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.