September 1, 2009

Soundtrack September

I was invited to participate in "Soundtrack September" over at Film Babble, and it got my wheels a-turning. The task was just to discuss some favorite soundtracks - easy enough. But I didn't want my choices to be too obvious. Like, of course I could mention The Graduate or Singin' in the Rain, but that's not really breaking any new ground, now is it? So I thought I'd use this space to highlight some of my more obscure or unappreciated faves. What was supposed to be a couple of blurbs spiraled quickly out of control! I have broken my picks into three categories, with three selections each: preexisting songs, scores, and musicals.


I started to see a theme emerging in the picks for this category - all of them were preexisting songs that had new versions recorded for a film. It's not that I don't love mix-tape soundtracks (looking at you, Garden State), but it's always interesting to see beloved songs re-appropriated for a new context.

1. De-Lovely
The move itself is kind of lame. Skip it. You're allowed to. But the soundtrack is, in a word, ravishing. The film is a biopic of Cole Porter, which attempts to right the wrongs of earlier biopics such as Night and Day by painting a more thorough portrait of Porter that includes his homosexuality. Along the way, his famous songs get new life breathed into them by artists such as Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Robbie Williams, and Alanis Morrissette. Now, I know this seems odd. Like isn't Morrissette really angsty and a peculiar choice to be singing such happy songs? Not so. Her version of "Let's Do It" is super perky and I actually choreographed a super perky dance to it in high school. They also don't try to modernize the songs at all - they record them in a way that's true to the originals, but with a fresh feel. It's the ultimate primer on 30s/40s music. Download. Now.

2. Good Night and Good Luck
For this film, director George Clooney opted for short interludes of jazz singer Dianne Reeves singing 50s classics. Brilliant. Much more effective than a swelling score, this classy approach really roots you in the era. She covers artists like Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington, but having one singer do all of the songs provides a nice sense of cohesion. This soundtrack makes a great gift - I gave it to my ex-boyfriend's parents for Christmas and it was a huge hit. Very warm and sophisticated.

3. Across the Universe
I love the Beatles, I really do, and in loving them I don't feel it's blasphemous to cover them. I have a CD of soul covers of the Beatles, by artists like Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. It's totally sweet, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I prefer some of those versions to the originals. Similarly, for this soundtrack, a smattering of young stars and some special guests breathe a new vivaciousness into the hits we all know and love. It really energizes the songs to have them in the context of a narrative - such as "I Want to Hold Your Hand" being used to express a forbidden lesbian desire or "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" being about the military draft. The vocal talent is great - even Bono is tolerable with his rendition of "I Am the Walrus."


To be honest, movie soundtracks/scores don't often jump out at me. In fact, in the world of symphonic scores, I find 95% of them to be interchangeable in any given decade. So when a film score actually rises above the droning buzz and catches my attention, it's definitely something special

1. Atonement
The Academy handed over the Oscar for this one. They were right. Like in Peter and the Wolf, where each character is represented by a different instrument, Composer Dario Marianelli expresses the ferocious and cold determination of Briony through the clacking of a typewriter. It's genius. It's organic to the story and conveys its intensity.

2. Broken Flowers
Technically, there are some preexisting songs on this album, but what I'm really focusing on here is the three-song contribution of Mulatu Astatke. I had the pleasure of seeing Astatke live in concert and his music is like nothing you've ever heard. He calls it "Ethio-jazz," and it's kind of - well, it's Ethiopian jazz. Kind of an indigenous jazz/trance thing? I really can't describe it. Weaving into the film in the form of a CD that the protagonist's friend gives him, it's the perfect embodiment of Bill Murray's Don - cool and relaxed without trying, but on a mission.

3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Just like the film itself is a re-imagining of the Western, the soundtrack is a re-imagining of what music is like for Westerns. "Haunting" would be an understatement - Nick Cave's music helps to build tension and unease for a movie where you already know the ending. An unexpected array of instruments also elevates this above the typical Oscar-bait soundtrack.



1. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg / The Young Girls of Rochefort
Yes, I can count - I know that's two. But they're both directed by Jacques Demy, they both star Catherine Deneuve, and both have music by Michel Legrand. So they're kindred spirits. Legrand's jazz scores are phenomenal, enhanced only by the light and sweet voices of talented casts (although most of them are dubbed). In the latter, you even get to hear Gene Kelly singing in French!

2. Sweet Charity
For some reason, Sweet Charity doesn't get its due when discussing classic movie musicals. I don't know why - it has sleek direction by Bob Fosse, one of Shirley MacLaine's best roles and some fantastic songs. There's the dryly sardonic "Hey Big Spender" and the jubilant "If My Friends Could See Me Now," but my personal favorite is Sammy Davis Jr's unexpected contribution "The Rhythm of Life" where he preaches a wild hippie religion.

3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007 version)
I really really liked this movie, and I think it was seriously underrated. Sure, it got some polite award season nods, but I felt like people didn't really warm up to it like they should have. Maybe in time it will get the respect it deserves. I loved Johnny Depp's growly Bowie-esque singing, goddammit, especially on "My Friends" (friends=blades). It's not what you're used to hearing in a musical, and that's what makes it unique and captivating. Helena Bonham Carter came off a bit shrill, but mix it in with the lush gothic orchestrations and overall you have something pretty awesome.


-Any of the scores Alberto Iglesias did for Pedro Almodovar's films
I realize this could be a whole list in and of itself, so I'm keeping it simple by saying "all." This has been one of the more fruitful director/composer collaborations that I can think of. Iglesias produces sensuous and innovative Spanish music that defies the cartoon cliche. Choice track: "Dedicatoria" from All About My Mother.

At the risk of unleashing a torrent in the comments section - what are your faves (beyond the obvious)?

1 comment:

Michael said...

In the SCORES section, I love THE FOUNTAIN (Clint Mansell), GOODBYE LENIN (Yann Tiersen), MILLIONS (John Murphy) and SOLARIS (Cliff Martinez) and everything Craig Armstrong !!

I totally agree with you on JESSE JAMES and ATONEMENT ! Both are beautiful.

In the PREEXISTING MUSIC, I love I AM SAM (also Beatles Cover) and MAGNOLIA (Aimee Mann)