Remapping Recordings Onto The Screen

Between Song & Score Part 2

published in The Wire No.171, May, 1998, London

Somewhere, right now, a director is figuring what songs to use in his movie. He's a young, hip director, who buys young and hip CDs from Tower. In his cutting edge film will be a slew of cutting edge tracks. Somewhere right now, a producer is figuring what songs to use in her movie. She knows nothing of music - at least the kind she thinks her movie needs to be cutting edge. She's already on the phone to a record company to see what they've got that's 'hot'. Two cheap scenarios - easy targets to lambast for equally cheap ideals about rock'n'roll or whatever musical myth you cherish. Unfortunately, they are in reality as true as they are cliched. Numerous post-80s youth films (ie. ones which are supposedly 'hipper' than 80s teen movies) play this game, giving us countless CD soundtracks which painfully document both the narrowness in young and old directors' supposedly eclectic musical tastes and the obvious self-reflexivity of the recording industry's cynical marketing.

Just because the plastering of film soundtracks with chartable play lists has become rampant, one need not return to the specious naturalism of booming symphonic orchestras, tinkling grand pianos and delicate acoustic guitars. Playing on the 'timeless quality' of instruments is cheap and gutless. Somewhere in the midst of the chaotic collisions between rock/pop songs and their Frankensteinian appendage to a film soundtrack is great value and even greater potential. While cinema continues to become a frail corpse administered by 'script doctors', one can look beyond into the realm of the recorded song, wherein amazingly tangential audio-visual moments have oriented the film experience more around the sonic than the visual, literary or performative.

When Mott The Hoople's "All The Way From Memphis" incongruously blasts onto the screen in Martin Scorsese's ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1975), its incongruity is considered and appropriate, befitting the film's themes of dislocation. However, there is nothing in the lyrics which directly relate to the film's themes, nor is there any historical evocation required by the scene to orient the track as 'period music'. Nor is the song's positioning comedic, irreverent, parodic, ironic. Writer-directors still believe they are being profound when a track they select somehow 'relates' to their film's literary themes, as if their audience is a gaggle of literature professors assessing an essay on thematic articulation. "All The Way From Memphis" - much more importantly - is a contemporaneous selection whose sonar tactility becomes one with the grain of the film at that moment. This is something in which Scorcese excels. His choice (either alone or with his music supervisors) evidences an ear for the malleable and enticing ingredients of a song - its construction, its presence, its production, its tonality. While Scorcese often rationalises songs for period purposes and lyric-thematic connections, he always does so with a primary consideration of how the sound of the song's music will vibrate with the scenic moment.

The creative and technical pinnacle attained by Scorsese's musical sensibility is GOODFELLAS (1990). The film opens on an extreme close-up of an eye - a bluff, as the film constructs a dense aural architecture across time, charting Jimmy's (Ray Liotta) changing perception of himself and his social reality. Music - more precisely, the sound of music's record production - creates exacting memory spaces for the unfolding of the film's scenes. The vitality and brashness of the 60s is grossly framed by the hyper-compressed reverberating rotundity of songs by The Ronettes, The Shangri Las & Bobby Darrin; the blunted and altered perceptions of the 70s are harshly boxed by the fractured multi-tracking and denaturalised mixing of songs by Derek & The Dominos, Brewer & Shippley, & Sid Vicious. Themes are thus relocated into the aural fields of the accompanying recordings. As the film hurtles toward the present, changes in the orientation of Jimmy 's commentary parallels changes in the apparati of stereo production, moving from breathy, lingering valve mics and line-fed echo chambers to overloaded effects-chaining compensating the fetishization of acoustically 'dead' studios. In short, Scorcese deftly sutures the psycho-acoustics of microphone placement into the wavering equilibrium Jimmy experiences through the narration of his story, marking Scorsese one of very few directors with an ear for song.

If Scorsese is a director who internalises pre-recorded songs and 'auralizes' his films' production design through the production of those recordings, Michael Mann is a director who externalises pre-recorded songs to extrapolate and extemporise their recordings into the expanded audio-visual design of his films. Counter to Scorsese's song methods, Mann seeks to narrate, compile and underscore through song, to arrive at 'song-seeming scores' which exploit the dynamics, characteristics and idiosyncrasies of pop/rock recordings.

To this end, Mann has been remarkably consistent. His symbiotic relationship with Tangerine Dream suggests that the "indifference, asynchronism, amorphism and transcendentalism" of their hovering 4 chord approach (see The Wire No.160) is as much a trait of his own preoccupations - considering how many variations Michael Mann has done on the mental instability of cunning serial killers and the obsessive detectives who trail them. In as much as Scorsese's centre-piece in GOODFELLAS has to be the fractal and heady kineticism induced by interpolating Nilsson's manic "Jump Into The Fire" with the sounds of helicopter buzzing, pasta bubbling and coke snorting, Michael Mann established this technique of para-hallucinogenic song-spatialization via the unedited positioning of Iron Butterfly's "In A Gadda Da Vida" in MANHUNTER (1985). While deaf ears would cite this as an example of cheesy irony or bad taste, its mixage in the soundtrack blurs the distinction between whether the song lives in the film or the film lives within the song. It plays from on a turntable as the serial killer prepares for a final killing and the detective hones in on him at the killer's house. Acoustics distort the song and facilitate not simply our cohabitation of the killer's mental space, but our experience of a symbolic yet tactile aural space which embodies the synchronously warped frame of mind of killer, detective and victim. Remarkably, the truly inept production quality of the original recording takes on an unnerving charismatic appeal in the film through its refraction of the psychotic Other and its power to suck both victim and detective into its otherworldly droning din.

The 'Mann effect' of extenuating a song's sonic traits to define the material realm of a scene's action was heavily workshopped through his TV series MIAMI VICE (1985-87, Jan Hammer plus songs) and CRIME STORY (1987-89, Todd Rundgren plus songs) where much of what we erroneously assume to be an 'MTV-effect' (droll sound-image counterpoint, adrenaline audio-visual momentum, excessively stylistic musical inflation, etc.) was originally defined. Mann's peak in tracking music this way is reached in HEAT (1995). Combining a calming and contiguous track selection with a melting, amorphous score by Elliot Goldenthal (sounding like Glenn Branca doing John Barry), Mann plays sophisticated games in breaking down all distinction between song and score while building upon the armory of effects and figures generated within song recording rather than film scoring.

HEAT is profoundly complex in these regards. Its leaning towards ambient stylings is less to do with a vague contemporaneity and lazy self-effacement, and more to do with a synchronicity between the de-rhythmatized harmonic splaying of songs by Eno, Passengers, Moby, Kronos Quartet, Terje Rydal, Michael Brooks, Einsturzende Neubauten & Lisa Gerrard, and the exhausted, emotional drainage of Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro whose sense of purposeful conflict is rendered meaningless by the film's conclusion. Just as Toru Takemitsu's inverse musical dramatics are central to the deflated heroics of Akira Kurosawa's historical dramas, so too are the ambient brethren of HEAT's soundtrack crucial to the creeping existentialism which eventually upturns HEAT'S epic form. And just as the sound of space has become the prime erogenous zone of ambient music, HEAT's musical scoring is the prime means of actively spatializing the film's locations and environments - especially as a counterpoint to the highly fragmented framing aesthetic employed by the cinematography. From the horripulative softness of the low level string murmuring as DeNiro placidly takes a series of escalators in the film's opening, to the hammering synth pops and concatenated reverb bangs which crackle under the screams of employees and customers during the bank heist, ambience is actually foregrounded as style and form in HEAT.

Against HEAT and GOODFELLAS, so many other celebrated song-oriented soundtracks pale - not because there has to be markers of high and low, but because the narrational complexity unleashed by the song sensibilities adopted and refined by Mann and Scorsese is simply so advanced. To wit, Clinton Tarantino is by comparison the Wolfman Jack of music supervisors, combining sensationalist sounds for sensationalist purpose. It's more carney promotion than postmodernism, and certainly matches the pyrotechnic mania of his genre-drunk cine-bashes. But the mere act of selecting a song for a movie soundtrack neither ensures nor fixes the depth of the song's contribution to the film, and the reduction of music to markers of hipness alone is reactionary and limiting.

Surpassing such binaries grants a more rewarding experience. Consider the song selection in George Lucas' AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1972), Wim Wender's KINGS OF THE ROAD (1976), Phil Kaufman's OVER THE EDGE (1979), Howard Deutch's SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL (1987), Abel Ferrara's KING OF NEW YORK (1990), Peter Weir's FEARLESS (1993), Spike Lee's CROOKLYN (1994), Larry Clark's KIDS (1995), MY NEW GUN (1995), GROSSE POINT BLANK (1997), and P.T.Anderson's BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997). This group of pop/rock song-biased soundtracks complements the post-rock neo-fusion song-oriented scores of Donald Cammell & Nicholas Roeg's PERFORMANCE (1971, Jack Nitzsche), Michael Winner's DEATH WISH (1974, Herbie Hancock), Nicholas Roeg's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976, John Phillips), Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS (1978, Barry DeVorzon), Francis Ford Coppola's RUMBLEFISH (1982, Stewart Copeland), Paul Schrader's PATTI HEARST (1988, Scott Johnson), Dennis Hopper's THE HOT SPOT (1990, Jack Nitzsche) and Walter Hill's TRESPASS (1993) (not to mention the many Argento/Goblin scores covered in last month's article). Ample ammunition to erase the mouldy lingering buzz of MTV alt-soundtracking, and to silence the insistent calls for romantic orchestrations and their muted sweet nothings.

Text © Philip Brophy 1998. Images © respective copyright holders