One Night of Love (1934)

June 30, 2008

In 2006, a great deal of press surrounded the Metropolitan Opera’s decision to show live performances at the movies. But as long as there has been sound in film, opera stars have tried to have the best of both worlds.

In the early years of talkies, the musical romance One Night of Love showcased the vocal talents of Metropolitan Opera star, Grace Moore, as Mary Barrett, a young soprano who moves to Italy to study opera. Noted vocal teacher Guilo Monteverdi (Tullio Carminati) discovers her as a singing waitress, and sparks fly as he coaches her into a major opera star.

The film earned big bucks at the box office and was considered a major step forward in bringing “highbrow” culture to the masses. It also catapulted Moore into movie stardom (though her subsequent films never matched the popularity of this one). Her success opened the door for other opera singers in film, often with less than successful results.

The New York Times called the film a “brilliant combination of inspiring melodies and great fun.” And thanks to Moore’s delightful performance, the film still holds up quite well. Though Moore had obvious vocal talent, her voice can sound shrill to modern ears especially given the constraints of 1930s sound recording techniques. However, the film’s sound recording won an Oscar and a special technical Oscar for the application of the Vertical Cut Disc Method.

The film’s score, with arias from La Traviata, Carmen and Madama Butterfly, features more arranging than original music. The original score, what little there is of it, is attributed as “thematic music” to director/composer Victor Schertzinger and lyricist Gus Kahn, who wrote the title song. Sung over the opening credits, the song blends into the first scene in which Mary is competing on a weekly radio contest for up-and-coming opera singers. The tune later serves as the underscoring of her blossoming love for Monteverdi. It’s a pretty melody but when used under almost every amorous scene, it dilutes its effectiveness.

Interestingly, the melody for “One Night of Love” contains the same first four notes Puccini wrote for the entrance of Cio-Cio San in Butterfly. This works beautifully in the climax of the film as Mary and Monteverdi finally acknowledge their love during a performance of the opera.

In addition to its Sound award, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Moore as Best Actress. Not surprisingly, the music also won the first-ever Oscar for Best Scoring. However, it was not “one night of love” for Schertzinger and Kahn. Because of the arcane rules in the early years of the category, Columbia Studio Music Department head Louis Silvers was awarded the Oscar, while composer and lyricist went home empty handed.

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Brokeback Mountain (2005)

June 27, 2008

In honor of Gay Pride weekend here in NYC, it’s time to revisit the groundbreaking Brokeback Mountain.

Annie Proulx’s short story, Brokeback Mountain, first appeared in The New Yorker in 1997. The tentative love story of two cowboys (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) in the 1960s played against stereotypes and caused a sensation. (The story later capped Proulx’s 1999 collection, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize.)

Producer and co-writer Diana Ossana and Pulitzer Prize-winner Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) fleshed out the spare story, adding the wives (Michelle Williams and Ann Hathaway). Director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) proved to be a masterful stroke.

Lee brings subtlety and sophistication to the story, eliciting top-notch performances all around. Rodrigo Pietro’s stunning cinematography (with Canada substituting for Montana) and Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar-driven, Oscar-winning score add to the poignancy of the love story.

Santaolalla’s music makes a distinct impression, due to his duties as music producer, writer and instrumentalist. In addition to composing the score, he co-wrote songs performed by Mary McBride, Jackie Green, Teddy Thompson, and Emmylou Harris. The latter’s song, “A Love That Will Never Grow Old” (lyrics by Bernie Taupin), won a Golden Globe as Best Song but was ineligible for Ocar consideration because of its short screen time.

Santaolalla began working on the score after reading the script and the short story. “Ninety-nine percent of the music…I wrote before the movie was shot.” He sent Lee some of his ideas after their original conversation. “He thought I was sending him stuff I had previously composed, and so he told [Brokeback producer] James Schamus, ‘What a pity we can’t use this, it would be perfect for our movie.’ And then James said, ‘But Gustavo did write this for us.'”

“(Lee and I) both had the idea for acoustic guitar and strings,” Santaolalla said. “I thought it would be great to have one more element.” That element was the pedal steel guitar. On the soundtrack, the instrument is played by Bob Bernstein, former Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications at Universal Music Group, whose earlier gig as an in-demand country music sideman served him well on the score.

The Hollywood Reporter said “the film benefits enormously from [the] melodic and plangent score.” Variety gave the score faint praise, calling it “conventionally supportive…nicely abetted by a host of period and setting-appropriate tunes.” Michael Phillips from the Chicago Tribune, however, wished Santaolalla had restrained himself: “Once Ennis and Jack get off on their own the movie nearly drowns in orchestral strings.”

From its initial successes at the Venice, Telluride, and Toronto film festivals, Brokeback Mountain rode a wave of critical and surprising audience attention. The fact that it won more critic awards for Best Picture than any other film of 2005 makes its Oscar loss to Crash that much more perplexing and frustrating.

There’s no doubt that Santaolalla’s brief score rode in on the Brokeback stampede. His win has caused much karping on film score message boards, second only to his win the following year for Babel. Whether or not Santaolalla deserved his Oscar is up for debate. Whether or not the music poignantly captured the characters’ loneliness, wide open spaces, and “a love that will never grow old” is not.


One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937)

June 26, 2008

One Hundred Men a Girl stars Deanna Durbin as a young girl who wrangles a radio sponsor for an orchestra concert for her father (Adolphe Menjou) and his fellow out-of-work musicians. The catch is that she promises she can secure the talents of none other than Leopold Stokowski, arguably the most famous conductor at that time.

The slim plot didn’t seem to matter to audiences as the film proved to be a critical and popular hit. The New York Statesman raved, “[It is] useless to pretend that I am tough enough to resist the blandishments of Miss Deanna Durbin. The candid eyes, the parted lips, the electric energy, the astonishing voice; if they bowl over 50 million or so, surely a critic may be pardoned for wobbling a little on his professional base. For this is pure fairy tale; but it comes off.” The New York Times was in agreement: “One Hundred Men and a Girl reveals the cinema at its sunny-sided best.”

The film has the dubious distinction of being the only Oscar winner in a music category that doesn’t even list a composer in its credits. Charles Previn, head of the Universal Studio Music Department, took home the gold, even with an “Associate Musical Director” credit.

The “score” consists of a string of classical pieces, most of which are played onscreen. Orchestral pieces include Wagner’s Lohengrin, Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and Berlioz’s Rakoczy March. Durbin charms in the delightful “It’s Raining Sunbeams” (music by Frederick Hollander, lyric by Sam Coslow) and “A Heart That’s Free (by Alfred Robyn and T. Reily). She even tackles Mozart and Verdi’s La Traviata, acquitting herself quite nicely.

One memorable scene has Durbin coaxing Stokowski out of his study to the strains of Lizst’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. As he emerges, the camera pans down and all three floors are filled with a hundred musicians playing their hearts out. (Only in the movies, folks!)

One Hundred Men and a Girl has its charms, but under no circumstances should it ever have won the Oscar for Best Scoring, original or otherwise. Edward Connor in Films In Review pondered, “How 100 [sic] Men and a Girl won…is one of the major musical mysteries of Hollywood.” In later years, this film would have been placed in the adaptation category (and even there questions could be raised about whether or not it belonged).

Between One Hundred Men and a Girl and One Night of Love (1934), a precedent was set: If a film has a high musical cache (i.e., a story about music), then it stands a better chance of winning.


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

June 25, 2008

The title of Junot Diaz’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is a misnomer. Yes, Oscar’s life is brief, but Diaz peppers the book with extraneous tangents that draw the reader away from his memorable main character. Oscar is an overweight sci-fi-writer-nerd and Diaz peppers the tale with references with unique pop culture references from comic books to Tolkien. However, too much time is spent on the backstories of sister Lola and the attrocities meted out on grandfather Abelard in the Dominican Republic. To me the central relationship was Oscar’s friendship with Lola’s on-again-off-again boyfriend, Yunior. Unfortunatel, the book ultimately feels like a string of novellas that doesn’t quite add up to a satisfying novel.

That being said, Diaz has a complete mastery of language and his mix of Spanish and English creates a vibrant energy to the story. I haven’t read the other two Pulitzer finalists–Dennis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Shakespeare’s Kitchen by Lore Segal–so I can’t judge the merits of Oscar Wao against its competitors. While the writing was strong enough to make me want to explore Diaz’s earlier short story collection, Drown, I wish Oscar Wao had ended with its promise fulfilled from the earlier pages of the novel.


Martial Solal in Concert

June 15, 2008

Last night at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art, French film composer/jazz pianist Martial Solal performed a rare concert with Francois Moutin on bass as part of the museum’s summer-long “Jazz Score” celebration of jazz in film.

At 81, Solal plays with the energy of musicians half his age, if not more. He has lost none of his technique and was ably supported throughout by Moutin’s playing. Seldom did the two play by themselves and like an old married couple, they spoke over each other, occasionally finished each other’s musical sentences, and eventually came together at cadence points before ending as one. The positioning of Moutin immediately behind the piano bench to Solal’s left provided not only a direct view of the keyboard, but allowed an intimacy rare in any musical performance.

As Solal and Moutin deconstructed jazz standards and made them their own, whispers of melody floated in and out of classic tunes such as “Tea for Two,” “Caravan,” and “All the Things You Are.” The two instruments discussed, fought and made up through chart after chart. For those who like their jazz with a groove, this evening must have seemed a disappointment. If there was meter, it was evident only to the performers. However, the capacity crowd was useless to resist the wit, humor and, forgive me, joie de vivre, displayed by Solal and Moutin.

The concert ended after two hours, but as Solal said, “You’ll tire more quickly than me.” And he was right. It looked like Solal and Moutin could have played into the wee hours of the morning, and we would have all been richer for it.


The Looming Tower

June 14, 2008

For anyone interested in the genesis of 9/11, Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 provides a fascinating read. Wright’s book reads like a thriller, yet one with an obvious tragic ending.

Wright’s recounting of the numerous mistakes made by the CIA and FBI as well as the missed opportunities to prevent the World Trade Center attacks engender frustration. And though he doesn’t spend much time on the actual day itself (the book, as it title suggests, is really about the “road” leading up to that tragic day), his description of 9/11 is profoundly moving.

    In so many respects, the Trade Center dead formed a kind of universal parliament, representing sixty-two countries and nearly every ethnic group and religion in the world. There was an ex-hippie stockbroker, the gay Catholic chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, a Japanese hockey player, an Ecuadoran sous chef, a Barbie Doll collector, a vegetarian calligrapher, a Palestinian accountant. . . . The manifold ways in they attached to life testied to the Quarnic injunction that the taking of a single life destroys a universe. Al-Qaeda had aimed its attacks at America, but it struck all of humanity.

The Looming Tower wil anger, frustrate and especially educate. And for that, above all, Wright’s book is essential reading.