The Oscar Influence
The latest Surround Sound installment takes a closer look at the effect of the Oscar season push on their related soundtracks.
US: 1 November 2005
UK: 7 November 2005
While the summer is usually when Hollywood rolls out its finest eye candy, the season for true film lovers is winter. From September on, studios big and small unveil their prestige pictures that will hopefully gain enough critical and popular acclaim to carry them onto an Oscar ballot. After the summer's budget-blowing sequels and remakes, these usually dramatic and often controversial films offer a reminder of the art and relevancy film is capable of. And for viewers who just go to the movies for a good time, the awards season still has a healthy, if not better, selection of shock and awe pictures to thrill the senses and numb the brain.
A big part of this movie season is the studio's PR campaigns on behalf of their expensive award contenders. This means an increase of "For Your Consideration" ads in trade magazines, exclusive fluff pieces in glossy magazines at the supermarket checkout, and even some good old fashioned muck-raking. But perhaps most notably, the tie-in merchandise gets a bit classier. You won't see a Syriana value meal at McDonald's or a jarring product placement for MSN Search in the midst of Memoirs of a Geisha. And this usually distant sense of class by Hollywood standards follows right down to the accompanying soundtrack releases. This edition of Surround Sound gathers a handful of soundtracks by some of Hollywood's biggest names, many vying for Oscar gold in March. You won't find any synergized artist placement here or discs brimming with Theory of a Nickelfault sound-alikes. Instead, for the most part, these scores are complete entities that strive to help enrich the picture they were composed for. And rounding it all out are the sounds of some kid-oriented blockbusters and a couple of under-the-radar releases.
Thinking Things Through
I didn't realize just how far-reaching the Brokeback Mountain phenomenon was until I went to get my haircut recently. The hair salon I go to, Coupe Bizarre (yes, I go to a "salon"), is a Montreal hipster favorite. The layout is modern and minimal, while the employees and clientele are young and sexy alike. Thus, the music chosen for in-house play is appropriately skewed with healthy doses of indie rock, hip-hop, and pop. Imagine my surprise when I sat down in the barber's chair and heard the lovely strains of Gustavo Santaolalla's ethereal score drifting through the air. While the soundtrack has already received a Golden Globe award for Emmylou Harris' "A Love That Will Never Go Old", it's Santaolalla's instrumental score that is the real star. Though the entirety of his work clocks in at about thirteen minutes, it resonates much longer and with much more power than Oscar season's traditional orchestral offerings.
With a minimalist approach and flawless execution, Santaolalla's score captures the windswept loneliness of rural Wyoming and the emotional ache that tears at the film's central characters. Santaolalla's secret weapon is the lap steel work of Bob Bernstein that wisps, winds, and dances its way in and out of these pieces while being anchored to Santaolalla's carefully considered guitar parts. Pieces like "The Wings" (featured prominently in the film's trailer) and "Brokeback Mountain Score 1" are evidence that simplicity often trumps bombast. Offering searing insight with a minimum of notes, they make the isolation of Wyoming's vast landscape real. The rest of the soundtrack, however, greatly pales in comparison. While they fit the mood of the film and the scenes in which they appear, this collection of shit-kicking songs and treacle-y ballads don't fare as well at home. Steve Earle, Martina McBride, and Linda Ronstadt make the most clichéd contributions to the soundtrack for a film that works hard to dispel them. But leave it to everyone's favorite out-and-proud pop-opera songwriter to deliver the album's strongest song. With a piano and voice alone, Rufus Wainwright's "The Maker Makes" is a lovely and devastating waltz that captures the essence of the film more than any other track on the disc. Wainwright's song and Santaplalla's score make this disc purchase-worthy, but be wary of the country cheese found in between.
While Brokeback Mountain's subject matter didn't keep people from flocking to theatres, Jarhead was a surprising box office disappointment. Based on Anthony Swofford's candid memoir about his tour of duty in Desert Storm, the film observes the surreal, confusing, and frightening world of a young soldier in the field of battle. Thomas Newman's score, which takes up the bulk of the disc, is appropriately disorienting. Industrial touches, electric guitars, and swirling percussion-heavy sounds are coupled with eerie avant-garde moments of quiet. I'm sure Newman's score works well within the confines Sam Mendes' visually alluring film, but on its own doesn't offer much to listeners. The soundtrack is rounded out by a few pop tunes and a disappointingly lifeless re-record of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power". While the song was an undeniable, fiery statement in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, this sped-up and watered down production is frustratingly lifeless. Listeners are left to wonder why the producers didn't license the original track and why Public Enemy tinkered with magic. But the soundtrack's biggest failing is the exclusion of Kanye West's triumphant "Jesus Walks". Featured heavily in the trailer and TV spots for the film, it's baffling that it's not included on the official soundtrack, especially since the song's unashamed bravado coupled with its bare vulnerability is exactly the sort of thing missing from most of this disc.
Given the development hell Memoirs of a Geisha was trapped in, perhaps it's not surprising that it garnered its fair share of negative ink. While the rights were acquired years ago, the film stalled several times with directors like Steven Spielberg and Spike Jonze attached to it. Though it was finally manned by Chicago director Rob Marshall, he had to battle Miramax's feisty Weinstein brothers, to whom he owed a film before he could shoot a picture for Sony. In retrospect, it was probably inevitable that an English language film that cast Chinese actors as Japanese characters in a film about Japanese culture was destined to be problematic. But in the only move that seemed to make sense, the film's producers (who include Spielberg) called upon the reliable talent of John Williams, who called on the supreme talents of Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman to realize his musical vision for this picture.
The soundtrack to Memoirs of a Geisha delivers what one would expect -- no more, no less. Williams' score is suitably "Eastern"-sounding, but only in the most superficial way, and unfortunately, Ma and Perlman's contributions fail to stand out. Aside from Perlman's formidable solo on "Going to School", the players certainly execute their pieces beautifully but don't enchant the way a score like this should. Within the gaudy haze of Williams' fairly obvious composition, the percussion sections stand out as the most impressive and vital. The subtle "Brush on Silk" is a beautiful, rhythmic treat that is nothing more than a koto and some inventive beats, while the aforementioned "Going to School"'s layered sounds provide a beautiful setting that Perlman can effortlessly weave through. But it's "Becoming a Geisha" that draws the most power with a breathtaking percussion section that barely lasts more than thirty seconds, but offers a weighty dramatic payoff that the rest of Williams' score can't match. Perhaps overworked this year scoring both War of the Worlds and Munich in addition to Memoirs of a Geisha, this is Williams at his most mechanical.
Certainly, Inside Deep Throat's subject matter is inherently controversial, but the disc's blatantly false advertising may end up making people even angrier. Inexplicably released in mid-December, months after the film's theatrical and DVD release dates, I wonder if Koch Records was tied up with licensing issues or if someone simply dropped the ball. Perhaps to make up for lost marketing tie-ins, the CD has a sticker designed to lure in horny and unsuspecting buyers. It screams: "A COLLECTION OF BOOTY-SHAKIN' HITS FROM THE 1970s", while promising "EROTIC SCORE MUSIC" and "TONSIL-TICKLING DIALOGUE." While Kool & the Gang's overused "Jungle Boogie" and Andrea True Connection's "More More More" may add some spice to the boudoir, Alice Cooper's "Elected" and Supertramp's "Crime of the Century" will be sure to kill it. Meanwhile, David Benjamin Steinberg's score takes up at least half of the disc's running time and is as far from erotic as you can get. Featuring the kind of incidental pieces that usually accompany a documentary, the moody but functional transition music like "The NY Trial", "The Memphis Trial", and "The Mob" quickly dissolve any steamy mood the disc even begins to achieve
Finally, the producers of the soundtrack seem to have forgotten that porn dialogue is usually really, really bad, and certainly dialogue from a documentary about porn won't be any more enticing. If you do try to use this disc for your next amorous conquest, I applaud you if your lover doesn't leave the room or fall asleep after lines like this: "Linda is a wonderful, wonderful cocksucker... God, I wish my wives could suck dick like that," and "The culture took a reactionary turn after it seemed like we were heading toward a climax of the sexual revolution which we never actually attained," and "Some men find their wives buttocks very stimulating visually." Unfortunately, these dialogue snippets are either incorporated into the score pieces or tacked onto the end of the songs, so you can't even program the disc's few sexy tracks and skip the rest. Mismarketed, mismanaged, and deceptively advertised, Inside Deep Throat is a thorough embarrassment.
It took the beautifully big and brash soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to get the sour taste of Inside Deep Throat out of my mouth (pun fully intended). Composer Patrick Doyle, who usually scores more dramatic and mannered material (such as Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet and Sense And Sensibility), has some big shoes to fill. It was the veteran Williams who helmed the previous entries in the series, and landed an Oscar nod his work on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But Doyle is up to the challenge and delivers a soundtrack that is every bit as thrilling and exciting as a film of this caliber deserves. While I have no interest in seeing the Harry Potter films, Doyle's soundtrack reaches beyond the cinema. Fiercely energetic and brimming with enthusiasm, the score translates the action, drama, sadness, and triumph that I'm sure the film contains.
While much of Doyle's compositions are quite brief, usually hovering around the three-minute mark, they manage to capture the essence of their attached themes. I felt the excitement of "The Quidditch World Cup", the emotion of "Harry in Winter", and the majesty of "Foreign Visitors Arrive". And Doyle succeeds on the longer passages as well, the highlight being the nine-minute "Voldemort" that describes the complexity and gravity of the film's main villain.
As an added treat, the disc includes three tracks by the Weird Sisters, a superstar band of Brit pop stars, including Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway. The band appears briefly in the film during the Hogwarts' Ball sequence and the music itself thankfully doesn't pander to its audience. Delightfully weird, the group is what you might expect this meeting of minds to sound like, but still keeps the melodies accessible for kids. "Do the Hippogriff" and "This is the Night" are solid efforts, but "Magic Works" is surprising in its power and sincerity. The song is about believing not only that magic does exist, but that it will never die. Sound corny? Perhaps, but Cocker completely sells it with his sensitive delivery and is backed up by a truly stirring arrangement. This is the kind of music for kids that should adorn more soundtracks: sophisticated and coupled with a palpable sense of awe. Soundtracks don't have to be rocket science, and Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire proves that, when approached with passion, you can still offer something that is familiar while retaining the wide-eyed sense of wonder that is so important to a score like this one.
If Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire succeeds in surpassing expectations, Dario Marinelli's score for Pride & Prejudice merely meets them. Even though the director and producers of the film took the unusual steps of approaching Marinelli to start writing before filming began, the resulting score is still disappointingly dull and predictable. Marinelli's compositions are appropriately baroque, and even though instructed to look toward Beethoven's early sonatas for inspiration, his works remain particularly pedestrian. Even famed pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet can't elevate this material. His performance and the orchestral accompaniments are merely perfunctory. Though most Jane Austen-inspired pictures strive for authenticity, one would've hoped that Marinelli would've offered a few moments of daring. While I'm sure the score works in Jane Austen's impeccably realized world, it's a bore out of context and doesn't offer any moments of revelation or excitement.
And while there aren't any moments of revelation on the soundtrack to Hoodwinked -- yet another "reimagining" of a popular fairytale -- there is excitement in spades. Actor, writer, director, and songwriter Todd Edwards does a surprisingly admirable job of infusing this animated tale with modern sounding songs. Though I'm usually wary of approximations of contemporary pop songs (especially in films that rely too heavily on current pop culture for their laughs), Edwards proves himself to be a solid songwriter. The disc's detailed liner notes not only feature the lyrics to every song, but insights into each song's origin written by Edwards himself. It quickly becomes apparent that the entire Hoodwinked project is dear to his heart.
Edwards' passion for pure pop music is abundantly clear and highlights some of the better songs on the disc. Looking toward the rousing choruses of the '60s, "Great Big World" is a bright burst of sound adequately delivered by Anne Hathaway, who somehow avoids getting lost behind the Spector-esque wall of sound. The Cars-meet-the-Strokes vibe on "Critters Have Feelings" is equally effective, propelled by a pleasantly buoyant '80s synth hook. And Ben Folds delivers, making Edwards' reflective and poignant "Red is Blue" his own. For "Glow", Edwards borrows liberally from the Beatles songbook with an impressively atmospheric tune. Even the straight up rock song, "Tree Critter" (which sounds like an impossible mix of southern rock and Nine Inch Nails), is a solid cut with a performance and production that thankfully isn't content with just being passable.
But not everything here works this well. The faux-punk of "Eva Deanna" is unremarkable, and Edward's brother, Cory, writes and performs the horrible and best forgotten hip-hop tune, "The Real G". And there is no reason why Andy Dick should be allowed to sing anything, making "Top of the Woods" two minutes and forty-one seconds too long. And though a handful of these songs are quite good, an equal number are merely adequate and fail to linger once the disc is over. That said, like the Weird Sisters on the Harry Potter disc, Edwards brings a level of care and intelligence to these songs that kids' soundtracks need more of.
The soundtrack to The Producers, a movie of the musical of the film, is an example where passion doesn't always translate into success. To be sure, on paper, the film seemed like a no-brainer. Get Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick to reprise their Tony-award winning roles and hire Hollywood A-listers Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell to get asses in the seats. While I'm not particularly a fan of musicals, that isn't the problem here. In the disc's liner notes, Jonathan Schwartz pulls this Jay Lerner quote to describe the triumphs of The Producers: "...a really good song could take the place of twelve pages of libretto." Perhaps blind to its own success, The Producers suffers from being similarly overstuffed. Many of these songs feel bloated by the largely unnecessary dialogue additions throughout. While on a Broadway stage this may make perfect sense, on film one would think the songs would've been cut to a more efficient and digestible size. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that the movie runs well over two hours, but if you're going to replicate the musical on film and not change the approach, the question of "why?" becomes hard to ignore.
The small changes that were made to the original musical are puzzling at best. Why take out the hugely popular Lane number "The King of Broadway" and add a tepid and inferior new Lane/Broderick number, "There's Nothing like a Show on Broadway"? I guess it gives diehard fans who already own the Broadway cast recording a reason to buy this disc. Oh sure, the majority of the cast hits all the right notes, the orchestra sounds great, and everyone brings a workmanlike enthusiasm to their performances. Yet, for all the talent on display, there is something deflated about the whole affair. The one sour note among the stars is Uma Thurman, and unfortunately it's also the loudest. Though she looks the part of the statuesque Swedish bombshell Ulla, her general inability to sing coupled with her accent's Houdini act are hard to overlook and difficult to tolerate. Unless you're some kind of Producers completist, or you must own Will Ferrell singing "Der Guten Tag Hop Clop" on CD, there is very little to recommend this disc.
Independent filmmaker and songwriter Mikel Rouse offers two soundtracks with disappointing results, Test Tones and Music for Minorities. The 49-year old artist studied world and African music, and the Schillinger Method of Composition. His recorded output has varied from pop excursions to "counterpoetry" releases and electronic works. Test Tones, the score to his film of the same name, falls into the latter category. With a modernist approach that samples John Cage's James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet, one expects Rouse to offer some fresh insight into electronic music. Unfortunately, that's not the case. For all his education, these songs fall flat. Too in love with his sadly average voice, Rouse drowns each of these songs with multiple tracks of vocal harmonies with himself. The actual beats are completely forgettable, and these songs lack any momentum. The songs often linger far too long and repeat ideas and sections over and over unforgivably. There is a fantastic song lurking somewhere in "Grace Lynn", but Rouse can't seem to find it. "Sunsations" flirts with pop abandon but never quite achieves it, while the attempt at a classic R&B sound on "Daddy's Money" is simply awful.
Music for Minorities is far more ambitious in its scope. The soundtrack and DVD of the film (which Rouse also directed) are packaged together, and Rouse employs a greater array of instrumentation this time around with guitars, strings, and synths making up the rich tapestry of the album. Unfortunately, though Rouse is an accomplished musician and has studied songwriting, these tunes are outright failures. Each song drowns in its rich production values, and Rouse's melodies and voice aren't strong enough to make up for it. Someone like Jon Brion can get away with dense production because his songs ultimately offer an emotional payoff and memorable hook. Rouse, however, keeps his audience at a chilly distance. The melodies to these tracks aren't particularly great, and, like Test Tones, are worked over to the point of tedium. While I can admire the technique, I couldn't help but feel distinctly uninvolved in the actual art. In the future, Rouse would best be advised to leave woefully generic genre exercises like "Candy Cane" (a blues vamp) and "Change for My Baby" (a doo-wop ode) on the cutting room floor.