Rome, the new collaboration between the American producer Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse, and the Italian composer Daniele Luppi, is a soundtrack for a movie that doesn’t exist. The album was inspired by Italian film scores of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly the work of Ennio Morricone, best known for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West. Burton and Luppi, fetishists of authenticity, recruited the veteran Morricone associates Marc 4 band and the I Cantori Moderni choir, and recorded the album at Forum Studios in Rome, using only vintage analog equipment.
Imaginary film scores such as Rome constitute a niche genre whose early entries include Brian Eno’s Music for Films, from 1978, Frank Zappa’s 1984 Thing-Fish, and John Zorn’s 1991 Spillane. And before Rome, the tellingly-named band Morricone Youth released (in 2005) an Italian-inspired imaginary score, Silenzio Violento.
Film scores typically comprise brief pieces, usually no more than two or three minutes long, that are related to each other through the statement and development of specific themes or motifs. Scores for actual films usually are musical renderings of film narrative, but soundtracks of non-existent films function more as mood music, and often are used as background for video and computer gaming. Two Los Angeles-based companies, Epic Scores and Position Music, specialize in imaginary soundtracks, and both have licensed their material to movie studios for use as film trailers.
Given its creative pedigree, Rome is more substantial than the imaginary scores turned out by the two above-cited companies. Of the 15 tracks, six are complete songs, each clocking in at two to three minutes, with vocals by Jack White and Norah Jones. (White and Jones recorded their parts separately from the rest of the album, in the U.S. rather than Rome.) They alternate with shorter pieces that either are entirely instrumental or feature wordless vocals by the Italian soprano Edda dell’Orso.
Playing up the imaginary soundtrack angle, the album cover cutely reads, Rome, “starring Jack White & Norah Jones”. But the two don’t perform together, which is fine, since White deserves a co-star stronger than the blandly breathy Jones, whose appeal has always eluded me. (Maybe Danger Mouse and Luppi should’ve paired White with Wanda Jackson, whose recent album he produced, for a taste of rockabilly alla Romana.) White wrote the lyrics for his three songs, “The Rose with the Broken Neck”, “Two Against One” (where he sounds not a little like Robert Plant), and “The World”. Danger Mouse wrote the words for Jones’ tracks, “Season’s Trees”, “Black”, and “Problem Queen”. White’s tracks are the album’s best, but even they aren’t particularly memorable. Moreover, White’s and Jones’ contributions lack any thematic relationship to each other or to the album as a whole.
The album’s title seems arbitrary since the music doesn’t evoke anything of the titular city and its unique and captivating blend of antiquity and modernity. “Rome” mainly signifies where the record was made and the nationality of the musicians. Unlike such great Italian soundtracks as Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or Nino Rota’s for The Leopard, Danger Mouse’s and Luppi’s “colonna sonora finta” (fake movie soundtrack – my term) comes across as a collection of tracks lacking internal coherence or a unifying theme. But then Morricone and Rota had actual films to inspire them; Danger Mouse and Luppi have only their nostalgic love for the old soundtracks.
But that’s not entirely true. They also have some terrific collaborators — many of them veteran film score musicians – especially the core Marc 4 band comprising guitarist Luciano Ciccaglioni, drummer Gegé Munari, bassist Dario Rosciglione, and keyboardist Antonello Vannucchi. If what they have to play often isn’t especially compelling, they do establish a consistent and distinctive sound for the pieces. Ciccaglioni’s spaghetti western twang, Vannucchi’s swirling organ, and Munari’s march rhythms enrich “The World”. On “Season’s Trees” the band’s sound is reminiscent of the Mediterranean electronica of the great Neapolitan group Almamegretta. “Morning Fog” sets the plink-plink of Gilda Buttá’s celesta in a wash of massed male voices and Munari’s percussion. The B.I.M. Orchestra lends drama and grandeur to Danger Mouse and Luppi’s sketches throughout the album.
Since 2004’s The Grey Album, an acclaimed mash-up of the Beatles and Jay-Z, the much in demand Danger Mouse has produced two hit albums by Gnarls Barkley, his collaboration with Cee-Lo Green, and their multi-million selling single “Crazy”, and has worked with Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, the Rapture, Beck, Afrobeat drummer and former Fela sideman Tony Allen, and U2, on their forthcoming release. The Rome-born Daniele Luppi, though lesser known, has written film and television scores in Italy and the U.S., and arrangements for John Legend. His 2004 album, An Italian Story, was a tribute to Italian movie music that caught Danger Mouse’s ear and led to the collaboration that produced Rome. (But before their latest collaboration, Danger Mouse enlisted him to write arrangements and play keyboards on both Gnarls Barkley albums.) He and Danger Mouse clearly are creatively simpatico, but hopefully their next joint venture will be more satisfying than Rome, whether it’s an album of songs or a soundtrack for a real movie.