The latest in soundtracks
Let’s face it: Movie soundtrack albums seem inherently silly. I don’t mean collections of pop songs from any one movie — those can easily transform themselves into nostalgia (The Big Chill) or Top 40 success (Saturday Night Fever). But why own a CD of music meant to be a semi-invisible mood enhancement to what’s on screen? That’s like buying the frame without the painting. Why would you want to have it around the house?
Well, for two reasons, actually: Because you loved the movie so much that you’d welcome a memento, or because the score does stand on its own, despite being served up in blandly labeled fragments like ”Main Titles” or ”The Fight.” In fact, the releases of this past holiday season show the venerable movie score at a fascinating moment of transition, with conservative oompah warring with new sounds and technologies. For neophytes, it’s a good time to dabble.
The old school of film music — romantico deluxe — is represented by John Williams’ Hook. Williams’ ties to the Spielberg/Lucas axis (Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters) have made him the king of the Hollywood music mountain, and when he’s composing on all cylinders, he has no rivals for pushy Wagnerian bombast. Hook shows up his strengths and limits. Its remarkably inventive first half climaxes with the jaunty hornpipes of ”Presenting the Hook,” but the long, sentimental set pieces that follow (”Remembering Childhood,” ”Farewell Neverland”) use every musical trick in the book to bludgeon the listener’s sensibilities instead of sparking them. B-
Producer/arranger James Newton Howard, meanwhile, may have worked with the likes of Elton John, but when it comes to film music, he’s clearly in Williams’ corner: His classy, if grandiose, score to The Prince of Tides piles on its tasteful epiphanies with a precisely calibrated trowel. When Howard is good, he creates vast panoramic melodies that follow you around for days; when he’s bad, he makes music to watch The Weather Channel by. A commitment to pop is evident in two bonus tunes sung by director/star Barbra Streisand — one of them a knockout, full-glitz remake of Billie Holliday’s ”For All We Know.” But his Tides music is more aptly summed up by the treacly “Love Montage,”good for little more than running on the beach with your honey in slow-motion. C+
For a more honest meeting ground between classical and pop approaches, seek out Eric Clapton’s original score to Rush. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting a souvenir of this exhausting drama about narcs-turned- hopheads, but the producers were smart to hire Clapton: Who better to write music for a flick about ’70s drug excess than the man responsible for the junkie glories of Layla? For most of the album, Clapton’s anguished guitar fronts a full orchestra (the orchestral arrangement is of course by a collaborator) and the effect is eerie and stirring — if not particularly memorable. Toward the end, though, comes ”Don’t Know Which Way to Go,” a fat blues jam with Buddy Guy that really brings back the nodded-out confidence of early-’70s rock. B
If Clapton represents the forward-looking wing of film scoring, Cape Fear is positively retro. To some degree, all movie composers wrestle with the ghost of the late Bernard Herrmann — his astringent, visceral music propelled everything from Citizen Kane to Psycho to Taxi Driver. Martin Scorsese knew that Herrmann’s score was one of the best things about the original 1962 Cape Fear, so when it came time for the director to put music to his remake, he sidestepped the issue by having Elmer Bernstein, a respected film composer in his own right (The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird), reorchestrate and rerecord Herrmann’s score. Curiously, while the music doesn’t serve Scorsese’s film nearly as well — the throbbing angst pushes an already hyperactive movie over the top — on record it’s still as methodical, mean, and doomy as Max Cady himself. A-
Then there’s Ennio Morricone: brilliant, eccentric, a musical planet unto himself. Still best known for his themes to spaghetti Westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the prolific Italian has written literally hundreds of scores since the early ’60s. Even less-than-inspired Morricone is good, but with Bugsy, he has come up with a suite that gorgeously reworks simple motifs into a dissonant, neurotic backdrop to the title character’s gangster optimism. The inclusion of period standards like ”Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” offers easy pop irony, but Morricone’s original score — for all its glamour — casts a more jaundiced eye on Bugsy Siegel than does either director Barry Levinson or star Warren Beatty. In fact, Morricone achieves something here that none of the composers above even try: music that’s as integral to the movie’s very conception as the dialogue, camera work, and performances. In Bugsy it’s the composer who’s really keeping score.