Surround Sound: Christmas Wrap-up

It’s that time of the year again, time to clean out the Surround Sound shelves and look over the titles that have fallen through the transom since last we looked at the ever-growing cavalcade of film scores. It’s amazing that this otherwise limited merchandising facet of film is still considered a viable cinematic sales pitch (or better yet, souvenir). Few motion pictures nowadays inspire the kind of collective devotion that icons like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings demands, so where exactly is the need to offer up every single composer’s creation coming out of the Tinseltown talent pool? Sure, there are a few nerdy completists, people for whom the musical backdrop is a certified art form worthy of celebrating. For others, it’s a non-issue, an antique throwback to the days when movies weren’t easily accessible on home theater, and the soundtrack album had to suffice as one of the few ways of “re-experiencing” the film all over again. Still, the CDs and digital downloads keep coming and coming. So with that in mind, let’s tackle the last few entries of 2009 with this oddball selection of scores, begin with two of the most nonspecific in the entire creative category.

17 Again: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]

Ghosts of Girlfriends’ Past: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 3]

Not every film score composer can be a genius. Some have to be journeymen, serving the needs of the everyday narrative while being as bland as the mainstream movie’s vision. Thus we have someone like Rolfe Kent, an Englishman who actually got his start writing soundtracks for Playboy’s Inside Out series (a softcore anthology TV series ala The Red Shoe Diaries). From there, it was one minor movie after another until 1999’s Election. Thus began a collaboration with Alexander Payne that resulted in the musical backdrops for Sideways and About Schmidt. It also led to meatier Tinseltown work like the Legally Blonde films, Wedding Crashers, and subpar RomComs like Failure to Launch. Kent is the kind of artist who makes generic genre noises. His work doesn’t really follow single set of themes or an overall melodic thread. Instead, he compiles 23 to 24 little sonic snippets and then connects them to scenes based on tone, action, and other non-expressive element.

A perfect example of this strategy comes with the release of these two CDs. The first, featuring Zac Efron’s post-High School Musical starring turn, is actually the better of the two. It follows the plotpoints better, never overstating the obvious elements involved in such moments as “Mike Realises”, “Mike Sees the Janitor”, or “Alex Saves the Game”. Sure, the labels and the aural styling gives said sequences away, but Kent keeps it together long enough to assure our casual interest. When things get a little syrupy – as in the attempted theme for one of the main characters, or “Scarlett’s Garden” – the ruse is obvious. Kent is just not capable of being anything other than serviceable. His sense of what your typical movie needs from a composer is basic and unadorned. He’s not out to make a noticeable noise like Bernard Herrmann, or for a more modern name, Danny Elfman. Instead, he sits firmly in the wings, waiting for his cue. Then up comes the orchestration, down goes the expectations, and another Hollywood paycheck is cashed.

But Kent can also fall into traps, as he does throughout the soundtrack for the recent Matthew McConaughey/Jennifer Garner goof-off. Since the movie is a take-off on Dickens’ immortal holiday classic, there are significant deviations in time to deal with. The composer is the prey for the usual period piece trappings, utilizing sonic clichés early and often – the ersatz bachelor party jazz of “Uncle Wayne’s Room”, the supposed spooky snazz of “Uncle Wayne’s Apparition”. Elsewhere, we get the far too short “Ignoring Jenny” (is a 20 second blip of sound really considered part of a score?) and the irritating use of a phony Theremin sample (it almost makes you think you’re watching a bad Chiller horror film). By the end, when the music really needs to sell the sense of rebirth and reconsideration, things turn mopey and moody (“Connor Believes, But Too Late”, “Pain Beats Regret”). Instead of evoking a certain feeling or sentiment, Kent’s work here is functional and practical before slowly fading away. Sometimes, a movie needs more than that. Rolfe Kent can’t deliver it.

Bright Star: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

Mark Bradshaw is new to the soundtrack game. He has only been working in the cinematic musical genre since hooking up with renowned director Jane Campion for her 2006 short film The Water Diary. Since then, he’s worked on other small projects, but that’s it. So when he was asked to take on the task of scoring his first feature film – a look at poet John Keats and his relationship with Frances “Franny” Brawne – the novice needed to find some inspiration. He eventually discovered it in the works of the famous writer, using actual stanzas as part of the soundtrack process. The results are rather amazing. In one particularly potent track, Bradshaw uses real letters exchanged by the couple as a means of heightening the emotional core of the music. In other bits, we get parts of “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Yearning”. Perhaps the best selection is called “Human Orchestra”, the composer gathering around members of the cast for an a capella interpretation of Mozart’s “Serenade No. 10 for Winds”. Though it is incredibly brief overall (just under 24 minutes in length for the entire CD), this is one compilation that offers a lot of impact – as well as showing the lingering promise in its creator.

Red Cliff: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

When he burst on the Western film scene in 1989, John Woo was considered a true auteur, one of those long gestating “overnight successes” that take decades to be discovered. He had been making movies since 1968, but it wasn’t until his highly imaginative and visually stunning crime epics The Killer and Hard-Boiled that many outside Asia recognized his brilliance. So when it was announced that Woo would tackle the tale of The Battle of Red Cliffs during the Three Kingdoms period of ancient China, film fans all over the world salivated with implied entertainment delight. He had done wildly successful historical pieces (the Vietnam-themed Bullet in the Head) before. When they learned that favored leading man Chow Yun-Fat would be starring, imaginations flared to a fevered pitch. However, things did not work out between director and actor. Creative differences led to Chow abandoning the project on the first day of principal photography (to be replaced by his Hard-Boiled co-star, Tony Leung Chiu Wai), and while his name is still commercially viable around the world, this four hour epic has yet to see a proper US release (there is a truncated version floating around, removing nearly two hours of material).

Far more modern than one would expect, Taro Iwashiro has tried to tie all of Woo’s wild ideas together in one massive musical statement. While often effective, the Red Cliff soundtrack is just too pat to be all together potent. Sometimes, a storyline or style can cripple a composer. This is what happens to Iwashiro all throughout the scattered sequences. There are so many pulsating drums and chant-like arrangements that we swear we’ve walked into a feudal China rugby match. At other instances, he slows things down so much that the music is almost inert. There is lots of faux bombast and the kind of forced flourishes that remind someone of an unsuccessful attempt at remaking The Lord of the Rings. Iwashiro has done great work before – his score for 2007’s Genghis Khan is excellent, and he added the right amount of Tinseltown cheese to the score for Doomsday: The Sinking of Japan. But something about Woo’s extraordinary recreation throws him off. There are elements here that are just too contemporary and formulaic to have the necessary sonic clout. This is a score that doesn’t sound right – and it also doesn’t sound great, either.

Surrogates: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

Science Fiction – the genre tag alone is enough to conjure up certain sonic situations in your already overworked ear canals: the serio-snarky tones of technology meshed with machines; the chugalong charms of a pulsating over the top action opera; the purposeful employment of a synthesizer, since all music in the next few centuries will be generated by electronic blips and transistor blasts; the occasional ethereal female voice. No one expects subtlety, grace, heart, or even ambient evenness. No, ever since James Cameron and Brad Friedel gave the Terminator his supersonic machotronics, the cinematic type has been labeled and locked in. Perhaps this is why Richard Marvin’s musical backdrop for the recent Jonathan Mostow movie Surrogates is so interesting. Imagine Brian Eno of Stars from the Lid hooking up with your typical Hollywood hack, mix in a little high tech cliché, and that’s what you get here. Surprisingly, the man who handled the composing chores on such noted TV shows as Six Feet Under, The O.C. , and Without a Trace makes the transition to the big screen with most of his refinement intact.

Sure, there are moments like “Stone’s Headache” and “Warrant Received/Foot Chase” that belies the material being supported. In other instances, tracks like “Urine Abomination” and “Cam’s Apt/Greer’s Apt” are like lovely little tone poems, expressing necessary narrative mood and temperament. Still, there are too many pieces like “T-Bone” battling against companion cuts like “Stone Zapped” to consider the lighter work here a 100% success. Indeed, one gets the distinct impression of Marvin sifting through his various muses, the studio stopping him every once in a while to suggest something more “heroic” or “intense” or “otherworldly”. That he resists most of the time is amazing. It gives something like the final track, “Aftermath”, a nice bit of pseudo sonic rebellion. While we never do fully forget that this is a future shock tale of robot avatars in revolt, it’s not for a lack of trying. Marvin’s score is slightly uneven, but it’s significantly better than most 22nd century aural attempts.

A Serious Man: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]

It’s safe to say that Carter Burwell is the third Coen Brother. From his first film work (for 1984’s Blood Simple) through Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, and No Country for Old Men, he has laid the sonic foundation for the duo’s delicious combination of Old World classicism and post-modern revisionism. Though he’s never even been nominated by the clueless Academy (shame, shame), his unique combination of mystery, magic, and menace, can turn any scene into a multilayered look into the very souls of the characters involved. While Focus Features bungled the release of the Coen’s latest effort – the Jewish-themed period piece A Serious Man, we still have the gorgeous, evocative soundtrack to remind us of the boy’s brilliance. What we get is a heady work that tends toward the morose and the melodramatic, but also delivers the kind of kinetic drive we’ve seen from other tense tonal trips like The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Peppered with three tracks from the seminal ’60s acid rockers The Jefferson Airplane (“Somebody to Love”, “Comin’ Back to Me”, and “Today”), as well as old Yiddish song “Dem Milner’s Trern”, Burwell once again shows why he’s one of the best in the business. His inspiration here is impeccable, from the surreal sinister qualities of “Knock Knock” to the fuzz guitar fueled “The Canal”. Both “Blue Skies” and “Rabbi Sting 1” move effortlessly from beauty to the baneful, while “Thirst” and “The Roof” play around with similar harp/piano-based themes. The second song from the Airplane fits perfectly here, the wistful nature of the acoustic guitar counterbalanced by the mournful lyrics and an ethereal flute. Burwell is also having fun, enjoying how he takes an orchestra, pitches them very low, and then lets his arrangements work them into an unholy sonic frenzy. We hear snippets of this approach throughout, from “Rabbi Sting 2” to “Seriously”. The theme song ties it all together, the antique final feature cementing the score’s significance both within the Coen’s oeuvre, and Burwell’s undeniable association with it.