Henry Mancini

Reinventing Film Music

by John Caps

22 March 2012

Henry Mancini has sold 30 million albums and won four Oscars and 20 Grammy awards. Through Mancini, mere background music in movies became part of pop culture -- an expression of sophistication and wit with a modern sense of cool and a lasting lyricism that has not dated.
cover art

Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music

John Caps

(University of Illinois Press)
US: Feb 2012

Excerpted from the Introduction: Here Was Something Fresh, from Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music by John Caps. Copyright ©  2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.This material may not be reprinted, photocopied, reposted online or distributed in any way without the written permission of the copyright holder.

It is no accident that Henry Mancini became the first publicly successful and personally recognizable film composer in history—practically a brand name in pop culture. He was perfectly placed, by time and temperament, to be a bridge between the traditions of the big band period of World War II and the eclectic impatience of the baby boomer generation that followed, between the big formal orchestral film scores of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Years and a modern American minimalist approach. On the one hand, his respect for pre-wartime pop and movie music represented continuity, even advocacy, of tradition. On the other hand, for many young postwar families, newly empowered by the Kennedy-era optimism of the 1960s, the Mancini sound seemed to represent the bright, confident, welcoming voice of a new middle-class life: interested in pop songs and jazz, in movies and television, in outreach politics but also conventional stay-at-home comforts. Mancini’s music combined it all naturally, along with color and youthfulness, wit and warmth, and, best of all, after the paranoid and anxious interim of the 1950s (characterized in movies by radiation-enraged monsters and angst-torn juvenile delinquents, and in music by raw rock ‘n’ roll or tortured urban jazz) it had a cosmopolitan, clear-eyed, and lyrical sense of “cool.” Here was something fresh.

In a sense, Mancini was reinventing the language of film scoring. His personal sound was more than mere pop music while something less than pure jazz: a combination of pop melody and jazz inflections of the so-called West coast cool school. Mancini’s first reinvention, then, was to popularize that sound in Hollywood and adapt it to the dramatic, narrative needs of movie soundtrack scoring. Learning the history of traditional symphonic screen music was easy for him, as he settled in California after the war working for one of the last of the big assembly-line movie studios, turning out background music for mediocre formula films destined for double-feature drive-in theaters—dumb comedies, wooden westerns, hysterical horror flicks and UFO thrillers, and the latest fad, teen melodramas. There he could practice how to score typical movie chase sequences and gushing love themes; he could perfect the orchestral scream, the instrumental chuckle, and a “safe” corporate version of rock music (actually as mild as a sock hop). All of those voicings would find their way into his version of jazz-pop as he sought a style for himself. Why, the very idea of eclecticism was in tune with the magpie times. certainly, film composers had been exploiting all those clichés for a long time (hear Erich Korngold’s post-romantic scores in the 1930s, David Raksin’s atonal modernisms in the 1940s, Elmer Bernstein’s pseudo-jazz scores in the 1950s), but Mancini’s particular blend was the first to capture the public’s attention in a big way, first in films and then on records. He was the first multimedia music superstar precisely because he was reinventing the relationship between the soundtrack and those boomer ticket buyers, speaking in their vernacular.

Furthermore, it happened that Mancini’s arrival in Hollywood coincided with two other developments in pop culture that enabled him to become famous. First was the collapse of the big movie studio system, which, soon enough, sent him out on his own as a freelance composer to be hired by television, where fate awaited him. Second was the revolution occurring over in the recording industry: the introduction of a new “high fidelity,” multi-miked recording process called stereo. Major record labels like RCA Victor and Columbia hoped consumers would spend a lot of money on new stereo home listening systems that promised “life-like sound.” Mancini’s second reinvention, then, was to repackage soundtrack music as widely marketable discs for home listening. Best-seller charts, recording industry Grammy Awards, and even DownBeat magazine jazz polls all praised and promoted his early television music for the detective series Peter Gunn and, soon, a whole sequence of jazz-pop albums by Mancini. Suddenly he was not just a screen composer behind the scenes but a recognized recording artist. In years to come, Billboard magazine would list him as the nineteenth highest-selling album artist in history on the same chart that includes Elvis and Sinatra, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. And with one mega-hit each year for the next decade, either in television and movies or on records (Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther were film scores first, then rearranged into wildly successful albums), Mancini became a household name and a millionaire, amassing a music catalog that could only be envied by others.

By the middle of the 1960s he was world famous with three generations of fans: the war veterans who were wrestling with middle age, the young marrieds who were buying their first houses (well equipped with state-of- the-art televisions and music systems), and baby boomers lucky enough to enjoy the freedom of choice between the happy path to New Suburbia or the conscience road to the protest culture of the late 1960s. As an expression of that luxury, boomers in particular seemed willing to sample a wide range of music, all the way from jukebox rock (both black and white talent) to “social conscience” folk music à la Dylan or the Kingston Trio, to the four B’s of pop (the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Burt Bacharach, John Barry’s James Bond music). Mancini seemed to have recognition value across that whole range. He was probably best known (and still is) for three iconic musical acts that spanned the audiences just outlined—the raucous jazz-based but rock ’n’ roll–driven “Peter Gunn Theme,” the warmth and universal nostalgia of the song from Breakfast at Tiffany’s “Moon River” with its longing lyric about “two drifters off to see the world… someday,” and the cool humor of the “Pink Panther Theme” with its slinking bass line and throaty sax lead that was both hip and wry. Those also represent Mancini’s three pillars of pop—jazz forms and features, melody as an expressive device (sometimes in song form, other times as orchestral miniatures), and film scoring (which we will see is another discipline all its own).

By the mid-1960s Mancini was becoming a force of influence within each of those categories. colleagues in Hollywood talked about their own music as having “Mancini chords” and spoke of themselves as being freer to write, thanks to him. Young composer/arrangers like Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, and Lalo Schifrin readily acknowledged Mancini’s prominence. Even veteran song writers like Irving Berlin publicly welcomed Mancini’s contributions as the return of classic American lyricism after a static and pallid decade. Mancini represented loyalty to the old with the spirit of the new. With ninety films and ninety disc albums to his credit, with twenty Grammy Awards (National Academy of Recorded Arts and Sciences) out of seventy-two nominations, and with four Oscar Awards (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) out of eighteen nominations, Mancini eventually became an industry leader. But it is important to realize that there is more to Mancini’s catalog than those Kennedy-era films and recordings and to be able to explore and expose the steady evolution of his music from the early assembly-line scores for B movies of the 1950s, toward his first personal scores and his television successes, then fame as a spokesperson for the jazz-pop style he championed, and his perfection of the Mancini Touch in the 1960s. The 1970s were more experimental years working through a wide range of ethnic tonalities (Chinese, Russian, even Eskimo music) and even some theme-less avant-garde writing. Mancini’s music of the 1980s, then, seems to unite all the tendencies he had shown so far, yet with a mellowing and a maturation and a personalization that transcend the commercial and utilitarian genres that he served. The 1990s promised further evolution—music for electronic instruments; a score for director Tim Burton’s film about the last days of the studio system, which Mancini had known so well; and his first Broadway musical score—but it was all cut short by his unexpected death in 1994 at the age of seventy.

That Mancini’s output paralleled its own times is not surprising. He meticulously studied all the trends and vogues in music and the recording industry around him so as to be prepared for any kind of film score assignment that might come along. He even heeded the big retro trend of 1970s Hollywood back to large-scale symphonic scores spearheaded by the triumphant career of his own former employee John Williams (Jaws and Star Wars). But more importantly, Mancini’s music at its best precisely paralleled his own personal growth, and it is that progress I track here. As he and his family matured, you can hear him seeking new layered harmonies in his writing, more complex melody structures that venture beyond the conventional thirty-two-bar song format, and a more dramatically developed score architecture—even a more refined way of scoring a story on screen, not just with a series of charmed pop tunes but in a more serious orchestral language.

Mancini never intended to be a self-expressive musician just as, indeed, he usually deflected self-revealing conversation from himself. He was a reactive person who tried to reach people only through background chat or background music. But somehow he had a lot to say, and it stood out in spite of him. Of course, he gloried in the sounds he was able to produce, and he wanted to share that music with people. Even mere pop music, even cool jazz in its 1960s dialect, can be exciting today; even a yearning baby boomer ballad can give poignancy to the New Millennium. What was fresh once can still have pertinence and power if it is personal. The best of Mancini, while no longer new, is thus self-renewing.

John Caps was producer of The Cinema Soundtrack, a film music series syndicated on Public Radio and has written on general music topics for such publications as Musical America, Film Comment and for the New York City Opera.  As a M.Ed. he taught deaf-blind students at Helen Keller’s alma mater, The Perkins School near Boston, and has produced award-winning documentaries on African American film history, women in the legal professions, Russian immigrant teens, and a variety of psychiatric subjects for the Kennedy Kreiger Institute and Human Relations Media NY.

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