, and a warm string theme that ties his memories to his relationship with Rachel Dawes (try "Macrotus" (Track 7) for a sample). It's not too far off from Howard's compositional style for something like The Sixth Sense, though obviously not as sinister. Beyond that I can't tell exactly how much influence Howard had on this design - in general, he is a subtler composer and more inventive orchestrator than Zimmer, so it may simply be the case that his ideas were drowned out by the overwhelming power of Zimmer's synth-enhanced orchestra.

Beyond that, the score doesn't have much to offer, as I've already mentioned. Much of Batman Begins comes off sounding more like sound effects than a musical score, with gimmicks like slowed-down and amplified samples of flapping bat wings providing percussive propulsion, or some buzzing, fluttering acoustic mayhem underlining the Scarecrow's disorienting nerve gas. Zimmer is a very intelligent composer, and I think he tends to intellectualize scores rather too much, getting excited about a sonic gimmick like the bat wings and letting that be his musical statement. He also gets "cute" with track names for his albums, none of which is more annoying than Batman Begins, in which each track is named but for a species of bat -- see the titles of the tracks I've already cited. They're all like that. He even arranged the names of tracks 4-9 so that the first letters of each bat species spell out the word "BATMAN." It's clever, but serves no purpose but to be clever, because even though the score is arranged more or less chronologically, you can't easily identify tracks on the album with scenes in the film.

A Brief Experiment

I can easily understand why Nolan and company would have wanted to start with a clean slate musically for the Dark Knight, especially with the specter of Danny Elfman's unique sound (and Shirley Walker and Elliott Goldenthal's later variations) hovering all over the franchise. Of course, that was the one part of the Batman identity that was still sound (no pun intended) after Joel Schumacher finished trashing the franchise in the late '90s. It wasn't broken, and might have merited some more careful consideration. As a little experiment on the topic, some clever person on YouTube has re-edited the Batmobile chase sequence with some passages from Elfman's 1989 Batman score. I was tremendously surprised at how well it works. See what you think of it here. (Sorry, I can't embed this one.)

Obviously, since Elfman's tracks weren't written for the scene, it doesn't always sync ideally, but I was impressed by how many points just happened - by lucky chance or a bit of editing sleight-of-hand from the video's creator - to offer some punchy punctuation for the on-screen action. If you watch the corresponding chapter on the Batman Begins DVD or Blu-Ray (it's chapter 28, for reference), though, you'll notice that the Zimmer/Howard score doesn't really sync up meaningfully with any of the on-screen action anyway. Most of it is written as a fairly consistent string ostinato with a pulsating electronic rhythm. It takes a lot less work to score a scene this way, since you can move around whatever melodic statements or rhythmic punctuation you want to include without upsetting the musical groundwork for a scene. Honestly, it takes more talent and dedication to do what Elfman did for Batman.

Perhaps I'm too hard on Batman Begins, but I feel that both Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard are capable of producing better scores than this. Does it work for the movie? I suppose, but it doesn't make it any better -- it was just lucky that the film was already good enough on its own. It does have a certain simplistic appeal, but for a film that attempts to plumb the psyche of a realistic Bat-man, it could have done with some more ambitious musical commentary on the subject.

Next, we'll revisit Elfman and Burton's last take on the Bat and joyously rejoin Batman Returns!

*Formerly known as "Media Ventures"

Monday, September 19, 2011

Batman Theme and 19 Hefti Bat-Songs: Holy Retro-Kitsch, Batman!

Okay, let's get this straight right from the start: This "Batman" album may be the single goofiest, cheesiest album I own of any kind of music at all. Most of it isn't really music that was ever used on the Batman TV show of the 1960s, but Neal Hefti did indeed compose the indelible "na-na-na-na-na" theme and thus must have felt entitled to release a whole album of nutty '60s jazz-pop riffing on its popularity. Batman Theme and 19 Hefti Bat Songs was the result. I picked it up back when I was working for the Bloomington Playwrights Project ten years ago when I needed some silly "superhero" music for a show, and this fit the bill perfectly.

Space age bachelor pad music

Someone on the Amazon page for this album describes the genre of music to which most of this album belongs as "Space Age bachelor pad music," and I'm not sure I can come up with a better term for it. The mainstream jazz-pop of the '60s has largely faded from pop culture memory, thrown over for rock 'n' roll - and for good reason as far as I can tell. While a lot of people seem to have a soft spot for the likes of Bert Kaempfert or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, I just can't take that stuff seriously. 

While that genre must have been just groovy circa 1966 for some swingin' dude in a mustard-yellow turtleneck and plaid pants bopping to the hi-fi set, it just makes me flash back to KMart or JC Penney in the early '80s, hearing the remnants of that musical style dying slowly over their tinny PA speakers while Mom shopped. I think this genre of music must have been what the Big Band genre of the '30s and '40s eventually morphed into once it ran headlong into the rock era and ran out of creative gas.* It just got . . . silly.

"Hand me down the shark repellent Bat-spray!"

Of course, Batman never took itself seriously to begin with. I'm not sure how I missed it when I was a kid watching Batman reruns. I mentioned already that I took in a lot of these reruns in the Bat-mania of 1989 when I was 10 1/2 and wanted everything about Batman to be Very Serious, and besides, kids generally aren't equipped to grasp tongue-in-cheek humor. I found the action exciting, but I wanted the characters treated . . .well, more seriously, darn it! I'd get my wish soon enough with the movies and the great animated series of the '90s. Meanwhile, I got the camp version.

Even the Batman of the comics was a pale, cartoony version of the original character in the 1960s, in the Comics Code era that followed the EC paranoia of the '50s. That Batman most strongly resembled the incarnation seen on TV in the '70s in Superfriends, smiling and completely non-threatening. Meanwhile, the character achieved a rebirth in the DC comics of the '70s that would lead to the more serious tone of the films that started with Tim Burton. But for a generation, Batman was associated with a slightly out-of-shape guy in an ill-fitting leotard and on-screen sound effects (POW! BLAM!) for fight scenes. It's no wonder, in the interim, why Richard Donner had so much trouble getting the big-screen Superman funded and taken seriously, and why the series took a left turn into absurdity so quickly thereafter.

Now, of course, I can watch the Batman series or the movie from 1966 - the series' pilot episode - and appreciate Adam West masterfully deadpanning his way through lines like "some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!" . . . or Cesar Romero's Joker, with white pancake makeup over his trademark Latin 'stache . . . or the fact that our intrepid hero just happens to carry shark repellent spray in his Bat-copter. It's wonderful stuff that I enjoy in much the same way I love the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons - ever so slightly subversive, campy, and well over the line into self-parody.

"Atomic batteries to power. Turbines to speed!"

It's in that vein that you have to appreciate Hefti's Bat-music, including the dance break on the Hammond organ during the main theme presentation, or the "Batusi (Track 7)," which wouldn't sound all that out of place in a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach movie from the '60s. Indeed, that '60s surf guitar sound does infect some of the generally jazzy-poppy sound of this album in ways that sometimes threaten to give it a cool edge. Tracks like "The Mafista (Track 4)" and "Mr. Freeze (Track 10)," for example, do have a bit of a sinister aspect -- the former actually approaches a John Barry-like quality that you could almost imagine showing up in one of the later Sean Connery Bond flicks.

Mostly, though, the album swings between things like the retro-exotica-style "King Tut's Tomb (Track 17)" and purely dreadful third-rate Mancini imitations like "Gotham City Municipal Swing Band (Track 13)." It's kitsch, and manages to be pretty fun as such.

Anyway, there's not much more to say about this album, except that I'm glad in a way that I kept it in the collection, if only as a reminder not to take everything so seriously. That will be nice when we move to the next entry and the crushing disappointment of Hans Zimmer's Batman Begins . . .

*In fact, according to Wikipedia, Neal Hefti actually did play with one of the most innovative and entertaining bands of the swing era, Woody Herman's Thundering Herd.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Batman: Freaks, Geeks, and Capes

Anyone who was alive in the summer of 1989 will vividly remember the ubiquity of Bat-paraphernalia in America. The full-court press of marketing surrounding Tim Burton's Batman was unprecedented, or at least it felt like it. Certainly, nothing that momentous for merchandising tie-ins had come along since the Star Wars saga wound down early in the decade, and I'm not sure anything topped it until the return of the Star Wars saga ten years later. It was perfect timing to whip a ten-year-old boy into a Bat-manic frenzy -- especially one who was beginning to think he could become a comic book artist, which I did at the time. I drew lots of pictures of Batman that year, and absorbed everything I could about the movie -- and of course, I got the t-shirt. I even soaked up a bunch of reruns of the '60s Batman TV show, which I was only beginning to realize wasn't entirely serious. More on that in our next entry.

The one thing I didn't do right away was actually see the movie -- my mom was worried because it was rumored to be quite violent. She relented later and let us rent it on VHS -- at least I think that's what happened. Oddly enough, she let me read the novelization of the movie, which contains descriptions of the movie's violence that are quite a bit more vivid than what appeared on screen, especially for a kid with a wildly overactive imagination.

Feeding that imagination was the hovering presence of Danny Elfman's churning, bombastic Batman theme, which was also everywhere that summer, thanks to all the TV commercials for the movie and all of its commercial tie-ins. I even remember a Taco Bell commercial featuring Batman in all of his Elfman-accompanied glory.

"Who are you?" "I'm Batman."

I was already a fan of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman at the time of Batman, though I didn't know it yet. I absolutely loved Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, the breakthrough film for both of them, so I was already primed for the style of Batman even though I hadn't put together the connection to the director and composer. It's a mark of the particular genius of both men that their wacky, carnival-like style could adapt itself successfully to the gothic noir universe of the Batman.

Burton and the writers of the 1989 Batman were the first screen adapters of the Caped Crusader to ask the question, "what kind of freak would actually dress up in a bat suit and beat up criminals by night?" Burton's films are always about outsiders, loners, and freaks anyway, and Burton's Batman/Bruce Wayne is unquestionably a freak, as played with crazy-eyed intensity by the improbable Michael Keaton. And of course, the film belongs just as much, if not more, to Jack Nicholson's Joker, a freak directly created by Batman's meddling and unhinged in a completely different direction.

As much as Burton and the actors contribute, it is Elfman who answers the question musically about what kinds of freaks engage in large-scale costumed crime and crimefighting. His musical treatment of both Batman and the Joker reveals their underlying psychological problems while providing a thrilling backdrop to their duels.

"You want to get nuts? Come on! Let's get nuts!"

The main Batman theme is more than just a rousing heroic statement; it's the story of a man who takes himself and his quest much too seriously. The rising minor key four-note phrase, most often stated by strident brass, tenaciously clings to a serious, brooding identity, before resolving itself with two descending notes into the fanfare of a hero, at least as he perceives himself. Elfman uses variations of the main theme and another sentimental theme for Bruce Wayne to maintain a tone of mystery throughout the film, as Vicki Vale and the whole city of Gotham strive to understand what Batman represents. Early statements of the Batman theme are grand but unresolved, accompanied by frenetic rhythms and grinding low strings, as in the first two action cues, "Roof Fight (Track 2)" and "First Confrontation (Track 3)." As the film progresses, the theme takes on a more openly heroic tone, as in "Batman to the Rescue," marking the first time Batman rescues Vicki Vale from certain death, or a fate worse.

The dark, brooding identity of Batman and the heroic identity evolve in parallel throughout the film, with the heroic themes coming more and more to the fore, even as the mysterious dark side manifests itself in full glory, perhaps never more so than in "Descent into Mystery (Track 10)." In this moment (accompanying the Batmobile's high-speed return to the Batcave, which I've always felt looks a bit like Tim Burton's version of a car commercial), Carmina Burana-inspired choral chanting gives rise to a harrowing brass choir statement of the main Batman theme, peering into the dangerous identity of Batman with a subtext that's buried deep in our musical heritage.

"Did you ever dance with the devil by the pale moonlight?"

If I were a music scholar, I could launch into a discussion of Elfman's use of whole-tone scales and the dark, scary interval known as Diabolus in Musica, i.e., "the Devil in music." But I'm not a music scholar, so I'll simply talk about how Elfman evokes liturgical music in cues like "Descent into Mystery," particularly the portions of a Requiem mass describing the horrors of Hell and Judgment Day, to emphasize the subtext of Batman as a demonic character. The nocturnal figure of Batman borrows imagery that the West has always associated with evil: bats are of course reminiscent of vampires, whose lifestyle Batman emulates, and Burton connects Batman consciously with gargoyles, both by literal juxtaposition in the final scene and through the sculpted style of his black costume.

Elfman continues to evoke religious associations, rather more obviously in the final cues of the film, which literally take place in a cathedral. He foreshadows Batman's fate at the cathedral in "Attack of the Batwing (Track 16)" with chiming bells to accompany the outlandish airplane's flight, and brings a massive pipe organ into the mix in "Up the Cathedral (Track 17)," which adds tremendous spiritual weight as the film builds to its climax -- a great dramatic contribution to a scene that's basically about trudging slowly up stairs. The threatening nature of much of this music taps into our well-programmed musical unconscious, and underscores the uncertainty of Batman's motives and modus operandi. Is he a hero or just a well-equipped psychopath on a suicidal revenge mission? Even Bruce Wayne doesn't really seem to know.

It's worth noting that Batman finally finds both revenge and redemption atop the church tower. His malevolent dark side is quelled by the death of the Joker, and the heroic theme emerges triumphant by the end of the film, when Gotham has acknowledged him as an ally. "Finale (Track 20)" leads the camera up a dizzying skyscraper, where it finds Batman, still a gargoyle-like figure, but for now, in a benevolent rather than a morally troubling posture. That's the beauty of Elfman's Batman theme: it's simultaneously grand enough to present a heroic image, and complex enough to express the fundamental tension of Batman's identity.

"You can call me Joker. And as you can see, I'm a lot happier."

Meanwhile, of course, we have Jack Nicholson chewing the scenery with ruby red lips and a latex rictus of a grin. Nicholson's Joker isn't so much a psychopath as a megalomaniacal narcissist. He's the kind of individual who's figured out that he doesn't have to play by society's rules, and he can get a lot of attention by dodging them, so he flouts them as flamboyantly and violently as possible. Basically, he's Lady Gaga with an adolescent sense of humor and a murderous streak.

The Joker encompasses a wide variety of musical styles - he accompanies himself with music within the film fairly often - but the one that Elfman seems to associate most closely with the character - or at least most ostentatiously - is a demented little waltz tune, befitting his clownish appearance, and offsetting his homicidal mania with a disturbingly gleeful twist.

The first time I heard the Joker's music in the movie, as he playfully blows away Jack Palance's absurd Boss Grissom (in "Kitchen/Surgery/Face-Off," Track 4), I thought it was all wrong. Being an adolescent at the time, I thought the film should have a more uniformly "dark" tone. I didn't quite grasp the satirical edge of Burton's style yet, and circus music suddenly blaring forth from the screen was a curve ball I wasn't ready to handle. Now, of course, I'm more than capable of embracing complexity, so I love the choice. (This is also why I despise the Hans Zimmer scores for the new Batman films, precisely because they do cling to an adolescent, unsophisticated notion of "darkness" from beginning to end. More on that later.)

Of course, that's the point. Between the insane waltz and the appropriation of "Beautiful Dreamer" as a faux-love theme for the Joker's infatuation with Vicki Vale, Elfman reveals a man with delusions of grandeur, reshaping his own life like a circus ringmaster calling everybody's attention to his bizarre antics. His imagination has fled to a childish, cartoonish world, in which everything is done with a flourish -- as in the grand full orchestra salute at the end of "The Joker's Poem (Track 12)."

By the end of the film, just as Batman's theme has evolved musically into an evocation of moral conflict and heroism, the Joker's grandstanding personality has developed into a full-blown Viennese waltz. Over the years I've grown to love "Waltz to the Death (Track 18)" almost above any other portion of the Batman score, because of its tight structure, its element of genteel formalism in a scene of brutal violence, and its perfectly deranged tone - just dissonant enough to let you know that there's something very wrong with this otherwise lighthearted ditty, and flexible enough thematically to accommodate Batman's strident theme as the freaks battle it out atop the church. It's one of those rare perfect cues - of which there are more than a few on this album.

"I just . . . like the sound of it."

I could type for hours about this -- well, actually, I already have. People have written books about this score alone. It's acknowledged as a modern classic for a reason. Elfman's score elevates, deepens, and expands Burton's film into a grotesque masterpiece. While it was a high-budget film, Batman was limited by the technology of its time. Elfman knew precisely where all the work on miniatures and soundstages was going in the film, though, and painted on a much grander canvas to lend the whole enterprise a feeling of operatic weight and drama. The achievement hasn't quite been equaled since, with the possible exception of Batman Returns. But we'll return to that later. Up next, I'm moving on to the next Bat-entry in the alphabet . . .a distinctly different take on the character from that silly period in his past.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Band of Brothers: Bridges across Time

Flash back 20 years:

I have a distinct and vivid memory from the fall of 1991 of dancing with a cute girl at a middle school dance to Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do (I Do it For You)" from the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves soundtrack. I use "dancing" loosely, of course; we were doing that clunky mutual stagger that you do at a middle school dance, arms outstretched like two zombies who have blundered into one another and are both still trying to stomp forward.

I remember commenting specifically on the song, though, partially just to make awkward conversation and partially because I really did like the song at the time. (I was just on the verge of discovering the grunge movement and real rock 'n' roll, but I wasn't there yet.) That was mostly because of the song's connection to Robin Hood, which I had seen at the Clermont Drive-In (may it rest in peace) over the summer and absolutely loved. It was the rest of that movie's soundtrack that I truly relished, though -- Robin Hood was my introduction to the composer Michael Kamen, who wrote the score to Band of Brothers, the album I'm actually talking about here.

Robin Hood was one of the first times that I remember specifically hearing and admiring the music from a movie -- Kamen's rip-roaring main theme for horns blasted its way directly into my 12-year-old heart as I watched the opening credits from the seat of Mom and Dad's car. It's not that I hadn't noticed and appreciated the music in other movies before; I grew up in the era of some of the great John Williams scores and music like Back to the Future . . . I just hadn't given a lot of thought to it yet specifically. But Michael Kamen's Robin Hood score sparked a specific passion that's been with me ever since.

I learned soon after that, from my school's band teacher, that Kamen was a multi-talented composer who straddled the classical and film genres, but also provided pop and rock orchestral arrangements for the likes of Metallica. This, of course, made him even more awesome to me in 1991 -- the year of the Black Album. I knew that I'd want to pay attention to Michael Kamen. I did end up getting both the Black Album and the soundtrack to Robin Hood on cassette that year. But more on Robin Hood when we actually get there . . .

Flash back 10 years:

I mostly ignored Band of Brothers when it came out -- and not just because I didn't have HBO at the time. I was working for a tiny theatre company in Bloomington, Indiana - the Bloomington Playwrights Project - after graduating from IU, and didn't have time or energy for much of anything beyond that. On top of that, there was the whole 9/11 thing, which distracted just about everyone, and the fact that the whole thing seemed to me like a cash grab to capitalize on the popularity of Saving Private Ryan anyway.

I was mostly wrong about that, of course, but it took me another five years or so to find out. One winter's day I casually flipped the channel to a marathon of Band of Brothers on cable at my apartment while doing laundry. I tuned in to the second or third episode, and I ended up dropping everything to watch the rest.

What I discovered, of course, was a work of historical re-creation that even surpasses Saving Private Ryan in the sensitivity and depth of its characterization of the second World War. While I'm not sure that any filmic depiction of war will ever trump the sheer terror, vivid chaos, and adrenaline exhilaration of SPR's opening scene of the Omaha Beach invasion, Band of Brothers has the benefit of being grounded in the stories of real men and nearly twelve hours of screen time to devote to those stories.

Flash back 67 years:

Michael Kamen's music for Band of Brothers is clearly influenced by the elegiac tone that dominated the famous John Williams score to Saving Private Ryan. Bookended by the main theme (Track 1) and a piece called "Band of Brothers Requiem (Track 20)," the score album evokes a suitably reverent and similarly lyrical tone to Williams' "Hymn to the Fallen." Kamen's work has arguably a lighter touch and a more optimistic tinge in these two primary thematic statements. That's appropriate, since much of the series itself deals with the troops of Easy Company as men, without getting into too much hero worship, speechifying, or "Greatest Generation" sentimentality.

Between these bookends is where most of the meatier material can be found, though. Most of the more heroic statements of Kamen's main themes for Band of Brothers is front-loaded into the beginning of the album in a pair of suites (Tracks 2-3) and an adventurous cue called "The Mission Begins (Track 4)." Kamen's broad, masculine theme for horns actually echoes the structure of his main theme from Robin Hood, jettisoning the swashbuckling tone for a more straightforward military style. It's the kind of music that I would expect to hear in pops concerts by orchestras for the Fourth of July -- in fact, I'd love to hear it in that context.

Kamen weaves other instrumentation in and around the main theme in those two suites to convey a jittery sense of anticipation One moment that never fails to evoke goosebumps comes around 3 minutes into Suite One, and is repeated several times through the cue: A few violins emerge in preparation for a statement of the main theme, with bows skittering across their strings in a little stuttering rhythm that seems to evoke the sputtering of the piston engines of the Airborne troops' C-47 airplanes as they come to life on the runway.

Much of the rest of the album is actually quite contemplative, when it isn't haunting and absolutely beautiful. Many of the main battle scenes are unscored, leaving music to fill in the quieter moments, when the men have time to think and breathe - or to wait, to walk, or freeze. Kamen's commentary highlights the places where beauty exists among the carnage, like the oddly exquisite image of diaphanous white parachutes deploying in daylight, which Kamen embroiders with Debussy-like grace in "Parapluie (Track 8)."

Of these contemplative, moody cues, the one with the most personal significance to me is called "Discovery of the Camp (Track 17)." This eleven-minute piece plays like an adagio over the men's discovery of a Nazi concentration camp, cruelly ignored by the people in a nearby German town. My own grandfather, who died long before I was born, not only landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, but also went all the way through Europe into Nazi territory in the last year of the war, and was involved in the liberation of one of the Nazi camps -- we think it was probably Buchenwald. I have held and seen his own photographs of that camp, which apparently he never spoke about during his lifetime. I think of those photographs every time I hear about someone who denies that the Holocaust occurred. There are many people alive who know better, though there are fewer of them every day.

Back to the Present

Now, Band of Brothers is additionally fun as a "spot the rising British acting star" game, since most of the show was filmed in England with British actors filling many primary and most of the secondary roles. You can spot James McAvoy, Tom Hardy, Simon Pegg, and Jamie Bamber, among others, in small roles peppered throughout. And of course, the show itself hasn't lost any of its power. I watched the whole thing again last winter and found it even more absorbing (especially with the pop-up historical details I can call up about scenes and characters on my Blu-Ray copy).

Michael Kamen died in 2003 of a heart attack, one of too many great composers who were taken from us in the last decade. Band of Brothers is arguably his last truly great score, and it serves as fittingly as a requiem for Kamen himself as it does for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who gave their all in World War II. We'll revisit him, though, through his music and in this space.

We will not revisit Bryan Adams, though. (You were looking a little worried.)

Monday, July 18, 2011

American Beauty: Marimbas, Time Dilation, and the Who

First of all, yes, this is moving backwards in the alphabet. That's because I acquired this CD since I took the blog on hiatus last September (thanks to the super-cool MaryAnn Johanson of FlickFilosopher for selling me a stack of used soundtrack CDs), and I'm backtracking to include it -- I couldn't very well skip this critical contribution to film scoring history.

My first exposure to American Beauty was its brilliantly crafted trailer, which I recall seeing in a movie theatre sometime during the summer of 1999. With its mantra of "look closer," glimpses of its prickly sense of humor, and the combination of fantastical and disturbing imagery, it stuck with me long past the memory of the actual movie I saw that day. I wanted to see this film immediately, because it didn't look quite like anything I'd seen before. And the sound helped, too -- arguably its most memorable aspect was its use of the Who song Baba O'Riley (a.k.a. the "Teenage Wasteland" song) in its second half:

If you don't remember it, you'll just have to trust me that this was an inspired choice for the time. Twelve years later, "Baba O'Riley" has been depressingly overexposed -- still due in large part to the influence of this very trailer, I think. Just as Quentin Tarantino's films were responsible for the re-insertion of several semi-obscure classic tunes into our pop culture*, the echoes of "Baba O'Riley"'s epic rock sound from this trailer continue to bounce through our commercial unconscious to the point of exhaustion. It's been used in everything from car commercials to the "theme music" for one of the innumerable CSI spinoffs, all of which have despicably co-opted and eviscerated classics by The Who, presumably to avoid having to pay a composer to write an original theme.

They're All Wasted

American Beauty came around at a time when raging against the machine had infected the American zeitgeist, at least at the movies. 1999 was also the year of Fight Club, The Matrix, and Office Space. Lester Burnham, the Narrator of Fight Club, Neo, and Peter Gibbons are all variations on the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit for the Clinton years. The homogeneous, fluorescent-lit cubicle mazes in which they waste their daylight hours could all practically be the same company, and each character, to varying degrees, ends up questioning the acquisition of brand-name stuff as an end in itself before achieving his liberation from the rat race. (Okay, maybe not Neo; he just ends up discovering that everything's free to begin with in a make-believe world, so bring on the Oakleys and pass the ammo.)

A couple of years later, of course, everything changed in America and our attention turned outward again, perhaps a direction where we're more comfortable looking in the first place. But for a while, before the tech bubble burst and the towers fell, there was a brief flame of introspection, wondering what all the irrational exuberance was about if it wasn't making us happier.

Out Here in the Fields

Into this introspective American mental space came Thomas Newman, with a score so unorthodox and so curiously appropriate for American Beauty that it came to infect the pop culture collective unconscious for a while, too. From the first track, "Dead Already," Newman's unusual instrumentation and endless loops set a scene that isn't quite fully serious but seems truly uneasy. The deceptively cheerful marimbas that open the film are soon joined by a jangling chorus of electric bass, detuned mandolin, electronic effects, ethnic drums, and piano that loop back on themselves constantly. Newman apparently built his score consciously on this notion of looping phrases. The effect both reinforces the seeming stasis of Lester's ordinary suburban home, and creates an anxious tension between incongruous sonic textures.

And like "Baba O'Riley," this unexpected sound rose to popularity in commercial music for some time. The AB score itself was used in trailers and similar sounds were heard in everything from car commercials to TV documentaries. (Commercially available sound loops for generating music on the fly are still chock full of jaunty marimba phrases.) Thomas Newman himself adapted and refined this style in many of his subsequent scores. In some ways it has become his signature now, as in the delighftul end credits sequence of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Let's Get Together Before we Get Much Older

In the case of Lester's fantasy scenes about Angela, Newman's looping score literally expands time, as real life opens into Lester's theatrically erotic dreams. Rattling percussion, chimes, and distorted low-end electronics draw out his moments of unrealized anticipation into a time-dilated fugue state, before he's jarred back into prosaic real time once more -- in this case by the clunky diegetic pep band playing "On Broadway."

Meanwhile, Newman reserves a much more heartfelt sound for the younger protagonists of the film, especially Wes Bentely's Ricky. Ricky's expansion of time is a different and purer sort than Lester's -- he chooses to pause to appreciate beautiful moments in time, as with the famous videotape of the plastic bag floating in the wind. I think it's actually these moments that reveal the fragile emotional core of the whole film, and of Newman's whole score. Newman has a magical ability to create impossible yearning with a piano and quiet strings, as he's done before and since American Beauty, especially in The Shawshank Redemption. In both cases, the piano is reserved for a character who is simply too gentle for his brutal surroundings -- it's the sound of his own heart breaking, inaudible to anyone who isn't listening.

I Don't Need to Be Forgiven

Where American Beauty diverges from the other 1999 movies I mentioned is in carrying Lester's anomie and isolation into his home life. He's the only one of these now iconic characters who has a family at home and therefore the most to lose from his escape from confining cubicles and consumerist conformity -- and perhaps tellingly, he's the one who does lose the most. That separates American Beauty from the male empowerment fantasies that each of those other films represents, and places it into the realm of tragedy. Lester ultimately has more in common with Willy Loman than with Neo. Perhaps that means AB is the only one of these films that really gets it right -- upending your own life and bucking the establishment is not something you can usually get away with unless you're in a fantasy land. That's depressing, but true.

Oddly enough, the music of American Beauty landed somewhere in that territory, too. By defiantly using the music of the Who in the trailer and deploying Thomas Newman's aggressively weird, surprisingly beautiful music, American Beauty won accolades, including a Grammy for the score album, and found its way into all sorts of lesser commercial incarnations as a generically whimsical musical sound. As such, it doesn't sound quite as fresh these days upon repeat listening, or repeat viewing. Even the movie has suffered from some critical backlash in recent years after receiving almost universal praise upon its release. But if you can jettison all that baggage and look with the open heart that Ricky embodies in the film, you can still hear, and feel, the music imploring you to look closer.

*QT's influence is sometimes just frighteningly tenacious. I even heard a string quartet rendition of Dick Dale's "Misirlou" as bumper music on NPR's Morning Edition last week. It's been 17 years since Pulp Fiction re-popularized that tune.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Back to the Future: What's up, Doc?

I don't know about you, but every time I watch Back to the Future, even though I've probably seen it a dozen times or more*, I get absolutely wrapped up in the tension of the clock tower sequence, to the point that I'm actually worried on some level that it may not actually work out this time for Marty and Doc Brown. It's ludicrous, but that's what a masterful score can do for a film. The scenes leading up to Marty's escape from 1955 are a rare example of a perfect marriage of editing and music to create a relentlessly thrilling extended sequence. Alan Silvestri can proudly claim this one.

When I was younger I thought for a long time, as many still do, that Back to the Future was a Steven Spielberg film, and that its score was written by John Williams. You could be forgiven for thinking both. Spielberg was the executive producer on BTTF, of course, and the film was marketed on the strength of the Spielberg name, as his protege Robert Zemeckis wasn't nearly as well known then. Spielberg's influence there undoubtedly played a part in giving us the score that Back to the Future ended up with, since Zemeckis apparently advised composer Alan Silvestri to write an "epic" adventure score to fit Spielberg's sensibilities.

It worked, undoubtedly, beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Silvestri didn't just write an epic adventure score; he created a work of infectious charm and magic that's entirely his own and left an indelible mark on movie score history. What's funny about that is that we don't hear a single note of Silvestri's orchestral score until nearly 20 minutes into Back to the Future!

We've already heard a lot of music by then, though, because music is at the very core of the film, grounding the time settings of 1955 and 1985 very cleverly with pop music and even affecting the plot of the movie as Marty McFly accidentally invents rock 'n' roll at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. If you're a casual viewer, you probably associate Back to the Future more with the Huey Lewis songs that bookend the film in the two different versions of 1985 than any other piece of music. It's tough to think of BTTF without "The Power of Love" coming to mind.

(Fun fact about Huey Lewis and '80s movie music: It was apparently because of his work on Back to the Future that Mr. Lewis turned down an offer to write tunes for another little movie called Ghostbusters -- so they called on Ray Parker, Jr. to write a theme song that sounded a little too much like Lewis' hit "I Want a New Drug." What a coincidence! Lewis sued, they settled out of court, and both movies' soundtrack albums were big hits. Everybody wins. Kind of.)

The depth of this film's musical personality reaches down even into the performances -- not just Marty McFly's on musicianship, but in Christopher Lloyd's unhinged portrayal of Doctor Emmett Brown. Lloyd has said on several occasions that he patterned his performance as Doc Brown on the mannerisms of the eccentric conductor and arranger Leopold Stokowski.



In his day, Stokowski was a bona fide celebrity as the conductor for the Philadelphia Orchestra, famous for his unruly shock of white hair and sweeping, dramatic style of conducting by hand. Now he's best remembered through cartoons, as the conductor of the orchestra in Disney's Fantasia - one of my favorite films of all time - and as a parody of himself played by none other than Bugs Bunny in a hilarious short called "Long-Haired Hare" from Disney's old rival Warner Brothers:


Pretty heavy, huh?

A famous conductor may seem an odd inspiration for a mad scientist, but it's a fantastic choice for the screen as Lloyd lurches and swoops through the entire movie with a relentless manic intensity. Where it gets interesting for me is the "cartoon" part of Doc's personality. I don't think it's at all coincidental that Doc's cartoonishness found its way into Silvestri's writing for Back to the Future. In fact, it's arguably the musical identity for Doc Brown that keeps BTTF light, fun, and utterly magical, even in the midst of some of the most rousing action-adventure scoring that's ever been accomplished. That identity goes straight back to the sensibility of Carl Stalling, the composer who gave so many classic cartoons their signature sound -- including the one in the video above.

It's no stretch to suppose that a Carl Stalling-like sound was on Silvestri's mind as he wrote Doc Brown's music. Silvestri consciously dove into the Stalling style with both feet in Zemeckis' next feature, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, so we know he was perfectly aware of its conventions. The versatility of a cartoony style serves Doc's mood swings and broad gestures perfectly, and allows the music to turn on a dime and incorporate new ideas every few seconds, just like a typical Looney Tunes scenario. In just a minute and a half in "1.21 Jigowatts (sic - Track 9)," the music's tone pivots five or six times, between silly little squeaks and flourishes in the woodwinds' upper registers and broad statements of mysterious science-fiction strings.

Silvestri's cartoony signature for Doc goes so far as to incorporate "Mickey-Mousing," so named for the early habit of cartoons to match every movement of the characters with musical notes -- like plucking strings when a character is tiptoeing, or accompanying an arched eyebrow with a violin bending a note sharply upward. As the clock tower sequence begins, strings follow Doc as he careens wildly across the frame, blasting out a crashing statement of his own three-note descending motif each time he stops to check one of his innumerable watches and shout, "damn!" Later on, when Doc is "revived" in the mall parking lot in 1985, a tinkling version of the same motif matches the motion of his blinking eyes.

It all comes together, in the end, to that clock tower sequence (Track 19). (I've got to wrap this up somewhere, after all, much as I'd like to go into an extended exploration of each track.) In an uninterrupted ten minutes of music, Silvestri ties together everything that's contained in the sequence on screen, just as the action on screen encapsulates everything about the movie: Suspense, sly humor, genuine warmth and emotion, sheer panic, and the thrill and bravado of sheer kinetic energy. (I just re-watched this sequence as I prepared to write this, and I'd like to pause just to appreciate what Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd did with that scene. How they managed to work so many layers of emotion into a scene in which they literally had to shout most of their dialogue is a mystery.)

It's refreshing to listen to that sequence now, when much of contemporary film music has become so blandly homogeneous. I've listened to extended action cues from recent scores that don't have a fraction of the personality of the clock tower sequence. First of all, Silvestri constantly varies his rhythms, keeping us forever off balance and never letting us become comfortable with where the music is going. He masterfully uses the entire percussion section throughout - I can't say for certain, but I'm sure even the triangle is employed inventively somewhere in there. Every musical theme or motif that Silvestri has developed comes magnificently into play here, from Doc's bouncy rhythm to the heroic main theme of the film that comes charging down the road with the DeLorean in the photo finish. A contemporary composer might just lay down ten minutes of constantly chopping eighth notes from the cello section, overlay a basic theme, and call it a day. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.)

In case I haven't made it clear, I'd rather listen to this ten minutes of music than many entire scores. Fortunately, though, the entire Back to the Future score is finally available now, thanks to the 2008 Intrada 2-CD set (link above from the album cover). For a long time, that wasn't the case -- the only soundtrack available officially consisted mostly of the Huey Lewis and other pop songs that were featured in the movie, with a couple of suites of Silvestri's orchestral score. A tinny bootleg of the whole score was available online for a while, which was unsatisfactory. Now the tables are turned and there's not only a CD of Silvestri's full 49 minutes of music for the final film, but an entire second disc of alternate cues as they existed before Silvestri re-worked the score to lighten the tone of the film. Not only is it the whole CD a glorious improvement in sound quality over anything that's been available before, but In case you wonder how the cartoony tone for Doc affected the mood of the entire picture, you have but to listen to the alternate cues on the second disc. Many of them are still quite exciting, but paint a darker, moodier picture.

Of course, something about the experience of Back to the Future does seem missing without the pop songs -- Yes, I do like Huey Lewis and the News, what's it to ya? I will probably end up acquiring those separately and inserting them into my BTTF playlist on iTunes. (Hooray for technology!) Meanwhile, the expanded score is more than worth its $30 price tag from Screen Archives Entertainment.

I could easily go on much longer about this relatively brief score. I've spent months thinking about this entry as I've prepared to re-launch this blog. If it were a baby, it would be born already. I'll probably have some more tangential thoughts soon, between now and the next full review. Stay tuned . . . there's (finally) more to come!

*Many more if you add up the partial viewings I've racked up whenever I catch it on TV and get sucked in to the very end, even with commercials.