Monday, July 28, 2014

A Summer that Scores

This summer has been pretty excellent for film scores. While pop songs continue to find themselves sprinkled throughout films, engaging audiences with foot-tapping, head-bobbing goodness, there’s also been what feels like a renaissance in film scoring. X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer’s excellent new time-travel film that redefines what this series is all about, has a score by the gifted John Ottman (who also edited the movie). It’s a mysterious, rousing score that communicates escalating conflict and depth of character while also punctuating the action where it needs to. Wisely, it builds on themes created earlier in the franchise, but it also introduces new material that gets the action going. The film uses two well-chosen songs to evoke the seventies setting, “Time in a Bottle” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” both of which are used to get us in the mood and bring up a smile. But it is Ottman’s score, meanwhile, that gives the proceedings a real and necessary gravitas: Is this the end of the X-Men or a new beginning? Ottman’s outstanding music for this outstanding film seems to promise that there’s a lot more to come. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with a score by Michael Giacchino, continues the epic saga begun in 1968, when Charlton Heston happened upon a banged-up Statue of Liberty on the beach a few millennia from now. The series has had highs and lows, but music has played an integral role since the start. Jerry Goldsmith’s work for the first film was a spectacular mix of traditional and ethnic instruments, as well as just a lot of primitive-sounding stuff. It was a mix that established a sound for these films, easing audiences into a world that looked sort of familiar, sort of alien. Giacchino, known for his knack for picking up classic scores and contemporizing them, borrowed Goldsmith’s sensibility. This kind of borrowing, really musical tributes, was used in the recent Star Trek reboots to great effect, and Giacchino used John Barry’s early Bond sound to infuse thrilling, winking fun into Pixar’s The Incredibles. For Dawn, Giacchino goes all the way back to the beginning, using Goldsmith’s inspired instrumentation and sounds. Coupled with his gorgeous score, the technique squares the film in the here and now and nods to the past. It’s the perfect way to make the film part of a much larger saga and give it a universe of its own, all at the same time.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Legendary Singer/Songwriter Lou Reed Dead at 71

Legendary singer/songwriter Lou Reed died today of as yet undisclosed causes. He was 71. His literary agent, Andrew Wylie, told The New York Times that he “believed that his cause of death was related to a liver transplant Mr. Reed had earlier this year.” From the NYT:

Mr. Reed played the sport of alienating listeners, defending the right to contradict himself in hostile interviews, to contradict his transgressive image by idealizing sweet or old-fashioned values in word or sound, or to present intuition as blunt logic.
“I’ve always believed that there’s an amazing number of things you can do through a rock ‘n’ roll song,” he once told the journalist Kristine McKenna, “and that you can do serious writing in a rock song if you can somehow do it without losing the beat. The things I’ve written about wouldn’t be considered a big deal if they appeared in a book or movie.”
While Reed’s musical (and sometimes personal) exploits are the first thing that comes to mind when you hear his name, Reed was also an accomplished author and photographer. His books include Lou Reed’s New York (Steidl, 2008), Emotion in Action (Steidl, 2008), Between Thought and Expression (Hyperion, 1991), Pass Through Fire (Hyperion, 2000) and an illustrated book of poetry (with Lorenzo Mattotti) called The Raven (Fantagraphics, 2011) based on a series of songs Reed released in 2003. There are others, all  encompassing multiple facets of Reed’s very deep and real talent.

Reed is survived by his third wife, singer and performance artist Laurie Anderson.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Prisoners and Gravity: 2 icy scores

In my experience, film music is meant to augment the story the film tells. As it unspools, the music can heighten tension, reveal character or conflict, and express things that actors and writers and directors and editors find elusive. Like that of aroma, the effect of music on one’s emotions can be hard to pin down and harder still to describe. Think of the burst of music when the shark appears in Jaws. John Williams brings forth the full power of the orchestra, using melody and massive color to tell us this shark is huge and what it can do is huge. We get just a glimpse of the shark; the music tells us everything else we have to know. •• Two recent movies, Prisoners and Gravity, feature scores that are icy in their approach. The former, composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, is a real chillfest. Long, drawn-out tones communicate the frustration of the characters as they try to make sense of what’s happened to their children. Have they been abducted? Are they still alive? Will they ever learn the truth? This is a twisty movie experience, and the music serves to lower the temperature even as the heated conflict soars, taking its inspiration from the cold and rainy weather under which the action plays. •• Gravity, with a score by Steve Price, works much the same way, ratcheting up the drama about a woman, played by Sandra Bullock, who’s all but stranded in space, 600 kilometers above the earth’s surface. How will she get home? Will she, ever? She’s not experienced in space; she was out there to do a medical experiment, and her crew has been killed. Now she’s alone, and all she has are her wits and her very basic training. The music, which builds in a sort of monotonous electronic vibrato that never lets up, like the enclosing reality of space, has an irritating way of cutting short at the moment of climax, like a massive door that’s slammed shut. I kept waiting for the cues on the CD to open up, to be really be as beautiful as the images in the film. They never did. ••  Here’s the problem, though, for me: I don’t think either film needed a score at all. As effective as it was, Prisoners would have worked even better with no music, no added undertone of dread. It was dread-filled enough, with all the music playing across the actor’s faces. Hugh Jackman, in particular, gives a nuanced, highly tuned performance. What more could the music tell us? As it turns out, nothing. ••  And Gravity? Well this film tells the audience in the first few minutes that the best thing about space is its silence. Even as the line is spoken, though, there’s music. I remember thinking, What? Let the audience hear what silence sounds like. What space sounds like. From that moment on, all through this amazing film, I kept thinking how much better it would have been without a score. The best composers know that silence can sometimes be the best music of all. For without a melody of any kind to grasp, the audience and the characters are left alone to grapple along without assistance. ••  These films, both brilliant, both effective, both unforgettable, would have been improved by the silence their stories screamed for.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Official Truth: 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera by Rex Brown

A decade after they were torn asunder, super metal group, Pantera, has more than seven million Facebook fans. Numbers like would be a major feat for an active group, never mind an essentially dead one. And make no mistake, though three of the original four bandmembers are still alive, Pantera is no more, nor will it be. That much is clear from Official Truth: 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera (DaCapo).

Of course, the pivotal moment in Pantera’s story comes near the end. It’s a part that was documented in Zac Crain’s very compelling Black Tooth Grin: The High Life, Good Times, and Tragic End of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott.

Abbott was the founder of Pantera, an act that seemed as turbulent and fraught as the decade that gave the band its biggest success. Pantera was metal in the age of grunge and they were unapologetic.

What helps give Official Truth its authentic ring is the voice of co-author Rex Brown, the bass player who joined the band in 1982, just a year after the mercurial Abbot brothers put the outfit together. The fact that the voice grates at times is apparent almost from the very beginning. And though he’s earned -- he can walk that walk -- Rex Brown’s rock god arrogance can be a little hard to take.

Though it doesn’t sound like life in Pantera was ever much of a party (other than the very nastiest kind),
in 2004, Darrel Abbot was killed by a deranged fan while he was onstage, putting a dramatic finale on a story that seemed headed for tragedy almost since the very beginning.

Official Truth is a proper rock biography, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Some readers will find it a little too gritty and a little too real and, certainly, the F-bomb gets thrown around sometimes more than one would ever have thought possible. But it’s a portrait, of sorts. And if you ever thought the world of a rock god was sexy and golden, read Official Truth and think again. ◊

Lincoln Cho is a freelance writer and editor. He lives in the Chicago area where he works in the high tech industry. He is currently working on a his first novel, a science fiction thriller set in the world of telecommunications.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

New CD: Megan Hilty

Megan Hilty, who's starred on Broadway as Glinda in Wicked and now appears weekly as Ivy on "Smash," has just released her first solo CD, "It Happens All the Time." •• Instead of what I expected, a collection of the usual show tunes and standards, Megan has collected 10 of her favorite songs, songs that speak to her and that she hopes will speak to us. And for the most part, she nails it. These are heartache songs, for the most part, and you can hear her heartbreak coming through each performance. •• By far the standout of the album is "Wise Up." Aimee Mann's version was used in the film Magnolia some years ago, and here Megan infuses it with a wistfulness and wisdom that I found very emotional. It sounds like she's singing to herself as much as to us, like she wants to save us some pain by sharing her own. Some of that's the song, but most of it is her performance. Same story with "The Heart of the Matter," to which Megan brings a real fierceness and sorrow. •• All in all, while this may not be a totally successful first CD, it has plenty of real emotion and a mountain of talent. I can't wait to see what Megan Hilty brings to her next CD.

Monday, February 11, 2013

New Soundtrack: Bombshell

Bombshell? you may be wondering. What's Bombshell? Well, Bombshell is the musical that was produced last season on the TV series "Smash" -- and what with so many songs, all of them composer by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, it seemed (to me) a natural for there to be an actual cast recording. I'm thrilled someone else thought so, too. •• This 22-song CD contains the entire Bombshell score as recorded for the TV series. While having it is terrific, I wish it had been a bit more than just the TV recordings: an actual cast recording of the show, not just the tracks already released on the "Smash" CD last year. But no matter, really, because in addition to last season's songs, there are plenty of new ones from this season, which has only just started airing. •• Stars Katherine McPhee and Megan Hilty do an outstanding job here, each bringing her own shade of characterization to Marilyn Monroe, the subject of the musical. The songs track of her life in Hollywood, her marriage to Joe DiMaggio, and her eventual death. They're truly spectacular, from the power-ballad yearning of "Let Me be Your Star" to the playfulness of "The 20th Century Fox Mambo," from the sexy come-ons of "I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn't Love to Howl" to the soaring finale, "Don't Forget Me," which echoes "Let Me be Your Star" and brings the score full circle. •• Regarding "Never Met a Wolf," I'd have chosen the version performed by McPhee, since it actually appears in the musical; the one here has appeared elsewhere and the other would have provided a compelling reason to buy this CD (it's also just plain better). But that's a minor beef. •• There's so much talent on display here, so much passion for the musical, so much songwriting and performing brilliance, that I keep wondering: Since the whole musical is written, how long will it be before Bombshell becomes what it really should be: an actual Broadway musical? See you there!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

An Interview with Film Composer Joe Kraemer

Joe Kraemer has been teasing the film business for years with his moody, melodic scores. He composed the music for The Way of the Gun some years back, then did a lot of television and documentary work. Now he’s returned to the big screen with Jack Reacher, the new Tom Cruise movie. The score, which is available from La-La Land Records, is darkly melodic, and one can hear, now and then, the influences of John Williams, John Barry, and Michael Giacchino. But the sound is really all Kraemer, and his work is a breath of fresh air in a film-music environment that sounds very much the same from composer to composer. What comes through is Kraemer’s ideas, his thinking, and I was curious about a few things. ••• Kraemer agreed to answer some questions recently. I wanted to know, first of all, about his influences. ••• “Of course, John Williams tops the list for me,” Kraemer said. “I listen to and study his scores more than any other composers. I have noticed a tendency to sound like John Barry as well, but believe it or not, that is entirely accidental. All I can think is that we both rip off the same Brahmsian gestures. I have enjoyed Giancchino's work, especially on Lost, but any resemblance to him is coincidental. ••• “Other inspirations include Jerry Goldsmith, David Shire, Elmer Bernstein, Bernard Hermann, and Howard Shore. Shore in particular writes music that seems to please modern directors' desire to avoid histrionics while at the same time allowing some level of compositional detail into the score.” ••• My own view of composers has a lot to do with their approach. To my way of thinking, John Williams composes for characters. What they’re thinking and feeling as well as what they’re doing. Just about every other composer scores action. I wondered what Kraemer’s approach was. ••• “I try to score films from the point of view of the audience. That is, I want to reflect where I think the audience should be focusing their attention. That also means the score might react to the film rather than lead the film. My process begins with watching the film from beginning to end. I don't usually read the script unless the director has asked me to for a specific reason, such as music that needs to be on hand during filming or something like that. I prefer to react to the movie itself,” Kraemer told me, “rather than go into my first screening of it with preconceptions. Also, it can be valuable for the filmmakers for me to come in with as little baggage as possible, since I am often one of the first people on the team to see the movie as a movie.” ••• And what’s his process after he watches the film? ••• “After I've seen the film, there is usually a spotting session where I discuss with the director where the music should begin and end, how the music should sound and where it should fall on the dramatic spectrum. I have a number of tricks that I use to spark the creative process at this point. Sometimes I'll use my mathematical understanding of music to devise a theme (such as the open fifths of Reacher's theme), sometimes I'll have an orchestral color in mind (i.e. the music for The Zec). ••• “The actual composing process probably resembles Max Steiner more than anyone else I know of. I start at the first frame of the movie and work my through to the end, chronologically, in order. What I find is that this procedure allows me to discover what I romantically refer to as ‘little treasures’ that I develop as I move through the score. Once I get to the end of the picture, I go back and do a revision draft where I reintegrate any of these little treasures into the earlier parts of the score as needed.” ••• Does he compose at a piano or at the computer? ••• “I work at the computer, where I compose and orchestrate using orchestral samples. I've done many films where the final product is a sample-based orchestra, so I make my work at this stage as realistic-sounding as I can. I have studied many symphonic works and conductors scores, including film cues by Williams and Goldsmith, and done mock-ups of their music to hone my skills at simulating a live orchestra with samples, so I've gotten to the point where I am confident in my orchestration choices and how they will translate from the samples to the stage. ••• “Once the score is recorded and mixed, I hand it off to the music editor who [handles] the final dub. I've reached the point where I think the film is best served with me staying out of the trenches during the [final mix]. Having a composer [there] is like having an actor in the cutting room. Too often a choice that is better for the movie might impact the score in a way that my ego may disagree with. I find by sitting out the dub and going in at the end for a playback of the full mix gives me a chance to voice any major concerns, while freeing the filmmakers from the burden of having someone there trying to protect the trees in spite of the forest.” ••• One thing I kept coming back to was the fact that Kraemer has jumped into major Hollywood scoring with a Tom Cruise movie. This isn’t a little film the composer can hide behind. His music is right up front with that larger-than-life persona. I asked how that reality affected his work this time. ••• “The size and scope of the project definitely factor into the production of a score,” said Kraemer. “If I know for sure we will be using a live orchestra, then there are certain musical gestures I can include in my arsenal that just aren't possible using samples exclusively, especially in the brass section. I believe Joni Mitchell once said that at a certain point you stop writing the song and it starts writing itself. I find that the film will tell you what kind of score it needs, and part of the specific skill set a composer needs is to listen to the film when it tells you something isn't working.” ••• Jack Reacher is as terrific and taut as its star. Better yet, so is the score.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

New soundtrack: Skyfall

For me, James Bond movies aren't just about the movie. They're also about the music. John Barry's scores for the first few films got me into movie music in the first place -- and now, all these years later, a new composer has taken the reigns. •• Thomas Newman, a wonderful and gifted composer -- has scored Skyfall, and it's a brilliant piece of work, as surprising and as welcome as the film itself. His score is fast, propulsive, and powerful -- and it has something recent 007 scores have lacked: melody. Newman brings his usual sense of melody to the film, upping the class factor...and the ante on suspense. •• The film's title song, sung by Adele, isn't on the CD, but it's easily downloaded. But beyond the song, which is terrific, there's a lot here to love. If you're into great movie music -- and Bond music in particular -- don't miss Skyfall, the soundtrack.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

New Soundtrack: Lincoln

The partnership of Steven Spielberg and John Williams is now 40 years strong. Starting with The Sugarland Express and Jaws, Williams has composed the music for every Spielberg film except The Color Purple. And every time they work together, they magic. Both men have been very vocal about their admiration for each other's work, and the director has recut entire sequences to match the composer's music, rather than force the composer's work into an edit. Their collaboration is a testament to how film and music can work together, each there for the other, each augmenting and illuminating the other. •• Now that partnership is on display again in Lincoln. •• The score for this film is stunning. Recalling, in many ways, last year's War Horse score, Lincoln is a score made of simple themes used in big, emotional ways. At moments quiet and at others soaring, this score is one for the ages, a musical painting of Americana and struggle and war and resolution. Tough choices...and the knowledge that one is fighting the good and just fight. •• The main theme is presented on the CD right away in "The People's House," and it reaches its penultimate performance in an 11-minute cue called "The Peterson House and Finale," which weaves the theme into others and back upon itself in ways that left me breathless. •• This score seems is about the power of one's spirit. As Lincoln determines the fate and direction of our nation, he also determines the fate and direction of his life and the world for future generations. He feels the weight of his work -- and its grandeur. •• Lincoln's score will give you pause. And chills.

Monday, November 05, 2012

New Soundtrack: Cloud Atlas

As I type these words, I haven't seen Cloud Atlas yet. But I've been listening to the music for almost two weeks now. Along with the extraordinary visuals in the extended trailer online, I was taken with the music from the start. A little research told me most of the trailer's music wasn't from the film -- but one of the main themes was, and that was enough to whet my appetite for more. •• The movie is directed by three directors, Larry and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer. And the score is composed by three composers, Johnny Klimek, Reinhold Heil, and Tom Tykwer. I've been a fan of the composer Tykwer as long as I've been a fan of the director. His work on Perfume and The International were fluid, melodic, and unforgettable. I knew Cloud Atlas would be no different -- especially because music plays such an important role in the narrative. •• The opening notes of the soundtrack are the opening notes of that trailer -- and for anyone who's into film music, the melody's plaintive, wistful longing is magnetic. The melody is heard throughout the score is one way or another, layered with different orchestration and variation as the film's many stories unfold. Sometimes adventurous, sometimes mysterious, sometimes symphonic, this main theme is a versatile beauty. Love theme, march, action set-piece. •• The score culminates in the full "Cloud Atlas Sextet for Orchestra," a 5-minute track that reaches for the classical stars and sometimes, at some moments, achieves it. It sounds like a very old piece of music, which is sort of the point. I kept wishing for more: more development, more variation. (Its brevity is my only beef, really.) I think I could listen to a half hour of it, in awe of unexpected arpeggios and turns of musical phrase. But as it is, there's just the 5 minutes and they'll have to do until (unless) someone sees fit to expand on it. •• For now, what we have is a film score that seems to bring to the film an emotional layer that can only be carried and realized by music. It is the characters' souls and inner longings. Cloud Atlas promises to be an epic film -- and its music more than fulfills that promise.