Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cinematic Soundings

For me, great films are great primarily due to their extraordinary images. Narrative, characterization and dialogue run close behind. But an inspired soundtrack also has its place, and can often lift a film out of mere goodness and propel it into greatness.

Not all of the films I'd like to talk about are great in my estimation. Some absolutely are. Others are films with soundtracks that lift them out of mediocrity and into memorability.

By "soundtrack" I'm not only referring to film scores composed for the occasion, selections from which perforate the entirety of the movie.

I'm also including a director's use of recordings, both popular and esoteric, that he/she chooses to be a part of the soundtrack to their film, even if only of a fragmentary nature.

Film scores that belong in the former category, it seems to me, are within the generally normalized tradition of international film production. Within the past 15 years or so, however, I have been impressed by a number of complete film scores contributed by musicians outside the traditional film scoring guild. Notable examples are original compositions for a couple of P. T. Anderson films, Jonny Greenwood's for There Will Be Blood, and Aimee Mann's for Magnolia.

In his earlier films, P.T. Anderson (and other contemporary American filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, whose films have varied wildly in terms of quality, but that's a blog for another day) are surely influenced by the use of contemporary music in the films of Martin Scorsese.

There are also many of my favourite filmmakers who consistently work(ed) with one film score composer. Ennio Morricone with Sergio Leone. Howard Shore with David Cronenberg. Carter Burwell with the Coen Bros. Angelo Badalamenti with David Lynch. Michael Nyman with Peter Greenaway (although that association seems to have ended as Greenaway slips further away from narrative coherence and into increasingly esoteric experimentation).

It is surely no coincidence that many of my favourite films feature judicious choices of music while having no general and consistent film score. Lars von Trier's chapter cards in Breaking the Waves include period pieces, played at nearly full length, from Jethro Tull, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople et al. Kubrick, of course, sprinkled Strauss, Beethoven and Ligeti throughout his movies from 2001 through A Clockwork Orange to The Shining. These choices can even lift an otherwise pedestrian genre film into a memorable one. Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later includes a significant chunk of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's epic "East Hastings" that arrives at a crucial point during the opening scenes and does not overstay its welcome.

28 Days Later also includes a brilliant piece from Brian Eno, who after leaving Roxy Music in the mid-70s went on to create the ambient genre (not to mention working with David Bowie on his two best albums and producing, with Daniel Lanois, some of the best albums of the 1980s and 1990s, including U2's "Achtung Baby").

Jack Bruce wrote a "Theme for an Imaginary Western" a few years before Eno's ambient turn, but it was Eno who created a genre of interesting, cinematic soundscapes for films that didn't exist.

"An Ending (Ascent)" didn't seem to fit the visuals at the end of Boyle's homage to the zombie film (a good movie that should have put an end to the zombie genre but unfortunately did not until, regrettably, the vampire film secured its succession).

However, it perfectly fit the ending of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, and that final scene transformed that movie, in my opinion, from an interesting to a great film, even if Soderbergh ripped it off from a British television series.

I wish more selections from Eno's soundtracks for imaginary films (Music for Films volumes 1-3, Music for Airports, among others) found their way into actual films. No doubt they have.

Another filmmaker who, usually, makes very good choices is Michael Mann. None better, perhaps, than the decision to replace his original (and very conventional) choice of end music for Heat with Moby's magisterial "God Moving Over the Face of the Water". As if it needed any further reason to be remembered as one of the finest American films of the 1990s.