Monday, February 13, 2012

800 Words: A Brief History of Film Music - The Silver Age Part 2

(The ghost of Alban Berg presides over these California teenagers)

The first of the ‘silver age’ composers was probably Leonard Rosenman. The same year he did the score for The Cobwebb he also scored two James Dean movies, Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden. Rebel Without a Cause is one of the first film scores in which jazz and atonal composition screams from out the soundtrack into the mainstream of musical discourse. There was jazz and atonality before Rosenman, not least in the scores of Bernard Hermann, but the presence of these more modern styles was always rather incidental and sanitized, more Tin Pan Alley than Jazz, more Salome than Schoenberg. Rebel Without a Cause was one of the first movies to address the theme of American teen angst, and a new generation required new music. But one of the ironies of Rebel Without a Cause was that this was a movie about young people made for an older generation. In order to explain the youth of their day, the movie required the music of an older generation. The result was a thorough melange of Schoenberg and Ellington for score about a thoroughly Rock’n Roll generation.

It should follow that once the model for how to compose film music was broken, there would be lots of new models for how to write it. And since there was no longer set way to compose music, composers from around the world could create new models, far more personal than what came before.

The most traditional of the new composers hailed from Western Europe. All one has to think of is how David Lean used the swelling strings of Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia score, or the thumping martial rhythms of Malcolm Arnold’s score for The Bridge Over the River Kwai, to see that the traditional film score of Rosza and Waxmann was very much alive. And yet, even from Britain came John Barry. Like Jarre or Elmer Bernstein, Barry could write extremely facilely in the Korngold model. But he combined that with a Mancini-like appetite for hard driving rhythm and dissonant jazz chords from blaring brass. When one hears the Goldfinger soundtrack, a person of our generation immediately thinks of Austin Powers. Yet it was John Barry who provided the strings + big band combination of old world elegance and new world brashness that immediately makes us think of James Bond.

But perhaps the most memorable of the new model film composers hailed from Italy. If the ‘spaghetti westerns’ of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood have a truly American feel, it is in large part due to Morricone’s contribution. Morricone had (has) a better feel for what makes music sound American than nearly any American film composer. Whereas the Western scores of yesteryear made a curt nod in the direction of American folk music, Morricone’s spare scoring virtually forwent the European orchestra in favor of the insturmental combos one generally finds in America, writing melodies for them that sound as much a part of the American West as sarsaparilla.

(The Bouzouki theme to Zorba the Greek. Both the movie and this theme are huge, largely forgotten hits of the 60’s.)

A similarly uncanny, though very different, folk sensibility is found in the music of Mikis Theodorakis. Whereas Ennio Morricone had a chameleon-like ability to channel other parts of the world, Theodorakis’s music is utterly rooted in his native Greece - where he is considered a legendary composer and leftist political figure. Even in his score for the Al Pacino movie, Serpico, he has the electric guitar imitating the constant thrum of the Bouzouki, the Greek equivalent to a mandolin.

(the phrase is at 1 minute)

Before Italy gave the world Morricone, there was the not at all film-confined Nino Rota. Rota’s most important contribution to film music will always be as the preferred composer of Frederico Fellini, whose name Rota will always be as synonymous as Morricone’s is to Sergio Leone. But American audiences know Rota best as the composer of The Godfather. Like everything else about The Godfather, the score is absolutely extraordinary. To take just one example, listen to the music of what I think is the movie’s most extraordinary scene, when Michael visits his ailing father in the hospital after Vito was shot. When it dawns on Michael that there are no guards, and his father is vulnerable to a second assassination attempt, there is a brief brass chorale that is one of the most moving moments of film music I know. It’s just an eight-bar phrase, yet it strikes an almost impossible balance so many conflicting emotions, perfectly depicting them all. Yet what’s still more amazing is how Rota the second half of this phrase recurs after Michael shoots Sollozzo and Officer McCluskey in the Italian restaurant. What was once muted and mournful becomes a fortissimo outburst, blaring and unmistakeably tragic - as though Michael's tragic destiny was formed at the phrase's first occurrence and sealed at the next. But it’s part of The Godfather, just another extraordinary moment in that extraordinary movie.

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