Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Pointless List: Modern Soundtrack Cues

Like album tracks, only from movies:

1. Ping Island/Lightning strike Rescue Op - Mark Mothersbaugh from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
Mark Mothersbaugh was one of the founding members and lead singer of Devo, the superb new wave band, and since they dissolved he has chiefly made his living scoring television shows. His work is prominent in many high-profile US Childrens shows, such as Rugrats and Clifford the Big Red Dog. That sort of CV - a bizarre mix of arty post-punk and witty but occasionally twee childrens music - might just explain exactly what Wes Anderson saw in him that made him more or less the writer-directors house composer, responsible for scoring Rushmore, the Royal Tenenbaums, and Bottle Rocket as well as The Life Aquatic.
He does seem to understand the Anderson sensibility and the tonal requirements it demands, and his music is always sympathetic. The Life Aquatic is his big chance to let rip, stretching away from Anderson's usual settings and tone as it does in places. Mothersbaugh proves more than up to the task.
This cue is his version of an action theme, scoring the beginnings of Zissou's teams assault on an Island, commando style. As such, it has to work for the action, but remain aware its a Wes Anderson action scene.
It starts off as a tinny electronic warble with a tight, simple little beat behind it: the sort of thing you could create on a rudimentary 1980s keyboard, which is obviously the intention, and makes the joke of the film's joke of the team listening to it in their scuba helmets work even better. That warble becomes a melody, and around the minute mark, some more instruments are introduced as the pace stirs: strings (a cello first), more drums, a flute, what sounds like a harp, before more strings cut in, then rolling bass drums and cymbals and horns and you can suddenly feel the vastness of an entire orchestra in the silences inbetween Mothersbaugh's jagged little melody runs. Its all frantic and exciting, horns and strings in interplay, the tension of the rhythm always driving it along. And yet, as befits any music written specifically for a Wes Anderson film (for he uses pop and rock songs chiefly for emotional effect, and he does it with great skill), it is funny too. So busy and exotic, so musically excited it teeters on the very brink of parody without ever quite committing.

2. Song for Jesse - Nick Cave & Warren Ellis from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Cave and Ellis had provided the score for John Hillcoat's brutal and atmospheric film of Cave's screenplay The Proposition, and its a charged, unusual piece of work, all throbs and groans and mysterious creaking, with a primitive sort of power all of its own.
Andrew Dominik obviously liked what he had heard, however, and their score for his film is more traditional while remaining unusual. It is mostly melancholy, and almost gentle. Cues such as Rather Lovely Thing and Counting the Stars are gossamer light, delicate confections of minor key piano and violin capturing the acutely sombre visual poetry of the film and the slow, agonised tragedy of its narrative. The more violent heart of the film is represented by the whirl of strings in What Happens Next and The Money Train or the crunching guitar in Cowgirl. Its a beautiful score, and Song for Jesse may just be its highlight.
So fragile its barely there, it sounds like a lullaby of delicate chimes and repeated piano chords and brushed bells, and yet it is hypnotic. On first listen it seems all mood, but that childlike melody is insistent, and there is an intensity to it which is haunting: the deliberate picking out of that melody, so hesitant and unsure, the way it whispers along and to an end.
Cave and Ellis are an exciting pair of composers and their next job, a subtle score for Hillcoat's The Road did a tremendous job with difficult material. But this fine score remains their best work.

3. Berlin Foot Chase - John Powell from The Bourne Supremacy
I think its almost impossible to exaggerate how important to the success of the Bourne films - each of which I love as the clever genre filmmaking they are - is the music of John Powell. When I think of Jason Bourne, I hear Powell's music in my head. The score for the first film, The Bourne Identity, is slightly more modern than what follows, all bleeps and beats and electronic ambience. It works tremendously well, and Powell evinced a great talent for scoring an action scene with the ponding cascades of drums mixed with electronic squelches of The Apartment, say. But it seems as if the experience of the first film helped him to perfect his approach, because the score for The Bourne Supremacy is an improvement in every sense. Here Powell cuts back on the modern flourishes and instead emphasises the mournful qualities which are crucial to that first score; so there is a more traditional approach to orchestration, the electronica better integrated into the textural design of the score.
Then there are the strings. This cue is all about Powell's relentless, repetitive strings building and building over his crackling rhythm, as Jason Bourne runs from Berlin Police and the CIA. If it evokes Bernard Herrmann - and I think it does - then Powell is putting that classic influence to good use. As the piece develops the rhythm breaks up and becomes an at-times chaotically fractured storm, and Powell's ambient noises intrude at crucial points. But the strings remain, building and building, jumping in pitch, cutting out, stuttering back to life: the strings are Jason Bourne, his tenacity and refusal to be beaten.

4. 7-29-04 the Day Of - David Holmes from Oceans Twelve
What canny judgement Steven Soderbergh showed when he hired David Holmes to score Oceans Eleven. He had first collaborated with Holmes on Out of Sight, presumably on the basis of Holmes' first two records, both basically "Soundtracks for Imaginary Films" with obvious influences from a host of soundtracks, but also traces of hip hop and r & b. Soderbergh, looking for a hip replacement for a standard orchestral score, employed Holmes to provide the music for his Elmore Leonard adaptation, and he filled Out of Sight with funky basslines and sleazy keyboards and even some quiet storm romance. His choice of pop music for some scenes was similarly inspired, with each cut, from Watermelon Man to the Isley brothers fitting seamlessly into the score. For the Oceans films, he was more confident. Oceans Eleven uses a couple of the strongest pieces from his third solo album, Bow Down to the Exit Sign, and the other songs are cool and funky in a swaggering, very Vegas manner. Oceans Twelve is a subtler, more interesting film, and Holmes took advantage of its European locations to fill the soundtrack with obscure Continental cuts from his colossal record collection, making it a wildly eclectic, thrilling listen. His own contributions are more accomplished and daring, featuring abundant horns and calypso drums. This cue rolls along on what sounds like bongos and hammond organ as the horns blast out a hyperactive melody over and over. Then the whole thing breaks down at the end and races, almost raga-like, towards its own end. That horn melody has been used since in a few trailers, since its musical shorthand for a sort of effortless movie cool, evocative of tequila and sunsets and beautiful people in sharp clothes, a mood which Holmes has proven himself the master of in his soundtrack work..

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5. Future Markets - Jonny Greenwood from There Will Be Blood
Jonny Greenwood is often painted as the mad genius in Radiohead. If you've ever seen the band live, you'll know that he seems almost to encourage such a perception. He spends much of each set huddled and hunched by his amp, fiddling with effects pedals and creating loops and generally acting like he barely knows anybody else is even on the stage. But hes a fabulous guitar player, has co-written some amazing songs, and he seems like a sort of visionary, and so he gets away with it all.
Greenwood's work on There Will Be Blood is startlingly good throughout - it sounds simultaneously like a traditional, almost classically gothic score in the Hermann or even (at times) Tiomkin vein, and at times like some modern, experimental orchestral piece. It is melodramatic and epic, moving and even a little creepy. It always works for the films narrative and themes in that it often sounds like Greenwood is trying to provide a score for the character of Daniel Plainview himself in all his complexity and frightening solitude. This is strange considering that sections of the soundtrack were composed by Greenwood for another film, the arty tone poem-cum-documentary, .
This cue is one of the more deliberate in the film, perhaps a scary reflection of Plainview's stubbom nature. Greenwood introduces some chopping, powerful strings and they thunder along for the first two minutes. When they die away, a warmer cloud of orchestration floats to the end of the piece, never losing its tense undercurrent.

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Blogger Monsterwork said...

Funnily enough, I have 'What R We Stealing?' as your ringtone on my phone. Not that I ever expect to hear it, of course.

x o x o

10:25 pm  
Blogger David N said...

Thats not a bad theme tune, I think.

Theme from S.W.A.T or Django would be better, but I shouldnt complain, eh?

11:50 pm  

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