I read a story once and never forgot it. A young Frank Zappa brought a Beach Boys album to his music teacher in grade school and asked a question: Why do I like this so much?
I find it fascinating that we can learn a great deal about how music works, analyze a song from every angle, understand and express it in complex terms, and yet our fundamental relationship to music is still kinesthetic. It’s still about how it makes you feel. I recall a fellow student warning me my freshman year at school that the study of music would take away the magic, that I would never experience it the same way again.That never happened to me. It doesn’t matter how closely I study the technical aspects of music, how fine my examination of the individual parts, how precise the rendering of harmony, intervals, the mathematic relationships that define rhythm; I never find the man behind the curtain.
So, weren’t we talking about cinema, and the use of music and sound? I find some directors are exquisitely gifted visually, but should leave the musical choices to someone else. Some, however, have a real ear for music and can combine the two beautifully. In Henry’s first scene as a grownup in Good Fellas, Martin Scorsese used a version of the song “Stardust”, with Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci leaning up against a car, the crooning lyrics, “Sometimes… I wonder…”I have watched that movie so many times I wouldn’t even want to try and estimate the number, but this scene still resonates. In another, Mr. Scorsese juxtaposes violence with a serene melody by Donovan called “Atlantis.” He plays that chorus again and again, “Way down… below the ocean…”, while Pesci and De Niro viciously attack the character Billy Batts. The violence is not pretty, but the song is, and that contrast is pure Scorcese. There's something about Martin’s work that tells me I would love to have him in my audience on a blues gig. Of course anyone would; that’s no surprise, but that guy in particular because he seems uniquely passionate about music.
Do you know the film Risky Business? That movie uses music brilliantly, and the opening titles may be the best example. Tangerine Dream’s moody, atmospheric theme blends so seamlessly with the rhythmic clatter of Chicago’s elevated train it is as if they were made for each other. Also extremely evocative, seamless and satisfying is Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” layered over the entrance of beautiful call girls and well scrubbed high school kids into the Goodsons’ home. It’s a sublime choice that works on a number of levels. First, the genuine, raw sexuality of the music is perfect for the scene. It’s also funny: Joel and his friends aren’t what we would normally picture when we hear Muddy Waters’ music. But it works. I feel it also speaks to Joel’s transformation from a boy to a man, later symbolized in his mother’s broken crystal egg. Talking Heads’ “Swamp” fits into that scene brilliantly, too.
Also exquisite is the Jeff Beck piece our filmmaker chooses when Joel and his friend Barry (played brilliantly by Bronson Pinchot; I loved him in this movie) first take Dad’s Porsche out for a ride on the town. Who made these choices!? Was it writer and first time director Paul Brickman? He should win an award for his musical discretion, and for the atmosphere and stylishness of this film.
On top of all that, Tangerine Dream’s original scoring for the picture is arguably their best. Every time I watch this movie I’m struck by how right on Brickman’s choices are, from the casting to the music to the style playing out, first frame to the last. He never overdoes it. I wondered what critics had to say, and looked it up. Would they like it as much as I did? I found some high praise. Roger Ebert stated the film not only invited comparison with The Graduate, it earned it. Interestingly, I also found this in Ebert’s review: “Paul Brickman, who wrote and directed, has an ear so good that he knows what to leave out.”Exactly! That’s what I’ve been saying.
There are a number of positive reviews at rottentomatoes, but for some reason this one from variety.com is first:
High schooler Tom Cruise could literally be a next-door neighbor to Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People on Chicago’s affluent suburban North Shore. That changes virtually overnight, however, when he meets sharp-looking hooker Rebecca DeMornay. On the lam from her slimy pimp, she shacks up in Cruise’s splendid home while his parents are out of town and, since he’s anxious to prove himself as a Future Enterpriser in one of his school’s more blatantly greed-oriented programs, convinces him to make the house into a bordello for one night.
Ultimately, pic seems to endorse the bottom line, going for the big buck. In fact, not only is Cruise rewarded financially for setting up the best little whorehouse in Glencoe, but it gets him into Princeton to boot. Writer-director Paul Brickman can therefore be accused of trying to have it both ways, but there’s no denying the stylishness and talent of his direction.
Is Brickman trying to have it both ways? I didn’t get that. Joel notes early on that his friends seem only interested in money, and show a failure of interest in helping others. I think Joel is different. Lana’s ability to manipulate him, for example, though certainly based on her sex appeal, street smarts and leveraged on Joel’s naivete, also comes out of his empathy for her and her friend. Joel’s acquiescence and success in providing said service for his wealthy friends, as well as a Princeton admissions officer, seems to me more the coming of age in a corrupt society than an affront to altruism.
All of this playing out over Muddy’s Mannish Boy. This is good filmmaking. But wait, did I get off on a tangent about movies and lose the thread of music? Well, hopefully you liked what you heard.
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What Does God Sound Like? part one