Do Soundtracks Need Movies?

By Jason Anderson

(This essay was published in issue 11 of Space Age Bachelor magazine.)

Do Soundtracks Need Movies?

In the last few years, one sentiment I’ve noticed often come from the mouths of musicians—especially electronica musos—is that what they’re making are not albums or songs necessarily, but soundtracks for films that don’t exist. They think that, just maybe, the movie can be filled in by the listener from the cues and moods and atmospheres they provide. As a culture, we’ve been watching films for more than a century, so maybe on some level we feel we’ve outgrown them, even if our fantasies and our daily lives still require the scores. We all want to be in movies, right? Commercially available soundtracks still most often take the guise of pop-song compilations, which may be either showcases for new acts (e.g., Great Expectations and Zero Effect, both of which are pretty good), testaments to the filmmakers’ eccentric musical tastes (e.g., Welcome to Sarajevo’s incongruous Madchester-oriented selection, the Coen Brothers’ The Great Lebowski, with songs by Bob Dylan, Kenny Rogers, Yma Sumac and Captain Beefheart) or a demonstration of almighty marketing hegemony (e.g., Space Jam, Batman and Robin and the forthcoming Godzilla’s galaxy of stars with original, exclusive tracks). The labels Varese Sarabande and Milan release a massive number of scores, most of it hack-work for underperforming films. And yet there’s still a fascination for film music, even as the overall craftsmanship appears to deteriorate. Is the soundtrack album a memento of our experience of a film—like the massively successful Titanic soundtrack, now the biggest selling instrumental score of all time—or has it grown into something else?

And despite the lip service paid, the imaginary soundtrack has become something of a cliche, as the clever noir-ish elements predominant on Moss Side Story—the 1989 album by former Magazine and Bad Seeds keyboardist Barry Adamson which reintroduced the idea of the mock-soundtrack to vanguard musical types—make for overfamiliar and feeble comedy in the post-Tarantino fantasies on David Holmes’ Let’s Get Killed. (Alternately, Portishead and Propellerheads draw on John Barry’s motifs to stimulate collective memories of the hard man’s England of the mid-‘60s, back when cool was incompletely commidified.)

Techniques in film music have grown crucial this decade because in every popular music genre there’s a greater emphasis on sonic texture. The soundtrack album has always a perfect venue for this because it’s already part of a staged event. In examining classic (and decidedly un-classic) film music, can we hear how “filmic” gestures in composition work independent of the source? And by freeing the sound from the vision, can it say something about how we use music in our lives?

THE GOLDEN AGE

The American label Nonesuch has begun to release new orchestral recordings of film music by prominent composers, although the series has largely gone unnoticed. It’s ironic how some movies can be so well-loved yet the composers—besides names like Barry, Ennio Morricone and Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann—remain obscure. Nonesuch seek to rectify and, via handsomely packaged releases of performances by the likes of London Sinfonietta, insert them into the canon of the century’s high-art music.

It doesn’t turn out so well for the otherwise brilliant Alex North, who churned out music for modern dance and U.S. gov. documentary films in the ‘40s, eventually scoring the first stage production of Death of a Salesman, directed by Elia Kazan. This connection led to North’s best-known score, for the Kazan-directed screen adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. North’s innovation was to incorporate nimble jazz themes into the orchestra, and to make it sultry and strange without losing the bulk. But his music feels flat as a pancake in the Nonesuch treatment—the original performances are rich with subtleties that are absent in these more polite, tentative versions. His contemporary Leonard Rosenman, who scored the James Dean classics East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, wrote music with much of the same brooding hugeness, but in this context, it’s bloodless—fit for a light program of classical ditties that wouldn’t upset you while you iron. Maybe I miss the crackle of the records, but anyway you cut it, this music should be loud, like Wagner through the loudspeakers on the beach in Apocalypse Now. Nonesuch’s discs make it meagre. Decontextualizing hurts a lot of scores. The melodramatics necessary to punctuate the material in ‘50s American movies become kitsch. Like rock ‘n’ roll lyrics as poetry, presenting soundtrack music as art outside its original context often shows up that it’s all in how you use it (like Douglas Sirk making Brechtian critiques of American class warfare whilst appearing to direct soapy melodramas starring the likes of Rock Hudson and Lana Turner). Georges Delerue wrote lovely, sentimental music for Francois Truffaut films like Shoot the Piano Player and Jules and Jim, but presented out of context, these themes just sort of sit there and smile like a debutante, pretty but without much of a gift for conversation. The pleasure in Delerue’s music, as in much film music, was additive, as the same melody changed in instrumentation and intensity to suit different scenes, changed its meaning. Delerue’s work is much better served by a disc by a peculiar French label that does books-on-tape style film condensations, i.e., a movie is truncated to key bits of dialogue and music in 15 or 20 minutes. In Delerue’s music for Godard’s Contempt with dialogue, you hear how he answers the action in the film. And what that delivers is the moment preserved, the total effect cleverly summarized. (French singer Jean Bart uses a lot of film dialogue samples, much of them from Truffaut, on his records—he sort of carries on conversations with film characters, resituating them in his songs, talking back to the screen.) Toru Takemitsu’s disc is the best of the four Nonesuch releases, because most of the drama—if to compensate the relative lack of action in classic but rather slow-going movies like Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes and Nagisa Oshima’s Empire of Passion—is in his music. And most of the music here is presented in their original performances, which isn’t the case for the other three. A much-loved Japanese composer who died in 1992, Takemitsu scored 93 films, combining Japanese forms and an avant-garde inclination for discordant elements with the more familiar shapes of film music. These are fully realized pieces that, unlike a lot of his non-film work, have to develop quickly. The conversation they have with the images is elliptical in meaning but still deeply felt. Ultimately, the music is active and constantly changing shape, so much so that this compilation is really just a very basic primer to the full scores and other Takemitsu compositions. Nevertheless, outside of their often more austere original contexts, the pieces seem extraordinarily vibrant, as if they’re positive they deserve lives in the larger world.

WHAT’S IN THE BARREL

By the time of the movies whose soundtracks are currently being reissued by Rykodisc, the grandiose musicals for which the MGM studio was famed were long-gone. There is little to connect these albums, besides the stamp of a studio ready to try its hand at any kind of movie in hopes for a hit. The initial releases in the MGM/Rykodisc series, which started last fall, were pretty ridiculous—deluxe editions (including CD-ROM tracks of original trailers) of stuff you’d pay 50 cents for at a garage sale. The only explanation I can imagine with is that Rykodisc wanted to complete its Frank Zappa catalog, but to get the rights to reissue the soundtrack to FZ’s contribution to the MGM canon, 1971’s 200 Motels, the studio demanded they release the likes of The Return of the Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, too. But Ryko is nothing if not meticulous—they plan to do a Nonesuch-style Composer Series as well, and the titles are becoming more prestigious.
At the moment, you can root through a slagheap of history and find some good junk: Mick Jagger’s ragged, tuneless old folk song on the moribund Ned Kelly soundtrack; Jimmy Buffett’s good-timey C&W tunes for Rancho Deluxe; some great Bobby Womack soul from the pre-blaxploitation thriller Across 110th Street; Rita Coolidge’s unjustly forgotten Bond theme “All Time High” for the late Roger Moore Bond entry Octopussy; and the entire contents of the soundtrack for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, with Ernest Gold’s music as obnoxious in its forced good-cheer as I’m sure it was in 1963. Of the first batch, three titles have gained some resonance since they disappeared from vinyl cut-out bins. The soundtrack for Bob Fosse’s Lenny of 1974 — which, like most of these discs, has been augmented with snippets of dialogue—has an endearing phoniness about it. Dustin Hoffman’s monologues were passable in the movie, but they’re terrible here, so the soundtrack has the air of one set of dated hipsters paying homage to another set of dated hipsters. It does have some excellent burlesque music, which is hard to come by (though I’ll get to the Crippled Dick Hot Wax catalog later).

Zappa’s 200 Motels incorporates music and dialogue that wasn’t in the film, so it’s a neat example of a fake soundtrack masquerading as a real one. The narrative even works a little better on the album than it does in the movie, but overall it lacks the verve of Zappa’s more cinematic and more ruthlessly edited Uncle Meat (made long before a movie of it could be finished) and Lumpy Gravy. FZ takes the piss out of Hollywood and the soundtrack album, but for a guy who spent so much time concentrating on the gulf between picture-perfect Middle Americans and the perversities they kept beneath the surface, he doesn’t push it hard enough, spending too much time pissing on Miklos Rosza’s Ben Hur score. And there aren’t enough guitar solos.

Pino Donaggio’s Carrie is the most alluring. Made in ‘76, it’s a bit like a last-stand for the grandly orchestral horror soundtrack before John Carpenter made a more minimalist approach de rigueur with Halloween (though Donaggio would continue to do good work for De Palma and Joe Dante). More interesting is how Donaggio’s score digests the soft-rock of the ‘70s. The amorphous orchestral dread drifts into the inane ballads “I Never Dreamed Someone Like You Could Love Someone Like Me” and “Born to Have It All.” The sickly sweet feeling pulls you in even though you know it’s all going to end in pigs’ blood and fire—in fact, the songs are so gross that they seem to be covered in muck already. All you need is to do is hear them and see Sissy Spacek in the poster (pictured as both virginal innocent and blood-drenched hellion) and you’ve pretty much saved yourself the Grand Guignol. (And who’s got two hours for a Grand Guignol these days?) Three of the latest batch of ‘50s and ‘60s MGM soundtracks are more of the undisputed-classic stripe. Adolph Deutsch’s score for Some Like It Hot proves the screwball comedy was almost a musical, too—Marilyn Monroe’s singing is fab, the songs giddy, the pacing perfect. Much more languid is Duke Ellington’s Paris Blues, which features Louis Armstrong playing music for the compromised jazz flick—it was to feature interracial romances, but filmmakers chickened out, and Ellington was disappointed to learn he was not working on as progressive a film as he was led to believe— starring Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier. The title tune, a dense but nimble blues written for the film, quickly entered the Ellington repertoire— other songs are more familiar standards, but the performances are typically excellent.

More revolutionary is Quincy Jones’ music for In the Heat of the Night and They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, which combines Ellingtonian cool, post-bop, R&B and all the furious drama of North or Rosenman’s scores. Rahsaan Roland Kirk contributes grunts and squawks, orchestras get funky and all the elements of American music are crushed together with an ingenuity that ranks with Charles Ives and Charlie Parker.

Next comes the likes of The Thomas Crown Affair, so all the would-be Portisheads on the planet can stop scouring for the sources. (Footnote: I didn’t have time to review it at length, but Craig Armstrong’s The Space Between Us is also ripe for plundering by anybody seeking a little or a lot of drama. The Scottish composer worked on the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack with Nellee Hooper and arranges strings for Massive Attack and on a few new Madonna tracks. His debut album for Melankolic is surprisingly serene, with all possible langour intact. Elizabeth Fraser guests on one track, and the Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan sings Armstrong’s 70-millimetre remake of the Blue Nile’s “Let’s Go Out Tonight.” Uncanny. Now on with the rest of the show.)

SLEAZE, SLEAZE, SLEAZE

Crippled Dick Hot Wax is a German label devoted to celebrating the cheap, the shrill and the often fantastic film music for what was known as the “European Movie.” In Valley of the Dolls, it’s the sort of movie that Sharon Tate ends up appearing in with no clothes on, pretending to speak French. No cinema here, just low-budget fare with young nubiles exploring their nascent sexualities as saxophones blared, orchestras swung mightily and singers sighed or cooed away. The music is eminently groovy, often incompetent and generally underdeveloped for kitsch value—and that description doesn’t apply to much of anything any more. Besides, there’s no way this music can be made now—film orchestras have largely disappeared (along with most film production in countries that aren’t America) and porno soundtracks are the domain of would-be Kenny Gs or the most flaccid of funksters. So there’s a poignancy to the music rediscovered by Crippled Dick Hot Wax and it’s heartening how much of the music is good enough and interesting enough to transcend its original function. Of course, this is the soundtrack for the life you wish you had — fast cars, nubiles, picnics, food sex…

The label made his rep with the reissue of the soundtrack to Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos—which, among other things, led to a like-titled New York club night devoted to that and other examples of sleazy listening—and contemporary artistes such as Rockers Hi-Fi, Alec Empire, DJ Wally and Two Lone Swordsmen attempt to distill its essence on The Spirit of Vampyros Lesbos. Only the latter two and Dr. Rockit seem very interested in capturing the lurid menace of the original music in their beats and pieces — Witchman and Cristian Vogel seem to have mistaken Vampyros Lesbos for some apocalyptic Dario Argento flick.

Then again, I find the Vampyros Lesbos stuff too brooding, too much like Nino Rota or Herrmann with no budget, its pants around its ankles and a same-day deadline—in a word, pretentious. Much more exciting is the disc of Gert Wilder’s music for the Schulmadchen-Report movies, which were originally intended as instructive, serious depictions of the emergent sexuality of Teutonic teens, a noble idea abandoned “by Part 3 at the latest.” Wilder was a wildly prolific and imaginative composer, and the work collected here is never terribly introspective—how could it be with big brass, endlessly noodling guitars (with some mean fuzztones) and big funky organs? This truly puts a modern R&B/jazz act like Medeski, Martin & Wood to shame, even if they were to write music for films with subtitles like “Sex Adventures of German Girls Worldwide” and “What Parents Find Unthinkable.”

100% Cotton, Peter Thomas’ music for the eight (in three years!) German crime films featuring the suave Jerry Cotton, is not quite as wild, but the scores for the equivalent U.S. movies—say, American International’s exploitation pictures or Roger Corman’s hippie-scare flicks—or the Swinging London stuff like The Knack (And How to Get It) are sheepish compared to this. This drives faster and handles corners better. The two volumes of Beat at Cinecitta, for the adult-oriented features made in Rome’s Cinecitta studios in the ‘60s and ‘70s, are ultimately less likely to give you a headache, the Italians seeming to understand the notion of “restraint” a little better than the equally oversexed Germans. This music is sleeker, more aerodynamically designed… yet still swank, with every possible cliche delivered simultaneously—plus there’s lots of timpani. A few of the lusty composers represented, like the brilliant Riz Ortolani and Bruno Nicolai, should be at least as well known as Xenakis or Ligeti by now. These men make music that is meaty, beaty, big and bouncy.

OFF THE DEEP END

In her liner notes for the soundtrack of Jean-Luc Godard’s Nouvelle Vague, Claire Bartoli writes of an “internal cinema” that the soundtrack fuels, how she must concentrate on what she hears because she cannot see the film. She is blind, but she still enjoys going to films.

There’s an echo here of Derek Jarman’s Blue in 1993, in which the screen remained a constant blue hue, a simulation of Jarman’s blindness from AIDS-related illness. But the soundtrack of Blue has more of the staginess and shallowness of a poor radio play, repetitive in how Jarman’s portentous narration is punctuated over and over by a melancholy song. Nouvelle Vague has no conventional format, and few precedents. It’s the entire audio soundtrack, released in 1997, of Godard’s film, made in 1990. The musical selection is a result of Godard’s friendship with ECM Records head Manfred Eicher, and includes ECM stand-bys like David Darling, Dino Saluzzi and Meredith Monk. The music is not the Technicolor headfuckery of Toru Takemitsu, but more reserved, icy. Nor is it placed conventionally— for scene transitions or montages, or to punctuate emotional moments. Instead, songs lurk behind the conversation, moving to the foreground to fill momentary gaps then receding.

Jean Luc Godard’s two-disc Nouvelle Vague just feels important—singular, self-contained, rigorously thought-out and yet open to participation and interpretation by the listener. For instance, there’s my struggle due to an imcomplete grasp on the French language. But the musicality of the dialogue becomes more obvious, and action can be determined from the sound effects, and the tone and intensity of conversation. Eventually, word, music and noise become interchangeable as they move back and forth in the field of (sonic) depth. Nouvelle Vague subverts your expectations and is impossible to accept as ambience. It brings about an awareness of the emotional and narrative trickery in film and television. Scramble the cues and see what happens. Well, there’s a new sort of suspense (the latter amplified if the only French you understand is Godardian aphorisms). Plot never matters that much in Godard movies, but at least everyone keeps walking and talking. As they do, Meredith Monk whoops or Patti Smith groans or there’s a florish from Dino Saluzzi’s bandoneon. Or else someone slams a car door. It reminds me of something that the silent filmmaker protagonist of William Boyd’s novel The New Confessions says—that when sound was added to film, then the medium was no longer in the realm of dreams. Nouvelle Vague reverses the process, restores film to a place of imagination. As a self-critique of how a film’s sound is constructed—and by turn, the story, subject and design of the film itself—of course it’s heavy-going, but it feels a liberation, a liberation not only from the images we see on screens, but from how the images that distract us from meanings only discernible to the ear.

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