A decade ago, bestselling multiartist compilations and their smash singles redefined how millions of people use movie soundtracks. Flashdance! Beverly Hills Cop! Vision Quest! Reacting against the incursion of Bombay procedures into the American entertainment industries, film-music buffs— as well as those who despised multiartist compilations, those crass sources of the distressingly K-Tel— cranked up their violins and deplored the fast-impending death of the film score. In fact, although Irene Cara and Eddie Murphy and Patti LaBelle could do many things, they couldn’t quite murder scoring. If anything, the decade-long pop triumph of their soul songs only helped nourish and strengthen smaller parallel markets for other creative and business enterprises. With regard to what rings in your ears or haunts your head when walking out of theaters, it’s still a big country.
International dance music’s heroic reclamations of Burt Bacharach and the equally resonant James Bond scorer John Barry started a buzz. Last year, when David Arnold scored Tomorrow Never Dies (A&M), he turned it into an outright homage to the Barry-written and -orchestrated 007 soundtracks of the ’60s and ’70s, affectionately shading everything with a taut quotational air aimed, wryly if perhaps unintentionally, at the sampling generation. Right now, as Rykodisc reissues Bacharach’s After the Fox and What’s New Pussycat?, Elvis Costello and Bacharach, in their Painted From Memory collaboration, tap not only the New York Californian’s songwriting facility but also his scoring genius for Florentine swoops and coloristic strings.
A lot of other action surrounds those transatlantic titans. Komeda,
texture-mad popheads from northernmost Sweden, name themselves after Roman Polanski’s ’60s scorer, Christoph Komeda. Rialto, from London, project their guitar-rock tunes onto sonic canvases fashioned from cool old cinematic ambiences. Rykodisc also reissues scores from Some Like It Hot, Elmer Gantry, Never on Sunday, and many deluxe others. Repertoire-minded Nonesuch entered the game in 1997, commissioning stark new recordings, under the direction of John Adams and others, of film music by Georges Delerue (Music From the Films of François Truffaut), Alex North, Leonard Rosenman, and Toru Takemitsu.
Indie-rock kids, meantime, smirk along to the swingy music written for ’70s German porn— Gert Wilson & Orchestra’s Schoolgirl Report on Crippled Dick is a popular title— and the seven crowded volumes of Easy Tempo (Right Tempo import) that collect vividly pointed scorings from predominately ’60s and ’70s Italian curiosities. For retroists, and what remains of the art-film crowd, there’s Cannes Film Festival: 50th Anniversary Album (Milan), which features things like Herbie Hancock’s strolling theme from Blow-Up and Nino Rota’s seaside-boulevard rhapsody from La Dolce Vita, as well as The Music of Rainer Werner Fassbinder Films, which collects the shivering brocades of Peer Raben. In 1996, even Motown got hip, squaring film music and hip-hop iconography with its reissue of Willie Hutch’s 1973 The Mack, the kind of nonstop accumulation of juicy beats and riffs the Chemical Brothers can’t get enough of.
Film music has always had its international franchises, like Rota, whose zesty yet considered music for Federico Fellini yielded the Hal Willnerproduced 1981 collection by American jazz musicians, Amarcord Nino Rota (Hannibal), not to mention the Elvis Presley of the field, Ennio Morricone, the apparently indefatigable old Roman whose hearty woodwinds for 1997’s U Turn leapt with the rich spring of a recent conservatory grad’s. And from Bill Conti’s ’70s Rocky extravaganzas (a Puff Daddy fave) to James Horner’s ’90s Titanic hominess, the odd scoring megaseller does occur.
Yet they’re often a personal thing, scores, and not a little screwy. For a moment, Christopher Young’s sizzlingly contrasted negotiation of Bernard
Herrmann’s symphonic moodiness and his own edgy piano élan convinced me that Jennifer 8 (Milan) was the most stylish thriller ever. The soundtrack to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (Nonesuch), where the English Chamber Orchestra romanticizes Philip Glass’s pointillistic writing with blood-and-guts intensity, worked a comparable magic on a film I no longer believe synthesizes 20th-century panic and 19th-century dread quite so perfectly. Other times, everything clicks: the silvery, occasionally sad cool-jazz Mark Isham put together for Afterglow (Columbia) is like a meditation on Miles Davis praising both leading ladies, Julie Christie and Lara Flynn Boyle. And my vote for the coolest piece of recorded music ever released in the United States would go to a vinyl album from the ’60s on Columbia. The black-and-white cover shows a head shot of John Barry, looking for all the world like a member of Traffic. Ready When You Are, J.B.: John Barry Plays His Great Movie Hits, it’s called.
So, while some may prefer Ry Cooder smuggling retooled rock vibes onto the screen, four instrumental soundtracks this year stand out because they do, in fact, seem like movie music, that knowing mongrelization of European concert music or jazz or whatever, the calculated yet never dry stuff that allows only, in the words of the Art of Noise cofounder and Oscar-winning scorer Anne Dudley, “the good bits.” Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer’s lush score for The Boxer (MCA) isn’t all Irish Film Orchestra; it also includes morsels of industrial noise and even a few guitar stylings in the Cooder mode. But the orchestral stuff is momentous: long lines falling into hushed dips, often fortified by piano, with full harmonies luxuriating in space, occasionally answered by Monteverdi-like chorales in, naturally, minor keys.
In their aggressive beauty, Friday and Seezer recall the peerless Ryuichi Sakamoto, who wrote the symphonic parts for The Last Emperor, and whose latest classic is Love Is the Devil (Asphodel). Electronicism and Debussy-like chord clusters have long compelled Sakamoto, and on this very scene-dictated score, 28 pieces with titles like “Museum” and “Toilet,” he mates his interest in both, placing borderline-static electronic soundscapes alongside more-frenetic passages, alternating these with a percussive piano melodicism that itself often discusses immobility, entrapment, and suffocation.
The most striking score of 1998, though, does something else
entirely, sustaining, with a lot of shifting around, one unshakable mood that sounds brand-new. For High Art (Velvel), the rock band Shudder To Think put velvety basses on top of slowed-down, crummy-toned techno grooves, accenting everything with brief guitar outbursts, stray keyboard notes, and occasional Middle Eastern
figures. The result is movie music
as imagined by rockers tired of rock, expansive and Miles-like in bluesy places, abrupt and Eno-fed in others. The tone— unremitting Downtown rattiness— stays put
as the tempos pick up (“Mom’s Mercedes”), go flat (“Photographic Ecstasy”), or stretch out (“The Gavial”). This is cinematic grandeur as conceived by channel surfers, tranced-out and insomniac.
But the slightly earnest novelty, the realized creative striving of High Art is a fluke right now. What’s really happened to film music is that, like everything from new shoes Petula Clark could have bought 30 years ago to bicycles whose thick fenders might have excited Beaver Cleaver, it’s discovered the comforts of the neoclassic, the notion that a certain kind of mood and composition and approach can seem not only timeless but completely modern. “Tony’s brief to me for the music was ‘big and elegiac,’ ” Anne Dudley writes of director Tony Kaye in the liner notes to her dizzyingly intense score for American History X (Angel). “He felt the score should somehow stand apart from the events on the screen and underline the deeper implications.” So Dudley and her orchestra do their hugely symphonic interknittings of 19th-century gravitas, sacred concentrations, and personal tragedy. It’s not how John Barry did it when his flugelhorns elaborated on the cut of James Bond’s dinner jacket. But these days, things move on, even as they don’t.
A five-day festival of film music featuring Sakamoto, Shudder To Think, and others will take place at Town Hall November 10 through 14.