JAIMIE VERNON: THE SOUNDTRACKS OF OUR LIVES
With Geoff Pevere on assignment this week it offers me a chance to talk about movies and music simultaneously. The latest Tween wallet milking franchise, The Hunger Games, opened to record breaking box office glory last week. Not since someone glued a lightning bolt to Radcliffe’s forehead or sparkles to Pattinson’s nipples has there been such a nauseating ballyhoo from teenaged girls and creepy middle-aged women.
Every aspect of the movie has been gleaned, dissected and analyzed by the fodder feeding media including the outrage by fans of the books that inspired the franchise who were shocked to find out that the black characters were portrayed on screen by…black actors! What has received almost zero coverage is the movie’s soundtrack which is surprising considering its first week debut on the Billboard album chart at #1.
However, the little Hunger Cretins were handed a bait and switch at the iTunes check-out counter because the movie itself has no songs in it, per se, save for a tune performed by one of the stars of the movie (Jennifer Lawrence) and an instrumental piece from the 1970s by composer Laurie Spiegel used in a montage – neither of which are on ‘Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond’. Three contemporary songs appear in the end credits of the film including the sleeper hit “Safe & Sound” by Taylor Swift and Grammy Award winners The Civil Wars. The remainder of this soundtrack is songs ‘inspired’ by events in the film assembled with great care by Music Supervisor T-Bone Burnett (O! Brother Where Art Thou). He searched for artists and music that evoked the feeling of futuristic folk tunes from indie artists such as Birdy, The Secret Sisters, Miranda Lambert with The Pistol Annies, Punch Brothers, Kid Cudi, Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Decemberists, and Neko Case. To keep the studio weasels happy he also dropped in Academy Award winner Glen Hansard, Maroon 5, and hipster kings Arcade Fire.
Meanwhile, anyone watching the film will hear the original score by James Newton Howard (Pretty Woman, King Kong, Dark Knight) who was brought on board by Burnett at the last minute to replace the incredibly busy Danny Elfman (The Simpsons, A Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice). The studio, of course, has released this material as a separate soundtrack album unto itself – no doubt in an effort to wring just a few more dollars out of Tween completists [“oooo….this music sucks…there’s no, like, words or anything. GAWD!’]
The cynic in me began yearning for the days when a soundtrack was assembled to enhance the film not just produce another after-market sell-through product like so many Darth Vader bed sheets or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures [with apologies to Robbie Rist]. But it shouldn’t surprise me. Somewhere between Hollywood writing vehicles specifically to showcase Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Danny Kay and Bing Crosby song-and-dance films music started taking a back seat in the wake of films as juggernauts. So much so that movie soundtrack budgets are almost a tenth of what they once were. Like the free-download society we now live in, music is becoming less about characterization in movies and more about wallpaper in the background. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmCpOKtN8ME&feature=youtu.be
In 2004 I went to Los Angeles for a three day seminar put on by Billboard and Variety magazines to see how Music Supervisors do their jobs and how my own record label might take advantage of opportunities to place songs in film and television. It was eye-opening both as an educational tool on how the inside of Hollywood works as well as seeing that movie studios and music supervisors are like the coyote and road runner of the entertainment business. The studios need music supervisors to assemble the soundtracks but spend all their time trying to undermine them, crush their spirit or otherwise prevent them from doing the job they were hired to do and in many cases just ignoring all suggestions and picking songs that the CEO’s daughter listens to on her iPod. And in between that you have the directors who have a vision, budget and personal taste that music supervisors must work with in maintaining a balance between the creative process and the studio’s demands.
Famed Rom-Com director Garry Marshall (and brother of ‘Laverne & Shirley’ actress and fellow director Penny Marshall) told us a tale about how U2, on the fast-track with the hit album ‘Achoo! Baby’ [thanks to Terry Lusk] heard that Marshall was making Runaway Bride with Julia Roberts whose character was always running away from a commitment to marry. U2’s management sent Marshall the song “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” based on a teaser trailer featuring Roberts fleeing a wedding on horseback. Marshall listened to the song but didn’t feel it lived up to the mood of the film – especially since the footage was the first scene in the movie. Plus, he didn’t like outside people telling him how to make his films; on one occasion he took a Bon Jovi song that the studio insisted on using and stuck it a the end of one of his movie after the credits had rolled and the screen was black – leaving no one but a theatre’s cleaning crew to hear it.
U2’s management persisted and sent him a re-cut horse scene with the song inserted to demonstrate the band’s vision of the song in the film. Marshall ordered one of his staff to bring him a hammer and to set up a meeting with U2’s team. When the group’s reps showed up he explained that he’d gotten the videotape and still felt the song didn’t belong in the scene but that he’d found an even better place for it. He ushered them into his office to continue the meeting and pointed at the space above his desk. There, on the wall, was the videotape they’d sent – smashed into a million pieces and framed in a light box for all to see. The song was not used in the movie.
Then there was original score designer Mark Mothersbaugh (he of flower-potted headgear fame as a member of DEVO) who recounted a story about his production technique in doing soundtrack work. Mothersbaugh uses an analog reel-to-reel multi-track recorder and 1970s recording gear including vintage synths and repurposed electronics in the sunroom at the back of his mother’s house in Orange County to record his soundscapes. It’s where he got his early break doing TV soundtracks for PeeWee’s Playhouse and the cartoon show Rugrats because his budget would allow him to low-bid on jobs. Having made the leap to the big screen with Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, the studio heads financing Anderson’s next film, Rushmore, suggested bigger names for the score to compliment Anderson’s British Invasion-styled soundtrack. Anderson insisted on Mothersbaugh and went to bat for him. The studio said they didn’t think his name was big enough to carry the film but would agree if they could see he had a firm grasp of time and budget constraints in a professional environment. Anderson brought the demands back to Mothersbaugh who quickly panicked because he was still creating his soundtracks in his mother’s house. Anderson called in some Hollywood favours and soon producer/director Tim Burton pulled some strings at Warner Brothers and his go-to-guy Danny Elfman to gain access to the their preferred orchestral studio facility. A meeting was set up with the ‘Rushmore’ execs, a fake orchestra was hired to sit and look busy and when everyone arrived to check out Mothersbaugh’s faux work environment, they fired up segments of Elfman’s current work (which would turn up in Burton’s ‘Sleepy Hollow’) and Mothersbaugh yelled instructions to the orchestra about doing another run through. Anderson took the execs aside and assured them everything would be suitable for the film and they left happy. Mothersbaugh got the job and recorded the ‘Rushmore’ score in his Mom’s house – as usual.
Mothersbaugh explaining ‘circuit bending’ sound technology: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PObvNpXXaQ
Other keynote speakers attending the conference included Stuart Copeland (ex-The Police and composer of music for TV show Dead Like Me) who was defiantly late for his session and ripped all the studio execs in attendance a new one by exclaiming: “30 million songs in the world and you keep putting “Wild Thing” and “Born to be Wild” in every movie? You’re what’s ruining the careers of musicians and music supervisors!”; and the new kid in town, McG, who explained his whole method to creating soundtracks to his films and TV shows: “I slap together a mix tape and drive up and down the Pacific Coast Highway until a story line evolves. Then I film it. The songs come first. The visuals last.” It’s how he created the Charlie’s Angels movies. Apparently the entire first film evolved out of the Cameron Diaz dance sequence with Tavares’ “Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel”. I leave it to the reader to decide whether this technique was a fail or a win. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTFUO1jFIjI
As with other aspects of the faltering music business, the soundtrack industry fueled by companies who now own both the studios that make the films and the record labels that provide the music have produced less than a dozen truly memorable ‘hit’ related soundtracks since the ‘90s that have stuck to the roof of our collective, ADD riddled, psyches. I took a straw poll on Facebook this week and came up with the previously mentioned Rushmore plus Singles (Grunge’s answer to The Big Chill), Garden State, Almost Famous, Dazed & Confused, Eurotrip, Mallrats, Wedding Singer, So I Married An Axe Murderer, The Bodyguard (which was given a half-life after the passing of Whitney Houston this year), Repoman, and The Piano. Some underrated soundtracks that I’ve noted also include both of Tarantino’s Kill Bills (Tomoyasu Hotei’s “Battle Without Honour or Humanity” has now gained pop culture ubiquity), Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Reservoir Dogs (tell me you can listen to “Stuck In The Middle With You” the same way again), Hans Zimmer’s Inception, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and believe it or not the fifth Fast & Furious movie.
What attracts us to soundtracks is as varied as the soundtracks themselves. Below is a user guide to what type of soundtrack you might find yourself grooving to:
Traditionally movie makers hired a team of songwriters to craft specific tunes tailor-made to be sung by the stars of the film like Sound of Music and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ comes immediately to mind as one of the earliest memorable soundtracks. Judy Garland’s plaintive “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” becoming as famous as her. The late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole would launch a new trend in Ukelele Pop when his remake appeared not once, but twice, in the television show ‘Scrubs’. http://youtu.be/V1bFr2SWP1I
Disney continues the tradition by writing original musical scripts and hiring committees of songwriters to crank out vehicles by Lindsay Lohan, Hilary Duff, Zack Ephron, Corbin Blue, Selena Gomez, Raven Simone and Demi Lovato among others. High School Musical has become the company’s biggest franchise all time (three films/soundtracks so far) and has made Toronto songwriter Matthew Gerrard very rich as his name graces the albums as co-writer and music supervisor.
Then, poor Elvis Presley left the army to not only be crushed on the charts by the invading British Invasion but to become a shill for his own album soundtracks in 31 cheaply made, predictably plotted big screen vehicles like Love Me Tender, G.I. Blues, Roustabout, Harum Scarum, Fun In Acapulco, Viva Las Vegas, King Creole and the laudable Blue Hawaii (where he subjected us to such degrading musical pap as “Rock-A-Hula Baby”, “Island of Love” and “Ku-U-I-Po”). It was also nominated for a Grammy Award so what the hell do I know? The Beatles, of course, decided that the Elvis gig looked like fun and cranked out two back-to-back giggle-fests with A Hard Day’s Night and Help! which yielded smash hit soundtracks. Leave it to McCartney, then, to take it all too seriously and cobble together the Faust meets Dali clusterfuck known as Magical Mystery Tour with, thankfully, a career-saving soundtrack. The 1968 animated acid-trip Yellow Submarine was The Beatles’ first true soundtrack film as they didn’t star in it but contributed new songs alongside several of their previously released hits amongst orchestrated re-workings by George Martin. Let It Be, by contrast, was not a musical but a documentary featuring concert and rehearsal footage that failed as a movie and as an album soundtrack. The Rolling Stones would excel at the genre for more than 30 years releasing concert movies (including the tragic Altamont concert) and leading the charge for other big name artists to follow like U2 with Rattle & Hum – which was an inspiring look at the band on tour but only half-a-great soundtrack album. The most successfully rendered of these was Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz featuring the final performances by The Band and their group of friends and hangers-on.
Musical documentaries are in and of themselves filled with bloated pretense so it came as no surprise that Monty Python’s brain trust would back a hilarious and musically clever skewering of the Beatles story in The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. With the new ‘mockumentary’ genre wide open actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer upped the ante by creating a fictitious amalgam of every bloated heavy metal band (and their inherent clichés) in the often quoted This Is Spinal Tap. It didn’t hurt that all three actors are gifted musicians as well bringing not only an authenticity to their on screen performances but the novelty-like soundtrack as well. The trio would also do the same for folk music in the grossly under-appreciated A Mighty Wind many years later. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N63XSUpe-0o
Fake bands and fake artists have also become hot screen/soundtrack properties with That Thing You Do (a Tom Hanks directed movie featuring several songs written by Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger), Almost Famous, Dream Girls (the fictitious retelling of The Supremes story with Jennifer Hudson), Still Crazy, Idolmaker, Eddie & The Cruisers, The Commitments and Hard Core Logo.
The most successful big screen musicals have always been those based on stage plays from West Side Story (which parodied on Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’ album) to Oklahoma to South Pacific and beyond. They not only made name stars out of green actors (many reviving their roles from Broadway) but the songwriters as well. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that music label executive Robert Stigwood – on the back of the record setting soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever – revived the genre to its former glory with a little Broadway musical called Grease. Stigwood didn’t just use the original stage songs by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey but hired some of the industry’s best songwriters to augment the soundtrack. With Olivia Newton-John as the movie’s musical star her producer, John Farrar, supplied “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and the massive hit “You’re The One That I Want” sung with co-star John Travolta. For good measure Stigwood also included Barry Gibb’s title track performed by Frankie Valli (high on a career comeback as a solo artist and with The Four Seasons). Other stage plays also made the transition with varying degrees of success – Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Abba’s Mama Mia, Hairspray (which was a play that became a John Waters film that was remade and is now a play again) and coming soon – Rock of Ages starring Tom Cruise as a 30 something long-haired Axel Rose-like lead singer [shudder].
The Who would take the whole idea in another direction by snubbing Broadway (or more accurately, being snubbed BY Broadway) and optioning Pete Townsend’s full concept albums like Tommy and Quadrophenia – where the songs told the story – directly to the big screen. Pink Floyd would revive the idea in the early ‘80s with The Wall. Something similar has been done on two occasions with Beatles songs with the embarrassing third Robert Stigwood musical Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (where the songs were great and the Bee Gees’ acting oh, so bad), and the most recent Across The Universe.
THE NEEDLE DROP
The most popular of all movie soundtracks is what’s known as ‘the needle drop’. It’s the equivalent to a jukebox or mixtape (as McG prefers) featuring pre-existing songs used to evoke mood and accentuate plot points.
In the 1960s studios were still leaving composers in charge of music scores and an orphan pop song would be thrown in to the mix as a means to gain attention through radio – where the movies would also be advertised. Classic examples include Lulu’s “To Sir With Love” from the movie of the same name, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” from The Graduate, and B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” from Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. Alas, the pop music fan base these songs were geared to weren’t buying movie soundtracks.
George Lucas, of call people, changed all that by playing the nostalgia card in a movie that featured nothing but the hits – American Graffiti. The formula would be repeated with All This And World War Two (which set Beatles songs against WWII newsreel footage), The Big Chill and Diner. The flip side was the more risky new music gamble that mines songs from artists who’ve either recently had hits or provides an exclusive new tune in hopes that it will become a hit (a practice that nearly killed the movie soundtrack business when the Springsteens and Madonnas were tossing their worst outtakes into the mix as nothing but name-brand filler). Aside from the record breaking one-offs like Heavy Metal, Against All Odds, 9 ½ Weeks, St. Elmo’s Fire, the Bee Gees fueled Saturday Night Fever and Whitney Houston’s career making The Bodyguard , the undisputed champ for the needle drop was teen-angst director John Hughes in the 1980s. As a monster music fan, his soundtracks were usually as big as the movies they were extracted from: Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science, Sixteen Candles, and Some Kind of Wonderful. Bands like Simple Minds, Echo & The Bunnymen, Psychedelic Furs and Yello owe part of their musical success to having been brought to a wider audience as part of Hughes’ movies. It was also the last time an actual Beatles recording was used in a major motion picture (Ferris Bueller’s ‘Twist & Shout’ scene). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0af1bEGkxoA&feature=youtu.be
THE MUSIC SCORE
Some of the most riveting and haunting movies have no pop music in them at all; merely incidental music scores by some of the most unrecognized conductors and musicians in the world. Many would be hard pressed to cross reference the names Elmer Bernstein even if they’d seen The Great Escape, The Ten Commandments, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Magnificent Seven or even Ghostbusters. Similarly, Jerry Goldsmith with Planet of the Apes, Alien, Chinatown, Poltergeist and five Star Trek films. Ennio Morricone started out scoring spaghetti westerns for Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, The Good The Bad & The Ugly, and For A Few Dollars More) before becoming one of Hollywood’s most respected modern film score creators for his work on Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Mission, The Thing and The Untouchables. When Quentin Tarantino couldn’t get Morricone for Kill Bill he paid for samples of music from Morricone’s previous films. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuyQQD-EAOQ
Of course, the flipside of this is the now reviled factory pressed soundtracks by John Williams – elevator music for the soundtrack impaired. He brought us the memorable Superman theme that defined Christopher Reeves’ film presence and his early work with Steven Speilberg started on the universally recognized Jaws theme, Close Encounters and E.T. But aside from the rousing Indiana Jones signature theme his work with George Lucas paled in comparison. The initial Star Wars soundtrack was orchestrated gold in 1977 but Lucas had him mine the same thematic sounds for another FIVE flims. My son owns the soundtracks and Darth Vader’s procession music is the basis for every mood altering passage – nearly seven hours worth. It makes the listener long for an anal probing by Ewoks.
Rock musicians would also take a stab at it with Ry Cooder (Crossroads), Robbie Robertson (Color of Money, Carnie) and, most famously, Pink Floyd (Obscured by Clouds, Zabriskie Point, More)
My personal favourite music score is by John Debney (son of Disney producer Louis Debney) with Passion of the Christ. I’ve never seen the movie but Debney conducted a 20 minute suite, live, with all the original performers from the soundtrack at that Music Supervisor’s conference I attended in 2004. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Debney also scored ‘hipster’ points with me when he formed a rocking mariachi band with director Robert Rodriguez for the movie soundtrack to Machete. Proving that music scores aren’t always created by stuffed shirts.
Hats off to Music Supervisors everywhere for the near impossible task of creating musical menus to please executives and audiences alike. More so for the ones working in Canada where pickings are slimmer. Unsung heroes like director Bruce McDonald (Roadkill, Highway 61), Ron Proulx, Amy Fritz and Velma Barkwell (who put together the awesome Trailer Park Boys big screen soundtrack) are keeping us competitive!
PS – I control the rights to over 400 songs in my Bullseye Records catalog. Feel free to talk to me about using any of them for your next film! J
Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. Vernon is also the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia http://www.bullseyecanada.com/encyclopedia.html