Thursday, May 5, 2022

soundtracks and scores - the director's cut

Director's cut versions (in a few cases, rather different than what ran) of blurbs for Pitchfork's lists of the best movie soundtracks and best film scores, from February 2019

Performance  (Jack Nitzsche, Mick Jagger, Merry Clayton, et al)

 In Donald Cammell’s and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance, Mick Jagger serves as a cultural readymade, pre-loaded with associations as singer in the Sixties’s most dangerous and Dionysian rock band.  Fittingly, the soundtrack resembles a parallel-world Rolling Stones album.  Veteran of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, producer Jack Nitzsche had also played keyboards on four of the Stones peak-period LPs. Merry Clayton,  the show-stealing elemental force on “Gimme Shelter,” dominates here with her unique brand of psychedelic / psychotic gospel: jousting with Bernie Krause’s sinister Moog whispers and buzzes on the  title track and “Poor White Hound Dog”, humming and moaning with hair-raising intensity on the climactic “Turner’s Murder.” Randy Newman’s rasp and Ry Cooder’s slide fully align with the Stones sound circa “Honky Tonk Woman.”  Nitzsche’s own compositions are somewhat slight but he did come up with a supremely late Sixties decadence title in “Rolls Royce and Acid” . There’s also a terrific turn from Jagger himself on “Memo From Turner”, where he fuses his own insolent white-blues persona with the psyche of an East London gangster. Roeg would try the pop star as readymade gambit once more with Bowie on The Man Who Fell To Earth, but while it vies with Performance for Greatest Rock Movie Ever, the film’s OST pales next to its Jagger-infused predecessor. 

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Leonard Cohen)

Leonard Cohen is sometimes described as the invisible narrator of Robert Altman’s radically reinvented Western. But given that his lyrics are even more oblique than the storyline, Cohen doesn’t emotionally elucidate the action so much as glaze it with a layer of symbolism and parable, lending a mythic gravity to the travails of these flawed and ornery characters.  Only three Cohen songs appear:  “The Stranger Song,” Sisters of Mercy,”  “Winter Lady”. All are from the first side of his 1968 debut (a record Altman played so often that he replaced the worn-out vinyl repeatedly).  But they recur, weaving in and out of the action, staining it with rich mood-tones of tenderness, regret, gratitude, and unbridgeable apartness. They also work as aural markers for the main characters.  “The Stranger Song”, first heard over the credits, is McCabe, the restless surge of its tremolo acoustic chords suggesting a man doomed to drift, uncertain behind his bravado, his existential foundations shaky. Although the title comes from an Catholic organization of nuns, “Sisters of Mercy”  is about a different kind of succor: it accompanies the arrival of the prostitutes, with the psychedelic band Kaleidoscope adding tinkly turn-of-century textures in the expanded movie version of the song. “Winter Lady” is Mrs. Miller’s theme but also the heartsick voice of McCabe’s thwarted longing for her.  Although lines like “I’m just a station on your way / I know I’m not your lover” speaks what the characters cannot articulate, Cohen’s songs work not so much as commenting text as complementary texture. His music sounds just like  the misty-memory look that cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond achieved by “flash”-treating the film negative.  Cohen becomes an inseparable  formal element of the film,  as unexpected and thrillingly innovatory as Altman’s overlapping dialogue and low-key naturalistic direction.


Solaris (Eduard Artemiev)

 Not so much a masterwork as a mysterywork, Andrei Tarkovsky's 1971 movie is far less explicit as a narrative than its source, the brilliant sci-fi novel by Stanislav Lem. Solaris is a remote planet that human explorers have circled for centuries, hoping in vain to make contact with the evidently sentient but inscrutable ocean that covers its entire surface. Suddenly, persons from the deep recesses of each astronaut’s memory materialize, flesh-and-blood ghosts that the crew call “guests” and that appear to be the planet’s attempts to communicate.  The story behind the score is almost as fantastical as this scenario. Entrusted not just with scoring the movie but creating “an overall conceptual idea for all the sound used,” Eduard Artemiev turned to a Soviet synthesizer called the ANS that generated sound by a unique photo-electronic method.  Composers “draw” sound-waves which are turned into audio vibrations via a sophisticated system of rotating glass discs and light-beams. The ANS supplied a panoply of microtonal intervals and dense polyphonic chords unachievable on other synths at that time.  This palette of subtle shades and shimmering drones enabled Artemiev to depict the unsettled atmosphere on the space station, where the guests are driving their hosts out of their wits. But the  queasy sound-vapors suggest also thought-waves from Solaris itself penetrating the minds of the astronauts, blindly striving to understand consciousness unfathomably different from its own vast self.  

Walkabout (John Barry)

In Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film, two British children stranded in the outback are rescued and guided back to “civilization”  by an indigenous Australian boy. Scare quotes around the C-word, for Walkabout is a rhapsodic elegy for Nature and our lost innocence.  Because there’s only sporadic dialogue (Roeg described the script as “a fourteen-page prose poem”) and the 6-year-old brother and his teenage sister have been brought up in typically post-imperial stiff-upper-lip fashion, nearly all the emotional eloquence in the movie is supplied by the score.  Waltjinju Bandilil’s eerie didgeridoo and Stockhausen’s disorienting tape-piece Hymnen conjure the unknowable majesty of the arid landscape and its scorching extremes of weather. But it’s veteran film composer John Barry who establishes the prevailing mood with his piercingly poignant orchestrations.   A stirring choral theme redolent of a school song, “The Children” evokes the simple-hearted hope and accepting obedience with which kids face the world. The horn fanfares of  “The Journey”  conjure a storybook adventure air, mirroring the way that the youngest child in particular processes their predicament.  Above all, there’s the recurring main theme, a patient pulse of plinky harpsichord over which wistful woodwinds pipe and tender violins soar and swoop, like a kite whose strings are tugging at your heart not your hands.

Blade Runner (Vangelis)

 It’s shocking to consider that Blade Runner – one of the 20th Century’s greatest works of popular art – did not even get nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award (or any of the other major Oscars).  Equally bewildering is the fact that Vangelis won Best Original Score for 1981’s conventionally pretty Chariots of Fire, but wasn’t even honorably mentioned for his far richer contributions to Blade Runner. It’s impossible to imagine this film without its music, so intertwined are the sounds and the visuals. Vangelis composed the score live, improvising as video-taped scenes from the film unfurled on a screen in his London recording studio. “Nothing was pre-composed, everything was composed with the images,” he told me in 2007, adding that “the reason I wrote the score is that I was very impressed with this film”.  A sense of awe does tremble through each glistening trail of notes and gauzy swathe of texture coaxed by Vangelis out of his beloved Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser. But perhaps also detectable is the subliminal spur of the true creator’s rivalrous instinct: a drive to match the majesty reeling before his eyes, maybe even surpass it.  

 Before Blade Runner, electronic soundtracks for science fiction movies (think Forbidden Planet, The Andromeda Strain, THX 1138) sonically pictured the future as cold, sterile, emotionless, as hostile to humanity as Saturn’s liquid hydrogen surface and diamond rainstorms.  Vangelis broke with these accumulated clich├ęs, draping Blade Runner’s scenery with droopy pitch-bent synth-tones of unexpected warmth and wetness.  Although the movie takes place in a 21st Century LA teeming with flying cars and huge animated billboards advertising a fresh start in the off-world colonies, the musical tenor is as much about aching nostalgia as disorienting futurity. And that’s just right for a film that, for all its stunning special effects and storyline about androids gone AWOL,  is rooted in 1940s film noir and the character typology of hard-boiled detective fiction: Deckard as the tough-exterior but easily-melted cop, Rachel equal parts vamp and broken-winged angel. Older styles subsist within the Eighties electronic palette, from jazz and blues to the crooned 1920s pastiche “One More Kiss, Dear.”  There are also pungent aromas of ersatz exoticism, like the keening quasi-Arabic wails that transfix “Tales of the Future” and the vaguely Asian calvacade rhythm of “Animoid Row”.  We don’t know quite where or when we are with Vangelis’s score, which mingles ancient and modern, East and West, in a fashion that again perfectly fits the future LA imagined by director Ridley Scott and his genius technicians - a Pacific Rim hybrid of Shanghai and Santiago. 

 From the colossal thudding pillars of percussion that open the film, through the misty-mystic maiden of “Rachel’s Song”, to the climactic twinkles of “Tears In Rain”, everything is drenched in reverb – an effect as contrivedly atmospheric and infallibly seductive as Scott’s over-reliance on shadow and drizzle.  Vangelis’s ever-present echo conspires with the cinematography to create a sense of immense expanse – space that isn’t empty but as filled with feeling as it is with droplets of moisture. Blade Runner is a movie that you see-hear – an audiovision for the ages.