Soundtracks Series: Vol. 11

JV’s Personal Favorites from the 1990s and 2000s

Soundtracks Series: Vol. 11

1. Bernstein: The Grifters. Varèse Sarabande. Elmer Bernstein—also known as “Bernstein West” to distinguish him from Leonard Bernstein (“Bernstein East”)—wrote any number of great scores for any number of great movies (The Magnificent Seven, Sweet Smell of Success, The Great Escape, Walk on the Wild Side, etc.). This late gem, composed for Stephen Frears’ superb adaptation of “Big” Jim Thompson’s serio-comic novel about the games con men and women play on their marks (and on each other), with an unexpected moment of genuine tragedy at its finish, ranks high among them. Wonderfully orchestrated, the score—like the movie itself—is at once breezy, coy, and sinister. Its terrific opening-and-closing title theme—which builds through pounding piano and string ostinatos and thrilling brass accents to a long-delayed, near-sexual climax—encapsulates the pulse and perversity of this perverse little film, which, among other taboos, toys with mother/‌son incest.

2. Various Artists: Goodfellas. Atlantic. The rage for “play list” film scores may not have begun with this greatest of all Martin Scorsese “wise guy” movies, but it certainly reached its first peak in this superb compilation score. Though Chris Brook is credited as Goodfellas’ music editor, he is on record as saying, “Marty once told me that he knew what all of the songs were going to be three years before he shot the film. There was no music supervisor. Marty [was] the music supervisor.” Certain tracks—like Tony Bennett’s “Rag to Riches” during the sensational opening sequence (“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster”), and the Rolling Stones’ “Monkey Man” and Harry Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire” timed to Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta’s) frantic last day of freedom—seem so “right” they might’ve been written for the movie.

3. Various Artists: Reservoir Dogs. Geffen. Like Scorsese’s compilation scores, Quentin Tarantino’s are uniformly memorable. I’ve picked this one—rather than Tarantino’s more celebrated compilations for Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown or Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (love those 5, 6, 7, 8s)—because it contains an unforgettable instance of how a pop song works to complicate the tone of a critical scene. Those of you familiar with the movie—and I would imagine that would be most of you—know exactly which scene I’m talking about. After Reservoir Dogs, who can think of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” without also thinking of Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) shimmy-shaking his way toward poor, doomed, earless Marvin? The song not only makes a perversely funny comment on the scene and the character, it makes for a perfect instance of how Tarantino works—yoking together opposites (sadistic psychopathic violence and bouncy bubblegum pop) to create his own comic book version of metaphysical poetry.

4. Chopin: The Pianist. Sony Classical. Though critics and viewers alike seemed to want to believe that The Pianist was an uplifting message movie about the triumph of the human spirit—that it was its protagonist, the celebrated Polish-Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman’s devotion to art, to his music and musicianship, that kept him going through his six years of terrible suffering, constant fear, and utter privation—they could not have been more profoundly wrong. Szpilman survived not because of the way he valued his art but because of the way that other people valued it. He survived solely because he was lucky enough to have been blessed by God with a talent that the world found precious, while the remainder of his little family, along with millions of others, ended up in boxcars bound for Treblinka because none of them were so blessed. Quite the coolest and darkest Holocaust film ever made, The Pianist is equally and unsettlingly about the injustice and ordeal of murder and the injustice and ordeal of survival. One is left not in tears, but in awed perplexity over a world in which chance and accident play as much of a role in man’s fate as love and courage, over a providence in which one man’s survival is as inexplicable and incommensurable as another’s murder. The music, most of it by Frédéric Chopin (performed by Polish pianist Janusz Olejniczak, who also doubled for Adrien Brody in performance scenes), runs like a stream of light through the Nazi night—and indeed literally saves Szpilman’s life, when near dead from starvation and exposure he somehow manages to perform a ballade for a Chopin-loving SS officer, who shows pity because he is moved by Szpilman’s talent, the beauty of the piece, and the lost world of civility that both evoke.

5. Greenwood: There Will Be Blood. Nonesuch. While director P.T. Anderson’s adaption of Sinclair Lewis’ socialist novel Oil may start like Tamburlaine and end like Ten Nights in a Bar Room, the film remains highly memorable for three things: Daniel Day-Lewis’ Academy Award-winning performance as the film’s Marlovian protagonist Daniel Plainview, Robert Elswit’s gorgeous color cinematography, and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s superb Penderecki-like score. Though it didn’t qualify for the Academy Award everyone thought it would win because of its use of “pre-existing materials” (including Greenwood’s own orchestral composition Popcorn Superhet Receiver and, quite memorably, the third movement of Brahms’ Violin Concerto), Greenwood’s film music was one of several great scores written by veteran rock musicians in 2007. (The wordless, beautifully photographed and edited, Von Stroheim-like opening sequence alone would not be as indelibly memorable as it is without Greenwood’s swirling cyclone of strings.)

6. Cave, Ellis: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. BMG/‌Mute. This mournful, measured, beautiful neo-Western was the best movie I saw in 2007 and, in my opinion, one of the three or four best films of the new millennium. That said, it was not everyone’s cup of tea. First of all, it is very long (nearly three hours). Second, it is not a traditional shoot-’em-up, driven by a “good guy versus bad guy” (or “bad guy versus worse guy”) plot. Third, save for the Blue Cut robbery it doesn’t have extended action sequences, though it does have several moments of shockingly realistic gunplay. And fourth, while scrupulously depicting the last few months of Jesse James’ life—from the James gang’s final train robbery at Blue Cut, Missouri, in September 1881 to the morning of April 3, 1882, when 20-year-old Robert Ford put a .44 caliber bullet through the back of the outlaw’s head—it isn’t only about America’s most famous bandit and one of America’s most notorious assassins. It is also about how history comes down to us in legend and the far less tidy, far more complicated way it unfolds in life. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another film about the distance between the way things actually were and the way we would like for them to have been, newspaper editor Maxwell Scott famously tells Ransom Stoddard: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The Assassination of Jesse James prints both, and it does so with such freshness and acuity that it manages to bring the past to life while still preserving its distance and mystery. The film wouldn’t cast the same spell were it not for director Andrew Dominik’s script (which wisely lifts entire passages from Ron Hansen’s beautifully written novel for the narration), Roger Deakins’ superb cinematography, and Bad Seed rockers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ elegiac score. As with Hansen’s words and Deakins’ images, the music’s slow, spare, forlorn melodies (mostly played on harmonium, piano, fiddle, and bass) are used to exquisite effect to reinforce an exquisite point: that even in the past, time passes sadly and inexorably, and with its passage come reckonings and judgments and, then, history.

7. Shore: Eastern Promises. Sony Classical. Though Howard Shore’s heroic themes for The Lord of the Rings trilogy make virtually everyone’s ten best list, it is his wistful score for David Cronenberg’s superb film about the vor v zakone (the Russian mafia) in present-day London that has stuck with me. Despite its brutality—and, believe me, it is pervasive and memorable—Eastern Promises is also about redemption, and Shore’s neo-Slavic melodies, with their tinge of Russian melancholy, courage, and resignation, manage to capture both. The glimmer of bliss at the film’s close wouldn’t be as touching, or the sense of damnation as sad, without Shore’s haunting music.

8. Desplat, Britten: Moonrise Kingdom. ABKCO. This sprightly, whimsical score is as much the work of Benjamin Britten as it is the great French composer Alexandre Desplat. Britten’s famously delightful fugue and allegro from Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34 (accompanied during the end titles by a delightful fugue and allegro of Desplat’s own creation), the “Playful Pizzicato” from Britten’s Simple Symphony, and charming bits and pieces of his Noye’s Fludde (followed by an actual flood at the movie’s climax) help turn Moonrise Kingdom into moonlit variations on the theme of how grownups and children alike cope with the sweetly comic trials and triumphs of being young, different, and in love.