In the current climate of motion picture making, where does the soundtrack really stand? When watching a remarkable movie like, say, Revolutionary Road, do you care that the music behind Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio is working, or that you can head on over to ITunes after the screening and download yourself a copy of Thomas Newman’s extraordinary score? Do audiences really appreciate the supplemental CD of a film’s sonic sentiments, or are they just too busy buying into the prepackaged and programmed plotting to care much about the aural material surrounding it. Sure, there are rare instances when a movie makes itself so culturally significant (Titanic, The Dark Knight) that people will purchase anything connected to it. But what about the everyday effort? Do journeymen have any place in the merchandising domain, even when the do amazing work?
That’s the question facing the three soundtracks offered up for consideration as part of SE&L‘s recurrent recording roundtable, Surround Sound. This time, we see an upcoming family film, a current CG hit, and a usual independent offering getting positive notice, all threatening to have their composer’s sweat and toil trampled by a general public indifference. And what’s even more disheartening is that each individual offering is good - very good in some cases. But unless you have a cash register ringer so to speak (ain’t that right Miss Cyrus), few if any may become aware of your imagination and innovation. While it’s sad to say it, that’s the apparent state of the soundtrack biz. Anyway, let’s begin with an upcoming effort:
Marley & Me - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]
For a relatively young man (37), Theodore Shapiro has had quite a unique career as a film composer. Getting his start on the MTV sketch comedy series The State, he quickly became the go-to guy for the entire Stiller/Wilson/Wain school of slacker comedy. Recently, he’s been involved in such high profile projects as The Devil Wears Prada, Blades of Glory, and Tropic Thunder. So it seems strange for someone working within such crazed crackpot canvases to take on a family-oriented animal lovers movie. But that’s exactly what Shapiro did when he signed up to provide the sonic backing for John Grogan’s memoir, Marley and Me. While it may seem like an odd combination at first, the music speaks volumes for the artist’s ability to adapt.
For something with a sincerely sentimental premise (following the adventures of a family dog from adoption to death), Shapiro’s score for Marley and Me is surprisingly spunky. Acoustic guitars ring across jaunty soft rock ramblings. Oddball bossanova moves accent the film’s sunny South Florida locations. While some of the sounds here are meant to copy the fun-loving, mischievous nature of the title pup (“Off and Running”), or the mandatory movie passage of time (“Two Year Montage”), there is an inherent melancholy to the way Shapiro chooses his approach. This is especially true towards the end when we get several, sobering snippets (“When It’s Time”, “Boy and Dog”). Such sentimentality, however, is often thwarted by a big, rollicking rock-n-roll statement like “Heading Home” or the terrific title track. By constantly repeating certain themes, Shapiro ensures that we will be humming the main melody lines long after we’ve forgotten the film they come from.
Bolt - An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack [rating: 7]
At one time, animated films were almost always mandated to be musicals. Even if the characters didn’t sing the actual songs, studios put potential pop hits directly into their pen and ink adventures, the better to guarantee brisk soundtrack sales later on. All that stopped in the mid ‘90s, when studios like Dreamworks and Fox tried to take the artform in a slightly different, more snarky and non-singing, non-dancing direction. And that’s where it’s stayed, more or less. Pixar proved you didn’t need production numbers to sell tickets, and over the years, the slow death of 2D animation meant a limit on the number of Alan Menken/Elton John penned ballads. The latest from Disney, the delightful Bolt, doesn’t propose to change this approach. But when you’ve completely re-recorded an entire vocal performance to take an actress out, and to put a multiplatinum tween recording phenomenon in, you just know there’s going to be a couple of indirect aural references to such charttopper’s powerhouse skills.
The mandatory Miley track aside (more on this in a moment) and the material from Ms. Jenny Lewis also initially forgiven, Bolt begins its run through several soundtrack stereotypes. We get the big bold action opening and stunt sequences (“Bolt Transforms”, “Scooter Chase”), the pastoral scenic sections (“The RV Park”), and the moments of humble heroics (“Where Were You on St. Rhino’s Day”). In between Powell, doesn’t waver. Everything is either bongo-driven road movie forcefulness (“Saving Mittens”) or a mix of light and soft (“House on Wheels”). As for the two actual songs on the CD, the Cyrus tune is accented by some intriguing help from co-star John Travolta on vocals (some of his strongest since Grease, or that early ‘70s hit “Let Her In”). It’s great to hear the actor working his vocal pipes again. Similarly Ms. Lewis’ track is unobtrusive and sweet, a tad too maudlin with a title that begs for creative reconsideration (“Barking at the Moon” - in a film about a dog…), but it does offer some nice cross-promotion possibilities for the House of Mouse, who is always looking for a way to maximize the return on their product.
Synecdoche, New York - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]
You expect weird from screenwriter turned first time filmmaker Charlie Kaufman. The man practically perspires eccentricity. He’s quirky in bizarro world wackness. If his scripts weren’t strange enough, his public persona is a mixture of hermit, serial killer, and that way too smart kid in school who ended up sitting in his low rent basement apartment making wine all throughout college. While many feel the man is too meta for his own good, his most recent film has got critics both praising him while simultaneously scratching their more than befuddled head. To try and describe this movie’s premise is next to impossible. But it’s safe to say that the work of the equally idiosyncratic Jon Brion is borderline brilliant. Unlike the music he’s recorded for Paul Thomas Anderson (Sydney, Magnolia, Punch-drunk Love) or select comedies (I Heart Huckabees, Step Brothers), this is one soundtrack that’s in perfect sync with the director’s delusional genius.
As a score, Synecdoche New York is a uber-weird combination of old school composing, hackneyed homage irony, and just a tad too much stinging self-consciousness. Tracks have names that defy description (“DMI Thing From When She Was in the Kitchen”, “Someone Else’s Forward Motion (Posing as Your Own)”) and every once in a while Brion will step in and turn everything into a piece of pure instrumental bliss (“Piano One”). This is one musician who likes to mix things up, complex string pieces purposefully crashing into somber, almost ethereal New Age ambiance. Toward the end, actual songs are introduced, with “Little Person” and “Song for Caden” having a similar, lo-fi appeal. The last number, “Schenectady” sounds a tad too much like Sufjan Stevens channeled through Randy Newman. Still, for something meant to match with Kaufman’s crazed visions, Brion does a bang-up job.