[15 September 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It is safe to say that there are several kinds of soundtracks, each type geared towards exactly what the filmmaker wants or the narrative needs. Some act as nothing more than metaphysical mix tapes, complications collecting the various pop music tracks secured for a marketing tie-in release. To call it commercial would be stating the bloody obvious. Others act like subtle supplements, doing little more than emphasizing the storyline or subject matter inherent in a film. For these ethereal attempts, the slightest sonic breeze might simply blow it all away. But some scores are wholly reflective, capable of offering the listener an inner mirror. They provide a resource for mimicking the moviemaker, turning their vision into the sonic serenade heard over the Cineplex speakers.
In this edition of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will look at three examples of this rarified reality in action. In each case, the person with pen in hand and orchestra at bay is attempting to play inferred filmmaker, realizing the same style and vision of the person paying their wage. From the latest supporting stance from a longtime creative companion to the luxuriant efforts of one of the few women in the business, each presentation perfectly matches the material on hand - for good and for grating.
Burn After Reading - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]
If there is one constant in the Coen Brothers oeuvre, aside from the arcane cleverness and attention to old fashioned cinematic detail, it’s the music of Carter Burwell. Part folklorist, part sage sampler, this amazing musician has guided every one of the boys bravado movie moves, from Blood Simple to their most recent masterpiece No Country for Old Men. While never nominated for an Oscar (his work on both Miller’s Crossing and Fargo deserved at least some minor Academy Award acknowledgement), his themes have become the sonic signatures for the Coens’ complex aesthetic. His most recent collaboration with the filmmakers - the fantastic Burn After Reading - easily reflects the same anarchic attitude the brothers attempted when bringing the surreal screwball comedy to the big screen.
The main approach taken by this unusual film is that all romance is like high espionage. As a result, the Coens create a comedic backdrop in which everything - from extramarital affairs to breaches of national security - is treated within the same ersatz-thriller ideal. Burwell applies the same schematic energy here, such bracing selections as “Night Running”, “Breaking and Entering” and “How is this Possible?” playing like outtakes from a bawdy Bourne provocation. Elsewhere, the composer creates certain themes for specific characters, including a three part piece illustrating the look for love by health club employee Linda and tripwire Treasury agent Harry. Together without other standout tracks like “A Higher Patriotism” and “Carrots/Shot”, Burwell defends his position as full fledged member of the Coens’ creative consensus. It just wouldn’t be one of their films without his amazing musical muse.
Towelhead - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]
Looking over his resume, composer Thomas Newman has provided some sensational aural backdrops for some equally impressive films. From Pixar’s Wall*E to Todd Field’s Little Children, from Revenge of the Nerds in the mid ‘80s to the upcoming Revolutionary Road, he has a unique ability to capture the sly subtext of the films he is complementing. After working with Sam Mendes and Alan Ball on the Oscar winning American Beauty (he also received a nomination), it’s not surprising to see his name associated with the follow-ups from both men. Road won’t be released until December, but already making the festival and limited release rounds is Towelhead. Alan Ball’s directorial debut, centering on the sexual coming of age of a 13 year old Lebanese girl in Texas, is tough subject matter for a movie. Sadly, Newman’s score illustrates just how off base this entire production really is.
Made up mostly of ethnocentric beats and faux Middle Eastern influences, this lackadaisical soundtrack does little to amplify the sinister and shocking elements contained in Towelhead. Sequences like “Snow Queen”, “Vuoso”, and “Rain & Good Weather” feel barely fleshed out, locked in a slow simmering sonic strategy that barely delivers any intrigue. Even worse, when Newman starts with the polyrhythmic drumming and cultural swatches, he seems to be trying far too hard. How obvious is it that a film centering on an Arab teenager in America would be backed by what sounds like the Disney version of a Syrian sword dance. Besides, this score is miniscule in comparison to other efforts. With only eight tracks and a very limited running time, this feels like something Newman tossed off from the top of his head. Even a movie as miserable as Towelhead deserves better.
The Duchess - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]
It is unusual to find women working in the mostly man’s world of film scoring. It’s not for lack of talent. Instead, the studio system and their approach to soundtracks apparently still have a very high, and very unnecessary glass ceiling. Rachel Portman has clearly broken through, although not with the kind of commercial and critical respect given to her more masculine counterparts. Working in film since 1982, she’s provided the sonic setup for such interesting efforts as Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet, the Johnny Depp vehicle Benny and Joon, and most recently, the ‘other’ Truman Capote/In Cold Blood film Infamous. She even has an Academy Award for her work in Emma. Yet it’s clear that as a facet of a film, Portman perfectly matches the moviemakers she’s paired with. Never overstepping her bounds or breaking the tone established, she ends up offering the kind of support that few composers can claim - unobtrusive but totally necessary.
It’s the same with her creative classic revisionism for The Duchess. Featuring Keira Knightley and centering on the scandal plagued life of 18th century aristocrat Georgiana Spencer, Portman’s pieces here sound like found chamber music from a noted master’s overflowing filing cabinet. From perfect little tone poems like “I Think of You All the Time” to more majestic works like “Some Things Too Late, Others Too Early”, Portman’s methods segue perfectly into the noted legends on hand. Indeed, she doesn’t sound out of place among Beethoven or Hayden, both of whom are represented here. Certainly, there is a more contemporary bent to some of the selections, including the suggestively named tracks as “Gee and Grey Make Love” and “Rape”, but for the most part, The Duchess lilts along on the kind of antiquated atmosphere that seems perfect for this kind of period piece. Such a situation brings out all the British in this smart English artist.