Soundtracks are a lot more than movie music...
...or so I'm ready to argue as a 30 year devotee of this sorely under appreciated genre. So, in an effort to do my part, each week
I'll be making recommendations of soundtracks current and vintage, make a fuss over long awaited soundtrack scores finally getting
a well deserved release, and in general, make some noise about this often overlooked category. Beyond my long experience as a
listener and as a pianist and songwriter, both of which I've put to use in writing a quarterly soundtrack column for the Chicago
Tribune, I can only offer my recommendations. You'll discern my taste soon enough and upfront I'd like to make it clear that I'll
focus most heavily on SCORE soundtracks. In the end, all criticism is subjective but if I can point a listener toward a little heard
soundtrack or strongly advise you to either ORDER IMMEDIATELY or SKIP ALTOGETHER, all the better.
Sadly, only the first pictured
soundtrack is going to be easy
for you to find but the others,
though rare, are worth seeking
and are MUST HAVES!
I respond almost viscerally to what I consider deeply emotional music. I’m not sure exactly how
to explain it but there is something so beautiful in certain melodies and the way they are
orchestrated in each of these scores that has kept me coming back to them over and over again.
None of these four soundtracks are ever far from whatever musical conveyance is necessary for
me to hear them on and I never tire of listening to them. Like all my favorite scores, the striking
melodies these scores offer are shot through with melancholy and are repeated endlessly and
often orchestrated in various musical motifs. Is it possible that music can be magical and
melancholy at the same time? These soundtracks answer "yes."
Chinatown, Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score for the 1974 classic (and where, pray tell, is the DVD
Special Edition for that I ask?) I was first introduced to back in 1975. A friend pulled out the
album (yes, album!) and from the first listen I was hooked. Goldsmith lost the Oscar in a tough
year to Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola’s equally beautiful score for The Godfather Part II.
Nevertheless, it is Goldsmith’s music – which skimps on the score in favor of period songs – that
has stayed with me. From the haunting title theme with its solo trumpet line – essayed so
brilliantly by Uan Rasey – to the oddly flavored bossa percussive effects (they work) welded to
eerie plucked piano strings, Goldsmith’s score is richly rewarding. It's also a lasting
advertisement for the power of creating on deadline. Goldsmith wrote and scored his music in just
10 days after the film’s producer rejected an earlier score. When Chinatown was released on CD it
was hoped by collectors that the complete soundtrack would finally see the light of day but such
was not the case. Perhaps one day.
The masterful John Williams has produced so many wonderful scores its hard to differentiate
between the superb and the merely terrific. But his score for 1988’s The Accidental Tourist, I think,
is the apogee of Williams’ tendency toward the wistful, the bittersweet and his predilection for lush
orchestrations. “Fixing the Plumbing on a Rainy Afternoon” contains the essence of the score
(and of his composing style) and is a favorite cue. Though Williams is Oscar’s top golden boy,
his well deserved nomination LOST to Dave Grusin’s for his predictable ethnic flavored The Milagro
Beanfield War. Sadder still, this beautiful soundtrack quickly went out of print. I remember seeing
dozens of cassette copies in a bargain bin at Tower Records and scooping up ALL of them. I gave
them out as presents to friends that shared my somber yet beautiful musical sensibilities! It was
a joyous day when I finally found a copy on CD.
Michael Gibbs, a film composer known for his collaborations with director Bill Forsyth wrote the
magical score for 1987’s Housekeeping, the odd story (set in the 1950s) of a free spirit charged
with raising her two teenage nieces after her sister’s suicide. Christine Lahti, given a rare shot at
a starring role, infuses Sylvie with an adult’s appreciation for the magic in nature and the everyday
that still resonates. Rarely has a film caught the irresistible power of individuality and Gibbs’
score matches it. “Journey to Grandma’s,” the cue that opens the movie sets the tone. Though
Gibbs utilizes the full orchestra and a solo violin, typical of hundreds of film scores, his melodies
and offbeat colors catch my ear like nothing else has. This is another score that quickly went out
of print, and ironically, right next to those Accidental Tourist cassettes, I found Housekeeping ones.
Again, a treasured CD copy was finally located.
Finally, Alexandre Desplat first broke through for me with Girl With A Pearl Earring. The film was
released at the tale end of 2003 and the minute the movie was over I ran across the street from
the theatre into the Border’s to ask about the soundtrack. But it took another two months before
the disc finally arrived. At first listen I immediately felt it was 2003’s best but though Desplat’s
star has risen quickly, this score hasn’t received as much recognition as it should have. The main
theme and the cue “The Birth Feast” are particular favorites. Happily, this disc is readily available
and should be purchased RIGHT NOW before it goes out of print and you have to pay upwards of
$100 to get it like the others.
I have learned after 30 years of soundtrack collecting to BUY NOW AND HAVE BUYERS REMORSE
later. Film music is such a small niche market that releases can quickly disappear and never be
heard from again.
Don't forget to check out previous soundtrack recommendations by visiting the ARCHIVES
Next Week: Yes I do like song compilation soundtracks. One.