Monday, October 25, 2010

Blow It Up & Start Again

Olivier Assayas' superb Carlos is notable for numerous reasons, some of which I will hopefully tackle when I write about it in my end-of-year list, in which it will most probably feature.
But one of its most obvious strengths is its soundtrack, and that I want to write about now. Assayas has always placed a great deal of importance in his soundtrack choices; from the scores he has commissioned from Sonic Youth and John Cale to the terrific taste he displays in his selections of songs in his films, from the Incredible String Band through Brian Eno and Pere Ubu to Metric.

Instead of going for a contemporaneous collection of era-evocative pop and rock hits, he fills the Carlos soundtrack with post-punk songs, most of them out of step chronologically with the historical scenes they accompany. This suggests that Assayas wants us to pick up on the elements of Carlos' personality - or that of the film itself - captured by the songs in all their angular, jerky appeal.

Post-Punk is musically a far more diverse, complex and interesting sub-genre than Punk itself. Poppier, more intellectual, there is an undeniable chill to some of the music Assayas selects. It is all cold, scratchy guitars and mathematical rhythms, lead vocals in a bored monotone, impenetrable or vaguely Punkish nihilistic lyrics. Much of the film is set in wintry 70s Europe, in cities like the Hague, Paris, Vienna and Budapest, and this music is a perfect fit. He also cuts many songs off before they get going, so that all we hear are a series of extended guitar intros, taut basslines and feedback.
Its a brilliant soundtrack for a brilliant film, but as far as I can tell, no soundtrack album exists. While far from exhaustive, here is a selection of some of the music heard in the film, with some brief commentary:

New Order: Dreams Never End
Assayas uses the phenomenal intro from this, the opening track off the album Movement, twice in the film. Its shifts in tone and texture and those rapidly chopped chords clip along like the movie does; at an unforgiving exhilarating pace. Any film that uses early New Order is alright by me.

Feelies: Loveless Love
The horribly underappreciated the Feelies played a much larger role in the plans Assayas originally made for Carlos. He used several of their songs at key points as he cut the film, but when the band were approached they were reluctant to have their music associated with Terrorism in any way. They were finally convinced to give permission to use songs over scenes without any direct connection to Terrorist acts, and Loveless Love, from their excellent debut record, Crazy Rhythms, is used like the New Order song, for the extraordinary fluidity and power of its stripped down intro. He uses another Feelies song, Forces at Work, from the same record, at another point in the film.

Dead Boys: Sonic Reducer
The closest thing to actual punk on the Soundtrack - and a rare period fit, as characters listen to it on the radio at a key point - is this storming rocker, which soundtracks a moment of violent madness and perfectly captures the spirit of the character involved in all her messy, wild abandon. "I got my death machine, Got my electronic dream/ Sonic Reducer/Aint no loser/Sonic Reducer/Aint No Loser."

A Certain Ratio: All Night Party
I love A Certain Ratio in all their fascinating, difficult, unsung glory. I think Assayas does too, and the use of this herky-jerky, creepily off-key treasure from their (largely unavailable, these days) catalogue only proves that.

Wire: Dot Dash
When the Feelies proved reluctant to participate, Assayas more or less replaced them with their not dissimilar British contemporaries, Wire. There are three Wire songs in Carlos - that I noticed, at any rate. "Ahead" is used for its guitar intro and eerie, calm cool, "Drill" for its frenetic rhythm. And "Dot Dash" plays in its entirety. Its perhaps the band's most commercial song, a catchy, bouncy, fun singalong, which might make it sound wrong for a film about a murderous terrorist/assassin. But Assayas makes it work, somehow.

The Lightning Seeds: Pure
Another odd fit, you might say, but Ian Broudie's lovely slice of pop genius is utilized in a rare scene of domestic harmony and happiness, and in that context, it is a terrific choice.

Davy Graham: Jenra
The tonal changes of the third section of the film, mainly set in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, are reflected in the eclecticism which creeps into the soundtrack choices for that portion of the film. Most of them I did not recognise, but this I did. Davy Graham's hypnotic, Morocco-inspired raga becomes more and more hysterical and intense as it progresses, just as the bloated, paranoid Carlos does.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cleo from 5 to 7

Agnes Varda, 1961

DP: Jean Rabier

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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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