The good, the bad, the
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 www.enniomorricone.com),
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.