by carl wilson

Win Your Oscar Poll! (At Least In One Obscure Category)

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Overtones is back in today's Globe and Mail with a little look at the world of film-score fandom, this year's Oscar nominees and why it's not necessary to think movie scoring is a dying art (maybe). Why scores rather than original songs? Dude, this year's song nominees suuuuuuuck - except the songs from Motorcycle Diaries and Les Choristes, which don't have a prayer because they're not even in English. The songwriters should save themselves on tux rental. At best, the crappy ballad from Phantom of the Opera (added just to qualify for the award) and the crappy bar-band song from Shrek 2 will lose to the crappy Christmas song from Polar Express: I figure even Hollywood types are more likely to have bought a Josh Groban album this century than a Counting Crows one (at least those who haven't actually dated Adam Duritz). Zach Braff should have gotten a new song from the Shins for Garden State so there'd be something to watch for (a la Elliott Smith in 1997). (Wow, that's a long time ago now.)

Update: It turns out you can be too cynical about the Oscars - at least to some degree. The voters surprised me by selecting Uruguyan music star Jorge Drexler's Al otro lado del ro from The Motorcycle Diaries, making it the first Spanish-language song to win the award. On the other hand, the Oscar producers proceeded to butcher it by having it sung by that well-known singer Antonio Banderas, slapping his thighs and braying, accompanied by orchestra and by Carlos Santana in full blues-guitar-wank mode. It was horrible - so much so that when Drexler accepted his Oscar, he used his acceptance-speech time to sing a verse of the song so that viewers might get some idea of how it actually went. Drexler was pissed off that he wasn't allowed to perform the song in the first place, and the choice of Banderas prompted the film's director, Walter Salles, to issue a protest and its star, Gael Garcia Bernal, to boycott the ceremonies. Slate had more on the story this (Monday) morning.

Otherwise: the Oscars were as boring as ever. I totally owned the six-person Oscar pool at the little party I attended last night. And the column's Finding Neverland score prediction nailed it. [...]

Listen, the score's about to change

CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
The Globe & Mail
Saturday, February 26, 2005

I probably learned about the existence of film scores via Star Wars, no detail of which was too picayune to fascinate little boys. What struck me was not just the theme (and its tarty disco remix) but the teeter-totter jazz of the "cantina" music: It was only background, yet its burbling rhythm was somehow key to the impact -- surreal, giddy, a bit scary -- of that famous space saloon.

I soon came to take incidental music for granted, as most moviegoers do. But when Lukas Kendall had his own version of that epiphany, it changed his life.

At high school in New England, Kendall got so into adventure and sci-fi film scores that he launched a newsletter. His first, single-sheet mimeograph had a readership of 10. Fifteen years later, the operation has moved to Hollywood, grown a thousand-fold and become Film Score Monthly, America's only soundtrack periodical, and even Film Score Daily on-line.

The pages of FSM fairly hum with clubhouse lingo such as "Mickey Mousing" (music following screen action too exactly). Asked to describe a typical score fan, Kendall laughs: "Male, and -- I don't want to say 'geeky,' but -- 'on the thoughtful side.' "

I'm always envious when I run into such overdeveloped micro-niches, like George on Seinfeld: "I'd love to be a buff! What do you have to do?" Yet what buffs often do is get in so deep they turn to dust: Erstwhile soundtrack swami Kendall has been too busy supervising FSM's lost-classic CD reissues to hear a single one of tomorrow's Oscar-nominated scores.

Meanwhile, in 2004 three Hollywood sultans of scoring passed away -- Elmer Bernstein (To Kill A Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven, The Man With the Golden Arm), David Raskin (Laura) and Jerry Goldsmith (Patton, Chinatown and the deliciously out-there Planet of the Apes). Even their loyal heir apparent, Star Wars maestro John Williams - who has amassed five Oscars and 42 nominations, including one this weekened for the latest Harry Potter movie - is in his 70s.

No wonder FSM is full of obits these days. Yet it also needs to get busy discovering that next genius from Taiwan, if it wants to have anybody to cover in five years.

"The thought and structure that used to go into movie scores has gone out the window," Kendall claims. The booming volume and special effects of 21st-century film allow little space for musical subtext. He adds: "Because pop music has taken over all music, the aesthetics are different. People can't listen to something intricate and have it mean the same thing."

Now hold on. Yes, too many movie soundtracks are overrun with celebrity hits and media-conglomerate "synergy," and the Dolby age is inhospitable to quietude. But anyone who thinks pop and intricate are opposites hasn't heard pop in a long time, given today's hyper-layered productions.

Film music need not be concert music's poor cousin. As Kendall says, "Moment to moment, film scores tend to be more direct, more accessible than classical music, evocative rather than adhering to a formal musical structure. It's like classical music in a blender . . . . The form is not a symphony or a sonata -- the form is a film."

But that form's impact is evident across all fields of music, symphonic or not. Musicians boggle at the matter-of-fact way movies peddled dissonance, electronics and non-western sounds way back when. Jazz players play variations on Italian masters Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota, while rap and dance are riddled with spy, sci-fi, blaxploitation and gangster film samples. Composers such as Philip Glass are eager to write scores and orchestras to play them.

In fact, turning trash to silver and silver to trash, film music has been a complex sort of pop all along. There are new composers capable of applying that ethic to 21st-century sounds with the kind of bite Bernard Herrmann brought to Psycho. Unfortunately, you won't find them in this year's Oscar pack, except perhaps the Lemony Snicket score by Thomas Newman (whose clanging, sinewy work you can also hear on Six Feet Under).

And that's the point. The film buffs' nostalgia problem is significant only because at heart the industry has the same affliction: defining quality as the repetition of 40-year-old gestures. Confronted with new ideas it seldom can distinguish between innovation and cheap gimmickry.

Among the actual nominees, I'll back Newman. But I suspect Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's airy-fairy airs will net Finding Neverland (a Best Picture underdog) a consolation prize. James Newton Howard's atmospheric The Village would be more deserving, but the film flopped. Really, anything but John Debney's mega-selling, ham-fisted The Passion of the Christ would do, even giving up and handing it back to Williams.

Who cares, though, when pop producer Jon Brion was passed over for both I ♥ Huckabees and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, two loftily abstract but tuneful settings for unravelling realities? Not to mention further-out "cleffers" such as Wu-Tang Clan sonic sculptor the RZA (who has scored for Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch) or ex-Devo singer Mark Mothersbaugh (Wes Anderson's movies).

As well, no doubt to the horror of FSM subscribers, the vitality of film scoring is moving to other media. As Kendall says: "You can only be innovative when everybody, including the people with the money, wants it to be innovative." And that place now is in the video-game industry, whose revenues overtook movie box-office years ago and whose sonic ambitions extend way beyond the old bloop-bloop-bleep.

This year's hit Pixar cartoon The Incredibles, for instance, got its cool swing (and rumoured near-nomination) courtesy of Michael Giacchino, who cut his composer's teeth on computer tunes. And next week brings the Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell game with a specially commissioned, feature-length, preying-mantis-creepy score by Montreal-based electronica producer Amon Tobin -- as well as a soundtrack CD.

Just as rappers or pop bands campaign to expose music on video games - "the new radio," they call it, in heavy rotation in tens of millions of teenagers' bedrooms and dens - more formally ambitious composers, too, might now gain the ears of gamers for hours and days on end. Already, in Japan, music from the Final Fantasy game series tops the charts and is the subject of tribute albums. In North America, PlayStation concertos may not get the red-carpet treatment this year, but the standards of excellence remain to be set. There are rumblings in the cantina, and the score-keepers ain't seen nothing yet.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, February 26 at 1:14 PM | Linking Posts

 

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Zoilus by Carl Wilson