Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Music at the Movies

By Tony Buchsbaum

Everyone always talks about the Big Summer Movies, the blockbusters we all used to wait in line to see (and which we now get into, no problem, because they're playing on six screens at the same time). But few of us talk about the music from these movies, which are an integral part of what they're about and how well they work.

Mamma Mia, for example, isn't the summer's best movie (not by a longshot), but really, who cares? That movie is all about its music, by the iconic 70s group Abba. "Dancing Queen," "Mamma Mia," "S.O.S.," "The Winner Takes It All," "Take a Chance on Me"--these are amazing songs, and they, along with a dozen or so others, carry the movie along on a constant stream of good feeling and performances that range from very good to "What? I didn't know he could sing!"

All the major songs appear on the soundtrack, sung by the actors in the film. This is, of course, the norm, but when the actors include Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, you'd be forgiven if you said, "Huh?" But the end, Meryl can do it. She's not particularly compelling as a singer, but next to Pierce Brosnan, she's Streisand. Brosnan is most assuredly not a singer, but that hardly stops him; if anything, he's a trooper and a very good sport.

The Mamma Mia soundtrack is a pretty terrific CD. It's got all the great songs, fully-orchestrated (which is something not always true for the stage version's cast recordings.

Wall•E, which could be the summer's best movie and certainly is one of the best movies of the year, is not only a tour de force for Pixar, the studio that created it, but for composer Thomas Newman. Long a staple on the Hollywood scoring scene, Newman's done standout work for years, for great films like "The Shawshank Redemption" and more recent fare like last year's "Little Children." For Wall•E, Newman has composed a startlingly good score that's filled with adventure, pathos, and a love theme that's virtually airborne. The CD also features a new song by Peter Gabriel, which is always a good thing.

Finally, though it's not a movie, I have to mention Mad Men, the celebrated original series on AMC. The show, created by Michael Wiener, tackles advertising in the early to mid-1960s. The men chase women, the women seem to like being chased, and everyone smokes like a chimney. The show's writing and acting are brilliant, but the best feature really is its design; the period comes alive in the costumes, the sets, and the props. Word is that Wiener is a stickler for authenticity, down to the month a product appeared on the market. If it wasn't really there, it's not in the show.

The music, which is predictably on its own CD, is okay. Composer David Carbonnara does his job well enough, and it works on-screen. I just wish it worked better as a stand-alone recording. The CD features a few of his tracks, then fills out the rest with period songs, including "On the Street Where You Live" performed by Vic Damone, "Botch-A-Me" performed by Rosemary Clooney, and "Manhattan" performed by Ella Fitzgerald. Are the songs great? Yeah. Is the CD? Again, it's OK.

Other big movie-related CDs this summer are the score for The Dark Knight, composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. Why two A-list composers were needed for this escapes me, and why their work wasn't better just baffles me. These guys know what they're doing, but the score was a big yawn. Oh well.

And then there's Star Wars: The Clone Wars . The score, composed by Kevin Kiner, sounds thin, when it should sound big. Kiner's no John Williams, and the film, while animated, could have been helped by a meaningful, orchestral score. As of this writing, I haven't seen the film, but on CD the score falls flat--until nearly the end. The cue "Fight to the End" is one of those rousing pieces of music that the "Star Wars" saga is built on. It's loud, its foundation varies wonderfully and smoothly from action to pathos to resolution, each making the others more powerful, and it's big enough to telegraph: This is the moment. In short, it's very John Williams...and that's a good thing. The quality of these few minutes of music tells me Kiner has it in him; why he didn't bring out these guns for the rest of the score is beyond me.

Your assignment, then, for the week: See Mamma Mia because it's fun. See Wall•E because when all the hype fades away, it's the only movie this summer that anyone will still be talking about next summer.

No comments: