Tuesday, June 25, 2013

When Music Makes or Breaks the Movies

Looking at some movies 
and their music before synthesizers
     For decades, movie music was sort of faux symphonic (Max Steiner, especially) and then sort of brassy/jazzy (Elmer Bernstein) or eerie/jazzy (Bernard Herrmann).  Yes, I know I’m horribly oversimplifying since there were great popular songs that came out of the classic studio period of around 1928 – 1960.  Most of those songs came out of Disney.  Most of the
best musicals came out of MGM and were both goofily over the top and surrealistic.

    Three movies that pushed American cinema into a new, risky maturity in the late ‘60s and after were The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Godfather.  Their musical scores idiosyncratically punched up their themes, but also the schisms in moviemaking – commercial studio factories to conglomerates looking at bigger profits with self-conscious artist-directors.  

     Simon and Garfunkel lent generation gap credibility to Mike Nichols’ blockbuster.  How Nichols fathomed that this music would be timeless yet nostalgic for what would be known as the Hippie Generation, though there isn’t a hippie to be seen in it is a testament to both his orthodox taste and his sense of the zeitgeist. (Unfortunately, these qualities evaporated over time for him as they do for many other lightening rods of their specific culture or period).   Those songs – “Sounds of
Simon and Garfunkel
Silence” and “Mrs. Robinson” in particular, Robert Surtees gorgeous cinematography that is the essence of what we think of as Kodachrome – also nostalgia now – and a nod to Antonioni’s Red Desert and L’Eclisse, but especially the perverse relationship between Ben and Mrs. Robinson are what keep the movie charge alive over the decades. It was Anne Bancroft’s greatest screen performance and a huge leap from The Miracle Worker because Mrs. Robinson is both contemptible and sympathetic, but trapped by the conventions of status.

Charles Strouse

     Bonnie and Clyde’s director Arthur Penn interspersed Charles Strouse’s meditative and contemporary score with such period pieces as “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”  It reflected both the ‘60s and an idealized nostalgia for the rural ‘30s.  Dede Allen’s genius editing, shockingly overlooked for even an Oscar nomination, is timed both to the syncopation and the longer interactions between the leads.

Burnett Guffrey’s cinematography simultaneously reflects TV commercials of the ‘60s (more relevant to American society at that time than Hollywood’s tired product) and Thomas Hart Benton’s Depression era painting.

     Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola’s score and additional music, respectively, for The Godfather are part of the reason that the movie is maybe the best ever.   I know, I know Citizen Kane is the greatest, etc., etc., but would you want to watch that again or The Godfather?  It somehow speaks to the memories of ‘40s and ‘50s Italian cinema and two generations of earlier movie composers. 

Diane Lane and Thelonious Bernard in A Little Romance
     A Little Romance is an under-looked gem from 1979 that starred Diane Lane and Thelonious Bernard, both thirteen and in their debuts, as a pair of incredibly precocious kids who fall in love and need an adventure to prove it.  Laurence Olivier is both charming and hammy; Diane Lane was the real thing even in this.  One of the most grounded actresses on screen that I wish she got more parts or better ones.  Bernard is hilarious and effervescent and smartly decided to pursue a more useful career.  Georges Delerue’s score won the Oscar and it’s lovely.  It’s reminiscent of late 19th century Romanticism, but also is contemporary to that period.

     The American era of personal cinema that also yielded commercial hits was drawing to a close, evidenced by the interest over weekend box office returns as ‘news’ and sequels leading to franchises and, eventually, brands.  

And then came synthesizers . . . and that will be another article.

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