Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


VANGELIS, Hans Zimmer and Marvin Hamlisch are part of the same fraternity of musicians, but are in the news for different reasons.

Vangelis, a Greek composer, made headlines because his memorable theme from the 1981 film ‘Chariots of Fire’ was used as a leitmotif at the London Olympics, and was played at every medal ceremony.

Zimmer, a German, composed the tune ‘Aurora’, dedicated to victims of last month’s shoot-out at the screening of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. His music is also one of the highlights of the Christoper Nolan film.

Hamlisch, an American musician, passed away on August 6. Though his untimely death at age 68 didn’t receive the kind of mass coverage given to disco queen Donna Summer and rock keyboardist Jon Lord, hardcore fans recalled his great work in the movies ‘The Way We Were’, ‘The Sting’ and ‘A Chorus Line’.

All three of them belong to the community of Hollywood music composers. They are stars in their own right, people who have produced some outstanding music over the years. Yet, compared to musicians from other genres like pop, rock, jazz and the blues, they are somewhat under-recognised in the global entertainment spotlight. And even in the movie world they belong to, they get much less attention than the stars and the directors.

Take five classic movies that many of us would have seen — ‘My Fair Lady’, ‘Psycho’, ‘Love Story’, ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Mackenna’s Gold’. All of them were great films, and had a great cast. They also had outstanding music and memorable musical themes. However, without reading the next paragraph, or doing a Google search, how many would be able to rattle off the names of those who composed them?

Now let’s see the answers. The ‘My Fair Lady’ music was by Frederick Loewe, who also did ‘Camelot’. ‘Psycho’ was by Bernard Hermann, who was a Hitchcock favourite and a trendsetter. ‘Love Story’ was by Francis Lai. ‘The Godfather’ was by Nino Rota. And ‘Mackenna’s Gold’ was by Quincy Jones, who is better-known as producer of the Michael Jackson album ‘Thriller’ and the anthemic song ‘We Are The World’.

From these films, most of us would remember the names of Rex Harrison, Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Ryan O’Neal, Gregory Peck, Ali McGraw, Al Pacino, Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola and even authors Eric Segal and Mario Puzo, but how many would know the names of the composers?  Or know that Vangelis created ‘Chariots of Fire’ and Zimmer made ‘The Lion King’? Or remember that there was a composer named Hamlisch, who actually won the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards?

There are many more examples. Most of us have admired Charlie Chaplin for his great films and comic performances, but only his biggest followers knew he actually created music for his own films, albeit with the help of other composers, As a conductor and pianist, Leonard Bernstein is a huge name in western classical music, but he also composed two outstanding sets of film music in ‘West Side Story’ and the Brando hit ‘On The Waterfront’.

The other Bernstein, Elmer — not related to but friends with Leonard — worked on masterpieces like ‘The Ten Commandments’, ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, but today’s audience wouldn’t have heard of him. Ditto with Malcolm Arnold, who created one of cinema’s most memorable tunes in ‘The Bridge Over The River Kwai’, basing his them around the famous ‘Colonel Bogey’s March’, Ludovic Bource, who did a phenomenal job to win this year’s Oscar for ‘The Artist’, is a non-entity compared to the Lady Gagas, Justin Biebers and Spice Girls-turned-Mums of the world.

Sad, but true. The Hollywood composer, like the Hollywood cameraman, has always been overshadowed by the glossier names. Yes, the hardcore movie and music buffs do follow and admire them, and they are big names in the stage  theatre world of Broadway and West End. But come to the cinema, and for the lay public, it’s always the film and their stars.

One may always argue that there are exceptions. For instance, in today’s world, a handful of composers have attained some fame even among the mass audiences. There’s John Williams for ‘Star Wars’, ‘Jaws’, ‘ET’ and three Harry Potter films. There’s Zimmer for ‘The Lion King’, ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Inception’. There’s James Horner, who worked on ‘Titanic’ and ‘Avatar’.  Alan Silvestri did ‘The Bodyguard’, ‘Back to the Future’, ‘Forrest Gump’ and ‘The Avengers’. And James Newton Howard composed for ‘The Fugitive’, ‘The Prince of Tides’ and ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’.

From the earlier days, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II are still remembered for ‘The Sound of Music’. Ennio Morricone provided some of the most-hummed tunes ever, becoming a rage with the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. Henry Mancini clicked with the Pink Panther series.

Burt Bacharach, in partnership with lyricist Hal David, was prolific in non-film songs, but also composed some great film tunes, including ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head’ from ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’. The film ‘Saturday Night Fever’ is known equally for the Bee Gees, as it is for John Travolta’s performance. It’s a different matter that the Bee Gees were primarily known as a pop group than as creators of film music.

But these have been rare cases. Maestros like Miklos ‘Ben Hur’ Rocza , Jerry Goldsmith, Alex North, Richard and Robert Sherman, Maurice Jarre, Max Steiner, John Barry, Michael Nyman and Howard Shore, to name only some of them, are recognised only by very ardent followers.

Look at the Oscar night too, and it’s dominated by the best film, best director, best actors, the red carpet and the performers — best music and best song are relatively smaller awards (though AR Rahman did get enormous coverage in India after winning them). The same goes with the Grammys, where pop, hip-hop and rock get more exposure than the film awards.

Over the past few years, two new trends have emerged in Hollywood film music. The first is the creation of not-so-original ‘original soundtracks’ (OSTs), where popular songs are compiled and used in a film’s background, to be later marketed as CDs. Examples are ‘Forrest Gump’, ‘Wonder Boys’, ‘A Knight’s Tale’, ‘Kill Bill’, ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘Finding Forrester’.

The second is the tendency of making the film’s stars sing cover versions of popular songs, as was done in ‘Walk The Line’, ‘Ray’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Mamma Mia!’ and, more recently, ‘Rock of Ages’, which made Tom Cruise sing.

Though the first trend is well-established by now, the second has been restricted to only a few films. Yet, the truth is that filmmakers are finding other options on how to use music in the movies. The chances of creating great original music, like was done in the older movies, are getting somewhat smaller.

The truth, of course, is that Hollywood is filled with musical geniuses. Scoring music for a film always requires a great amount of work, and to stand out, that extra bit of talent and imagination. One has to ensure that the music is in sync with the film’s storyline and situations, and yet create an impact of its own. One also has to make sure the music sounds great in a cinema hall, and that there is no discontinuity because of editing.

All this isn’t easy. It’s a tough job, and a relentless one done behind the scenes. It’s time the Hollywood composer gets his real due.

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