THE LATE DIRECTOR Federico Fellini once described music as cruel. "It stuffs you with nostalgia and regret," he wrote, "and when it's finished, just leaves you utterly directionless: Music introduces you to the unattainable. Marvelous, but how sad!" Me, I've always felt the same way about movies. But spending as much time as I do listening to records, it's a sentiment I reflect on in Fellini's context too.
The quote appears in the liner notes to Amarcord Nino Rota, a set of jazzy interpretations of Fellini soundtrack music released back in 1981 on the Hannibal label. It is the first (and probably best) of renegade producer Hal Willner's multi-artist "tribute" recordings. Along with John Zorn's later and wilder treatment of Ennio Morricone's scores on The Big Gundown (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1986), it helped convince me that incidental soundtrack music--as distinct from song collections marketed in conjunction with films--can have a vivid life of its own, off-screen.
I'm thinking about this now because this music seems to be in the midst of some kind of cultural revival. The Nonesuch label just launched a series that collects original and newly recorded material in handsome, display-friendly packages that cop Morrissey's star-struck cover designs from the old Smiths LPs. The first batch includes Alex North's steamy, brassy score to A Streetcar Named Desire, George Delerue's brightly colored work from the films of François Truffaut, and the de facto highlight, a collection of intense, multifaceted scores by Japan's Toru Takemitsu. Consider too the new Rhino Movie Music series (2001: A Space Odyssey and the never-before-released Casablanca); the Milan label's endless output (including a recent set from Hitchcock-composer Bernard Herrmann); and Rykodisc's brand-new MGM soundtrack series (including a restored, two-CD edition of Frank Zappa's engorged 200 Motels). Eventually, you can't help but begin to wonder just what's going on. Obsessives aside, who the hell buys this stuff, and why?
Part of the answer can be found in the music of DJ-based acts that are drawing on soundtrack music as source material. "Sour Times," Portishead's finest exercise in turntable-ist noir and the first really notable pop-electronica moment, was built around a shiver of hammer dulcimer from spy-movie composer Lalo Schifrin. Similarly, the themes of British soundtrack machine John Barry have been thoroughly exhumed. Orbital have been opening shows with them, and drew on a few in the title theme to The Saint's soundtrack; Portishead loop Barry's (overly) familiar Mission: Impossible theme on their latest, and a three-volume set of his scores has been released domestically on the indie Scamp label. Sample-scan any batch of trippy-hop/techno platters and you'll no doubt find more examples.
This makes sense: In the heat of its creative metastasizing, modern DJ/electronic music has been looking for ways to diversify its palette of oversized dance-floor emotionalism, as well as to translate it to car stereos and living rooms. Generally lacking vocals, this genre has to conjure Big Feeling solely with musical color and texture. This, of course, is the science of film music. Furthermore, by using carefully chosen and manipulated samples, you get more than just the emotional impact of the music (i.e., minor-key string figure = sad). You also get a Pandora's box of images and memories, borne on the ambiance and associations of the sampled recording.
That's why listening to soundtrack music, especially old stuff, can be such a pleasant head fuck. If real life has increasingly paled in intensity alongside its electro-mechanical representations, then beefing it up with a score can bring it closer to a cherished celluloid ideal. The fragmentary, nonlinear form of soundtrack music, like that of so much DJ/electronic music, also works well with flickering attention spans and other pomo aesthetics. Plus, you get that "nostalgia and regret" Fellini wrote about, and you get it in spades. I savor Ennio Morricone's soundtracks for their jump-cut formalism and expansive sound palette, as well as for the way they conjure Clint Eastwood hobbling around the desert in a poncho. But I'm moved even more by the way they conjure lonely Saturday afternoons spent watching spaghetti westerns in my parents' basement waiting for something to happen: a phone call, dinner, a welcome interruption from my dad, anything.
Too bad that excepting composers like Angelo Badalamenti (David Lynch's favored collaborator) and Ry Cooder (ditto Wim Wenders--see the electric-Miles-at-16-rpm score to The End of Violence), the soundtrack field is dominated these days by bombastic hacks like John Williams, whose concept of emotional nuance is akin to hitting someone in the face with a two-by-four. But like the pop world, the soundtrack world has always been filled with uninspired mechanics cranking the wheels of industry. Maybe the resurgence of interest in the form will encourage more directors like Wenders, who was evidently willing to foot the bill for Cooder's dream-band score ensemble.
Or maybe, instead, we'll have to leave it to the talents of DJs: pulling together past and future, memory and fantasy--the soundtrack to a film that starts unspooling every time the needle hits the groove.
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