Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2017
Scott R. Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Can’t stop the music

I think it is high time that I deflated the ego of one of those self-important, self-appointed pundits who is always throwing his opinions around, whether anybody is interested or not, and usually doesn’t even get it right half the time. And the pundit I am talking about is, well, you see, it’s, uh… me.

Four weeks ago, upon the occasion of the passing of veteran film composer Elmer Bernstein, I wrote, “If anybody comes close to Bernstein in terms of his musical impact on the movies, it would probably be Jerry Goldsmith…” I should really have qualified that with the phrase “over the entire second half of the 20th century” and maybe even with the further qualifier “and who have died very recently.” Ever since I wrote that, I have been thinking about all the other great film composers whose music has bled off the reels of celluloid and become part of the soundtrack of our very lives.

For example, one of my favorite movie composers is Michael Nyman, whose career has not been anywhere near as long or as prolific as Bernstein and Goldsmith. I can’t think of Peter Greenaway’s early films (The Draughtsman’s Contract; A Zed & Two Noughts; Drowning By Numbers; The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) without hearing Nyman’s music in my head. I’d say that the same is true for most other people who saw those films and particularly for those who saw Jane Campion’s The Piano. Nyman represents a phenomenon that is distinct from busy and tireless composers like Bernstein and Goldsmith. Those two nearly became invisible as film personalities because they worked on so many films that crossed many genres and required so many different musical styles. While, say, Bernstein did get typecast at different points in his career (his jazzy phase, his western phase, etc.), in the fullness of time you couldn’t peg him as any type of composer or associate him with any type of movie. Nyman too has worked with a number of different filmmakers, but for many of us he will always be associated with director Peter Greenaway.

Likewise, a couple of my favorite other movie composers have had well-established collaborative relationships with a single director. For example, it is nearly impossible to think of any Sergio Leone movie without also hearing the music of Ennio Morricone. In the 1960s his echoing strains virtually defined the term “spaghetti western.” Yet Morricone’s career has spanned decades and he has worked with a wide array of filmmakers. They have included Bernardo Bertolucci (1900), Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Decameron), Terence Malick (Days of Heaven), Brian De Palma (The Untouchables), Barry Levinson (Bugsy, Disclosure), Wolfgang Petersen (In the Line of Fire) and Mike Nichols (Wolf). Even closer than the Morricone/Leone relationship has been the one between Danny Elfman and Tim Burton. From Pee-wee’s Big Adventure to Beetlejuice to Batman to Edward Scissorhands and all the way down to Big Fish, it is difficult to think of a Burton film and not hear Elfman’s distinctive soundtrack melodies.

If there is a film composer who rivals Bernstein and Goldsmith in terms of longevity, versatility and general cultural impact, it has to be John Williams. He has long been associated with the blockbusters of Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Hook, Jurassic Park) and George Lucas (Star Wars), a bundle that includes by extension Richard Donner and Richard Lester’s Superman movies. But Williams has demonstrated his range, not only with other types of Spielberg movies (1941, Empire of the Sun, Always, Schindler’s List), but with a slew of movies for other directors, like a couple of entries in the Gidget series in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Ronald Reagan’s last film The Killers, Mark Rydell’s The Cowboys and Cinderella Liberty, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, James Bridges’s The Paper Chase, Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot, Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks, Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill and The Accidental Tourist, Chris Columbus’s Home Alone, Oliver Stone’s JFK and Nixon and Ron Howard’s Far and Away.

Even though Williams is fairly high-profile among the general public, having received a whole bunch of Oscars and having been nominated for a huge number more and with that Boston Pops gig and all, it is still surprising to be reminded just how long he has been around and how many movies he has been involved with. Arguably, he is now the preeminent living film composer. Other titans worth mentioning in the history of film music include Alex North, Henry Mancini, Michel Legrand, Quincy Jones, John Barry, and Maurice Jarre. Another would be James Horner, who has been working on film scores since the beginning of the 1980s and has probaby made his biggest impact to date with the score for Jim Cameron’s Titanic, which somehow survived the inclusion of that Celine Dion song we had to hear over and over for ages.

Yes Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith were two of the greats, but despite my previously stated enthusiasm for their work, it should be noted that in the film music talent category they had plenty of company.

* * *

For those who have been wondering whatever came of my nephew Josh’s audition for Neil Jordan’s upcoming film, Breakfast on Pluto, I regret to report that he didn’t get the part. His mother said that he did well at the Dublin try-out but that he was beat out by a Dublin lad. Presumably, this was because the other fellow bore more of a physical resemblance to Cillian Murphy, who plays the same character as an adult. Or maybe the filmmakers didn’t think that Josh would fit in too well in a film that is set in mid-20th-century Ireland. Even though his mother offered to have the braces removed from his teeth.

-S.L., 23 September 2004

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