Doug Schulkind's
Sound Mind

Soundtracks of My Tears

A few years ago, I fell hard for movie music. I was watching Rosemary's Baby on the tube, and for some reason the peculiar sounds decorating the background finally caught my ear in a way that hadn't happened during previous viewings. Maybe already having seen the film many times allowed me to separate the music from the images. But this time, as I snoozed through the old familiar scenes, the Christopher Komeda score that accompanied them goosed me through the television speaker. The revelation occurred during the "panic" sequence, in which Rosemary, discovering her doc is in deep with the Netherworldniks, races in a medicated haze back to her apartment. It's exciting action, but what really thrills me is the music. Komeda has created a veritable symphony of hallucination -- tripped-out Farfisa organ, Milesian trumpet, wah-wahing manically over fidgety strings -- that transforms a basic chase scene into something frantic and hysterical. Finally awakened to the world of music written for film, I haven't listened to a movie the same way since.

I realize I've joined the Movie Music Appreciation Society a bit late in the evening, but it's a gas to finally crash the party. After years of ignoring countless soundtracks in used record bins, I now stop and drool over platters sporting names like Elmer Bernstein and Riz Ortolani and Vladimir Cosma. During the past several Academy Awards shows I actually caught myself rooting for certain nominees in the music categories. (I still can't accept that James Horner's Titanic borefest beat out Philip Glass's contribution to Kundun.) As my appetite for film scores has grown, I've developed a general distaste for those that eschew original music for previously recorded tunes. By serving up a string of familiar songs, even the lamest of films can manipulate an audience's ready-made emotional attachment to the music. I trace the proliferation of jukebox-style soundtracks directly to the baffling appeal of The Big Chill. Stuck with a blathering daytime-soap story line? Tether it to a score of unimpeachable Motown favorites and it'll be a hit every time. Even worse than the tired practice of using old pop tunes to prop up a lousy film is the crass deployment of new ones. With single companies now owning both studios and record labels, soundtracks have become part of the whole engine of megabuck synergy: current pop hits are inserted, like any other product placement, designed to draw a specific demographic to theaters, while selling millions of albums in record stores.

Recently New York City's last great rep theater, Film Forum, screened a Robert Altman retrospective. The festival featured McCabe & Mrs. Miller, one of my wife's favorites, and she urged me to go. Confusing it with the vacuous '60s sitcom The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, which I had little desire to revisit, I went with fairly low expectations. Predictably (Dollface is always right about such things), I was simply blown away. Set in the late-1800s, the film tells the story of a frontier village in the Pacific Northwest. As the hardscrabble town begins to thrive, its early optimism and entrepreneurial spirit succumbs, inevitably, to corruption and alienation. Released in 1971, the height of Vietnam-era cynicism and disillusionment, McCabe & Mrs. Miller -- often called Altman's "anti-Western" -- fashions an allegory particularly relevant for the time: the birth and death of the American dream.

Perhaps McCabe & Mrs. Miller is best known for its cinematography -- the astonishing "blizzard" scene at film's end is not to be missed. But for me, the real kicker is the soundtrack. Charting the music for this period drama, you might think to add a hint of barroom, honky-tonk piano to give it that western flavor; you could toss in some old-timey banjo to capture the turn-of-the-century era; or, you might go for a sweeping brass fanfare, Aaron Copland-style, to emphasize the wide-open space of the American frontier. While you shouldn't be shocked to learn that Altman sidesteps these clichés, his choice is surprising. Altman taps a source so completely unexpected, so startlingly appropriate, it takes your breath away: the songs of Leonard Cohen! Released only a few years before the film, Cohen's first album introduced the world to "The Stranger Song," "Sisters of Mercy," and "Winter Lady." Altman was listening, and somehow, he heard in the ennui-drenched poem/songs of a reluctant pop star just the right tone for a tale of late-19th-century melancholy with mid-20th century implications. (Werner Herzog was listening too. His surreal Fata Morgana, also from 1971, featured "Suzanne" and "So Long, Marianne," two other songs from Cohen's album.)

So, ultimately, I guess it's not whether a film incorporates music with a past, but how. Though a cloyingly nostalgic soundtrack is a sure-fire sign of lazy filmmaking, pre-recorded music can be a highly effective device in the toolbox of a smart director. With Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller this goes beyond making a good film better, it makes a brilliant film incandescent. Not bad for a soundtrack.

Doug Schulkind
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