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Surround Sound: Genre Generics (Ocean's 13/ Surf's Up/ Hairspray - The Musical)

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Wednesday, Jul 4, 2007

Basically, movie soundtracks are divided into three generic types. The first is the most recognizable and familiar - the basic score release, a composer-created set of cues that illustrate the basic sonic signatures in the film. Sometimes, an original number of two can be added to amplify the mercantile possibilities, but for the most part, it’s all instrumentals and mood. The second kind of collection was forged most successfully in the ‘80s. Call it the K-Tel conceit, or the packaging of potential hits, but these pop song laden albums are meant as slyly subtle tie-ins to the motion picture proper. Sometimes, the tunes featured are merely “suggested” by the title they are connected to (meaning they don’t actually appear in the movie itself). The last soundtrack standard is the one based on the actual movie musical. Prior to its death as a cultural commodity around 1975, original cast recordings from the song and dance epics were chart topping smashes. They ruled Billboard before The Beatles came along and realigned the entire notion of popularity.


In this first edition of SE&L’s revamp of the PopMatters’ Surround Sound brand (it will be a blog feature from now on), we get an interesting overview of all three concepts. First up is a mostly wordless workout on a terribly tired A-list entity. While it hopes to hint at hep-ness, it’s more vague than Vegas. Second, there’s a CG cartoon companion piece that often feels like the bumper tunes played at the Caribbean version of the Super Bowl. One amazing moment of artistic clarity stands out, though. And finally, one of the most anticipated movies of Summer 2007 delivers its pre-release set of shifted over showtunes. Oddly enough, it appears that something incredibly campy and busy found its way from the boards of Broadway to the encoded information of the aluminum disc. While perhaps not the best examples of movie music’s power and potential, the trio of albums here do a bang up job of illustrating the kind of releases the studios depend upon to heighten overall awareness.


Ocean’s 13 [rating: 5]


There is something very cold and calculated about the oh so hip ‘coolness’ composer/DJ David Holmes is putting forth on this, his third dip into Danny’s Ocean. The latest aural investigation of the Stephen Soderbergh Rat Pack redux finds Holmes still generating that old fashioned space age bachelor pad Muzak via some decidedly high tech toys, lost in a natty nostalgia that seems geared to those who get their sonic memories supersized via Starbucks.  The results sound oddly familiar and yet almost antiseptic, reminiscent of what robotic lounge lizards would generate if they were in charge of the party. There’s no denying the initial allure – jazzy horns and tumbling vibes always bring out one’s inner jet setting bon vivant – but Holmes is merely the student hoping to imitate a far more formidable set of masters. And then, just to make things a little more complicated, the studio tosses in tracks from Frank Sinatra (“This Town”) and Puccio Roelens (a rather dry version of the standard “Caravan”) just to show how far off base he really is.

Still, there are elements here that really do set the proper playful tone for the film – which is all a score is supposed to do, at the end of the day. Indeed, the very first track, “Not Their Fight” will probably be absconded one day by Quentin Tarantino, so strong is it’s trippy throwback mentality. Driven by a particularly slinky bass, the kicky “Kensington Chump” is all burbles and undulating aural quirks. “Laptops”, only a minute long, sounds like the greatest unused opening riff in all of late ‘60s rock, while “Dice Men” could have been the backdrop to any number of Peace Generation acid casualty love ins – that is, until it breaks into a series of ‘70s cop show shout-outs, and more or less arrests itself. But the real standout inclusion is by another non-Holmes’ contributor. Motherhood, which can best be described as the real deal, delivers the dynamic “Soul Town”, a collection of concrete hooks and haunting female trills that literally sends the short hairs on the back of your neck craning upward for a listen. It has an electricity that Holmes himself and the rest of the Ocean 13 CD can barely muster.


Surf’s Up! [rating: 4]


As with most varying artist outtakes, b-sides, and popular hits compilations, the mood of the movie moment is clearly and loudly signaled by each and every song. Indeed, all throughout Up’s amiable track list, we can experience the film’s two overriding levels of honest emotion – call them “Let’s Party!” and “Let’s Chill”. On the side of sun and fun are random auditory clichés like the Romantics thoroughly overplayed Kinks vamp “What I Like About You” as well as retakes on time tested tunes like “Wipe Out” (by Big Nose) and “Reggae Got Soul” (by 311). But when the narrative needs to turn all pensive or prophetic, it pulls out the slow, languid acoustics of Nine Black Alp’s “Pocket Full of Stars” or Incubus’ “Drive”. In fact, you can almost set your internal emotional clock by the way this CD unfolds. Happiness leads to heartbreak as histrionics meld into heroism. By the end – a rather routine “Hawaiian War Chant (Ta-Hu-Wa-Hu-Wai) by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys – you can just visualize the 3D cartoon characters walking into the computer generated sunset, story told and overall entertainment value confirmed.

There are some surprises here. Pearl Jam, a band one wouldn’t normally associate with a family film soundtrack, pops up to provide its standard angst-propelled passion for the appropriately titled “Big Wave”, while those lost superstars the New Radicals are revisited with their signature anthem “You Get What You Give”. A big surprise here is the inclusion of a track by Ms. Lauryn Hill. Absent from the charts since 2002’s MTV Unplugged No. 2, her inclusion – a gorgeous ghetto groove called “Lose Myself” – maintains her continuing status as an artist of infinite possibilities. The scratchy funk backdrop, met almost instantly by some spacey, ethereal ‘80s new wave keyboards, leads to a melodic and lyrical intensity that causes one’s jaw to drop…into an easy smile. In some ways, this is the former Fugees’ rewrite of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” – there’s the same pure pop conceit, but an undercurrent that downplays the inherent effervescence. Unfortunately, it’s a level of musical mastery that makes even the classic tracks on this hit-oriented collection blush in aesthetic embarrassment.


Hairspray the Musical [rating: 5]


To the unfamiliar ear, the score for the hit Broadway extravaganza based on John Waters’ far wittier coming of age comedy was like Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors fused to a determined devotee’s idea of what a Great White Way show should sound like. It’s big! It’s brassy! It’s beaming with all kinds of gonzo gay pride! And yet for some reason, the fevered pitch via which composer Marc Shaiman vamps his vision of Baltimore circa 1962 is both sincere and kind of shallow. There’s a crowdpleaser desperation buried at the base of each number, a ‘sell it to the balcony’ sense of showmanship that can be both glorious and grating. Similar to how Mel Brooks managed a Tony out of what is basically a bunch of forgettable, half-formed songs, Hairspray tries to walk the walk, but ends up drowning in its own disposability. Fifty years from now, when directors are hungry for solid shows to revive, this is one that won’t be tallying up those longevity royalties.


Indeed, without someone like South Park’s Trey Parker alongside to balance out the kitsch factor (the two collaborated on the Oscar nominated songs for the cartoon’s big screen debut), Shaiman is shameless. He borrows so much from the aural clichés of the era that you find yourself playing an internal guessing game over who he’s stealing from/homaging next. “Good Morning Baltimore”, the show’s (and movie’s) opening number is like a gigantic girl group tribute taken to tacky extremes. Sadly, Rachel Sweet did it much better when she crafted the title track to Waters’ film. Even the new songs, specifically fashioned for this release (and added Academy attention come awards time), are almost too familiar to be considered original. Indeed, the first ‘single’ from the soundtrack, Zac Efrom’s “Ladies Choice” is just “Hand Jive” with tween appropriate sentiments. While it’s a kick to hear star John Travolta croon alongside screen ‘hubby’ Christopher Walken on the number “(You’re) Timeless to Me”, this is one CD that needs the musical from whence it came, and all the goodwill associated with same, to overcome its ditzy desperation.



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