First published in Film Score Monthly Online
Vol. 13, Issue 7, July 2008
As a new generation of international filmmakers studied American cinema, they used jazz to express their unique views in their own films. In our continuing look at “Jazz Score,” New York City’s Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) celebration of jazz in film, this month we focus on films from around the world featured in the exhibition. We begin our journey in France…
Martial Solal in Concert
On June 14, MoMA presented a rare concert appearance by French-Algerian film composer and jazz pianist Martial Solal. Surprisingly, the evening didn’t feature performances from any of his 40-plus film scores; nonetheless, the concert was cause for celebration.
Born in 1927, Solal studied the piano from the age of six. Influenced by Art Tatum and Bud Powell, Solal began his career playing in Algerian clubs. When he settled in Paris in 1950, he began working with leading musicians, including legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. For years, Solal played at Paris’ renowned Club St. Germain and Blue Note. Solal has released over 50 albums as a soloist and leader of numerous ensembles. And in addition to his many awards, the city of Paris established an international piano competition in his name.
At age 81, Solal plays with the energy and technical mastery of musicians half his age. Joining him onstage was French bassist, François Moutin. Seldom did the two play as soloists, and like an old married couple, they “spoke” over each other, finished each other’s musical sentences, and somehow arrived together at cadence points before ending as one musical thought. Solal and Moutin deconstructed jazz standards and made them their own, while whispers of classic tunes such as “Tea for Two,” “Caravan” and “All the Things You Are” floated on the air before vanishing into further flights of improvisation. Any semblance of meter or a groove was evident only to the performers. However, Solal and Moutin confidently steered through phrases that perhaps only they could understand, while charming the audience with their wit, humor and musical joie de vivre.
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Two of Solal’s scores were also featured in the exhibition. The first was Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de soufflé (1959), better known as Breathless, the French New Wave classic that swept onto international shores, influencing generations of filmmakers. Jean-Paul Belmondo stars as a small-time Paris hood on the run for killing a cop, and Jean Seberg is the young American journalist he thinks he loves. As a counterpoint to Hollywood conventions, Godard and his cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, aimed for a new kind of realism in cinema in which their handheld camera followed the actors, capturing the realistic reactions of everyday Parisians who were unused to seeing filming on their streets. Godard further changed the look of the film with his innovative use of jump cuts, giving the film what author David Sterritt called “this sense of jagged, imperfect, unpolished, caught-on-the-run sensibility.”
Solal composed two main themes—for Belmondo’s cocky, carefree hood and Seberg’s sexy ingénue—both made up of five notes. “One is coming from the low note to the high note; the other is exactly the contrary,” said Solal in an earlier interview. “One makes you anxious; the other is romantic.” Solal shut himself away at his desk “until I found a phrase with five notes that translated the ideas of fatality and betrayal. The rest came very quickly: I needed strings for Jean Seberg on the Champs-Elysées, some brass for the escape, and some soloists—alto saxophone or vibraphone—for the tragic side. And little by little I skimmed the personnel until I ended up with a solo piano on the love-theme for Belmondo’s murder in the Rue Campagne-Premiére. He dies in love with life, and Seberg.”
In a typical show of modesty, Solal said, “With hindsight, this score is the happy medium: it has a status in the film, and it can also be listened to without the film, if you like. But it hasn’t got the same ambition as music I’d have written without the images. Of course, you can like the different declensions of the five-note gimmick that sticks to Belmondo like a badge…It succeeds because it’s efficient, but it doesn’t have a great musical dimension. You like this music because it’s associated with a film that’s mythical. If A bout de soufflé didn’t exist, nobody would think its music was particularly interesting.” No matter what Solal says, with its evocative music and unique style that is still fresh 50 years later, A bout de soufflé is one film classic that left me, quite unexpectedly, breathless.
Five years later, Belmondo and Seberg reteamed for Jean Becker’s delightful crime caper, Echappement libre (1964). This time Belmondo plays a rogue smuggler accompanied by the sexy and secretive Seberg, who abscond with a hidden stash of gold as they speed their way across the European continent from Beirut to Bremen.
Solal’s score highlights the comedic elements of the story. Over the main titles, an organ leads us into a “mod” vocal scatting of the main theme, perfectly capturing the sound of the swinging ’60s. The second main theme is a lighthearted trumpet melody for Seberg. As Belmondo and Seberg hop from one country to another, Solal’s music plays cat-and-mouse with thematic variations, while the orchestration cleverly (and often humorously) changes to match the country they’re in.
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A French disc of Solal’s scores (titled A bout de soufflé) contains tracks from Breathless and Echappement libre. Even though neither of score is represented in its entirety, the CD is a welcome introduction to the composer’s film work.
While Breathless created a veritable cinematic tsunami, Japan was experiencing its own wave with the taiyozoku (or Sun Tribe) movement. As David Desser explains in his book, Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema, “Sun Tribe” describes “Japanese youth who feel themselves cut off from their past yet part of a new, mythic culture, the culture of youth.” Arguably the most famous of the Sun Tribe trio of films was Crazed Fruit, which, together with Season of the Sun and Punishment Room (all released in 1956 and based on novels by Shintaro Ishihara), brought out a fear among Japanese adults of “uninhibited teenage sex combined with social alienation.”
Directed by Kô Nakahira, the film tells the story of two brothers competing for the amorous favors of a young married woman (Mie Kitihara), among a group of nihilistic youths during a seaside summer of gambling, boating and drinking. The film was critically savaged for its shocking portrayal of the postwar sexual revolution among Japan’s young and privileged. Director Nagisa Oshima said that “in the sound of the girl’s skirt being ripped and the hum of the motorboat slashing through the older brother, sensitive people could hear the wails of a seagull heralding a new age in Japanese cinema.” Tôru Takemitsu’s score (co-credited with Masaru Satô) used jazz to give musical voice to a raw, sexual longing that had not been heard in Japanese film music.
Best known in this country for films such as Woman in the Dunes (1964), Ran (1985) and Black Rain (1989), Takemitsu (1930-1996) was the preeminent Japanese composer of the postwar era, influenced by everyone from Debussy to Duke Ellington. In addition to an astonishing 93 film scores, he wrote hundreds of concert works, a detective novel, and critical works on music, film and literature.
Fans familiar with Takemitsu’s later scores may be surprised by his music for Crazed Fruit. In the DVD commentary, Japanese film scholar Donald Richie points out the score’s “sensuous, kitschy melodic cadences” set to the Polynesian strains of Hawaiian steel guitar and ukelele. The older brother’s (Yûjirô Ishihara) bullying sexual confidence is conveyed by a swaggering baritone saxophone accompanied by belching muted brass, while a jazz trumpet musicalizes the insatiable sexual hunger of the younger brother (Masahiko Tsugawa). Other cues, such as the dance at the Blue Sky Club, use big band music to further illustrate the sexuality oozing from the story.
Takemitsu considered Crazed Fruit one of his finest accomplishments, and it is a startling debut feature film debut for the 26-year-old composer. The score was finally released in 2002 as part of the massive (and expensive) Complete Takemitsu Edition boxed set, which is now, sadly, out of print.
While Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins were composing scores for Blow-Up and Alfie that could be said to epitomize swinging ’60s London, “Jazz Score” also featured films scored by Sir John Dankworth, who used jazz to craft dark, intimate psychological dramas.
Born in 1932, Dankworth showed early promise on the clarinet and saxophone, attending the Royal College of Music at age 17 and winning the Musician of the Year in Britain award in 1949. He went on to serve as musical director for Nat “King” Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Sophie Tucker and many others. His composing for the concert hall has encompassed musical theatre, an opera/ballet for Houston Ballet, several works for choir and orchestra, a piano concerto and a string quartet. He has released over 40 albums and composed over 20 film scores in a career that has spanned 60 years.
In 1960 Dankworth made a name for himself in the world of film, scoring Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Criminal, his first for director Joseph Losey, an American who had fled to England to escape the Blacklist. But it was Dankworth’s second collaboration with Losey, The Servant (1963), that cemented his reputation as a film composer.
With a screenplay by Harold Pinter, the film stars Dirk Bogarde in a vicious game of cat and mouse that pits manservant against master (James Fox). The film (which also stars Wendy Craig and Sylvia Miles) is structured in patterns of four, accompanying the characters’ descent into madness and degradation. Losey’s biographer, David Caute, wrote that Dankworth’s score displayed “a haunting quality of hedonism and lament.”
Dankworth’s four-note theme alternates between string and saxophone quartets, and evolves from lush to atonal. “I didn’t want [the theme] to be too sweet, but I didn’t want it to sound too sort of po-faced either,” said Dankworth in a 2006 interview.
One of the highlights of the score is the song “All Gone,” sung by Cleo Laine (Dankworth’s wife). In a 1976 interview, Dankworth said, “The idea was that the same song should change imperceptibly to spell out the degeneration of the situation. The first time the song was played, it was quite straightforward, then it crept in to the minor key, then it came with interjections from tenor sax and in the last case it was done in almost an atonal way with Cleo singing right through what was in those days a cacophonous background.”
Dankworth said Pinter’s lyrics “directly relate to the film and the tawdry things that happen in it…I asked Harold whether he would consider rewriting the lyric in a way that it could be performed separately from the film…He said, ‘No. For what reason?’ I said, ‘Just so it might get more performances and you might be a more famous lyricist than you are at the moment,’ or something trivial like that. He never came up with anything, but there again I can’t imagine what lyrics a Nobel Literature Prize winner would come up with!”
The elements for our next film constitute a global affair—an Italian director, an American icon, an Argentinean composer, and mostly French dialogue—in what is arguably the most controversial movie of the 1970s. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1973) stars Marlon Brando as an American expatriate who embarks on a torrid, anonymous affair with a young Parisienne (Maria Schneider) to mask the pain surrounding the suicide of his French wife. Because of the sexual content, the film was slapped with an “X” rating in the U.S., and picketing and public outcry resulted in the film being removed from various theaters.
The situation was even worse in Bertolucci’s native Italy. The film was condemned by the Catholic Church, all of the principals were charged with obscenity in the Italian courts (though they were later cleared), and Bertolucci received a suspended two-month prison sentence. A Roman court ordered all copies of the film to be seized and burned, and the film was not legally shown in Italy until 1987.
Film critic Pauline Kael wrote an infamous 6,000-word review praising the film on its release. “The movie breakthrough has finally come,” Kael wrote. “Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form.” However, years later Roger Ebert countered: “[Last Tango in Paris] was the banner for a revolution that never happened.” Gato Barbieri’s tango-tinged score won a Grammy for Best Soundtrack Album, and the main theme became a staple at the composer’s concerts.
Born in 1934, Barbieri rose to fame during the free jazz movement in the 1960s and from his Latin jazz recordings in the 1970s. He played the clarinet and alto saxophone while teaming with fellow Argentinean Lalo Schifrin in the late 1950s, and performed with visiting musicians such as Herbie Mann, Dizzy Gillespie and João Gilberto. By the early 1960s, Barbieri switched to tenor saxophone, experimenting with free jazz while working with Don Cherry, and began to fuse South American music into his playing in the late ’60s.
Barbieri had worked with Bertolucci before, when he performed two pieces by Gino Paoli for the director’s 1964 film, Before the Revolution. For Last Tango in Paris, Barbieri composed a large number of themes from which he hand-annotated 50 cues per Bertolucci’s detailed script. Barbieri was especially pleased with conductor Oliver Nelson’s arrangements for the 32-piece orchestra, particularly in his “profundo” use of strings. Barbieri used a combination of sinister chords representing the mystery surrounding Brando’s wife’s suicide, and the main saxophone melody as an ironic “love” theme for two people who feel anything but love for each other. More “traditional” Hollywood-like scoring accompanies the film-within-a-film scenes between Schneider and her fiancé (Jean-Pierre Leaud). Ebert wrote that Barbieri’s score was “sometimes counterpoint, sometimes lament, but it is never simply used to tell us how to feel.” In his liner notes for the Ryko release, John Bender wrote, “Barbieri, with his horn and his voice, unreservedly expresses rakeshell male carnality.”
The original album was a rerecording using the score’s major themes. The Rykodisc (as well as the later Varèse Sarabande) reissue added 29 untitled tracks, hand-picked by Barbieri from the original tracks, for a “Last Tango in Paris Suite,” utilizing what Bender calls “Barbieri’s contributions as an author…communicating in the first person straight at the audience via the music.”
Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus (1959) tells the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set against the lively sights and sounds of Carnival. The film took the top prize at Cannes and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The score by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Luíz Bonfá introduced the bossa nova to an international audience that soon was addicted to its insinuating Brazilian rhythms.
Jobim’s (1927-1994) music was influenced by native Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos as well as Debussy and Ravel. His songs have been recorded by everyone from Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra, to Tony Bennett, George Michael and Sting. He wrote many of the songs (including the classic “The Girl From Ipanema”) on the Stan Getz/João Gilberto album, Getz/Gilberto, which swept the 1964 Grammy Awards. Along with João Gilberto, Jobim became a world ambassador for Brazilian music.
Bonfá (1922-2001) was a self-taught guitar player until age 12 when he started taking lessons in classic guitar. During the 1940s, he performed on radio shows and joined groups like the Quitandinha Serenaders, before finally embarking on his own as a solo guitarist. One of Bonfá’s trademarks is his ability to play melody, rhythm and bass simultaneously. He has worked with American musicians like Quincy Jones, George Benson, Stan Getz ands Frank Sinatra. Bonfá’s songs have been sung by such recording artists as Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Julio Iglesias, even Elvis Presley.
Jobim and Bonfá first collaborated on the music for Vinicius de Moraes’ 1956 play, Orfeu de Conceição. When the play was turned into the film Black Orpheus, producer Sacha Gordine asked for a new score. Because de Moraes was out of the country, he and Jobim were only able to write three songs, including the haunting “A Felicidade,” collaborating primarily over the phone. Bonfá’s contributions (with lyrics by Antonio María) include “Samba de Orfeu” and the classic “Manhã de Carnaval,” which is among the top 10 standards played worldwide, according to The Guinness Book of World Records. Offsetting the gentle bossa nova guitar and soothing vocals are the jangling sounds of Carnival. Even in the quietest of moments, a faint whiff of the percussive festivities can be heard on the soundtrack, keeping the audience unsettled for the tragedy unfolding. The score evokes Jobim’s sentiment that “Bossa nova is serene, it is love and romance, but it is restless.”
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Décontracté…kakkoii…tranquilo…legal…No matter how you say it, the “Jazz Score” exhibition is featuring films and scores from around the globe that are simply cool.