Footnotes: The Music Makers

We thought long and hard about whether we wanted to put musical excerpts in our podcast episode on movie soundtracks, but in the end we decided against it – not least because these pieces should be heard in their entirety, and they tend to work best when you listen to them along to the respective scenes from the films they’re from. So, below you’ll find our picks and some more of our thoughts about these wonderful tunes and composers.

Sam: My initiation to the world of cinema as a whole was listening to two cues from Ennio Morricone’s epic Sergio Leone score for Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), none more overwhelming than for the final duel between ‘Harmonica’ (Charles Bronson) and Frank (Henry Fonda). Even before ever seeing the scene, my heart and mind were full of dramatic images of the moment it was written for, but the use in the actual film still blows my mind and it’s possibly the best use of already composed music on a film set. Timing and impact are absolutely perfect and both the wailing of the harmonica as well as the full Morricone orchestra and choir breaking out still send shivers down my spine!

My favourite Hitchcock film Vertigo (1958) also has my favourite score by composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-1976), both a mesmerizing romantic whirlpool of emotions and a dark descent into one man’s obsession with one (or two?) women. The greatest showcase of the film’s score is possibly its first third when – after a spiralling ouverture and a dramatic rooftop chase – Scottie (James Stewart) is sent after Madeleine (Kim Novak) and trails her endlessly all across San Francisco to discover the fascination with death she displays. No single scene stands out as much to me as his first sighting of Madeleine at Ernie’s restaurant shown here: Not only does the camera pick up her red dress immediately in the otherwise crimson interiors, it’s the theme employed by Herrmann that set off Scottie’s obsession with her. She appears ghostlike, otherwordly and haunting, but in retrospect it’s pure manipulation of the audience that Hitchcock commences here, making us believe that this woman is in trouble, when in fact it’s Scottie (and us) who is being taken for a ride.

John Barry’s scores for the James Bond series are all great but he put his all into On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), not only because he was at the top of his game (Born Free and Lion in Winter had just earned him three Oscars) but he was supposed to save the new Bond (played by newbie actor George Lazenby) that was thought to be in trouble. What resulted was one of the best and most beloved entries into the series, thanks to an excellent mix of action, romance and tragedy. The scene shown here sums it all up: Bond and Tracy (Diana Rigg) ski down the beautiful Swiss mountains after his wedding propsal to her, and they are unceremoniously chased by villain Blofeld (Telly Savalas in front of an obvious back projection) and driven into an avalanche. Barry’s main theme, a Moog-supported brass delight, comes to full force here and the French horns project ominously as they brave their way down the slopes, across chalet rooftops and – alas for one of Blofeld’s henchmen – into the belly of a snowplough (“He had lots of guts!”).

John Williams’ music for the Star Wars saga is endlessly giving, including leitmotifs for all the main characters, massive action scenes and grandiose celebrations, but it’s this 30-second moment from the original Star Wars (1977) that to me is still a knockout: Luke Skywalker’s yearning look at the dual sunset on his home planet of Tatooine. It doesn’t only bring out the ‘Force Theme’ for the very first time in all its glory, it’s also the beautiful simplicity of the images that are so powerfully communicating what’s in store for this classic tale of a young man setting out on adventures he cannot possibly comprehend at this point. I have never since forgotten it, despite the mediocre prequels and great sequels, this is still Williams and Star Wars at their core values!

Matt: My first pick is Jane Campion’s The Piano. Michael Nyman’s score isn’t one of those big, epic, John Williams-esque soundtracks, but it is also quite different from the work Nyman did previously for the director Peter Greenaway. The Piano calls for a more intimate, more emotional sound, but not a sentimental one – Holly Hunter’s Ada McGrath is not a sentimental creature at all. Nonetheless, she uses her music to express herself in ways that so many of the people around her don’t understand – most of all her husband (played by Sam Neill) who is tone-deaf in more than one way. The Piano was the first time I realised that a film’s music can double as the voice of one of its characters.

The plainchant “Dies Irae”, or at least its melody, has popped up in a number of films, including Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Perhaps its most effective use, however, is in the title sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, in a version by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. (Carlos had also collaborated with Kubrick for A Clockwork Orange.) I don’t know of any title sequence that is as perfect at setting the tone for what follows as this one, and it’s largely due to the music: Carlos and Elkind’s synthesizer take on “Dies Irae” is supremely eerie, and it always gives me the impression that as the Torrance family drives up that road towards the Overlook Hotel, it is observed by something implacable and malevolent. I can take dead twins in the corridor and fountains of elevator-bound blood – but that music? Shudder. Shudder, shudder, shudder.

Even twenty years after I first watched it, Magnolia is still one of my favourite films, and it’s definitely my favourite film by Paul Thomas Anderson. The music by Jon Brion and songs by Aimee Mann play no small part in this – again, I don’t know if Anderson’s film would have got the tone just right to this extent without Brion’s oddball music and Mann’s songs that somehow manage to be both jaded and hopeful. The music is such a perfect fit for the characters and what they go through during a particularly traumatic, cathartic 24-hour period that the moment when all these disparate, desperate characters begin to sing in unison to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” feels exactly right.

Carter Burwell’s score for Anomalisa is a good fit for the film, and for Charlie Kaufman in general, but my favourite musical moment in the film comes when the main character Michael (voiced by David Thewlis), after getting off the plane, starts listening to the “Flower Duet” from Léo Delibes’ opera Lakmé on his iPod. Thing is, Michael suffers from a condition: it could be the Fregoli delusion, but more likely it shouldn’t be read quite this literally. I choose to see it as a severe, specific case of Kaufmanitis, the condition of being a neurotic male who mostly lives in his own head, doesn’t particularly like people but likes himself even less. In Michael, it manifests itself in perceiving everyone around him as having the same face and voice (namely that of Tom Noonan, who memorably played Francis “The Tooth Fairy” Dollarhyde in Manhunter). So, when the “Flower Duet” begins to play, it is also sung by Tom Noonan in a duet with himself. The effect is both goofy and unsettling, but it cannot quite erase the beauty of the song, thereby expressing Michael’s alienation as much as his yearning for some kind of release and happiness. Tough luck, bud: you’re a protagonist in a Charlie Kaufman movie. This music is the closest you’ll get to happiness.

Julie: While Sam and I share the experience of being drawn into film music by Morricone’s epic “Man with a Harmonica”, I could hardly pick a more thrilling score than Anatomy of a Murder (1959) by the legendary Duke Ellington. While Preminger s film itself is a very good one its famous brassy score will just blow your mind. Though the suite is available on youtube, above I’ve embedded the main title sequence to give our listeners a taste.

Sadly a lot of ground-breaking Jazz has been lost to us. Either because there is no recording at all, or the recording is subpar. Miles Davis’ score for Ascenseur pour L’échafaud (1958), fortunately, has been preserved. Do buy the album if you can afford to: it includes the takes that didn’t make it into the film. And while Louis Malle’s film itself is certainly worth a watch: Davis’ music is is absolutely unmissable.

Track 05 : Florence sur les Champs-Elysées
Track 09 : Au Bar du Petit Bac

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