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This Biography Ensures the Continuity of Mancini's Legacy: 'Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music'

"Mancini's music will, in its own cool way, keep reaching out, find the next generation, and the next and the next" (244).


Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music

Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Length: 312 pages
Author: John Caps
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-02
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Prior to reading Henry Mancini…Reinventing Film Music, I associated Henry Mancini exclusively with his piece, “The Baby Elephant Walk”. This was not due to my familiarity with the 1962 film Hatari!, starring John Wayne, for which the song was composed. Rather, my awareness with “The Baby Elephant Walk” stemmed from the use of the song in contemporary popular culture: the shows The Simpsons and Friends both used the tune, while many sport fans would equate the tune solely with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Yet Mancini’s cultural legacy and influence are far more extensive than a casual sampling of “The Baby Elephant Walk”. As John Caps states in the introduction, “[Mancini] was probably best known (and still is) for three iconic musical acts” (3); the 'Peter Gunn' theme, 'Moon River' from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the 'Pink Panther' theme.” These three pieces are quintessential pop-culture dynamos, but are seemingly made familiar in cultural contexts that are far removed from Mancini. Perhaps it could be argued that these pieces have become popular cultural linchpins, while the story of the creator has faded into oblivion. I was unfamiliar with Mancini’s oeuvre, and even more so, oblivious of Mancini’s impact on popular culture. This is precisely one of the cultural histories biographer Caps seeks to elucidate.

Undeniably, Henry Mancini…Reinventing Film Music is a well-researched and noteworthy revisitation of not only Mancini’s life, but also the history of the film and music industries. Indeed, Caps aptly demonstrates Mancini’s voracious musical output that oftentimes both reflected and challenged the Hollywood and popular cultural climates. Utilizing archival research and interviews with friends, family, and Mancini himself, Caps delves deeply into the professional and musical life of Mancini.

Moreover, Caps makes use of and includes excerpts from primary sources that give the biography moments of charm and insight into a bygone cultural era. For example, Caps includes the cable Audrey Hepburn wrote Mancini imploring him to work on her project: “Dearest Hank, please won’t you do the music?... Can’t imagine anyone else but you scoring” (103). Yet moments such as these are few and for the most part overburdened by tedious analysis of music theory and detailed reiterations of specific movie scenes and plots. The heavy emphasis on musical and cinematic minutia shifts the readers focus away from Mancini and renders the biography a laborious read.

Caps begins by asserting that “Mancini became the first publicly successful and personally recognizable film composer in history – practically a brand name in pop culture” (1). Mancini was clearly influential: “colleagues in Hollywood talked about their music as having ‘Mancini chords,’” (3) and Mancini’s “ninety films and ninety disc albums, twenty Grammy Awards, and four Oscar Awards” (3) demonstrate his cultural leadership. Yet he also wrote music that was sellable to a general music audience. As Caps states, Mancini “was the first multimedia music superstar precisely because he was reinventing the relationship between the soundtrack and ticket buyers” (2).

Audiences viewed the movies and then consumed the soundtracks that blended pop-tunes, jazz, and refined orchestral compositions. However, they also responded to the sincerity and earnestness of Mancini’s work. As Caps contends, Mancini developed music as a personal creative outlet while also serving as the voice of the American working and middle-class. It's clear that Mancini changed the role of music in the movies and it also becomes increasingly obvious that his cultural legacy left an indelible mark on historical and contemporary popular culture.

The refinement of Mancini’s musical identity is intrinsically connected to the development of the music and film industries, and Caps shrewdly weaves these histories to bolster Mancini’s biography. For example, Mancini’s film-composing career began in the era of assembly line scoring, where instead of garnering creative autonomy, composers were directed to reference the “music library [that] had folders full of sheet music already orchestrated and marked ‘suspense,’ ‘lively’…and one could consult those, choose some passages, and insert them into one’s own scoring” (24).

Caps frequently reminds readers of the juxtaposition between the generic and corporate musical demands of the industry with creative individuality, a thorny relationship Mancini was forced to balance. Yet Mancini found avenues in which to circumvent industry demands: composing for television allotted for more creative expression, an active partnership with Blake Edwards formed a solid foundation for musical experimentation, or accepting cinematic vehicles that facilitated a move away from the jazz-pop structures and “broaden[ed] the dramatic architecture of his orchestral writing” (102).

Nevertheless, Mancini constantly battled the breakneck evolution of Hollywood and the shifting demands of the audience that constantly twisted the threat of becoming culturally and professionally obsolete. For example, Mancini’s was reticent to include electronic music performance or production in his work. Or weathering the frustration caused by the global success of once protégés and now bigwig composers such as John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, etc). Old and new Hollywood were/are in an unwavering battle for cultural superiority and market gain and often it was difficult for Mancini to respond to the finicky and mercurial industry. Despite this, Caps contends that Mancini always composed with a heart-felt sincerity which seemingly rendered his music to be “so likable, so respectful, so right… Mancini was writing fairly easily for everyone – for films and albums” (91).

While Mancini’s music was accessible, Caps writing is not. It's difficult to discern who is Caps intended audience. Arguably, the writing is directed towards readers with extensive knowledge of music theory and an expertise in classic film repertoires. Without doubt Caps engagement of Mancini’s legacy is marvelous, but these moments are pushed aside by extensive and intricate music and film analysis. For example, passages such as “Mancini’s strings capitulate into his familiar searching, chromatic phraseology; a flute roams up the scale to where the piano mantra enters again…” (158) might be indecipherable to those without formal musical training.

Seemingly, Caps also assumes that the audience is not familiar with the movies’ details or narrative nuances. Therefore in an attempt at inclusiveness, Caps writes exhaustive recapitulations and summations of the movies. For cinemaphiles this is filler, for film neophytes it's overwhelming, for musicians it's protracted, and for everyone else it renders the read onerous and depletes the emphasis on Mancini. This is a consistent problem throughout, and unfortunately, drastically diminishes the overall quality of the biography.

Caps informs readers that he wrote this biography in order to demonstrate how "Mancini’s music at its best precisely paralleled his own personal growth… As he and his family matured you can hear him seeking new layered harmonies – even a more refined way of scoring a story on the screen” (4). Caps only partially fulfills this thesis. The majority of the text is focused on Mancini’s scoring and compositional methods while his personal history is a secondary consideration. Caps emphasizes Mancini’s tenuous relationship with his father and son Chris, while the influence of Mancini’s mother, wife, and daughters are casually inserted. Henry Mancini…Reinventing Film Music reads more like a textbook chronicling the musical deconstruction of Mancini’s oeuvre rather than a biography of Mancini himself.

Henry Mancini…Reinventing Film Music is inconsistent; it is at once inaccessible yet informative. The moments where Caps shift focus onto Mancini and the cultural histories he influenced are engaging and fascinating. Yet readers must mine for these moments amongst the theoretical detritus. Despite this, Mancini’s cultural impact reaches past the overzealous analysis and Caps successfully concludes that Mancini needs to be remembered for his reinvention of film music. Undeniably, Mancini is one of the most recognizable film composers in cultural history, and despite its flaws, biographies such as Caps’ ensure the continuity of Mancini’s legacy.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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