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Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music

John Caps

(University of Illinois Press; US: Feb 2012)

Prior to reading Henry Mancini…Reinventing Film Music, I associated Henry Mancini exclusively with his piece, “The Baby Elephant Walk”. This was not due to my familiarity with the 1962 film Hatari!, starring John Wayne, for which the song was composed. Rather, my awareness with “The Baby Elephant Walk” stemmed from the use of the song in contemporary popular culture: the shows The Simpsons and Friends both used the tune, while many sport fans would equate the tune solely with the Philadelphia Phillies.


Yet Mancini’s cultural legacy and influence are far more extensive than a casual sampling of “The Baby Elephant Walk”. As John Caps states in the introduction, “[Mancini] was probably best known (and still is) for three iconic musical acts” (3); the ‘Peter Gunn’ theme, ‘Moon River’ from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the ‘Pink Panther’ theme.” These three pieces are quintessential pop-culture dynamos, but are seemingly made familiar in cultural contexts that are far removed from Mancini. Perhaps it could be argued that these pieces have become popular cultural linchpins, while the story of the creator has faded into oblivion. I was unfamiliar with Mancini’s oeuvre, and even more so, oblivious of Mancini’s impact on popular culture. This is precisely one of the cultural histories biographer Caps seeks to elucidate. 


Undeniably, Henry Mancini…Reinventing Film Music is a well-researched and noteworthy revisitation of not only Mancini’s life, but also the history of the film and music industries. Indeed, Caps aptly demonstrates Mancini’s voracious musical output that oftentimes both reflected and challenged the Hollywood and popular cultural climates. Utilizing archival research and interviews with friends, family, and Mancini himself, Caps delves deeply into the professional and musical life of Mancini.


Moreover, Caps makes use of and includes excerpts from primary sources that give the biography moments of charm and insight into a bygone cultural era. For example, Caps includes the cable Audrey Hepburn wrote Mancini imploring him to work on her project: “Dearest Hank, please won’t you do the music?... Can’t imagine anyone else but you scoring” (103). Yet moments such as these are few and for the most part overburdened by tedious analysis of music theory and detailed reiterations of specific movie scenes and plots. The heavy emphasis on musical and cinematic minutia shifts the readers focus away from Mancini and renders the biography a laborious read.


Caps begins by asserting that “Mancini became the first publicly successful and personally recognizable film composer in history – practically a brand name in pop culture” (1). Mancini was clearly influential: “colleagues in Hollywood talked about their music as having ‘Mancini chords,’” (3) and Mancini’s “ninety films and ninety disc albums, twenty Grammy Awards, and four Oscar Awards” (3) demonstrate his cultural leadership. Yet he also wrote music that was sellable to a general music audience. As Caps states, Mancini “was the first multimedia music superstar precisely because he was reinventing the relationship between the soundtrack and ticket buyers” (2).


Audiences viewed the movies and then consumed the soundtracks that blended pop-tunes, jazz, and refined orchestral compositions. However, they also responded to the sincerity and earnestness of Mancini’s work. As Caps contends, Mancini developed music as a personal creative outlet while also serving as the voice of the American working and middle-class. It’s clear that Mancini changed the role of music in the movies and it also becomes increasingly obvious that his cultural legacy left an indelible mark on historical and contemporary popular culture.


The refinement of Mancini’s musical identity is intrinsically connected to the development of the music and film industries, and Caps shrewdly weaves these histories to bolster Mancini’s biography. For example, Mancini’s film-composing career began in the era of assembly line scoring, where instead of garnering creative autonomy, composers were directed to reference the “music library [that] had folders full of sheet music already orchestrated and marked ‘suspense,’ ‘lively’…and one could consult those, choose some passages, and insert them into one’s own scoring” (24).


Caps frequently reminds readers of the juxtaposition between the generic and corporate musical demands of the industry with creative individuality, a thorny relationship Mancini was forced to balance. Yet Mancini found avenues in which to circumvent industry demands: composing for television allotted for more creative expression, an active partnership with Blake Edwards formed a solid foundation for musical experimentation, or accepting cinematic vehicles that facilitated a move away from the jazz-pop structures and “broaden[ed] the dramatic architecture of his orchestral writing” (102).


Nevertheless, Mancini constantly battled the breakneck evolution of Hollywood and the shifting demands of the audience that constantly twisted the threat of becoming culturally and professionally obsolete. For example, Mancini’s was reticent to include electronic music performance or production in his work. Or weathering the frustration caused by the global success of once protégés and now bigwig composers such as John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, etc).  Old and new Hollywood were/are in an unwavering battle for cultural superiority and market gain and often it was difficult for Mancini to respond to the finicky and mercurial industry. Despite this, Caps contends that Mancini always composed with a heart-felt sincerity which seemingly rendered his music to be “so likable, so respectful, so right… Mancini was writing fairly easily for everyone – for films and albums” (91).


While Mancini’s music was accessible, Caps writing is not. It’s difficult to discern who is Caps intended audience. Arguably, the writing is directed towards readers with extensive knowledge of music theory and an expertise in classic film repertoires. Without doubt Caps engagement of Mancini’s legacy is marvelous, but these moments are pushed aside by extensive and intricate music and film analysis. For example, passages such as “Mancini’s strings capitulate into his familiar searching, chromatic phraseology; a flute roams up the scale to where the piano mantra enters again…” (158) might be indecipherable to those without formal musical training.


Seemingly, Caps also assumes that the audience is not familiar with the movies’ details or narrative nuances. Therefore in an attempt at inclusiveness, Caps writes exhaustive recapitulations and summations of the movies. For cinemaphiles this is filler, for film neophytes it’s overwhelming, for musicians it’s protracted, and for everyone else it renders the read onerous and depletes the emphasis on Mancini. This is a consistent problem throughout, and unfortunately, drastically diminishes the overall quality of the biography.

Caps informs readers that he wrote this biography in order to demonstrate how “Mancini’s music at its best precisely paralleled his own personal growth… As he and his family matured you can hear him seeking new layered harmonies – even a more refined way of scoring a story on the screen” (4). Caps only partially fulfills this thesis. The majority of the text is focused on Mancini’s scoring and compositional methods while his personal history is a secondary consideration. Caps emphasizes Mancini’s tenuous relationship with his father and son Chris, while the influence of Mancini’s mother, wife, and daughters are casually inserted. Henry Mancini…Reinventing Film Music reads more like a textbook chronicling the musical deconstruction of Mancini’s oeuvre rather than a biography of Mancini himself. 


Henry Mancini…Reinventing Film Music is inconsistent; it is at once inaccessible yet informative. The moments where Caps shift focus onto Mancini and the cultural histories he influenced are engaging and fascinating. Yet readers must mine for these moments amongst the theoretical detritus. Despite this, Mancini’s cultural impact reaches past the overzealous analysis and Caps successfully concludes that Mancini needs to be remembered for his reinvention of film music. Undeniably, Mancini is one of the most recognizable film composers in cultural history, and despite its flaws, biographies such as Caps’ ensure the continuity of Mancini’s legacy.

Rating:

Elisabeth Woronzoff-Dashkoff is currently a graduate student in the American Culture Studies Ph.D. program at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green Ohio. She is interested in visual and musical popular culture, and wishes to research the ways in which the role of women in music, both contemporary and historically, have shaped the gender, political and cultural boundaries of the independent and mainstream music industry. I love music in all forms - but there is no way to tell what I will or will not like. One thing remains certain: I love everything Morrissey and Bruce Springsteen have created.


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By John Caps
22 Mar 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.
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