Ooo! More music!
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_September 2007 _

It’s a pity the Music from the Movies series didn’t go further in its apparent mandate to introduce movie fans to the maestros of Hollywood’s Golden and Silver ages, but after being unavailable for more than 10 years, Kultur has released the first of the four titles produced between 1992 and 1995.

The Hollywood Sound (1995), co-produced by PBS, was actually the last in the quartet to examine film music and its integral relationship in supporting, shaping, and refining the dramatic elements of movies, and director Joshua Waletzky chose to use primarily the works of David Raksin (Laura), Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind, The Informer, Johnny Belinda), Eric Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood), Alfred Newman (The Song of Bernadette, How Green Was My Valley, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), Franz Waxman (The Bride of Frankenstein), and Dimitri Tiomkin (Red River) to chronicle the evolution of film music, from the early silents to the mid-fifties.

Designed as an intro to the art form for novices and film fans, director Waletzky filmed the recording sessions of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales as they performed extracts from famous themes and lesser known (if not previously unavailable) cues under the baton of John Mauceri, who also plays host and interviewer in some intriguing Q&As with Raksin, the little-seen Fred Steiner, and cellist Eleanor Aller Slatkin, who provides a wonderful anecdote of being known for performing solos that made grumpy, sexist males cry during the scoring sessions.

Raksin’s oft-told story of how he created the famous Laura theme is presented is less clinical fashion here (and is more interesting than his sadly spotty commentary track on the Fox DVD), and it’s a delight to see the composer’s elegant jazz roots emerge as he plays on piano melodic bars from famous themes to illustrate some of the stylistic shifts in film music.

Waletzky’s film has been criticized by more ardent film music fans as being too broad, but it does maintain a solid, and certainly measured, narrative: moments from the recording sessions with the BBC orchestra are intercut with composer interviews or experts describing the qualities that made the music selections so important; other interviews are used as historical flashbacks; film clips with dropped dialogue tracks are played back with the newly recorded music; and Raksin’s scenes also function as the doc’s anchor points, since he’s the only living legend present at the recording sessions.

Score cues are played almost in full so we can follow their dramatic resolution – something absent in most DVD scoring featurettes – and the interview materials haven’t been edited down to familiar sound-bites, a problem that often renders featurettes into facile 5 minute filler material for DVDs.

Mauceri, Fred Steiner, scholar David Neumeyer, and music editor Milton Lustig also cover the evolution of film scoring practices and technology – namely the click track – which is detailed in a sequence where Raksin claps his hands like a click track, while the newly recorded cue is played against a scratch print of Laura, bearing some of the timing marks conductors use to signal time signature changes, tempo shifts, and cue lengths.

The whole process of marking a print, each notation’s meaning, and how conductors had to skillfully motivate the musicians during a recording session are also examined, and while director Waletzky may not have intended it this way, the doc has become a detailed yet accessible snapshot of original practices that have been somewhat upgraded, if not reduced, by the fusion of digital technology; conductors still guide musicians through a cue, but flaws can be corrected or cues tweaked once they’ve been dumped onto a hard drive.

As the doc winds towards its conclusion, Waletzky lets Mauceri also discuss the romantic, emotional style of Steiner, Korngold, and particularly Newman, which eventually fell into a state of prolonged disapproval because it was deemed far too old-fashioned and sappy.

Waletzky makes it clear these pioneers were trained if not influenced by the great classical composers, and since the doc’s release in 1995, current composer interviewed for online and print publications have occasionally revealed how they were attracted to the sounds of the old film score masters; so while rhapsodic orchestral melodrama may not be the style of today, we know the impact of Golden and Silver composers continues, alongside the influences of more contemporary composers, popular music and technology – proving the relevance of their work, and how their prolific output continues to fascinate new film composers.

In the next column we’ll examine the three remaining hour-long docs in this series, also released by Kultur, which address the work of Bernard Herrmann (1992), Toru Takemitsu (1994), and Georges Delerue (1995).

The omission of Herrmann and colleagues such as Miklos Rozsa, Hugo Friedhofer, and many more from The Hollywood Sound was most likely due to Waletzky’s awareness that too many names and music samples would’ve cluttered the 85 min. narrative and repeated points.

The series producers may also have intended to examine some of these composers in separate docs which sadly never went into production, so fans should temper their frustration in not seeing their favourite Hollywood composer showcased. Waletzky and Mauceri manage to hit all the major marks, making their dissection of the Hollywood sound and practices applicable to the many B-movie composers who were themselves classically trained, or wanted to become film composers after spending chunks of their youth listening to the music of their peers in cinemas.


Mark R. Hasan (2007)

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