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by Bill Gibron

2 Sep 2010

It’s another one of those “over the transom” moments, a chance for SE&L and Surround Sound to catch up with what seems like a never-ending stream of scores and ‘music from the film’ collections that constantly clog our “To Do” box. We get a lot of these titles every month, everything from the obscure (there are companies out there now specializing in the forgotten and the infamous) to the standard “part of the post-production contractually mandated release” paradigm. What’s even more shocking is the sense that, instead of dying off like the dinosaurs of a seminal cinematic age, the soundtrack seems to be having a renaissance of sorts. Thanks to digital downloading and the instant access to media, movie music is once again seen as a viable souvenir of the overall motion picture experience.

Of the dozen offerings discussed here - that’s right, 12 separate soundtracks - we can see what makes the score collection so attractive, as well as what continues to keep it a very isolated enjoyment indeed. There are more genre titles than any other category and that seems to go with the geek obsessive mentality of such cinema. In addition, a lot of RomComs get their scores selected for release, the adult contemporary feel to their dynamic making for easy Soccer Mom appreciating. Comedies are hard to come by, the examples here exploring the various reasons why and the drama is all but left out of the mix. In fact, it’s safe to say that the era of the signature soundtrack, celebrated entries like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Starman, and 48 Hours has been replaced by a generic attempt to be everything to everyone, sonically speaking. Just like the movies they are supporting, when you come to think of it.

by Bill Gibron

18 Feb 2010

It is safe to say that there are several kinds of soundtracks, each type geared towards exactly what the filmmaker wants or the narrative needs. Some act as nothing more than metaphysical mix tapes, complications collecting the various pop music tracks secured for a marketing tie-in release. To call it commercial would be stating the bloody obvious. Others act like subtle supplements, doing little more than emphasizing the storyline or subject matter inherent in a film. For these ethereal attempts, the slightest sonic breeze might simply blow it all away. But some scores are wholly reflective, capable of offering the listener an inner mirror. They provide a resource for mimicking the moviemaker, turning their vision into the sonic serenade heard over the Cineplex speakers.

In this edition of SE&L‘s regular look at movie (and occasionally, television) scores, we see a 50/50 split between instrumentals and individual songs. One example of the cinematic hit parade is nearly perfect. Another suffers from a significant lack of performance diversity. In the simple composition department, however, both collections illustrate the mood merry nature of the aural backdrop. Sometimes, the sonic presentation alone is enough to sell you on an otherwise unknown quantity. There are even cases when it’s better than the film being featured. We begin with a buoyant blast from the past:

by Bill Gibron

5 Feb 2010

It’s not the music; it’s the maker - that is, if you believe the old adage. Critics will complain ad nauseum when a composer mimics his previous canon, or when a once reliable name proves more insipid than inspired. But they will also mock someone like Danny Elfman when they go from basic baroque Goth pop configurations to something new and unusual, like his minimalist work for Peter Berg’s The Kingdom. So somewhere between genius and generic lies the truth about movie soundtracks. Many rely on formulas so obvious that a basic musician with minimal training could perhaps maintain their presence. Others, however, break free of the usual and speak of the craftsman’s art and the need to invoke individuality, not the same old sonic strategies.

With the four offerings in this edition of Surround Sound, we can see the wonderful (Hurt Locker, Creation) and the weak (Legion, Extraordinary Measures), the topical (war and threat, love and devotion) with the trite and tried (horror, faux nobility). While it’s impossible to dismiss any soundtrack on how it “stands alone”, one thing is clear here: some of these composers are clearly making a sincere effort. A couple, on the other hand, are cashing a paycheck and heading home.

by Bill Gibron

3 Dec 2009

It’s that time of the year again, time to clean out the Surround Sound shelves and look over the titles that have fallen through the transom since last we looked at the ever-growing cavalcade of film scores. It’s amazing that this otherwise limited merchandising facet of film is still considered a viable cinematic sales pitch (or better yet, souvenir). Few motion pictures nowadays inspire the kind of collective devotion that icons like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings demands, so where exactly is the need to offer up every single composer’s creation coming out of the Tinseltown talent pool? Sure, there are a few nerdy completists, people for whom the musical backdrop is a certified art form worthy of celebrating. For others, it’s a non-issue, an antique throwback to the days when movies weren’t easily accessible on home theater, and the soundtrack album had to suffice as one of the few ways of “re-experiencing” the film all over again. Still, the CDs and digital downloads keep coming and coming. So with that in mind, let’s tackle the last few entries of 2009 with this oddball selection of scores, begin with two of the most nonspecific in the entire creative category.

17 Again: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]
Ghosts of Girlfriends’ Past: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 3]

Not every film score composer can be a genius. Some have to be journeymen, serving the needs of the everyday narrative while being as bland as the mainstream movie’s vision. Thus we have someone like Rolfe Kent, an Englishman who actually got his start writing soundtracks for Playboy’s Inside Out series (a softcore anthology TV series ala The Red Shoe Diaries). From there, it was one minor movie after another until 1999’s Election. Thus began a collaboration with Alexander Payne that resulted in the musical backdrops for Sideways and About Schmidt. It also led to meatier Tinseltown work like the Legally Blonde films, Wedding Crashers, and subpar RomComs like Failure to Launch. Kent is the kind of artist who makes generic genre noises. His work doesn’t really follow single set of themes or an overall melodic thread. Instead, he compiles 23 to 24 little sonic snippets and then connects them to scenes based on tone, action, and other non-expressive element.

A perfect example of this strategy comes with the release of these two CDs. The first, featuring Zac Efron’s post-High School Musical starring turn, is actually the better of the two. It follows the plotpoints better, never overstating the obvious elements involved in such moments as “Mike Realises”, “Mike Sees the Janitor”, or “Alex Saves the Game”. Sure, the labels and the aural styling gives said sequences away, but Kent keeps it together long enough to assure our casual interest. When things get a little syrupy - as in the attempted theme for one of the main characters, or “Scarlett’s Garden” - the ruse is obvious. Kent is just not capable of being anything other than serviceable. His sense of what your typical movie needs from a composer is basic and unadorned. He’s not out to make a noticeable noise like Bernard Herrmann, or for a more modern name, Danny Elfman. Instead, he sits firmly in the wings, waiting for his cue. Then up comes the orchestration, down goes the expectations, and another Hollywood paycheck is cashed.

But Kent can also fall into traps, as he does throughout the soundtrack for the recent Matthew McConaughey/Jennifer Garner goof-off. Since the movie is a take-off on Dickens’ immortal holiday classic, there are significant deviations in time to deal with. The composer is the prey for the usual period piece trappings, utilizing sonic clichés early and often - the ersatz bachelor party jazz of “Uncle Wayne’s Room”, the supposed spooky snazz of “Uncle Wayne’s Apparition”. Elsewhere, we get the far too short “Ignoring Jenny” (is a 20 second blip of sound really considered part of a score?) and the irritating use of a phony Theremin sample (it almost makes you think you’re watching a bad Chiller horror film). By the end, when the music really needs to sell the sense of rebirth and reconsideration, things turn mopey and moody (“Connor Believes, But Too Late”, “Pain Beats Regret”). Instead of evoking a certain feeling or sentiment, Kent’s work here is functional and practical before slowly fading away. Sometimes, a movie needs more than that. Rolfe Kent can’t deliver it. 

Bright Star: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

Mark Bradshaw is new to the soundtrack game. He has only been working in the cinematic musical genre since hooking up with renowned director Jane Campion for her 2006 short film The Water Diary. Since then, he’s worked on other small projects, but that’s it. So when he was asked to take on the task of scoring his first feature film - a look at poet John Keats and his relationship with Frances “Franny” Brawne - the novice needed to find some inspiration. He eventually discovered it in the works of the famous writer, using actual stanzas as part of the soundtrack process. The results are rather amazing. In one particularly potent track, Bradshaw uses real letters exchanged by the couple as a means of heightening the emotional core of the music. In other bits, we get parts of “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Yearning”. Perhaps the best selection is called “Human Orchestra”, the composer gathering around members of the cast for an a capella interpretation of Mozart’s “Serenade No. 10 for Winds”. Though it is incredibly brief overall (just under 24 minutes in length for the entire CD), this is one compilation that offers a lot of impact - as well as showing the lingering promise in its creator.

Red Cliff: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

When he burst on the Western film scene in 1989, John Woo was considered a true auteur, one of those long gestating “overnight successes” that take decades to be discovered. He had been making movies since 1968, but it wasn’t until his highly imaginative and visually stunning crime epics The Killer and Hard-Boiled that many outside Asia recognized his brilliance. So when it was announced that Woo would tackle the tale of The Battle of Red Cliffs during the Three Kingdoms period of ancient China, film fans all over the world salivated with implied entertainment delight. He had done wildly successful historical pieces (the Vietnam-themed Bullet in the Head) before. When they learned that favored leading man Chow Yun-Fat would be starring, imaginations flared to a fevered pitch. However, things did not work out between director and actor. Creative differences led to Chow abandoning the project on the first day of principal photography (to be replaced by his Hard-Boiled co-star, Tony Leung Chiu Wai), and while his name is still commercially viable around the world, this four hour epic has yet to see a proper US release (there is a truncated version floating around, removing nearly two hours of material). 

Far more modern than one would expect, Taro Iwashiro has tried to tie all of Woo’s wild ideas together in one massive musical statement. While often effective, the Red Cliff soundtrack is just too pat to be all together potent. Sometimes, a storyline or style can cripple a composer. This is what happens to Iwashiro all throughout the scattered sequences. There are so many pulsating drums and chant-like arrangements that we swear we’ve walked into a feudal China rugby match. At other instances, he slows things down so much that the music is almost inert. There is lots of faux bombast and the kind of forced flourishes that remind someone of an unsuccessful attempt at remaking The Lord of the Rings. Iwashiro has done great work before - his score for 2007’s Genghis Khan is excellent, and he added the right amount of Tinseltown cheese to the score for Doomsday: The Sinking of Japan. But something about Woo’s extraordinary recreation throws him off. There are elements here that are just too contemporary and formulaic to have the necessary sonic clout. This is a score that doesn’t sound right - and it also doesn’t sound great, either. 

Surrogates: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

Science Fiction - the genre tag alone is enough to conjure up certain sonic situations in your already overworked ear canals: the serio-snarky tones of technology meshed with machines; the chugalong charms of a pulsating over the top action opera; the purposeful employment of a synthesizer, since all music in the next few centuries will be generated by electronic blips and transistor blasts; the occasional ethereal female voice. No one expects subtlety, grace, heart, or even ambient evenness. No, ever since James Cameron and Brad Friedel gave the Terminator his supersonic machotronics, the cinematic type has been labeled and locked in. Perhaps this is why Richard Marvin’s musical backdrop for the recent Jonathan Mostow movie Surrogates is so interesting. Imagine Brian Eno of Stars from the Lid hooking up with your typical Hollywood hack, mix in a little high tech cliché,  and that’s what you get here. Surprisingly, the man who handled the composing chores on such noted TV shows as Six Feet Under, The O.C. , and Without a Trace makes the transition to the big screen with most of his refinement intact. 

Sure, there are moments like “Stone’s Headache” and “Warrant Received/Foot Chase” that belies the material being supported. In other instances, tracks like “Urine Abomination” and “Cam’s Apt/Greer’s Apt” are like lovely little tone poems, expressing necessary narrative mood and temperament. Still, there are too many pieces like “T-Bone” battling against companion cuts like “Stone Zapped” to consider the lighter work here a 100% success. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression of Marvin sifting through his various muses, the studio stopping him every once in a while to suggest something more “heroic” or “intense” or “otherworldly”. That he resists most of the time is amazing. It gives something like the final track, “Aftermath”, a nice bit of pseudo sonic rebellion. While we never do fully forget that this is a future shock tale of robot avatars in revolt, it’s not for a lack of trying. Marvin’s score is slightly uneven, but it’s significantly better than most 22nd century aural attempts. 

A Serious Man: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]

It’s safe to say that Carter Burwell is the third Coen Brother. From his first film work (for 1984’s Blood Simple) through Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, and No Country for Old Men, he has laid the sonic foundation for the duo’s delicious combination of Old World classicism and post-modern revisionism. Though he’s never even been nominated by the clueless Academy (shame, shame), his unique combination of mystery, magic, and menace, can turn any scene into a multilayered look into the very souls of the characters involved. While Focus Features bungled the release of the Coen’s latest effort - the Jewish-themed period piece A Serious Man, we still have the gorgeous, evocative soundtrack to remind us of the boy’s brilliance. What we get is a heady work that tends toward the morose and the melodramatic, but also delivers the kind of kinetic drive we’ve seen from other tense tonal trips like The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Peppered with three tracks from the seminal ‘60s acid rockers The Jefferson Airplane (“Somebody to Love”, “Comin’ Back to Me”, and “Today”), as well as old Yiddish song “Dem Milner’s Trern”, Burwell once again shows why he’s one of the best in the business. His inspiration here is impeccable, from the surreal sinister qualities of “Knock Knock” to the fuzz guitar fueled “The Canal”. Both “Blue Skies” and “Rabbi Sting 1” move effortlessly from beauty to the baneful, while “Thirst” and “The Roof” play around with similar harp/piano-based themes. The second song from the Airplane fits perfectly here, the wistful nature of the acoustic guitar counterbalanced by the mournful lyrics and an ethereal flute. Burwell is also having fun, enjoying how he takes an orchestra, pitches them very low, and then lets his arrangements work them into an unholy sonic frenzy. We hear snippets of this approach throughout, from “Rabbi Sting 2” to “Seriously”. The theme song ties it all together, the antique final feature cementing the score’s significance both within the Coen’s oeuvre, and Burwell’s undeniable association with it.

by Bill Gibron

29 Oct 2009

In the domain of movie music, there are several standard maxims. Romantic scores must be syrupy and weepy. Dramatic attempts can combine a little of both while maintaining a certain aura of seriousness. Comedy can be crazy, confused, cocky, cheeky, or a specialized combination of both, and action films mandate a certain over-adrenalized approach to sound. Last, and almost always least, horror has to be hackneyed, giving into specific aural contrivances that someone is convinced scares the bejesus out of the dread demo. Certain subgenres have their own unique rules as well, while those unsure of how to proceed typically toss the Billboard Charts at the backdrop and hope the combination of hits and cinematic histrionics gives the viewer the necessary sonic structure.

Call it composer cliché or stereo-typing, but in general, Hollywood rarely deviates from the formulas that have found success in the past. It’s even true for periods of time, the era cementing the auditory approach - and lo the filmmaker who fudges with that motion picture paradigm (right, Sophia Marie Antoinette Coppola?”). This time around, SE&L‘s Surround Sound delves deeply into the realm of redundancy, looking at three soundtracks who mimic their main theme (the ‘60s, fright, and the comic book superhero) to a fault. However, as we soon learn, there is really nothing wrong with embracing the obvious, especially when you have the talent and tenacity to perfect the particulars. Indeed, when you run the risk of revolution and attempt to reinvent the type (a Batman musical???), the results can sometimes be more laughable than the chestnuts you’re avoiding. 

Taking Woodstock: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]

When Danny Elfman was tagged by Tim Burton to create the songs for his take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, many wondered how the former rock and roll radical would re-imagine what was already a seminal storybook experience. After all, who could ever forget the sinister Oompa-Loompas and their morality tale tunes about excessive TV watching and brattish behavior. Oddly enough, Mr. Oingo Boingo went for a more overall atmospheric approach. Instead of giving the characters a single melody to work with, he composed different tracks for the different visitors to Wonka’s wonderfully weird factory. Perhaps the most memorable was the ‘60s psychedelia inspired piece for the uber-spoiled Veruca Salt. As day-glo pop art backgrounds throbbed and pulsed, actor Deep Roy mimed the telling lyrics, creating a Byrds-inspired belittling of anyone as spoiled as she. Now take that Peace Generation perspective and multiply it by 20 and you’ve got Elfman’s work on Ang Lee’s universally dismissed (and little seen) Taking Woodstock.

By its very nature, a movie centering on the “Three Days” of communal hippy consciousness-raising would be filled with sonic references to the era, and for the most part, Elfman covers all the bases. We get faux Hendrix riffing (“Titles”) and fancy folk nods (“Elliot’s Place”, “At Ease Men”), all the while, fuzzy electric guitars sneak in to accent the ambience. Most of the tracks here are mere snippets, the melancholy of “Welcome Home” barely making itself known before it slowly fades away, while “Life Goes On” and “In the Mud” suffer from the same brevity issues. The longer form numbers work much better, the excellent “Groovy Thing (Office #1)” sounding like a Summer of Love outtake, while “Woodstock Wildtrack #1” is a nice bit of acoustic atmosphere. Elfman repeats themes and melodic sequences here and there, giving the entire score a unity and cohesiveness that mirrors the mindset of the original concert attendees. While the film was unfairly ignored during its brief theatrical run, at least the music remains.

Trick ‘r Treat: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]

Horror movies typically get stuck with the same old sonic statements - jagged, staccato strings, sinister choirs, the neo-religious hymnal overtones. When they don’t however, when the macabre moviemaker strives for something unique or different, they usually run into the same aural stereotypes - death metal, manic hard rock, or even worse, weepy shoe-gazing junk. So what does one do when they are making the quintessential homage to all things Halloween, when they are purposefully trying to invoke all the dread, terror, and mischief of the holiday in 18 ethereal tracks? Well, if you’re Douglas Pipes, working on the soundtrack to Michael Dougherty’ demented labor of love, Trick ‘r Treat, you don’t avoid the clichés - you embrace them as fully as the film does. Indeed, the best part about both the feature and the music backing it is that both understand the beauty in the hoariest of horror archetypes, and both monopolize them to the hilt.

The psycho orchestra leanings are there from the “Main Titles”, followed quickly by brief tone poems that set up characters (“Meet Charlie”), relationships (“Father and Son”), and situations (“To the Quarry”). By the time we get to the eloquent, eerie “The Halloween School Bus Massacre”, we believe in the power of old school scoring. The compositions here are meant to evoke a mood, to prepare us for moments we already expect from the genre while giving in to their decidedly archaic charms. This is especially true of later tracks like “Laurie’s First Time” and “Old Mr. Kreeg”, where the storyline and sentiment merge flawlessly. As the closing theme reminds us of the glorious edge-of-your-seat experience we’ve just gone through, we suddenly see why so many of these compositional truisms continue to be practiced: they work, and when done with reverence and respect, none work better.

Green Lantern: First Flight: Music from the DC Universe Animated Original Movie [rating: 7]

Who would have thought that the comic book super hero would suddenly turn into the steely action man for a post-millennial age? At one time, only geeks and true DC/Marvel connoisseurs championed the funny book idol as an expression of ultimate power and destruction. Now, he (or she) has become the benchmark for motion picture machismo, requiring other genres to mimic its superhuman happenstance. It’s even taken root in the medium’s ‘animated’ cousin. Once, cartoons used to be about mild entertainment and selling products. Now, even the most marginal title has to crank up the cinematics and become something larger than life. This is particularly true of the otherwise ordinary origin story for Hal Jordan, otherwise known as the second of multiple Green Lanterns. Starring in the pen and ink production First Flight, we witness the arrival of the power ring, the introduction of arch villain Sinestro, and composer Robert J. Kral’s attempt to provide an intense backdrop to what is essentially the beginning for a future franchise (or a warm up for an eventual big screen debut).

Kral has been here before. He’s worked wonders for other animated titles like Batman: Gotham Knight and Superman/Doomsday. Even though he’s mainly known for his work on TV shows like Duck Dodgers, Angel, and Miracles, he has a unique way of mixing classical with contemporary to bring a cross generational approach to the score. It’s obvious from the moment Track 3, “Labell’s Club” comes on. Before, we have the standard hard driving orchestration that amps up the scope toward something (“The Ring Chooses Hal”, “Hal Meets the Laterns/The Flight of Oa”) close to epic. From then on, anything goes, from more chase scene stylings (“Going After Cuch”, “The Corps Fight Sinestro”) to moments of sublime subtle significance (“Brutal Attack/The Fate of Kanjar Ro”). All the while, Kral keeps one foot in tradition, never letting technology or electronic tweaks destroy what is meant to be an auditory celebration of right over wrong, cosmic morality over insufferable evil. With the thematically similar “Green Lantern Pledge”, we are ready to sign up to fight the good fight. 

Batman - The Brave and the Bold: Mayhem of the Music Meister: Music from Animated Television Show [rating: 6]

Okay, now this is just plain weird. No, not the premise for this continuation of the Caped Crusader franchise. In fact, the concept of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego teaming up with other members of the DC Comic Universe is not a bad one at that. What’s surreal here is the idea that Batman would battle a villain who uses showtunes as a way of controlling people’s minds. The plan - get the cowl-wearing vigilante to help him launch a communications satellite to melodically brainwash the world - and we get the actual songs with which he intends to do it. With music created by Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanic, and Kristopher Carter, and lyrics by Michael Jelenic and James Tucker, we get the Broadway version of a beatdown, complete with power ballads and earnest expositional exercises. Neil Patrick Harris is the only actor who could sell some of this schmaltz, especially the lilting “If Only” and the dopey “Drives Us Bats”. With help from other example voice actors like John Di Maggio, Grey Delisle, and Tom Keeny, what should be stupid succeeds - if only barely. In fact, the whole project seems bound and determined to fail, until you hear it. Then you realize it could work - and then it more or less does.
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