|_December 2007 _|
“When music and picture works at its greatest, there’s nothing to match. Dialogue – forget it! It’s music and pictures, and God bless you, Georges Delerue, for giving us directors a helping hand!”
When the inimitable Ken Russell raises his fists in a triumphant declamation, uttering those words in Jean-Louis Comolli’s tribute documentary Music for the Movies: Georges Delerue, the third of four film music docs released by Kultur on DVD, he pretty much nails it on the head as to why the relationship between director and composer can be so riveting.
Russell, much like some of the picture and sound editors interviewed in the doc, succinctly explains how it’s the composer who ultimately gives new life to a film after months of post-production work. Cues soften sore spots, polish clumsy scene transitions, balance uneven bits of acting, and define ambiguously staged subtext – basically ‘saving’ a scene or picture, or at least making the director feel confident the years of work have resulted in a movie that isn’t the disaster he/she believed it was becoming during bouts of increasing insecurity.
Russell knew that Delerue’s music for the nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in Women in Love (1969) would further stress the tension between the embattled characters, and though Delerue’s Fugue was dropped from the scene, Russell used the Prelude to great impact. Purists might argue the repositioning of the cue ran contrary to the composer’s intentions, and Delerue’s reaction to the move isn’t detailed by Russell, but the director’s effusively described anecdote demonstrates the immense regard he has for a composer who revivified a scene, and transformed it into a career highpoint.
Delerue’s passing in 1992 before the doc’s production and release three years later meant director Comolli was restricted to a handful or rare TV and film interviews, some of which are interwoven in a narrative style that mimics the French New Wave of the sixties during which Delerue came into his own, and captured the hearts of filmmakers, as well as audiences.
In place of lengthy film clips, Comolli alternates between short extracts and film stills, the latter often moved across the frame by a visible hand and set to the corresponding film cues, thereby stressing the music over our pre-existing fondness for classic scenes, iconic actors, and unique visuals. It may also have been an economical strategy in referencing works with higher rights payments, but stylistically, the ploy works, and it allows Comolli to present the spirit of the composer rather than a glossy, fawning, biographical portrait.
With Delerue’s longtime collaborator, director Francois Truffaut, no longer alive, Comolli interviewed some of the director’s former editors and associates to illustrate the understanding that led to one of the longest and most prolific composer-director collaborations in film history; Delerue knew what Truffaut liked – strong melodies, sparse score, and music that wasn’t afraid to pull at the audience’s emotions – and the director trusted the composer’s instincts implicitly.
Comolli also interviews the editor on John Huston’s To Walk with Love and Death (1969) in place of the late director who passed away in 1987, and has the editor observing film clips, and commenting on the music cues written for Huston’s Medieval misfire that nevertheless inspired the composer to write another typically beautiful tragic-romantic theme.
It’s a shame there weren’t any surviving comments from Huston, a director who, like Jean-Luc Godard, worked with several uniquely distinct composers during his middle and later career phases. Comolli references Delerue’s score for Godard’s Le Mepris / Contempt), but it’s more of a footnote designed to position the composer as an artist capable of meeting the stylistic demands of the rebellious Godard, and the introspective Truffaut; basically a composer for all directors, one could say, particularly when one glances at Delerue’s North American projects with directors as diverse as Ivan Reitman, James Toback, John Frankenheimer, John Hughes, and Mike Nichols.
Appearing at the doc’s beginning is Oliver Stone, who briefly explains the kind of score he needed for Salvador (1985), using the film’s opening cathedral scene as an example: soothing liturgical music is designed to calm the audience into a state of calm before assassins spill the first drop of blood, and the congregation flees for their lives into a street filled with soldiers, wounded citizens, and a band of shell-shocked photojournalists.
It’s a pivotal intro to the composer because Stone admits to wanting Delerue for his lush, empathetic melodies and knack for jarring underscore for a film meant to evoke the gritty, location-heavy films of the French New Wave from the sixties, and perhaps like John Williams being asked by Steven Spielberg to evoke the flavor of his fluffy sixties jazz scores for Catch Me If You Can, Delerue admirably crafted music that bridged the style of his past, and the demands of a contemporary, profane, satirical drama.
Comolli uses Ken Russell as the doc’s anchor, as he offers the most affectionate and personable recollections of a composer he came to know through a very unusual project, the 1966 BBC spoof-doc, Don’t Shoot the Composer.
Struck with the power of Delerue’s low-key score and memorable songs in Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Russell made a satire of the inventive composer docs and bio-dramas that established his own career, placing Delerue as the subject, and intercutting three stylized strands: a fast-motion, silent pantomime; the composer performing his work on piano for the fake news crew; and scenes set to Delerue’s finished score.
Unlike the prior Bernard Herrmann or Hollywood Sound docs in this 4-part series, there’s less of an effort to explain what exactly set Delerue apart from his contemporaries, done in the aforementioned primarily through interviews with film music historians and fellow composers; that creative decision by Comolli makes this doc less technical, but it also renders the film into an impressionist tribute; not knowing what made Delerue tick, nor providing some factual background material beyond a short statement from Delerue himself on his years as a former piano player in local bars reduces the doc’s reference value. Comolli’s less rigid structure makes this entry the weakest of the lot, but it does provide an adequate intro to Delerue, and includes some rare interview clips which have the composer briefly reflecting on his busy career as one of France’s most prolific and bellowed composers.
Next up: the final DVD in the Music for the Movies documentary quartet, showcasing Toru Takemitsu.
Other new film music to DVD: between the months of October and November, there’s been a another drought among composer commentaries and isolated scores, but fans of Nico Fidenco’s throbbing sexploitation grooves will be happy to know Severin’s follow-up boxed set, Black Emanuelle Vol. 2, contains its own sampler CD, with more music from the knock-off erotica series that starred Laura Gemser.
For some of the MGM/UA titles distributed by Fox in the U.S. and Canada, a select few have been reissued and re-branded as part of the Decades Collection, which come with a cardboard O-sleeve, and a bonus CD featuring up to 7 or 8 tracks of popular songs from the era. It’s just another clever/insidious attempt to get old product more shelf space on the new release shelves in stores, and while some might enjoy the extra music content, the same CD – basically a new way for the label to reinvigorate an aging, dusty catalogue of nostalgia - appears in the repackaged titles specific to each decade, and do not include any extracts from each film’s soundtrack.
Ergo, Twelve Angry Men comes with pop ditties culled from Time Life fifties catalogue, and Mad Max is paired with a CD of disco music. The producers of this series failed to notice that Mad Max is set in a post-apocalyptic world where disco music does not play any role in the lives of the characters nor their violent culture, making the Decades Collection slogan, “The Movie Music and Moments That Defined the Decade” quite inane; Brian May’s dissonant movie music may not have defined the decade, but it sure encapsulated and supported the director’s vision of a world filled with murderous rogues trawling the highways for further mayhem – a world unlikely shaped in the minds of the film’s writers and director by disco ditties.
Mark R. Hasan (2007)
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