Songs in Films: Death to the Film Score

Something About Mary, Velvet Goldmine, The Boys, Vampires + Boogie Nights

published in Real Time No.29, Sydney, 1998

Having just listened to the new For Films Vol.3 (1998), I am overcome by a familiar wave of nausea - the same pasty acrid ambience that irritates the soft hairs of my inner ear when I hear attempts to compose/produce "music for films". Twenty years after Brian Eno released an LP of the same name (which rehashed pleasing atmospheric doodles developed in Cologne and Dusseldorf by the likes of Cluster, Harmonia and Neu at least five years earlier), the film and recording industries worldwide still think that what has since been termed 'ambient' emits a 'soundtrack-like quality'. To my ear, I've heard nothing but two decades of what at best evokes some of the better moments of Eno's Another Green World (1975) and at worst sounds like instrumental versions of John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" (the ideal theme music for American indie Sundance-friendly thirtysomething relationship flicks).

Granted, there have been many attempts to side-step the orchestra - but the reasons for doing so are usually suspect. Rather than rejecting the orchestra as a universal/neutral/qualitative norm for sounding the film score, most indie/new-ager/Europhile/personal-cinema/arthouse movies eschew the symphonic as a stance against sonic bombast, favouring instead cheesy string synthesizers (a contradiction in terms), acoustic guitars (oh-so-natural) and solo violins (so frail, so feminine, so fuckable). And if you want to go ethnic, throw in a piano accordion (instant pre-fab gipsy/peasant connotations) or a pan pipe (for that 'soaring of the human spirit' effect audiences love so much).

Technology has a lot to answer for, also. The abject lack of imagination and technological nous in the For Films series of CDs is grounds to ban home MIDI studios worldwide. Factory samples, pre-set effects, and ambient/trip-hop/d&b textbook compositional structures are perfectly logged and tabulated across the three CDs in the series. Their pallid contents also reflect the kind of luridly beautiful coating that serves the lazy knee-jerk humanism which 'short films' (especially animated shorts) now seem to uniformly express. Are all short filmmakers Scientoligists? Are their 'composer friends' bass players in Christian Soft Rock bands? Do they really have to use those CDR libraries and SYSEX data dumps leftover from the music they did for a series of EST/Forum/Amway motivational tapes? Does what I'm saying make any sense to you reading this? Maybe not. Most people - especially the intelligentsia - are happy with music on the grounds of its soulful/mystical/emotional/natural evocation (which marks them intellectually below the mythical housewife who weeps during The BOld & The Beautiful). Film directors and producers are probably even dumber than the dumb masses in this regard: they actually think that those CDs they play at dinner parties (Betty Blue, The Mission, Cinema Paradiso, Paris, Texas, Proof, anything by Enya, Dead Can Dance or Deep Forest) are signs of their sophisticated taste in music.

Enough cheap swipes at aesthetic retardation. Playing For Films Vol.3 urged me to remember that 1998 was in fact a very healthy year for the use of songs in movies. There were of course also some good examples of the most cliched use of songs: THE ACID HOUSE and LOCKED STOCK & TWO SMOKIN' BARRELS best exemplifying a dated trend at being hip (go, UK!) which should provide an unhealthy influence on present and past VCA/AFTRS graduates for the next five years. The inventive, interesting and imaginative examples of song selection of 1998 avoided the pitfalls of regurgitating ambient stylings (eg. KISSED), affecting a sallow, hip demeanour (eg. PI), or bothering to consult with A&R people in major recording/distribution companies (eg. Godzilla).

P. T. Anderson's Boogie Nights set the agenda for how songs can be used to culturally locate a story rather than perfunctorily slot it into a radiophonic histogram. While the film charts the messy ejaculation of the porn industry at the end of the 70s (read Bill Landis & Jim McDonough's tracts in the now-defunct early 80s Sleazoid Express for key source material which this film relates to), the music peels back the scab of collective forgetfulness to prod the fetid sono-semiotics of songs like Apollo 100's "Joy", Nina's "99 Red Luft Balloons" and our own Rick Springfield's "Jesse's Girl". But not a smidgen of camp is to found, so forget Sontag when journeying through the wood-grained multi-track mixing consoles which blanket the texture of the film's soundtrack with the grain of late-70s/early-80s pop/rock. P. T. Anderson deftly employs songs like aural production design, matching ARP synths to wallpaper, Ibanez fuzz-wahs to the lightning in convenience stores, and compressed snare thuds to ritzy cowboy boots. Most fascinating - and the modus operandi behind the film's weaving of genuine emotional warmth amidst the its decidedly retro iconography - is Anderson's placement of songs in mismatched settings. He does so often by starting a song in one scene and then allowing it time and space to flow into the next scene. The resultant effect imbues the song with a disturbing ambivalence that simultaneously drains the song of an 'event' status and displaces it into the amorphous backgrounding of the film's psychological ambience.

Meanwhile in Australia, we think it's 'hip' to make fun of Barry White and "Theme from SHAFT". Suprisingly, one Australian film (and I do emphasise the 'one' as in, like, 'one a decade') opted to absolutely ignore the last quarter of a century of tizzy, queeny, Whitlamesque, theatre-company-funded, PC, subtle-as-sledge-hammer mockery of the working class (which is still alive and kicking today as back then). Rowan Woods decision to get The Necks to provide a score for The Boys shows that Australians can think beyond Baz Luhrmann excesses, Jenny Kee cockatoos and John Singleton mimicry. Arty but not alienating, the distinctive brooding tone of The Boys is enriched by the pregnant spatialization of The Necks' slowed-down lounge music. 'Lounge' as in Ken Bruce has gone mad decor: all chipboard, glue guns and leather with a thirty day guarantee. The oppressive outer-suburbanism screams through the empty inner-spaces created by The Necks (and some occasional passages of Alan Lamb's telegraph wire drones). Hopefully it won't be a decade before the next Australian feature film does something interesting with its soundtrack.

One thing rarely mentioned when discussing the Farrelly Brothers' There's Something About Mary was the use of Jonathan Richmond to provide the meta-narrative voice for the gag-mystery central to the film's enigmatic central figure, Mary. The pure and simple playfulness of visually including Richmond as the nerd troubadour replete with retardo drummer imbued the film with a charm that evokes the more complex strains of humanism to be found in the 80s cycle of teen movies. The complexity is to be found in the modulation of the narrative irony - mostly a neurotic reflex to wise-acre anything within shot - with an awkward suppression of positivity. The Farrelly Brothers are masters of this, exhibiting a strange duality in their savage lambasting of human inadequacy while celebrating the centrality of hopelessness which many people learn to accept in order to save themselves from going around the bend. We're all losers in one way or another, and films like There's Something About Mary provide a manual on how to deal with it - in preference to hugging Richard Simmons or watching Family Circle TV. Jonathan Richmond - the loser supreme before nerd became a clinical term for people who think the internet is 'cool' - has for over twenty years dealt with emotional fissures and social shortcomings with verve, conviction, fluidity and ambiguity all at once. No one else could have been so appropriately layered into There's Something About Mary.

Cool cineastes - who listen to exciting youth radio stations like JJJ - thought John Carpenter's Vampires was not 'in your face'. Such naive comments from wannabe critics who've probably never seen Last House On The Left, Suspiria, I Spit On Your Grave or Shocking Asia but think Tarrantino is 'edgy'. Vampires is certainly not a redefinition of the cine-vampire mythology, but it is a breath of fresh air to watch and hear a film that is committed to its generic underpinning instead of frigging around with being smart-arse (and misinformed) about the genre's conventions. Best of all, the score by John Carpenter (list the director's who score their own films) cruises down a highway well away from the concert hall, tuned to crackling radio broadcasts of Stax singles. For Vampires, Carpenter plays guitar alongside Donald "Duck" Dunn and Steve Cropper - legendary hard-nosed bassist and guitarist of Booker T & The MGs and innumerable Stax recordings from the mid-60s through to the mid-70s. Once again, grain comes to the front, as the studio performance of non-cinematic musicians is grafted onto the soundtrack when they play song-structured cues in place of script-dictated 'music cues'. The Carpenter/Dunn/Cropper jams exude a laidback haze of heat which slowly sizzles and perfectly complements the terror-beneath-the-surface that erupts in the film's violent showcases. Just the alcohol-soaked antidote one needs to wash out Wender's angst-ridden corruption of Ry Cooder's gentle slide guitar washes in Paris, Texas.

There are two Enos. One puts out portentous diaries, behaves like a technological sage, fawns over well-designed objects, loves Fellini and espouses the most ignorant altruisms about film music I've ever heard. The other was with Roxy Music for their first two LPs, then released two solo LPs: Here Come The Warm Jets (1973) and Takng Tiger Mountain By Strategy (1974). After that, I'm certain aliens took him away and genetically altered him into a pompous bourgeois Brit style-git who lost all sense of fashion. When the opening credits to Velvet Goldmine burst with the atonal postmodern melee of a time-warped Phil Spector which defines Eno's first LP, I remember once again that cinema hasn't even begun to tap into all the remarkable recordings of pop music which could invigorate the film soundtrack and jettison it into transhistorical metasonic realms of audiovisuality. The song in question - "Needle In The Camel's Eye" - is as weird today as it was back then. The colour of hair and the sound of song drive Velvet Goldmine. It rings with the nasal whistle that breathes the aural aura of Glam, combining not only crucial anthems but also obscure tracks by Cockney Rebel and early Roxy Music (and only Bowie fans will know the reference behind the film's title). The strength of Eno and Bowie - sometimes dormant, sometimes irrationally exposed - lies in the gorgeous fakeness of their artsy gestures. A heady, gaudy form of pop gout which consumes their artistry and transforms it into a spectacle of devalued sentimentality and violent theatricality - anti-matter versions of Dylan, Morrison, et al. Todd Haynes knows Glam well enough to embrace this, and to consciously pervert its hyperbolic hyper-bucolic history into a cris-crossed qualudian reverse-history that pinpoints Queer before it became politique, Bi before it became unacceptable.

Text © Philip Brophy 1998. Images © respective authors