The good, the bad, the '60s
Sounding off on another era's movie music.

By Victor Krummenacher

FROM THE ADVENT of sound in film in the late '20s up through the '60s, the great studios of the world had remarkable scoring talent at their fingertips. By the early '40s, extraordinary musicianship, like Carl Stalling adaptations of Raymond Scott's music for the Warner Bros. cartoons, was ordinary in film. As cinema diversified in the '50s and '60s, the composer's importance grew. Great teams developed, and composers became stars. Bernard Herrmann brought an almost high-brow feel to suspense in his soundtracks for Alfred Hitchcock. Nino Rota's work with Fellini played on the sublime and parodied pop trends of the time. Ennio Morricone's scores for spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were almost a genre unto themselves. Psychedelic Italian variations seemed to rip Aaron Copland and Dick Dale at the same time. And Henry Mancini, whose music ranged from pure schmaltz to genius, became arguably the first superstar film composer. How many Peter Gunn records were there? Perhaps this era, from the late '50s to the mid-'60s, was the golden age of soundtracks.

The studio system broke down in the United States, and record companies (often owned by a conglomeration that owned a major film studio) realized a thing or two about "synergy" and "viral marketing" with the advent of counterculture films like The Graduate (featuring Simon and Garfunkel) and Easy Rider (in which Peter Fonda took his love for Steppenwolf and the Byrds and transformed it into a job: "music supervisor"). Publishing fees for placement of prerecorded music are far cheaper than keeping an orchestra on hand, and as rock music grew in popular stature, it was a great way to bring in youth.

There may be great music in cinema today, but it doesn't feel quite the same. Guitar players don't try to figure out the riff to the Kill Bill soundtrack (just go buy that 5. 6. 7. 8.'s record) the way they did The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. And when something sonically good does happen in cinema (say Thomas Newman's soundtrack to American Beauty), suddenly the general texture seems to be everywhere (car commercials, etc.). And c'mon man, Randy Newman and John Williams?

Where's my rifle?

Picks from the golden age of soundtracks

Bernard Herrmann, Vertigo The paranoia and psychological upheaval that is Hitchcock is also Bernard Herrmann. A great Herrmann collection was put out by the New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1999: Alfred Hitchcock – Music from his Films, featuring many of Herrmann's best-known themes as well as interviews with him.

Henry Mancini, Music from Peter Gunn The ubiquitous Henry Mancini scored everything from The Creature from the Black Lagoon to Touch of Evil to The Pink Panther, but it was his Grammy Award-winning theme for Peter Gunn that embedded his work in the psyche of a generation raised on cold war spy flicks. Many sequel recordings of this theme were released by Universal for maximum exploitation, but the original is the one to check out.

Nino Rota, La dolce vita The prolific Nino Rota's work for La dolce vita weaves beautiful recurring themes into this notorious glimpse of Italian hedonism. Subtle, inventive, minimal, emotionally stirring, and his best.

Ennio Morricone, Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo Another prolific Italian (to see how prolific, check out, Ennio Morricone has worked with everyone from Pasolini to Bertolucci, but it was his compositions for Sergio Leone that defined the spaghetti western genre. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is probably one of the most imitated soundtracks of all time, its classic guitar theme having been co-opted by many a rock band.

Herbie Hancock, Blow Up Maybe the beginning of the end for film composers, Herbie Hancock's excellent jazz-based score to Antonioni's Blow Up is a masterwork of '60s hip mixed with interesting contributions from the Yardbirds (when Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck were members) and others. The music for the film is pervasive, influencing everything from acid jazz to Austin Powers.

Various artists, Easy Rider The nail in the coffin, or the changing of the guard, Peter Fonda's choice of music for the classic '60s-biker-as-noble-outlaw flick saw use of music by Hendrix, Steppenwolf, and Roger McGuinn. It's the soundtrack to the end of '60s optimism. Along with soundtracks to The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, it saw a new effort on the part of Hollywood to cash in on whatever the zeitgeist of popular music was with renewed focus and sometimes diluted musical payoff. In theory, the idea works (as it does in Easy Rider), but as pop soundtracks became more prevalent, daring, and inventive, compositional work for film became marginalized. Easy Rider in essence begat the genre of the "hipster soundtrack" one can't escape today.


June 2, 2004