Jack Nitzsche

Revolutionizing Cinema - or, how I put Rock'n'Roll in movies

Published in Cinesonic - Experiencing The Soundtrack - AFTRS Publishing, Sydney © 2001
Transcribed & edited by Philip Brophy from the talk delivered at the conference in 2000
Performance © 1970


One wonders why film history has ignored Jack Nitzsche. The man has moved from cool cult twang (check the opening credits to the classic Village of the Giants) to truly radical sono-musical collages (Performance is way ahead of its time) to winning an Academy Award (for writing "Up Where We Belong" for An Officer and a Gentleman). Maybe he gets passed by because he has rarely delivered the orchestral niceties which remain the tacky hallmark of quality cinema. But the reasons for his invisibility are more complex than aesthetic conventions. For Jack Nitzsche is a sonically breathing merger of two strains which govern the audio-visual nature of cinema: score composing and music producing.

Born of the rock/pop recording industry yet a rock migrant in the cinema, Nitzsche did not simply write music, and then get an orchestra or ensemble to record it on a sound stage. He treated the score as he would the recording of an album: the musicians were crucial to the resulting sound, as was Nitzsche's role in engineering and producing the music he directed them to play. This is why a distinctive 'Nitzschean' sound is hard to discern: he blends well with the musicians of his choice, and in doing so develops a character peculiar to each individual film.

The baggage that Nitzsche brings to the cinema is normally not allowed to pass through the film industry's cultural metal detectors. Nitzsche doesn't simply 'recreate' the sound of rock when it's needed for a scene: he arranged for Phil Spector and went on to produce for the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, The Monkees and The Cramps. In the sonic sense, he is the real thing. When he scored muzak-inspired 'beautiful music' for One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, he did so without resorting to camp or knee-jerk counter-culturalism. When he got Captain Beefheart to contribute vocals to the blues score for Blue Collar he created a post-roots modern machine thump. And when he fused Miles Davis with Taj Mahal and John Lee Hooker for The Hot Spot he produced a uniquely po-mo collage whose influence is still felt in many ambient '4th world' projects since.

Frankly, many other claims to eclectic scoring pale in the face of Nitzsche's prodigious output. And while film history is still yet to sing his praise to the full, it is impossible to ignore his contribution to strategically working the soundtrack as a site for truly modern manifestations of rock's infection of the cinema.

Philip Brophy

Jack Nitzsche in Conversation

How did you end up getting the job doing music on Nicholas Roeg & Donald Cammell's Performance (1971)?

Nicholas Roeg wasn't the director of Performance. Donald Cammell was: he wrote it and directed it. Nicholas Roeg was the cameraman. Donald thought that he did such a good job that he gave him half-credit. I met Nicholas Roeg about a year ago in a restaurant, and I said: Gee, isn't funny that after all these years we finally meet? Donald did a good job on that; you were great as a cameraman. He's been taking the credit forever for being the director. So he wanted to fight all night long - but I had a bottle ready. (laughs)

Did Camell come to Los Angeles to ask you to do the music or were you already working in London at the time?

I'd done a lot of work for the Rolling Stones. After their first album, they came to LA to do a tour and I got a call because they liked all the Spector records, and they said they'd like to meet me. I happened to be doing a session that night, and I said, come on down. Strangest-looking bunch of people I ever saw. We got along really well. Then Mick said: Why don't you come and play piano on our sessions? And I said: Nuh, I can't; I don't have any chops or anything. And he said: Well, we can't even play our instruments; come on down and do it. And so I did. I ended up doing several albums for them, playing keyboards. So that's how the Performance thing came about. Mick told me about the film and said he thought we could do it together. And I said: Well what do I need you for? And he said: You're absolutely right. And that was that.

So Mick Jagger was the one who prompted Cammell to use you?

Yeah, I think that had a lot to do with it.

What about the score's personnel? You've got Ry Cooder, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Merry Clayton, Randy Newman, The Last Poets, Bernard Krause. How did you organize so many different musicians together for the one score?

By telephone. Ry was just a kid. He was still trying to decide whether he wanted to go to college and study literature, but I still used him on that session. Buffy, I was doing an album with. Randy Newman, I'd known for years. It's simple.

Does it help that they were all based in LA at the time?

Oh, sure.

You've lived in LA for fifty-two years?

Jesus - not that long! I got there in 1955. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I hate it. I really don't like it much anymore. I like working in New Orleans. I want to move to Mexico. But I'll probably end up staying in LA, cos that's home. I know a lot of people there.

What was it like working in Hollywood at the time? How did the film industry treat you as someone coming from rock'n'roll?

Like shit. Actually, with Performance , I was left alone. Donald Cammell didn't even come to the studio. He said: Do what ever you feel like doing. That's what made it good. But that film sat on a shelf for a year before it came out. And of course they put it right down the toilet because everyone thought it was a horror film and no-one liked it. I don't know if Performance was considered a 'rock'n'roll film'. I don't consider any of my films rock'n'roll. It's all music, you know?

William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) was the next film you did some work on.

There's a long story behind how the music came together for The Exorcist. Lalo Schifrin was doing the score, and he got about sixty per cent of the score done. Billy Friedkin went into the studio to listen to it. Now Billy's hip enough to know he wanted something new to scare you, but Lalo had done horror music like you've always heard in movies. Billy didn't have much time, so he called me and a friend of mine. We only had a week to just go in the studio and fool around and come up with things, which we did. Apart from that, a lot of records were used, including a version of Tubular Bells. I didn't particularly like that. It would have been great to do more music, but there wasn't time.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975) has a very memorable main theme. Many people fondly remember it because of the haunting use of the musical saw. What are the instruments you used for that theme?

Apart from the saw, some keyboards. A lot of native American instruments which I play, like drums, dew-claw rattles - which are made from deer hooves. You know, the Indians tie them around their legs with the bells and they dance, right? And the glasses. I played them, too. Sitting in a bar one night, you know, wiping your finger around the edge of a wine glass for that high ringing - everyone's done that, haven't they? I ended up tuning a bunch of glasses, but I had to write the music out so that, for example, all the Gs were written down with rests where their were no Gs. Each tuned glass had its own notation. So when that beat came up I'd play the G and move on to the other glass and its notation, and so on. In fact there were some glasses I forgot, so I had to whistle them. (laughs) We got more sophisticated as we went along. This was the first time that I used them.

Where did you find the musician to play the musical saw?

Jesus, that hippy? God, man, one of the blanket people. Let me see - it took him about 12 hours to learn that melody. All night long - but we finally got it. I didn't find him; somebody else found him.

What was director Milos Forman's response when he first heard the theme?

Milos loved it. When they were mixing, he was saying: More music! More music! And that's what I felt like saying as was listening to the mix: more music, more music!

A lot of the cues in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest relate to the music they're playing in the hospital when the patients are taking their medication. Very rich orchestration themes.

Those orchestral themes - it's hard to talk about how I approach them. It's just writing a piece of music that I studied when I was studying composition. I think I have a pretty wide scope of music. Except polka: I'm not too crazy about polka. The Hawaiian guitar that also appears in those scenes was nice. I figured out that Mexican music, Country & Western music and Hawaiian music have a lot in common. So I mixed them.

Those medication themes which play in the hospital in Cuckoo's Nest - Milos Forman wanted them playing while they were shooting. So I recorded them then went up to the Oregon State Mental Institution, and it was playing there all the time. I had to go through the Mental Institution. Medium security wasn't bad, but oh god, there was one area for the criminally insane. They had bars, then doors in front of the bars, with a little window, and wire on the window. It just so happened that when they took me through it was their break time, and their doors were all open. God, I didn't like that. Looking back, that was a good film to work on. But when I was doing it, I didn't like to work on it. I'd seen the play and I'd read the book, and I thought Milos really screwed it up. But then everybody else liked it so ... I liked it too (laughs).

There weren't many people doing that combination of Country, Mexican and Hawaiian music at the time were there?

Very few people know what real Hawaiian music is. They hear what they hear on the radio, but that's not what it's like in Hawaii. I lived in Hawaii for 5 years. God, it's beautiful; it's real different.

Blue Collar (1978) is a much 'harder' film, musically. In the opening sequence, director Paul Schrader timed every edit to your music.

Schrader didn't do that: I suggested those freeze-frames and pauses. I used Captain Beefheart cos he sounds like Howling Wolf, and Howling Wolf had died by that time. When I got to meet Howling Wolf, it was great. It was on the TV show Shindig. It was when the Stones played, and Howling Wolf was there. Someone introduced me and I sat next to him during the whole rehearsal. And then he said: Oh, by the way, this is a friend of mine: this is Son House.

The Beefheart connection is an interesting one. He's representative of a modern take on the blues. What made you use him specifically for the film?

But with his blues, you know, Captain Beefheart tried to be authentic as he could. I knew him for a long, long time. He's a friend - and he's a bit strange. He had to have an operation on his nose cos he'd taken so much cocaine. He was alright. He was a minister, too - in Dutch Reform.

We had him in the vocal booth during the Blue Collar session. The lyrics are, like, "I'm a hard work-fucking-man". He kept saying it with the accent in the wrong place. We kept trying to correct him. Anyway, he says: It's this light in here; I can't sing with this light; is there a blue light bulb somewhere? Somebody went out and got a blue light bulb. This sounds like I'm making it up but I'm not. We went through a red light bulb, a yellow one, and came back to a regular one. I love Beefheart.

Hardcore (1982) is another Paul Schrader film for which you did the score.

When Schrader heard that driving piece I recorded when George Scott is cruising 'round Hollywood looking at the strip joints, he said: Now that is deeply insane. And it is.

The great thing about a cue like that is they let you keep it in the movie.

Well, I threatened to walk out of Blue Collar a lot of times, I really did. God, I had so much trouble with the engineer. I had to record at the Warner Bros. studio, you know. Those people - they're twenty to thirty years behind the record industry. It was awful. It took for ever to get movies studios to let me record in record studios, where people knew what they were doing. They didn't understand overdubbing; they didn't understand echo. Finally it all came around.

You would have been working at a time when there was that tension between film music recording and rock/pop music recording.

Oh God, yes.

The soundtrack for William Friedkin's Cruising (1978) features another wide range of artists: Willy Deville, The Germs, Rough Trade, etc. A number of montages feature what could be desribed as collages of various tracks, like when we get that scene where Al Pacino is getting dressed up to hit the S&M bars.

There's at least ten tracks on the soundtrack album, but I recorded about thirty. There wasn't room for them all. Billy Friedkin kept on saying: Cut some more tracks. We used so many artists. I got the nastiest artists I could find. The scariest. Willy, I love. He's my favourite. His song "It's So Easy" is in the scene where Pacino is getting dressed-up. It's about OD-ing.

What was Friedkin's process of selection?

He'd say, go back, give me another song and we'll see what it's like. He sent me to Norway to record these avant-garde jazz musicians. He does this thing - he always does this, he did it on The Exorcist - where he'll take three different cues and he'll stack them and play them all at once. It's a cacophony, but it works really good for something like The Exorcist or Cruising.

Did you have any input into that multi-tracking of the cues.

No, it's all his work. He thought of that. He's crazy. I thought Cruising was another film that the studios just put down the toilet. They didn't like it - the subject, nothing about it. There was a lot of gay demonstration about the film, too.

You seem to often work on these kind of projects.

Not on purpose. Hey, they pick me for those things. (laughs)

Why is Cutter's Way (1983) one of your favourites?

I just like what it does with the instrumentation: acoustic clavichord, zither, glasses once again - but this time five octaves. We got the lower notes from fishbowls on turntables! We had to go to Munich to get the saw player, cos we couldn't find that hippy. We also used the Armin String Family. They use electronic strings. There's only three of them but they sound like a full section. They can make those strings make you shiver. I just like the way it all goes together with the slow-motion of the opening sequence. I really love that one.

It was all recorded up in Canada because there was a musicians' strike in Los Angeles. In the past, whenever the musicians or any other union would strike, they up salaries and royalties and things like that. But the musicians' union is so weak, that when they asked for more, the studios answered by offering less. We still don't paid royalties for videos and - ah, who cares? I'm looking into that a little bit now, cos I got screwed so bad, but anyway ...

Film composers in Hollywood rarely go for the eclectic instrumentation you use.

Most of them use orchestrators and ghost writers. I really like Quincy Jones - he's a really nice man - but with The Color Purple he used sixteen orchestrators. Then at the Academy Awards, they were afraid that the film might win Best Score. They're only allowed to give x-amount of awards, so they had to try and figure who they were going to leave out, if it won. There's a lot of that going on: it's just the business. There's very few composers and artists making music from the heart. That's all I can do.

Do you have any preference for particular instruments when working on a film score?

No, that comes when I finally see the picture. There's no way to think about that until there's a picture in front of me.

How do you arrive at what you think is the right sound?

I compose on a piano. After the melodies and harmonies are sketched, it sort of dictates what instruments will be most effective for what I've written.

Has there ever been a situation where you've picked a sound or instrument, then a director has requested you to change that instrument because they don't like it?

(Laughs) No - they're never that smart. They wouldn't know what a particular instrument is. They'll tell you outright if they don't like a particular cue. One good composer in Hollywood now is Tom Newman. About a year ago he asked to have dinner with me cos he had just done his first film. He said: Do they all act like that? Do they listen to your cue and say, "Jesus, that sounds like shit!"? And I said: Yeah - they do, every time. They're real rude, you know. It's really a nasty business. Especially for women. But that's another subject.

Is it then important that you have a good relationship with the director?

It's necessary. Nowadays, if I don't care for the director, I won't do the film. The film better be great if the director's a real jerk. But I've turned a lot of them down cos they all have real attitudes. You know: they're in "Hollywood".

Normally people famous for working in rock'n'roll with drums, guitars, and fuzz-wah pedals are not renowned for being able to work as well with electronic keyboards. Your score for John Carpenter's Starman (1985) is totally electronic.

I love those instruments. Synthesizers, samplers - they open up a new world. I don't buy that you get tired of electronics. I mean, do you get tired of the violin, the French horn? That end scene is so sad.

With sampling you can get just about anything, but digital is so cold, and it's hard to work with. If you put some digital reverb on the record you're making, when you mix it, you don't have what you thought you had. Because a lot of the detail has gone through the holes or gaps of the 'grid' of the wave sample. So you have to compensate for that. There's really a big movement to go back to tube recording and mixing boards. I'll always love working with a string section, anyway.

I think Michael Douglas had a lot to do with John Carpenter not doing his own music on Starman. I had worked with Michael Douglas on several other films - Cuckoo's Nest being the first one. John Carpenter liked the idea of using me a lot.

The score to Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot (1989) features John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahall and Miles Davis. How did you get them all together?

Telephone. (laughs) Dennis Hopper and I were watching the film, and he said: What do you think? what would you do with this? And I said: Get John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahall. And Dennis said: And Miles Davis! And I said: Goddamn, I wish had thought of that! And he said: You did. And I said: OK.

Miles did some strange stuff to Dennis. Dennis called him up on the phone, and he said: Miles, I got to talk to you. I've got this movie I'm doing. And he says: Dennis, I'm just in the studio and I've got to play something for you. So he puts a tape on, puts the phone near the speakers and just walks away. And he never came back. (laughs)

God, that was a real highlight in my life, working with Miles. He didn't care for white people much. On 60 Minutes they asked him if he had five minutes left to live and he knew it, what would he like to be doing. He said, I'd like to have my hands around a white man's throat. But we got along so well. He really respected my music. I had written the score for the film - a 'real' score - and then when we got in the studio we realized that John Lee Hooker only plays three chords. Jesus! So I called Miles, and I said, I don't know what's going to happen here. John Lee Hooker only plays three chords. We're going to have to wing it with this score. I don't know if it's going to work out, if it's going to be any good. And he said, well, you're scoring it, aren't you? And I said, yeah. And he said, I'm playing on it aren't I? And I said, yeah. And he said, how could that be bad? And it was true. God, I loved him.

At one point, I'd written a piece that John Lee didn't have to play on, thank God, cos it had changes that even Miles couldn't figure out. So Miles took the score over to the piano, and he was playing it, and he looked over at me and goes, man, that's good shit. That makes you feel good when Miles says something like that. Then they wanted to take pictures, and they said to Miles, would you take your dark sunglasses off, would you smile or something? And he grinned for a second and said, that's my smile for the day. God, I miss him.

Both you and Dennis Hopper have reputations for being 'outsiders' in Hollywood.

Thank you. Are you talking about drugs? (laughs) But we never took acid together. No, I've known him for a while. But I really got to know him recently, working with Sean Penn. Sean and he are friends. I remember I walked into a theatre, there was some kind of a screening for the Directors' Guild or something. My seat was on this side of the theatre and his was over there, and Dennis stood up and yelled, JACK! We have that kind of relationship. I love him too. He's crazy. A lot of drugs. (laughs)

You did the score for Sean Penn's first film Indian Runner (1992) which was inspired by a Bruce Springsteen song. Did Penn show a strong interest in music while you were working on the film.

He liked my use of counterpoint. I love doing things that are incongruous. In the main chase sequence where the older brother - who is a cop - is chasing the younger one who is all bloodied after the bar fight, I wrote a theme that's about the brothers. Rather than a chase theme, I went for a sad part, cos that's what it's all about.

As a first time director, Sean Penn was real fun. And boy, he sure can drink. I did the music for his first two films. He called me some months back and says, are you working, and I said, no. He says, well, I'll fix that. I'm going to do a movie. And I said, when? what are you doing? He says, I don't know; I've got to think of something to write. I haven't heard from since! He was going to do a film that would star himself, Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, all doing gay roles. I said, that's the one to do. I'd love to do the music for it.

How do you feel when, say, a lot of loud car noise is put on top of your music in a mix?

That used to bother me, but not if it's done tastefully. It's correct, y'know? The music can't just take over the film, and neither can the sound effects. A good director will make sure that there's somebody who can play the tune nicely. That's gotten better over the years for me.

David Lindley is the featured guitarist on The Indian Runner.

He's just as good as Ry Cooder - maybe better. Excuse me, Cooder fans. I don't see Ry very often anymore. But I'd like to. I think I'll give him a call .....

You've always managed to secure quite famous rock musicians to perform your scored material for films. What are their impressions of going into a film score recording session?

Because of the strange scores that I've done, most musicians are anxious to see what's going to happen next when I'm working in a session. I'm lucky that way.

Are there any similarities between how you work with musicians and how a director works with actors?

God, I'd never have put that together. My relationship with the musicians is we're all friends. We just have a good time, you know? A director and the actors - they just put make-up on, I don't know. I don't think there's any similarities at all.

Is there a musician who you would have liked to have worked with?

Robert Johnson. Charlie Parker. Johnny Rae.

Anyone that's alive?

Alanis Morissette. K D Lang. Jon Hassell.

You also had the thrill of working with Elvis Presley in Girls Girls Girls (1962). You're dressed as a beachcomber, playing the piano in a club while he sings Return To Sender.

Working with Elvis was ... thrilling. What else can I say? Gee, he was great. Prettiest skin I ever saw. Girls Girls Girls was three weeks of fun. We shot all the numbers in the club together. Three with Elvis and then the one where Stella Stevens sings. That's better. The only place Elvis had to sit between takes was on the piano bench. That was great cos I got to talk to him.

Did you intend to become a record producer?

Things just happen. I didn't have it in mind to become anything in particular. I just love rock'n'roll, y'know? It was in my heart. I did lead sheets for three dollars a piece. I did copying; I did arrangements for almost nothing. I did everything. And little by little, it grew. The record business was new then. It was just growing. It wasn't corporate. There was a lot of room for experimentation. There weren't a whole lot of people that loved it enough to make great records. Being a record producer, I don't know ... it's a gig, y'know? Someone rings up and says, do you want to play three weeks for Elvis? You just say, yeah! I don't have any job. Then Phil Spector calls and says, I've got this song called "He's A Rebel". Do you want to come and listen to it? Yeah, OK. That's it. I keep working.

How long would it take you to compose and record a film score?

That's one thing they don't like about me in Hollywood. Many times, they want the score finished in five weeks. But you can't actually finish the score until there's a final cut. And they're cutting right up until the day they start mixing, so you've got to keep re-recording. I can't do that in five weeks. I don't want to work that way.

There's a great story about Stravinsky and Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille had him come to Hollywood to see if he would score a film. He showed him a film, and Stravinsky said, I would like to do that. So DeMille asks him, how long before you can deliver it? And Stravinsky says, about a year. They sent him home.

I'm always going over, too; they don't like that. It's come to the point in Hollywood where they don't care about the music. They care if it's on time, that's the thing. If you get it in right on time, it doesn't matter what the music sounds like. I'm sick of that; I don't want to do that. I'm not doing any more films. I'm burnt out. I just want to make records. I want to go back to rock'n'roll.

Text © Jack Nitzsche & Philip Brophy 2001.