[4 August 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Not every composer gets to add the soundtrack to a major motion picture. With so many small movies out there, and so many potential musicians, there must be some manner of professional pecking order to see who accents the blockbusters, and who toils away in obscurity. Of course, all film scorers had to start somewhere. John Williams started out in B-movies and TV (Lost in Space) while Danny Elfman took a rock star to cult icon (Pee Wee Herman) path to importance. From Randy Newman to Elmer Bernstein, fame was not instantaneous, especially in the mostly unsung world of such craft. Few films are remembered exclusively for their music. Instead, when functioning perfectly, a score solidifies its place as part of the overall cinematic experience, neither overly intrusive nor singularly memorable.
It usually takes an entire career (or one huge commercial success) to bring a movie musician out into the limelight. In the case of the four artists featured in this week’s edition of SE&L‘s Surround Sound, many were part of the journeymen aspect of the artform before universal acknowledgement arrived. In the case of two of these individuals, there work may speak louder than their actual names. What all four albums represent, however, is the everyday product of artisans hoping to define themselves to the next potential employer. A composer is only as good as his next job, so to speak, and the level of proficiency shown here illustrates why they represent some of the industry’s best.
The Life Before Her Eyes - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]
James Horner has had a very interesting career trajectory. Many first noticed him in large part to his steel drum tinged music for the Eddie Murphy/Nick Nolte hit 48 Hours. But there were many facets to this composer’s character, aspects he explored while creating the soundtrack for Star Trek II and III, Aliens, and Commando. By the late ‘90s, however, he had become a more mainstream fixture, earning Oscar nods for Field of Dreams, Apollo 13, and Braveheart. It was another collaboration with James Cameron, that finally earned him Academy gold. Titanic remains the biggest film of all time, and Horner’s score, and the song “My Heart Will Go On”, are now part of cinema history. Oddly enough, that was 11 years ago, and Horner remains a fixture in filmmaking. His most recent work on the Uma Thurman thriller The Life Before Her Eyes, proves how provocative and daring his work can be.
Built around simple piano lines ala Michael Nyman, and yet structured in a way that recalls the moody atmosphere and tension inherent in the storyline, Horner’s music for Life is very haunting. It aches in places, recalling lost memories and painful experiences. Elsewhere, as in the final track “Young Diana’s Future - A Future that Could Have Been” some of his familiar ‘mechanisms of dread’ come to the fore. What’s most compelling about this collection is that it could easily be enjoyed outside the cinematic experience. Almost ambient in the way it approaches its form and melody, Horner really excels in selling a certain sentiment and feeling. You can practically feel the emotion buried beneath the unseen storyline. While The Life Before Her Eyes was not a box office success, this score certainly is a triumph of his talent.
Definitely, Maybe - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]
Like Danny Elfman before him, Clint Mansell got his start as part of a rock act. As the former lead singer and guitarist for ersatz industrial badboys Pop Will Eat Itself, he was known to explore all facets of sound. When the group disbanded in 1996, he got a shot at film scoring thanks to his friend Darren Aronofsky. After supplementing the sci-fi surrealism of , he would gain massive fame and obsessive recognition for his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain. Much of his material has focused on the spooky, spatial New Age evocations of tone and environment. But Mansell has been known to break out of that dreamscape mode now and again. He did so with 2007’s Smokin’ Aces, and he does again with his charts for the amiable romantic comedy Definitely, Maybe. While there are times he reverts to the epic, most of the music is a grab bag combination of influences, inflections, and straight ahead instrumental fun.
Sometimes rendered in evocative snippets only, Definitely Maybe is a celebration of all that modern music has to offer. There are nods to the ‘60s, the bombast and Beatlemania. Mansell tosses in Eastern accents, Latin beats, and lots of rock posing. By the time the familiar strains of one track have settled in (“It’s April”, “Panic Stations…”, “Summer’s Over”) we jarringly move onto another composition. There are long form wonders like the horn and fuzz guitar driven “The Candidate” and the beautiful piano solo “The Happy Ending is You”. Toward the end, a trio of tracks - “Brooklyn Bridge”, “Countdown”, and “April’s Story” suggest Mansell’s work on Aronofsky;‘s magnificent immortality allegory. But luckily for listeners here, this is one artist who also acknowledges his previous work. For all its career spanning references, Definitely Maybe is definitely good. Very good.
The Promotion - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 7]
While his name is relatively new to the mainstream movie scoring department, Alex Wurman has a long and studied career behind the composer’s desk. After nearly a decade writing in relative obscurity, he got a huge break when George Clooney pegged him to create the time traveling treats of the A-lister’s directorial debut, the Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. From their, he went on to give the Will Ferrell/Adam McKay hit Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy its retro kick. After another collaboration with the pair (Talladega Nights), Wurman went back to smaller films, focusing on such efforts as The Nines and the Simon Pegg RomCom Run Fatboy, Run. The Promotion, his most recent score, is perhaps the greatest nostalgic shout out Carter Burwell never wrote. But thanks to an infusion of sly humor, Wurman’s work stands on its own.
Like listening to a time traveling Esquivel as channeled through an indie rock heartthrob, the work here is stunning in its recall. You literally feel the old ‘50s business model manufactured by films like The Apartment in Wurman’s arrangements. Sometimes, the material maneuvers over into kitsch, as with the feisty “Fight Dance” or the follow-up track, “Masculari Horriblus”. But for the most part, this soundtrack keeps itself low to the ground and very enjoyable. Of course, with any invocation of a certain time and place (although the film is set in our current social clime), things tend to get overly familiar after a while. By the time “I Am Peanuts” and “Four Handed Promotion” roll around, we’ve had more than enough of the sly pseudo jazziness. For all its pointed positives, Wurman’s work on The Promotion is just like the film it defines - fun, if ultimately overstaying its welcome a little.
Before the Rains - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]
Mark Kilian’s is a name mostly unknown to film score fanatics. After a time as a TV composer, working on such efforts as F/X: The Series and Jake In Progress, he got lots of recognition for creating the fascinating backdrop for Gavin Hood’s Oscar winning foreign film Tsotsi. Now he’s back with another cross culture creation. Working with renowned Indian cinematographer turned director Santosh Sivan, he provides the sweet, sassy, and quite savory aural environ for the filmmaker’s first English language effort (the nationalist themed Before the Rains). With its exotic mix of ethnic sounds, tone poem pieces, and standard symphonics, what could be a tired bit of traditionalism actually comes across as exciting and quite evocative.
The first three pieces prepare us for the various soundscapes to come. “Main Titles”, “Honey Drives”, and “Hand Lines” all summon the spirit of Hindi culture, a mix of modern and authentic instrumentation taking us into the heart of this complex civilization. There are frequent nods to Islam, with call to prayer cries subtly working in the background. The familiar call of tabla and mukhavina is ever-present, and there are even some aboriginal and other tribal tinges here as well. Around track 10 - “Sanjani’s Struggle”, things begin to turn more mainstream and maudlin. The next few pieces offer the kind of simple piano and string arrangements we come to expect from such soundtracks. It makes Before the Rains a little disconcerting. Where once we had music that dared to combine the elements of all environs, the finish (except for tracks “Coming for TK” and “End Credits”) is devoid of such out of the ordinary flourishes.