Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

Archive for the ‘Hollywood’ Category

‘Les Miserables’: A musical film with a difference


(Above): Anne Hathaway in ‘Les Miserables’

AFTER watching and enjoying Tom Hooper’s mega-musical ‘Les Miserables’, and then checking out its eight Oscar nominations, one was initially surprised that the film wasn’t in the shortlist for best musical score. After all, Claude-Michel Schonberg’s outstanding music and Herbert Kretzmer’s English lyrics form the backbone of the film.

‘Les Miserables’, which has an ensemble cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, is one of the most unusual film musicals ever released. But the reason for not making the nomination list is actually simple, and even justified from the Academy Award committee’s viewpoint. The award is for Best Music (Original Score), and the ‘Les Miserables’ score is not original, as the same songs were used in the hugely successful stage musical by Alain Boublil and Schonberg.

The Best Music (Original Score) category will thus be a toss-up between ‘Anna Karenina’ (music by Dario Marianelli), ‘Argo’ (Alexandre Desplat), ‘Life of Pi’ (Mychael Danna), ‘Lincoln’ (the great John Williams) and ‘Skyfall’ (Thomas Newman). Here again, one is surprised Hans Zimmer didn’t get a nomination for ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and Fernando Velazquez wasn’t considered for ‘The Impossible’, with both movies having strikingly powerful soundtracks.

To come back to ‘Les Miserables’, Schonberg did make it to the list for Best Music (Original Song). This was for ‘Suddenly’, a new song specially created for the film, and picturised on Hugh Jackman. But here, the competition is rather tough, the other nominees being Adele for the ‘Skyfall’ title song, composer Mychael Danna and singer Bombay Jayashri for ‘Pi’s Lullaby’ from ‘Life of Pi’, Walter Murphy and Norah Jones for ‘Everybody Needs A Best Friend’ from ‘Ted’ and J Ralph, Scarlett Johansson and violinist Joshua Bell for ‘Before My Time’ from ‘Chasing Ice’.

On the technical side, the ‘Les Miserables’ team of Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson and Simon Hayes has been nominated in the Best Sound Mixing category, along with ‘Lincoln’, ‘Argo’, ‘Life of Pi’ and ‘Skyfall’.

Oscar or no Oscar, there are many things that make Schonberg’s music special, and for that director Hooper deserves equal credit. To begin with, barring the odd exception here and there, all the dialogues are sung. The composer and lyricist make intelligent use of rhyming couplets, using simple phrases that build the story magnificently.

On the one hand, the film contains the hit songs from the stage musical, like ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, ‘One Day More’, ‘Master of the House’ ‘Look Down’ and ‘On My Own’. On the other, the fact that the dialogues are sung give it a unique quality.

To be sure, this experiment may not please everybody. Those who aren’t in favour of excess music in a film may feel it would have been much better had the dialogues been spoken naturally, instead of being sung everywhere. But then, the words have been used very simply, and if one accepts this concept on its face value and pays close attention to the lines, one should really enjoy.

The second quality of this film is that the actors sing the songs themselves. This is, of course, not new, as numerous films have done that in the past, and it’s now become a regular trend, especially in music-related biopics and film musicals.

Among the biopics, Sissy Spacek sang songs of Loretta Lynn in ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, Jamie Foxx sang Ray Charles tunes in ‘Ray’ and Joaquin Phoenix sang Johnny Cash numbers in ‘Walk The Line’. Of the other films, we’ve had Meryl Streep and Amanda Seyfried singing in ‘Mamma Mia’, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in ‘Moulin Rouge’, Renee Zellwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere in ‘Chicago’, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ and Tom Cruise in ‘Rock of Ages’. There are many more examples.

But what makes ‘Les Miserables’ unique is the risky decision of director Hooper to avoid pre-recording the songs and make the actors lip-sync. Instead, the songs are sung live and recorded even as the camera is moving, lending a certain authenticity to the way they have been picturised. In that sense, the movie follows all the rules of opera music in its execution.

This technique of recording songs live was common in the 1930s, but the last time it was used was in the disastrous 1975 film ‘At Long Last Love’, starring Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd. Coming for the first time in 37 years in an English film, Hooper does rather well, getting the actors to blend the right facial expression with vocal ability. There may be times when one feels professional singers may have sung the songs more perfectly, but that may have looked a bit unnatural here.

Keeping the acting quotient in mind, the cast does a great job with the vocals. Anne Hathaway sounds simply soulful in ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, and newcomer Samantha Barks is just perfect for ‘On My Own’. Hugh Jackman has many songs including ‘Look Down’ and ‘Suddenly’, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter lend a nice comic touch to ‘Master of the House’. But the real surprise is Russell Crowe, who underwent special training for this singing role, and proved that he has a wonderful texture and range on the songs ‘Stars’ and ‘Javert’s Suicide’. Besides these, some of the group songs have been choreographed perfectly.

In some ways, ‘Les Miserables has the makings of a ‘cult musical’.  If one goes by common definition, a ‘cult film’ or a ‘cult classic’ has a limited but really diehard set of admirers, who would totally swear by the film, and watch it again and again. However, at the same time, there would be a sizeable section which would either detest it, not understand it or wonder what the fuss was all about. Moreover, a cult film sets new trends, as many others try to make similar movies later.

Both these kinds of audiences may happen with ‘Les Miserables’. There will be one section which may totally love the movie, for its scale, performances and music. And there will be another which may get instantly turned off after seeing everyone just rattle off into song, and feel the 158-minute length is a bit much for such a venture.

The reviews in the British and American media have been largely positive, and the film did good commercial business too, being the largest opening weekend for a musical film in the UK. Keeping this in mind, it’s likely that other filmmakers will go in for similar projects. But going by the divided reactions, the film may never gain the mass following of ‘The Sound of Music’ or ‘Saturday Night Fever’.

The trick in watching such a film is to accept the concept for what it is, and listen to each and every singaloque patiently. And if you’ve loved it the first time, chances are that you’ll enjoy it even more on second viewing. Though they may be quite different in treatment, one may tend to compare ‘Les Miserables’ with musicals like ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ or ‘Oliver!’, going mainly by their setting, and the fact that they were adaptations of stage musicals.

As for a music Oscar, it doesn’t really matter. Here was a film that dared to change the way film musicals are made. And for that Hooper, Schonberg and Kretzmer will depend more on the public’s reaction to their musical treatment than on awards.


For Your Ears Only: The music of James Bond revisited

This is the end
Hold your breath and count to ten
Feel the earth move and then
Hear my heart burst again

ADELE’S mesmerising voice fills the air the moment the train-top action sequence concludes in the latest James Bond movie ‘Skyfall’, and the credits are shown against an underwater scene. For the British singer, the entry into the prestigious James Bond club is another feather in the cap, after the string of Grammys she won earlier this year for her album ‘21’.

Musically, Bond has always been beautiful. Over the past 50 years, ever since ‘Dr No’ was released in 1962, the soundtrack has played an extremely important role in James Bond movies, with film enthusiasts following the score as much as the action scenes and cinematography, other essential ingredients of the brand. While the ‘James Bond Theme’ is one of the most recognised pieces of film music ever, the choice of the title track’s singer has also been a subject of much discussion, especially since Shirley Bassey rendered the marvellous ‘Goldfinger’ back in 1964.

Here, let’s talk of the film scores first, and then discuss the songs.

The extra-popular ‘James Bond Theme’ was written by Monty Norman for ‘Dr No’, though a controversy arose when John Barry, who led the orchestra in that film and composed several subsequent themes, claimed it was his score. In fact, Barry has composed the soundtrack for nine of the 23 Bond films, followed by David Arnold, with five newer ones.

Other well-known film composers to wield the Bond baton include Marvin Hamlisch (‘The Spy Who Loved Me’) and Michael Kamen (‘Licensed to Kill’). In ‘Skyfall’, director Sam Mendes, working on his first Bond movie, stuck to close associate Thomas Newman, who composed music in his earlier ventures ‘American Beauty’, ‘The Road to Perdition’ and ‘Revolutionary Road’.

The music in Bond movies is very situational, and often captures the mood of the moment perfectly. For each composer ― and there have been quite a few ― the challenge is to sound absolutely fresh with each film, and yet retain the basic theme as often as possible.

Various people have re-arranged Bond tunes for commercial release. Recently, EMI Music has put out a collection of original pieces to mark 50 years of the brand. And if you’re looking for an absolutely amazing compilation, check out a CD called ‘The Very Best of James Bond Themes’, played to exceptional arrangements and superb jazz improvisations  by the Undercover Agents Orchestra. A very rare CD, and if you find it, you’ll be lucky.

While most new Bond themes have retained elements of the original piece, the title songs are as varied as can be, ranging from soulful balladry to rocking grunge to synthesiser-driven pop. Welsh diva Shirley Bassey has done the most songs – besides ‘Goldfinger’, she had the unforgettable ‘Diamonds are Forever’ and ‘Moonraker’.

Interestingly, a large number of title songs have been sung by women. Popular ones are Nancy Sinatra (‘You Only Live Twice’), Carly Simon (‘Nobody Does it Better’ in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’), Tina Turner (‘Golden Eye’, interestingly written by Bono and The Edge of U2) and Sheena Easton (‘For Your Eyes Only’) Others are by Rita Coolidge (‘All Time High’ in ‘Octopussy’), Lulu (‘The Man With The Golden Gun’), Madonna (‘Die Another Day’), Gladys Knight (‘Licensed to Kill’), Lani Hall (‘Never Say Never Again’) and Sheryl Crow (‘Tomorrow Never Dies’).

The men singing Bond title songs include Matt Monro (who was superb in ‘From Russia with Love’, effortlessly hitting the high notes towards the end), the versatile Tom Jones (‘Thunderball’) and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell (who gives a grunge feel to ‘You Know My Name’ in ‘Casino Royale’). Jazz legend Louis Armstrong sang the secondary tune ‘We Have All The Time in the World’ in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’. And of course, Paul McCartney was joined by his band Wings on ‘Live And Let Die’, where the music was composed by Beatles associate George Martin.

The Bond catalogue has also heard some unusual renditions, which foray into experimental territory. The duet by Jack White and Alicia Keys in the ‘Quantum Of Solace’ song ‘Another Way to Die’, and British new wave band Duran Duran’s ‘A View to A Kill’ were totally different from most songs from the genre. Norwegian duo A-ha did a synth-pop piece in ‘The Living Daylights’, whereas alternative rock band Garbage came up with the neatly orchestrated ‘The World is Not Enough’.

Another lesser-noticed characteristic of James Bond music is the tendency of composers to use tunes written by others. Besides western classical composers Mozart, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky and Chopin, Bond movies of the past have included popular themes from other films like ‘The Magnificent Seven’, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Dr Zhivago’. In ‘Skyfall’, the climax features an extract of the Animals’ 60s version of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom’.

In the end, while the signature theme remains an eternal favourite, which Bond song has been the most popular?

General belief would hint at Bassey’s ‘Goldfinger’ or ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, but a BBC Radio poll conducted a couple of months ago sprung a surprise by declaring Paul McCartney and the Wings’ ‘Live and Let Die’ as the winner,  followed by Carly Simon’s ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ song at second spot, with  ‘Goldfinger’ strangely making it to No 3.

‘Goldfinger’, of course, is currently leading a poll conducted by The Telegraph London website, garnering 21 per cent of the votes, much ahead of Adele’s ‘Skyfall’ ― No 2 at 13 per cent ― and A-ha’s ‘The Living Daylights ― third at 12.5 per cent. This survey, however, gives participants an option of only 11 songs.

The poll results may not really matter, as each person would have his or her own favourite, and answers would also depend on the age profile of the participants. What’s consistent is the quality of the Bond songs, even though the styles of various performers have differed vastly.

So while we celebrate 50 years of this magnificent music, let’s again soak in Adele’s voice, which is the flavour of the season.

Let the sky fall, when it crumbles
We will stand tall
And face it all together
Let the sky fall, when it crumbles

Rock ‘n’ reel: The growing popularity of music biopics

LIGHTS, camera, action, music. Over the past few weeks, three music biopics have been announced, based on three of the most popular female vocalists of their generation.

First, we heard that the role of the gorgeous Debbie Harry, lead singer of the band Blondie, would be played by the pretty Malin Akerman, who has starred in ‘The Proposal’ and played Tom Cruise’s fling in ‘Rock of Ages’. Then came reports that rock empress Janis Joplin would be played by theatre starlet Nina Arianda. More recently, we got the news that a film on the legendary Nina Simone would feature ‘Avatar’ actress Zoe Saldana.

The trend covers male icons too. Earlier this year, we heard actor Sacha Baron Cohen would play charismatic Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in an upcoming biopic, and Andre 3000 aka Dre has been cast as guitar god Jimi Hendrix in ‘All Is By My Side’, which strangely won’t use any of his compositions. Also in the offing are movies on jazz pioneer Miles Davis (to be played by Don Cheadle) and Nirvana rock star Kurt Cobain. (Later reports say Cohen has backed out of the Mercury project, and that Ben Whishaw is being considered for the role).

Clearly, music biopics are gaining in popularity. Slowly and steadily, more and more legends are being featured. And obviously, we are not talking of documentary-styled movies like recent releases ‘Marley’ (on reggae superstar Bob Marley) and ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ (on lesser-known folk-rock singer Rodriguez), or rock-based fictional sagas like ‘ ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Almost Famous’.

The fad is to have famous, almost famous or not-so-famous actors playing coveted roles of popular musicians. Besides the ones mentioned above, films on Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin are in the broad conceptualisation stage, and there have been talks of beginning an Amy Winehouse biopic. There were rumours of Whitney being played by Rihanna, which she denied.

In cinema, the genre isn’t new, of course. Let’s take five films that have won mass acclaim:

Amadeus (1984) — Based on classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Milos Forman’s movie had Tom Hulce in the lead, and F Murray Abraham playing his rival Antonio Salieri. The soundtrack used Mozart’s most popular tunes.

The Doors (1991) — Directed by Oliver Stone, it had Val Kilmer playing the immortal Jim Morrison, and an ensemble cast appearing as the popular band’s members Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore. The film used original Doors classics.

Ray (2004) — Jamie Foxx (see picture) won an Oscar for playing the great blind rhythm n’ blues singer Ray Charles, who sadly died a few months before its release.

Walk The Line (2005) — Based on country star Johnny Cash, it featured a masterly performance by Joaquin Phoenix, who unfortunately didn’t win an Oscar though his co-star Reese Witherspoon got one. In this movie, the actors sung the songs.

I’m Not There (2007) — Six actors depict various vignettes from Bob Dylan’s career. Those portraying different facets are Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Marcus Carl Franklin, Ben Whishaw, Heath Ledger and even actress Cate Blanchett, who delivered a stunning performance.

Even older films include ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (a 1945 movie where Robert Alda acts as master-composer George Gershwin), ‘Lady Sings The Blues’ (a 1972 biopic with Diana Ross playing jazz diva Billie Holiday) and ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (which got Sissy Spacek an Oscar in 1981 for playing country singer Loretta Lynn).

Besides these, we’ve had ‘Immortal Beloved’ (Gary Oldman playing Beethoven), ‘Bird’ (Forest Whittaker as jazzman Charlie Parker), ‘Bound for Glory’ (David Carradine as folk guru Woody Guthrie), ‘Great Balls of Fire’ (Dennis Quaid as rock ‘n’ roller Jerry Lee Lewis), ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ (Angela Bassett as Tina Turner), ‘Control’ (Sam Riley as Joy Division’s Ian Curtis), ‘Nowhere Boy’ (Aaron Jackson in a film about the young John Lennon), ‘Stoned’ (Leo Gregory as Rolling Stones founding member Brian Jones) and ‘La Vie En Rose’ (Marillon Cotillard as French singer Edith Piaf).

There are love stories like ‘Sid and Nancy’, which talks of the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and his girlfriend, and last year’s French movie ‘Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky’, on the romance between the French designer and path-breaking Russian composer. ‘Cadillac Records’ is actually about the music label Chess Records, but has various actors representing blues masters Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Willie Dixon, Little Walter and Etta James (played by Beyonce Knowles). ‘The Pianist’ is an adaptation of ‘Death of a City’, a World War II memoir by Jewish-Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman.

From this list, it’s obvious that there has always been a demand for music biopics. But then, creation of such films has been more or less sporadic. There was a release every two or three years, or maybe at longer intervals, but nothing like the sudden flood of announcements we’ve heard this year.

Over the years, there have been films starring and featuring the music of the Beatles and Elvis Presley, and even the hip-hop drama ‘8 Mile’ with Eminem. But in the past decade or so, with the rising popularity of concert DVDs, there have been a large number of documentaries using real-life footage. Michael Jackson’s ‘This Is It’ earned huge accolades.

Renowned director Martin Scorsese, himself a music connoisseur, has used both the cinema hall and home theatre media effectively to spread awareness about blues and rock, through a seven-part documentary on the blues, and films on Bob Dylan (‘No Direction Home’), the Rolling Stones (‘Shine A Light’) and George Harrison (‘Living in the Material World’).

While documentaries have their own following among music enthusiasts, and also contain actual footage of the musicians, music biopics of the kind mentioned require a special treatment in order to re-create the artiste’s character perfectly. As such, they have challenges of their own. The filmmaker has to be careful in choosing and totally passionate about the subject, ensuring the musician is not only popular among the masses, but has also led a life which will make for a good film script.

The actors should look as authentic as possible, and their performance involves plenty of research done through books, video footage and interviews with associates in order to pick up even the slightest of mannerisms of the idols they are enacting. For instance, when Joaquin Phoenix lit up the screen in ‘Walk The Line’, one actually thought the real Johnny Cash had arrived. So flawless were the actor’s body language and dialogue delivery, and even the way he held his guitar. Ditto with the way Jamie Foxx played a Ray Charles piano line in ‘Ray’.

If produced well, a music biopic can not only attract hardcore fans of an artiste, but also help create more awareness even among those who’ve not followed the artiste’s career. The release of ‘The Doors’ led to a Morrison wave of sorts, and ‘Ray’ and ‘Walk The Line’ made more people more closely acquainted with Ray Charles and rhythm ‘n blues, and Johnny Cash and country music.

Though one may argue that only a small section of the musical galaxy has been covered so far, the great news is the sudden interest filmmakers are showing in the genre. Over the next few years, quite a few musicians should be back in the news, and even reach out to audiences who’ve never really grown up on them. It’ll be music to the ears if Nina Simone, Janis Joplin and Debbie Harry find an ardent following in the next generation too, thanks mainly to Hollywood.

An ode to the great Hollywood composers

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.

Rhapsody on film

WHILE channel-surfing last night, I noticed that a movie called ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ had been scheduled for telecast on TCM in the late night slot. The title aroused my interest, as it was also the name of one of legendary American composer George Gershwin’s best-known pieces. I did a quick Google search to discover that the 1945 movie was actually a slightly fictionalised portrait of his life.

Later that night, I had no regrets staying up. Clearly, this was one of the best musical biopics I had seen, which gave me a much deeper insight into the life and thinking of the great Gershwin. Needless to say, the music was amazing — a good mix of 30s classical, opera, jazz, blues, Broadway and pop. After all, Gershwin was one composer who straddled both worlds equally magnificently. Add to that, Robert Alda’s performance in the lead role was simply amazing, truly bringing out the musician’s personality.

Many of us know Gershwin for the immortal tune ‘Summertime’, one of the most ‘covered’ songs in history. His other brilliant standards include ‘Embraceable You’, ‘I Got Rhythm’, ’It Ain’t Necessarily So’, ‘A Foggy Day’, ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ and ‘Love Is Here To Stay’.  His orchestral compositions ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ and ‘An American In Paris’, and his opera ‘Porgy & Bess’ have attained their own place in greatness.

That was the era of musical innovation, Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook. Besides George and his brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics of many of the later works, the star composers of the 30s included Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Rodgers-Hart and Rodgers-Hammerstein.

Though the Irving Rapper-directed movie does not specifically talk about the era, or refer to the contribution of Gershwin’s contemporaries, it does take a detailed look at his life. Yes, there are two romances in the movie, which are said to be fictionalised — though one wonders why that was necessary. But the depiction of his childhood, struggle and rise to fame are immaculate. Gershwin’s early death, at age 38 following a brain illness, has not been overplayed, but shown rather subtly.

Over the years, Hollywood has had many movies based on lives of legendary musicians. Each of them has boasted of a stunning performance by the lead player. Val Kilmer as rock star Jim Morrison in ‘The Doors’, Tom Hulce as classical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in ‘Amadeus’, Joaquin Phoenix as country great Johnny Cash in ‘Walk The Line’, Jamie Foxx as rhythm ‘n’ blues great Ray Charles in ‘Ray’ and Jeffrey Wright as blues legend Muddy Waters in ‘Cadillac Records’ are examples that instantly come to mind.

In ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, Robert Alda plays his role to perfection. His effortlessness with the piano, the spark and ambition in his eyes, the passion in his expression and the sheer frustration of being unable to compose because of illness add the right meat to the character. For those who are interested in the history of 20th century music, this is a must-watch.

Tag Cloud