[15 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
As film fans, we expect certain things - even from our cinematic scores. Horror films are going to feature musical backdrops that give away the upcoming scares while supporting a sense of fear and fright. Action films will be packed with perfunctory hard rock and lots of orchestral overkill. Comedies will cobble together a collection of predetermined pop hits accented with some standard sonic “wackiness” while dramas will be dour in their heavy handed musical manipulation. So when convention is thwarted and invention is applied, we tend to sit up and take notice. As a matter of fact, a new or novel approach to the stereotypical soundtrack can really perk up our motion picture pleasure centers. Not every eccentric or oddball attempt works, but when it does, the end results are more than delightful. They literally redefine the aural aspects of film.
In this edition of Surround Sound, we look at three new scores that all add something distinctive and extraordinary to the overall movie music paradigm. Sure, a title like Drag Me to Hell may suggest a certain orchestral type, but the work here is so marvelous in its macabre complements that we don’t really mind the standard sonic operating procedure. The real weirdness, however, comes from old stalwart Marvin “What I Did for Love” Hamlisch and the able ambience of the Robert Williamson/Geoff Zanelli partnership. In tandem with the terrific terror tenants of Christopher Young’s always excellent efforts, we have a trio of titles that suggest one style of soundtrack designing, but that then turn around and deliver a wholly unique aural experience, beginning with:
Gamer: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]
When they first came onto the scene, few knew what to make of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. They refused to play by the standard cinematic rules, instead using a single Cher-like nomenclature (Neveldine/Taylor) to label their partnership. Two sensational Crank films and a less than scary fright flick (Pathology) later and the duo are diving into the big time with their sped up, suped up science fiction actioner Gamer. Utilizing the buff bravado of 300 star Gerard Butler and a virtual reality video game premise, the pair hope to give audiences a unique vision of the shape of things to come ala Rollerball and/or The Running Man. Whether they succeeded or not is a question best left to film critics. To their creative credit, they avoid a great many of the standard Hollywood histrionics in bringing their vision to life. Take the score for this hyperactive stunt spectacle. Instead of going with something that accents and amplifies the machismo, the duo ask that their backdrop add depth and design to their often muddle message - and what they get works brilliantly.
After you get past the bookend Billboard mandates of heavy metal (Marilyn Manson’s take on the Eurhythmics “Sweet Dreams (are Made of This)”), white boy hip hop (Bloodhound Gang’s “Bad Touch”) and Rat Pat peculiarity (a Sammy Davis Jr. medley???), the score for Gamer finally settles in, and it’s a stunner. To call what composers Robert Williamson and Geoff Zanelli offer here “music” really pushes the boundaries of said definition. Instead, the pair provides what would better be called “rhythmic atmoshperics” - snatches of Brian Eno on steroids sound that both enhance and amplify the future shock fun Neveldine/Taylor are having. Tracks like “Deathwatch”, “Society”, and “Slayers” set up the storyline expertly, while middle movements such as “Simon’s House”, “Turn Me Loose”, and “Dress Up Doll” illustrate the pair’s preference to avoid the obvious and, instead, design an aural experience that really gets under your skin. By the time we get to “Kable vs. Castle”, we are convinced that Gamer the movie could never live up to Gamer the film score. This may just be the post-post modern trend for film soundtracks, and if it is, it’s fantastic.
The Informant!: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]
What happened to Marvin Hamlisch? He was everywhere in the ‘70s, scoring comedies for Woody Allen (Take the Money and Run, Bananas) and Academy Award winners (Save the Tiger, The Sting, The Way We Were). He helped create one of the longest running shows in the history of Broadway (A Chorus Line) and is one of only two people ever to win a Tony, an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Pulitzer Prize (Richard Rodgers is the other). From 1968 and The Swimmer to 1996 and The Mirror Has Two Faces, he was a constant presence in film scoring, taking time out to continue his work for the Great White Way. And then - nothing. No major movie work. A couple of less than successful stage productions. So it’s sort of shocking to see his name on the new Steven Soderbergh comedy, The Informant! The reasoning behind his return would probably be as entertaining, and as captivating, as this unusual bit of retro-motion picture backing. While we may never know about his time in entertainment exile, his work here speaks for itself.
Everything about Hamlisch’s music here is reminiscent of another time and place, plundering the past for what sounds like the equivalent of a lax longue lizard’s sonic resume. Peppered with kazoo and other quirky touches, we are transported to the world of the Midwest circa the early 1990s, a time as lost and ugly as the 1970s, except without Watergate and the leisure suits. Hamlisch instills his sunny magic on such introductory tracks as “Meet Mark:, “The Raid” and “Polygraph”. It’s all upbeat hipster hilarity. Similarly, sections like “Boxes”, “Sellout” and “Golf” frame Soderbergh’s deadpan droll style perfectly. The soundtrack also features two version of the track “Trust Me” - one a smarmy instrumental, the other a bubbly vocal featuring singer Steve Tyrell. Along with a nice little solo piano bookend of the title track, Hamlisch proves that he never really went away. Like the films he used to supplement, he just needed the right project to propel his muse - and The Informant! is clearly it.
Drag Me to Hell: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]
Christopher Young and Sam Raimi have a lot in common. While both have gone on to greater commercial success as part of mainstream moviemaking (even working together on the Spider-man films), both have a history in horror that is hard (if not impossible) to live down. For the composer, his haunted high profile began with Clive Barker’s directorial debut Hellraiser, a mind-bending take on adultery that, to this day, is often cited for its novel narrative, disgusting gore, inventive monsters…and its scintillating, symphonic score. In fact, you can’t think of the Cenobites and not be reminded of Young’s terrifying take on the genre. While his current resume readily moves from the macabre (The Grudge) to the maniacal (Disney’s The Country Bears???), the end results are usually powerful and perfectly suited for the project at hand. So when Mr. Evil Dead asked him to join up for his own return to terror, Young happily played co-conspirator. The results are the brilliant, bravado soundtrack for Raimi’s ridiculously fun Drag Me to Hell. Combining the best of old fashioned fear with softer, more subtle bits, this is one of 2009’s best musical backdrops.
There is a main theme running through the pieces, a lovely bit of Gothic gloom that’s heard in the title track, as well as in “Auto-Da-Fe” and “Concerto to Hell”. It’s like having a Hammer film battle old school Hollywood schmaltz in your head for sonic superiority. Elsewhere, sections like “Ode to Ganush”, “Black Rainbows”, and “Ordeal by Corpse” keep the tension taut and the evil electric. Indeed, Young rarely missteps here, filling every available piece with palpable dread. Even moments like “Lamia” and “Bealing Bells with Trumpet” sell the sense of terror unleashed and the notions of demons around every corner. It proves unequivocally that some composers cotton to certain styles more readily than others. Earlier this year, Young was responsible for the compelling if ultimately underwhelming work on the Bret Ellis Easton adaptation The Informers. Here, collaborating with the man who made Deadites a household world, he’s back to his old smart shock theatrics, and the results are memorable indeed.