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Mainstreamers Become Soundtrackers

As much as the dead silent stretches generate an unnerving sense of foreboding tension in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film There Will Be Blood (which, if you haven’t seen it yet, seriously, whose milkshake are you drinking?), so too do the exquisitely dissonant string arrangements of the accompanying score. Turns out that perfectly accommodating music was composed by Radiohead’s stunt guitarist and wunderkind-at-large, Jonny Greenwood. As the BBC’s resident composer since 2004, Greenwood wrote a commissioned orchestral piece called Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which was performed for a small, lucky group here in New York just last week. Parts of that piece were cribbed for Anderson’s film, including the following track, which only gives a small taste of the dark ambitions at work on screen.

» Listen to “There Will Be Blood”

It got me to thinking, though, about all the pop/mainstream musicians who have gone on to score films or produce their soundtracks. I can make nothing like a complete list in this limited format, and I’ll be forced to ignore more famous examples of the domain like Simon & Garfunkel’s iconic soundtrack for The Graduate, or lifetime achievers like Mark Mothersbaugh and Danny Elfman (of Devo and Oingo Boingo, respectively). We can still have fun with this, though. Trust me.

One of the better music-themed movies I’ve seen was last year’s Once, an independent Irish film about a vacuum-repairman-cum-busker (Glen Hansard of the Frames) trying to make something of himself and the flower girl (Marketa Irglova in her first role at age 17) he talks into helping him record and write music. The film is thin on plot and would be total blarney if it weren’t for the fact that the songs are good. Like, really good. And, they were all written by Hansard and Irglova, who happen to be a couple in real life, who are very good looking and talented and artistically inspire each other. I know, it’s disgusting.

Also, as of yesterday, the song “Falling Slowly” is nominated for an Oscar.

» Listen to “Falling Slowly”
» Listen to “When Your Mind’s Made Up”

Speaking of disgustingly talented power couples who score films, one can’t help but think of Aimee Mann and Michael Penn. In the process of developing critically acclaimed careers as singer-songwriters, they became muses for none other than Paul Thomas Anderson. At Anderson’s pleading behest, Penn scored his first two films, Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, with the assistance of Jon Brion. Anderson claims to have written his third film, Magnolia around Aimee Mann’s songs, several of which she agreed to contribute or write specifically for the film, also scored by Penn and Brion. The first here is a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “One.” The second is “Wise Up,” the song soberly sung by all the characters in a montage toward the end of the film, which, I might add, is just the kind of precious meta-theatricality that very nearly ruined the movie for me. However, out of context here, it really is something beautiful.

» Listen to “One”
» Listen to “Wise Up”

While I’m on the subject, another lifetime achievement award goes to Harry Nilsson, whose songs have been used ubiquitously in TV and film since he began recording and for years after his death in 1994. My favorite piece of work by Nilsson, however, is The Point!, a cartoon that premiered in 1971 and for which he wrote both the story and all the music. Of the development of the story, Nilsson said, “I was on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to points.” My mother introduced me to the film as a child, so I guess I can blame her for everything that followed.

» Listen to “Everything’s Got ’Em”
» Listen to “Me and My Arrow”

A year after The Point! was invading American homes with its sweetly disguised drug references, Superfly arrived in theaters with a much harsher vision of drug culture and urban life. More important and memorable than the film itself is its soundtrack, a collection of funky soul and R&B tracks written and performed by Curtis Mayfield. While Isaac Hayes’s score to Shaft is an obvious predecessor and well-loved for its own merits, it rings of camp and the “blaxploitation” label. The soundtrack to Superfly cemented Mayfield’s vaunted position in music history and introduced some of the most socially conscious party music ever.

» Listen to “Freddie’s Dead”
» Listen to “Pusherman”

Updating accordingly, the modern urban soundscape, both in hip-hop studios and hip-hop-friendly film has been dominated by Wu-Tang beat-master, guru, and Brooklyn native the RZA. Assuming “dictatorial control” over the Clan at its inception, he is the member most responsible for their incredible successes, in addition to producing every album up to Wu-Tang Forever and many members’ myriad side-projects. Later, he moved to film scoring with equal decisiveness, compiling soundtracks and producing music for Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, a modern update of Jean-Pierre Melville’s meditative 1967 Le Samourai, as well as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. The first track here is a bit of Eastern-influenced background music under Forest Whitaker’s recitation of a samurai maxim. The second is an instrumental selection from Kill Bill: Vol. 1 teaming the RZA with Charles Bernstein. It’s all good.

» Listen to “Samurai Code Quote No. 5”
» Listen to “Crane/White Lightning”

My wild card entry to wrap up this Digest, then, is the following entry from the soundtrack to David Lynch’s awesome failure of sci-fi interpretation, that of Frank Herbert’s Dune. The soundtrack was composed and performed by Toto, whose most important contribution to rock history until that point was that incoherent song about Africa. Curiously, the soundtrack was produced by Brian “I’ve arguably had more influence on pop music in the last 30 years than the Beatles” Eno, which, like Lynch’s muddled epic, goes a long way toward explaining why, even though it sucks, it’s still pretty cool.

» Listen to “Main Title”


TMN Editor Erik Bryan is living the dream. He grew up in Florida, but he’s from all over. He likes playing chess, making cocktails, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan

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