[11 January 2008]
“You must make the wood cry,” says Armin Mueller-Stahl in “Eastern Promises,” giving an impromptu violin lesson to two adoring little girls. With a flourish of bow upon strings, he charms his young proteges, along with visitor Naomi Watts and the audience, who are bonded by their ignorance that this kindly old man is really a Russian mafia patriarch who inflicts untold harms from the perch of an elegant, Old-World restaurant.
Presumably taking his cue from this scene, composer Howard Shore created a violin theme for the film that truly makes the wood and the heart weep, a mournful brace of cascading and ascending notes that refract the cumulative sorrow which has flowed from this man’s clandestine operations.
Shore’s memorable contribution to “Eastern Promises” is one of many indications of the unusually vibrant state of film composition in 2007, and it was rightly acknowledged by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association with a Golden Globe nomination for best original score.
But as is so often the case with the HFPA’s scattershot nominating process, a few reasoned judgment calls get lost under the groaning pile of the shamefully snubbed. Where, pray tell, are Jonny Greenwood’s fierce, nattering-string settings for “There Will Be Blood,” one of the most startling facets of this soaring period drama and one of the few film scores in recent years that can honestly own the sobriquet of landmark?
In an entirely different plain of musical consciousness, how is it that the stunningly organic songs that singer-actors Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova wrote for themselves in “Once” were passed up, top to bottom, in the best song category? A diminutive summer sleeper that provided a refreshing antidote to “Hairspray’s” shake-you-silly brass, “Once” pointed the bloated film musical genre in a promising new direction. Yet it was also overlooked in the best comedy/musical category, in which HFPA nominators succumbed instead to the big-budget sirens of “Hairspray” and “Across the Universe,” Julie Taymor’s dippy fantasia on late-period Beatles songs.
To its great credit, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gives music a leg up in the annual movie awards season by divvying up its best picture and lead performance prizes, with one division for drama and one for musical or comedy. This has been a particular boon for actors in comic and/or musical roles, who too often play second fiddle to dramatic performances when Oscars are handed out.
That said, what credentials does the HFPA, an organization of entertainment writers who report on film for foreign publications, bring to the table that enables it to credibly evaluate music?
If the Golden Globe Awards have fended off brickbats and skepticism to become a respected bellwether for the Oscars, it may have something to do with the HFPA’s affinity for glamour. Although revised rules now keep the group’s membership at a distance from the studio bait of gifts and parties, it still loves to bask in the nearby glow of celebrity performers and Hollywood power brokers - during regular televised years, that is, not hamstrung by writers’ strikes.
Should you want to beef up the glamour quotient and keep audiences from dozing during the music awards announcements, for example, you don’t want upstart European ragamuffins like “Once’s” Hansard and Irglova sullying the landscape. And you don’t interrupt the clubby spectacle of air-kissing by bringing on South Korea’s Byung-woo Lee, who wrote the jauntily lush music for “The Host.”
Rather, you want to train a camera on Globe darling Clint Eastwood, who was nominated in the original score category for his generic jazz-inflected work for “Grace Is Gone,” and again in the best song category for that movie’s old-school title tune, with lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager. The HFPA loves loves loves Clint, to the tune of five Golden Globes over the course of his career.
“Eastern Promises” nominee Howard Shore may not carry the same star value, but like Eastwood and Sager, he’s a lifelong industry player, a niche ensured by his Globe-winning affiliation with “The Aviator” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
But what will it take for David Torn, the composer of “Lars and the Real Girl,” to become a member of the club? A Grammy-winning guitarist and electronically tilted composer (aka “SPLaTTeRCeLL”) who has made important contributions to film scores by Shore, Carter Burwell, Mark Isham and Ryuichi Sakamoto, Torn wrote a delicious original score for the Ryan Gosling comedy.
Torn’s playful themes arguably did as much to center the audience in the film’s off-center universe as the leading man’s performance, which received the film’s sole Golden Globe nomination.
Similarly, Globe nominators got so lost in the dazzle of Marion Cottilard’s portrayal of Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” that they didn’t seem to notice what British composer Christopher Gunning was up to in the background. To be sure, Piaf’s signature songs (lip-synched by Cottilard) may have rightfully stolen the musical part of the show, but Gunning’s heart-melting main theme conspired with the actress’ brilliantly earthy gesticulating to press all our goosebump buttons during Piaf’s triumphant concert hall debut.
Is anybody out there listening?
This plaintive question is intended for movie audiences, film critics and HFPA members, who seem nearly unanimous in praise for the decidedly mixed musical values of “Sweeney Todd,” nominated for four Golden Globes, including best picture.
The Tim Burton apologists have been working overtime applauding the Brechtian mauling of Stephen Sondheim by Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter (both nominated for Globes), each of whom would have been hooted off any self-respecting Broadway stage. I mean, honestly, folks, would anyone have wanted to hear Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge actually sing “Porgy and Bess?”
Can anyone sing?
No one is calling for a return to the ventriloquist flimflammery of the dubbed musical, much as the technique worked for Cottilard in “La Vie en Rose.” But there is something depressing in the universal lowering of standards that has dragged down the genre since Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman heralded the new age of the karaoke musical in “Moulin Rouge,” the movie that told the world anyone could sing, provided you commanded more than five zeros on your paycheck.
The tone-deafening of musical performance in film has been in the works for decades, possibly since Clint Eastwood himself set the hounds to howling in “Paint Your Wagon.” That it should be happening at a time when composing for the screen is entering a new golden age is one of those paradoxes of the movies that defy explanation.
That the Golden Globes should be taken at all seriously as an arbiter of musical quality in the movies is enough to make a violin’s wood cry.