Lord of the Recordings: The Film Director as DJ by Adam Baer -- Slate.com
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MARCH 20 2002 3:28 PM
Lord of the Recordings
The ﬁlm director as DJ.
By Adam Baer
Film music, as I hinted around Oscar time last year, is a ﬁddly art: While strong movie music
should ﬂavor and pace a ﬁlm, it shouldn't divert you from the narrative. Even though scores and
soundtracks are written to be experienced during a ﬁlm, they're released as albums and
therefore beg to be judged as such.
This year's Oscar nominees for Best Score certainly aren't too diﬃcult to codify. They're all
blissfully mediocre. John Williams' score to A.I. is both overly theatrical and self-conscious, with
classic string-section wailing, percussive suspense tactics, and phantasmagoric soprano vocals
from opera star Barbara Bonney. Williams' Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stoneriﬀs (yes, the
scoring superman is nominated twice) aren't as weak as A.I.'sif only because they impersonate
his Star Wars tunes, which of course were excellent even if they ﬁrst appeared in the scores of
Serge Prokoﬁev and Richard Strauss. Still, for a ﬁlm whose chief virtues are digital
representations of sorcery, this music lacks original charisma and fails to summon a supernatural
James Horner's music for A Beautiful Mindis his most manufactured to date (he's also the culprit
of the Aaron Copland-y score to The Perfect Storm and the heartstringing of Titanic). It's hard to
want to vote for Horner's self-plagiarism—symphonic sweeps that scream "I'm the king of the
world"—and the employment of pop-opera phenom Charlotte Church to meditate on John
Nash's struggles. In fact, given the ﬁlm's subject matter—mental anomaly and game theory—I
had hoped Horner would have vindicated himself by ﬁnding slightly more cerebral choices.
The Lord of the Rings' composer Howard Shore should also not have been nominated. Taken
down a notch—less goth-choir moans, more quirky, questioning themes—and he might well
have added an interesting soundtrack to a ﬁlm that's essentially a sequence of battle-and-chase
scenes. And I'm not even going to warrant Monsters, Inc. composer Randy Newman with more
than two sentences. His lowbrow cutesy tunes aren't worthy of a cheap club cover charge,
much less a big-budget animation comedy.
2001 was an even worse year for movie-score nominations than it was for movie scores. The
Academy ignored several ﬁne scores that used challenging musical idioms and adhered to their
ﬁlms' themes. My write-in candidates include the innocently zigzagging French waltzes of
Amélie'sYann Tiersen; the Astor Piazzolla-inspired tangoriﬃc elaborations of Waking Life's
Glover Gill; and the bizarrely creepy haunts of Mulholland Drive's Angelo Badalamenti, to name
but a few.
That said, the Academy's choices of warhorse composers over fresh and innovative ones reﬂect
the general deﬂation aﬀecting the movie score. It's not just that interesting scores aren't
receiving the acclaim they deserve—they're simply not being written much anymore. When a
director looks for a composer these days, it's usually to write incidental music to be played
between the pre-released pop hits that form the real soundtrack of the ﬁlm.
Some of these ﬁller jobs speak well for their movies. Wes Anderson's much-lauded picks for The
Royal Tenenbaums meld the ﬁltered cantorials of Nico, the impressionism of Ravel's "String
Quartet," and the CBGB abandon of the late Joey Ramone. Also impressive is the glue that holds
it together: original, incidental music composed by Mark Mothersbaugh, who ﬁnds thematic
synthesis in juxtaposing polar opposites: Childlike chimes dance with dark cello grunts; ska
syncopations skip around harpsichord arpeggios; sitar snaps punctuate harp glissandos; and
bluesy harmonies remain unresolved underneath hip ﬁnger snaps. These gutsy leitmotifs give
the work character; hell, they give the characters character.
The Anniversary Party, co-written by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, isn't only blessed
with standards by Marlene Dietrich, Henry Mancini, Lulu, Petula Clark, and some indie-rock
favorites; it's sewed together with original compositions by Michael Penn that get at the heart of
what the ﬁlm's about—celebrity and thirtysomething adolescence—by virtue of elusive and
contemplative layers of harmony chased with bits of hip-hop drumming and trumpet ellipses.
The latter, for instance, are clichés of fancy-shmancy celebrity party music—the sort you'd hear
at a dinner or book-release party ﬁlled with stars. Here Penn uses them to cheeky eﬀect.
Ghost World features a mix of classic jazz and ethno-tunes—Vince Giordano's "Georgia on My
Mind," Skip James' "Devil Got My Woman," Lionel Belasco's "Venezuela"—centered around a
searching theme by David Kitay, full of angst and deliciously dissonant chords that address the
ﬁlm's theme of alienation. This soundtrack works even better precisely because one of the
movie's subtexts is music, particularly old music and the nature of historic recordings.
One of Ghost World's themes is whether or not people can accurately be presented through and
judged by their cultural preferences. Directors who employ pre-composed soundtrack music
would seem to think so: Not only are they willing to entrust their work to existing recordings, but
they also borrow heavily on those recordings' resonance and meaning. Whether it's an issue of
narrative insecurity, naive skepticism about how close a composer can get at a movie's soul,
budget constraints, or just sincere pop fandom, a sad fact results: Fewer composers are getting
the chance to write ﬁlm scores, while Hollywood grows ever more oblivious to the few good
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