Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Alex Ross made a list of favorite film scores, inspired by a question that Terry Teachout posted: “Is there any classic Hollywood comedy from the golden age with a great or even near-great musical score? In fact, is there any Hollywood comedy from any age with such a score?”

My first thought is -- Mendelssohn. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Erich Wolfgang Korngold
s soundtrack for the terrific 1935 film wove together several pieces by Mendelssohn. The question Terry posted reminds me that the golden age of film soundtrack was dominated by late Romantic and early modern style -- more Wagner than Debussy, some Stravinsky along the way. And some time in the 19th century, classical music lost the rhetoric of joy and gaiety and zest necessary for comedy. Did any of Beethoven’s many heirs attempt an updated Ode to Joy, or anything even close? Passages of Ives in his 3rd Symphony -- some of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker -- maybe some Rimsky-Korsakov -- I’m sure there are others. But the passages I am thinking of are associated either with children or with exotic locales. Some of Debussy’s La Mer thrills me with joy, but it is a private joy of reverie, not a public-spirited joy, not zesty. My assertion feels overstated -- so if you think I’m wrong, please do tell.

But there is one terrific composed-for-film comic soundtrack that I know of -- I posted on it a few years ago: The World of Henry Orient, a 1964 film directed by George Roy Hill, music by the wonderful Elmer Bernstein. It’s the story of the friendship of two 13-ish-year-old girls and their obsession with the title character, a concert pianist farcically played by Peter Sellers (pictured above).

Bernstein gives the girls a jaunty, off-kilter theme that charms thoroughly. Sellers and his paramours get pastiche-Rachmaninoff. A concerto-within-the-film is a mix of pastiche-Rachmaninoff for the piano soloist, with pastiche-modernist accompaniment from the orchestra -- totally silly and engaging and musically interesting.

It’s a wonderful soundtrack -- but I have never heard it away from the film, so I cannot vouch for its efficacy as stand-alone music. Bernstein was a master -- he’s on Mr. Teachout’s list for another movie, and he won beaucoups awards, including an Oscar, over his long career.

Most of my fave soundtracks are musicals; I’m not well-versed enough in film-listening to have many favorites.

But I will mention an undervalued aspect to film musicals: The dance sequences are orchestrated with wonderful variety and drama. Irving Berlin’s standard “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” lasts about a minute and a half, sung straight through; the dance sequence in
Follow the Fleet lasts an additional six minutes, all of them wonderful. The “Bottle Dance” in Fiddler on the Roof is the best orchestral klezmer I have ever heard in my life -- intense, gorgeous, dramatic; every classical appropriation of klezmer I have heard pales in comparison.

Two soundtracks are among my favorite albums of any sort: The Thomas Crown Affair (the first one), music by Michel Legrand -- a mix of lush pop, post-bop, frenetic contrapuntal faux-rock, virtuoso keyboard freneticisms. Two songs in the movie, by Legrand, not sung by the characters, one of them a standard, the gorgeous “Windmills of Your Mind.” I’ve never seen the movie, but I got the soundtrack from the library because I’m a Legrand fan.

And Black Orpheus, the Brazilian film that midwived the bossa nova movement, such gorgeous music. The scene in the movie when the village boys sing "Samba de Orfeo" is a transcendently beautiful religious moment. If the boys don't sing, the sun might not rise! Bonfa's samba lives up to the burden of the occasion -- joyous, passionate, unstoppable. The rest of the soundtrack, if you can believe it, lives up to
that. Bonfa's lovely "Morning of the Carnival"; several of Jobim's lovely, sophisticated compositions in sparkling, minimal arrangements; and the awesome street Carnival percussion and singing. It’s technically a musical, but not only are the songs gorgeous, but the “background music” is one of the main characters of the movie, and it’s tremendous.

And a third, from another movie I have not seen: Naked Lunch by Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman. Gorgeous, and gorgeously paced between the orchestra, Coleman’s sax solos, and Coleman’s band.

I asked my friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey, a film music aficianado -- and a soundtrack composer himself, with two soundtracks to his name, including a film by Michael Moore -- for his list, and he obliged me. Here’s Jay:

Psycho – Herrmann
I know
Vertigo is supposed to be the masterpiece, but I prefer Psycho. He beautifully delineates the two distinct narrative halves.

Halloween – John Carpenter
Auteur +; add composer (honorable mention:
Assault on Precinct Thirteen)

Bullitt – Lalo Shifrin

Touch of Evil -- Mancini
Yes, it is comedy. “You don’t look like Mexican”

The Wrong Man
– Herrmann

Star Wars
(original 3) – Williams
I like this more and more. 12/8, baby.

Southern Comfort – Ry Cooder
Just for the opening, when the creapy, hissy woof-woof sound effect reveals itself to be the cranked amp tremolo before the guitar comes in.

Conrack – Williams

Once Upon A Time In The West – Morricone
The harmonica riff so prominently figured in the story and spot on. Notable for the perfectly placed silences. All the sound is crazy overdubbed and very much part of the “music.”

Terry may have launched this discussion in the cultural side of Blogville, but Digby’s “Saturday Night at the Movies” correspondent posted on the same topic a day or two earlier. The discussion in the comments section is wide-ranging, bringing in Ravi Shankar
’s music for Pather Panchali, which is gorgeous. The nod to Asia reminds me -- has anybody mentioned Toru Takemitsu? A wonderful composer, but I do not know his soundtrack work (though I have seen at least one of his films).

It’s a bottomless topic. Mass reproduction in the 20th-century transformed the arts in ways we have barely begun to comprehend. One telltale tidbit that’s hard to wrap one’s head around: The recent vogue -- which I wholeheartedly support -- for symphony orchestras recording soundtrack transcriptions often results in performances that aren’t as sharp as the originals. The reason: By and large, the movie studios’ orchestras have been the best in the world, and even if a “concert” orchestra were to boast of players as good, I would bet that they do not have as much rehearsal time. The modern orchestra grew to its present size parallel with the triumph of industrialism, and as if in honor of the orchestra’s provenance, the top musicians follow the market.

If I may amend, I would also add George Martin's score for Yellow Submarine.


I almost mentioned it -- thanks!
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