Oscar Scores 2009: Slumdog Millionaire

January 28, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire posterArriving with mega-hype, numerous critical awards, a Golden Globe, and 10 Oscar nominations, Slumdog Millionaire left me a bit cash poor. The story of a young Indian man (Dev Patel) from the slums of Mumbai who uses the TV game show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” to find his long-lost love (Freida Pinto) is well-scripted by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), but the story feels like a Dickens rags-to-riches retread just set in an exotic location.

It is difficult not to root for this cast of amateurs and lesser-known actors but the real stars of the film are director Danny Boyle, editor Chris Dickens, and Mumbai itself.  Boyle’s muscular direction and Dickens’ seamless editing (remarkable considering the extensive use of flashbacks) keep the story flying along at a brisk pace, so much so that it can be easy to ignore the flaws in the film. The crowded streets of the city provide their own soundtrack to accompany Indian musical superstar A. R. Rahman’s Golden Globe-winning score.

Most American audiences are not familiar with Rahman’s work, which is perhaps a reason why critics have been so quick to praise the composer’s blend of Indian instruments, rock, and electronic dance grooves. Rahman’s music and songs contribute to the film’s colorful feel.

Out of the many songs featured in the film, including M.I.A.’s popular “Paper Planes,” two have been nominated. “O Saya” is sung over the opening scene as the camera careens through the narrow, filthy passageways following a pair of street urchins. A blend of hip-hop, rock, and electronica, the tune’s driving rhythm begins the film on an energetic run. “Jai Ho” is the infectious end title tune. Gone is any hint of danger as the cast earns a well-deserved, victorious Bollywood dance number.

Rahman’s nominated score as presented on the commercial CD works quite well as a listening experience. The mixture of songs and a few instrumental tracks gets the blood pumping. But the “For Your Consideration” CD of Rahman’s score that was sent to Academy members is all of 16:54 of music. The electronica used in “Escape,” “Train Sitar,” and “Reaktor” is infectious yet ultimately musically empty. The best theme is the lovely melody for Latika (Pinto).

If Rahman’s score seems slight on the commercial disc, it is even choppier and less impressive on the FYC disc. If Enchanted was disqualified last year for the amount of score compared to the songs, then Slumdog should have been as well. The film’s popularity and critical backing will probably push Rahman into the winner’s circle. He wouldn’t be my choice, but a lot worse have won Oscars.


The Red Shoes (1948)

July 25, 2008

The Red Shoes has probably been responsible for more little girls (and probably some little boys) wanting to slip on a pair of toe shoes than any other film. Based on a Hans Christian Andersen story, the film tells the story of tyrannical ballet impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), up-and-coming ballerina Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), and the young composer she falls in love with (Marius Goring).

The film is a classic on every level and it all looks splendid under Jack Cardiff’s color cinematography. But it was Brian Easdale’s Oscar-winning score that raised the barre.

Though there are a couple of jazz source cues for restaurants and nightclubs (provided by Kenny Baker) and excerpts from famous ballets (including Swan Lake, Les Syllphides and Giselle), it is Easdale’s “Red Shoes Ballet” that is the focal point of the score. And when we get there, it is glorious.

It is fascinating to hear snippets of the ballet music throughout the film and hear how they all fit together in the seventeen-minute ballet. Shearer recalled in an interview that it was “exotic strange music, a quite advanced modernistic score. But good to dance to, and written with great rhythmic feeling.”

Aware of his own limitations, Easdale asked his producers to approach Sir Thomas Beecham to conduct the orchestra when the score was recorded, believing that the film would be better served by his superior skills. Beecham was impatient of the filmmaking process and simply came to the studio to record the music and left it to the dancers and director to make sure that they danced and filmed to HIS account of the music.

Staccato woodwinds and pizzicato strings convey the mystery of the red shoes. The music takes on a lilting quality when Vicky happily tries on the shoes for the first time. Also memorable is the love music and the chorale used for the funeral sequence.

At the emotional climax of the ballet as Victoria sees the figure of the ballet master (Leonide Massine) turns into Lermontov and then Julian (Goring), the eerie sound of the ondes martennot (which sounds much like a theremin) swoops up to the rafters, conveying the character’s confusion and madness.

Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly have stated that the ballet served as one of the inspirations for their own ballet at the end of An American in Paris three years later. In fact, if you compare the two, there are certain movements of people and camera angles that match and Easdale’s music even has touch of Gershwin here and there.

Though there are other scores nominated in 1948 that delve more into character and situation, there is no denying the impact of Easdale’s music on the The Red Shoes. The score also won a Golden Globe.

Since You Went Away (1944)

July 24, 2008

Producer David O. Selznick’s tribute to the homefront during World War II, Since You Went Away stars Claudette Colbert as a mother to daughters Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple, who must cope with her husband gone to war and find some meaning in her life beyond being a wife and mother.

Except for Colbert, the performances are a bit broad for today’s audiences. The film is far too sentimental for my tastes, but it must have packed quite a wallop upon its release in the midst of the war. Coating the film in a saccharine film of sweetness is Max Steiner’s score.

The film has more melodic material than any other Steiner score except perhaps Gone With the Wind, and that’s what ultimately hurts it—there’s just too much music. Steiner contributes his usual wealth of beautiful melodies, but the overuse hampers their effectiveness.

The main theme closely resembles the song “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” which had been made popular the year before by Bing Crosby. The theme conveys Colbert’s longing for her husband. In addition, Steiner borrowed the tender waltz “Together” from his 1937 score for A Star Is Born as the song for Colbert and her husband.

Typical of Steiner scores, most of the main characters have themes. A bluesy theme for Hattie McDaniel’s maid is heard in the muted trumpet, accompanied by bassoon and loping clarinets. A military trumpet call conveys General Smollett’s (Monty Woolley) irascible character. There is a lively theme for Temple’s rambunctuous Brig, and even a bass clarinet and contrabassoon melody for the bulldog, Soda. The most effective theme is the tender melody that accompanies the budding love affair between Jane (Jones) and Bill (Robert Walker).

The most famous scene in the film occurs as Jane says goodbye to Bill at the railroad station. The music heightens the poignancy and sadness of the scene, and eventually the music picks up steam as the train pulls out of the station with Jane running alongside it. What makes the scene even more touching was that Jones and Walker were at the end of their real-life marriage and finding it painful to act together, especially since Jones was being courted by Selznick. Though the scene has been parodied in numerous films ever since, it’s an undeniably heartbreaking moment that Steiner thankfully doesn’t overplay.

Steiner’s music for Since You Went Away is, as always, intensely melodic. However, a more judicious use of the music might have served the film better. Still, just “good” Steiner is better than most composer’s finest. And Since You Went Away is, if not great, very “good.”

The Song of Bernadette (1943)

July 23, 2008

In The Song of Bernadette, Jennifer Jones stars in her film debut as Bernadette Soubirous, a young peasant girl who has a vision of a “beautiful lady” in a city dump at Lourdes. Her visions make her the ridicule of the town until a spring miraculously appears whose waters have healing powers. Based on Franz Werfel’s bestselling novel, the film gave hope to audiences everywhere at a time when the surrounding war had people questioning their beliefs.

Jones’ wide-eyed innocence is ably supported by the always excellent Anne Revere as her mother and the imperious Gladys Cooper as a nun who doesn’t believe Bernadette because she hasn’t “suffered enough.” But what makes this film truly soar on the wings of faith, in addition to Jones’s performance, is Alfred Newman’s heavenly score.

There is no better example of the legendary “Newman strings” than in this score. Coupled with an angelic women’s chorus for the apparition scenes, as the title card says, “for those who believe, no explanation is necessary.”

Werfel originally recommended his friend Igor Stravinsky to compose the score. With producer Darryl Zanuck away at war and unable to veto the idea, Newman, who was head of the 20th Century Fox music department, let Stravinsky compose the score. The music was rejected but Stravinsky later turned his own “Apparition of the Virgin” music into the middle movement of his Symphony in Three Movements.

Bernadette’s theme consists of four ascending notes which, according to Jon Burlingame in his commentary for the DVD, is “as if she’s gazing toward heaven.” The tender melody in 3/4 time for Antoine (William Eythe) and Bernadette speaks their unspoken affection for each other. Newman employs the same melody later in the film as the Dean (Charles Bickford) warms up to Bernadette’s story.

Without a doubt, the scene that probably won Newman the Oscar is Bernadette’s first vision. As Newman once stated:

    “My first reaction to the scene was to ‘hear’ it in terms of the great religious experiences that had previously been interpreted by Wagner in his Grail music and Schubert in his ‘Ave Maria,’ which is a terrifying standard to have to approach. I first wrote for the scene in this vein but I wasn’t happy with anything I did. It then occurred to me that I was wrong in thinking of the scene as a revelation of the Virgin Mary. I read back over Werfel’s book and found that Bernadette had never claimed to have seen anything other than a ‘beautiful lady.’ I now wrote music I thought would describe this extraordinary experience of a young girl who was neither sophisticated enough nor knowledgeable enough to evaluate it as anything more than a lovely vision. With this in mind, I thought the music should not be pious or austere or even mystical, or suggest that the girl was on the first step to sainthood. She was at that point simply an innocent, pure-minded peasant girl, and I took my musical cues from the little gusts of wind and the rustling bushes that accompanied the vision, letting it all grow into a swelling harmony that would express the girl’s emotional reaction. And it was important that it express her reaction, not ours.”

With the use of flutes to suggest the breeze, oboes for the birds, and strings for the rustling bushes, Newman paints an orchestra of nature until the violins and chorus ascend while the basses descend–as if the heavens were parting–and the trumpets herald the appearance of the “lady.” As Newman stated, “The theme was fragile and yet loaded with dynamite.”

Film Music Notes stated that though the “score offers nothing original to film music, it vitalizes and enriches the story and adds to its mystic and inspirational appeal and value.” Sigmund Speath, in the same magazine, wrote: “Newman’s music has a consistently ehtereal, mystic glamour, conveying a true sincerity of religious feeling.”

The Song of Bernadette was the second soundtrack to be commercially recorded (on an 4-disc 78 rpm Decca release), following Miklos Rozsa’s The Jungle Book in 1942.

In a career that spanned over thirty-five years and countless classic scores, The Song of Bernadette remains Alfred Newman’s crowning achievement and heavenly music indeed.

Now, Voyager (1942)

July 22, 2008

Now, Voyager is one of the great romantic melodramas in the Warner Brothers’ canon and features a classic Bette Davis performance. Davis stars as Charlotte Vale, a Boston spinster under her mother’s tyrannical thumb (the imperious Gladys George), who blossoms under the tutelage of psychiatrist Claude Rains and finds love with married man Paul Henreid.

The performances are uniformly excellent but you won’t be able to take your eyes off of Bette. Anchoring the shipboard romance is Max Steiner’s lush, passionate score.

If you’re looking for the “typical” Steiner sound, this score is it: dramatic strings, memorable melodies, and wall-to-wall music. As for the often carped about wall-to-wall comment, when the music is this good, it’s hard to take it to task. Without someone like Steiner at the podium, the drama and romance wouldn’t have been half as effective.

The theme for Jerry’s daughter is sweet and innocent. Steiner gives the score a hint of Latin flavor as Charlotte and Jerry land in Rio de Janeiro.

But the most famous melody in the score is the love theme, first heard when Charlotte meets Jerry (Henreid) aboard the ship. It’s pure Steiner all the way–sweeping, tender and unapologetically romantic. And who can forget that final scene as Charlotte and Jerry light one last double cigarette and Steiner goes for the tear ducts one last time with that memorable theme.

The tune was so popular that in 1943 lyrics were added by Kim Gannon and turned into the hit song, “It Can’t Be Wrong.” The recording by Dick Haymes went to #1 and stayed on the charts for nineteen weeks. The song was later covered by such diverse artists as Ivy Benson and Her All Girls Band and even Frank Sinatra. Three years later, Steiner used the popular theme again in Mildred Pierce.

Film Music Notes praised the score as “beautfiul from the very outset…Once again Steiner assists the mood and dramatic intent by giving this picture a symphonic musical background of impressive strength.”

Now, Voyager is one of Steiner’s finest scores. Even with some other fine nominees in the mix, such as Miklos Rozsa’s The Jungle Book and Alfred Newman’s The Black Swan, nobody could hold a candle–or a cigarette–to Steiner this year.

Pinocchio (1940)

July 21, 2008

Disney had a tough act to follow after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. They found it in Pinocchio, the timeless tale of the puppet brought to life who, through his bravery and courage, is turned into a real live boy. Even after sixty years, the film is filled with rich animation and a wonderful score by Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith, complemented by the lyrics of Ned Washington.

The most famous melody from the score is naturally the classic “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The song was so popular that Walt Disney incorporated it as the signature tune for his theme parks. The other songs, including the charming “Give a Little Whistle,” “I’ve Got No Strings” for Pinocchio’s performance at Stromboli’s circus, and “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life For Me)” (particularly effective when voiced by the caliope at our first sight of Pleasure Island) complement the film and never overwhelm the intimate story.

The background score is by turns heartwarming, exciting, menacing, humorous, and always enjoyable. Harline was involved with every cue of the score, including the melodies for all the songs. It was the largest single contribution ever made by one composer to any Disney feature. The only composer that probably comes close is Alan Menken, whose music contributed to the rebirth of the Disney animated film in the late 1980s. Smith, who would become best known for his scores for Disney’s “True Life Adventure” series, scored about one-third of the film, always in tandem with Harline. The score is a huge leap forward from Snow White three years earlier.

Especially memorable are the themes for Geppetto and the strutting music for Jiminy Cricket. The music turns very dark for the scenes with Monstro the Whale, including some uncredited contributions by another Disney regular, Edward Plumb, during the whale chase. My favorite cue begins with a Novachord (an otherworldy-sounding electronic organ) signaling the appearance of the Blue Fairy. The violins reach to the heavens, wind chimes (with a healthy dose of reverb) announce her arrival, and “When You Wish Upon a Star” accompanies the wave of her wand, turning Pinocchio into more than just a puppet.

It is unfortunate that Disney was unhappy with the score until it won Oscars for Best Song and Original Score. Harline was so incensed by Disney’s about-face that he never worked for Disney again.

The music for the animated films of today (Disney or not) owe a huge debt of thanks to the groundwork of pioneers such as Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith. Pinocchio‘s music still glows.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

July 10, 2008

MGM’s lavish adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz amazingly wasn’t a hit upon its release in 1939. Not until its yearly television broadcast beginning in the 1960s did it became the timeless classic it is today. With all the production problems that the film faced, it’s surprising that it turned out so well. It would be hard to single out one factor that contributes to the film’s legendary status. From the marvelous performances anchored by Judy Garland’s unmatched Dorothy to the superb songs of Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, all play a role in the film’s success.

The New York Times raved, “A fairybook tale has been told in the fairbyook style, with witches, goblins, pixies and other wondrous things drawn in the brightest colors and set cavorting to a merry little score. It is all so well-intentioned, so genial and so gay that any reviewer who would look down his nose at the fun-making should be spanked and sent off, supperless, to bed.”

I’m sure that Arlen and Harburg’s songs, including the Oscar-winning “Over the Rainbow” (which was almost cut from the film), won Herbert Stothart his Oscar for Best Original Score, but that would diminish Stothart’s contribution. Not only did he adapt the now-classic songs, Stothart also blended in his own rich underscoring with melodic snippets of the songs to form a cohesive whole.

The songs may be what most people remember but you’d be surprised how much of the score may be embedded in your brain. Maybe it’s the bassoon and strings running alongside Dorothy and Toto to a quote from Schumann’s “The Happy Farmer” (one of many classical quotes throughout the score). Or perhaps it’s the English horn and muted brass distorting the melody line from “We’re Off to See the Wizard” to supply the theme for Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton) and her fantasy alter egos, the Wicked Witches. Or it could be something as simple as the four-note celeste motif that announces the arrival of Glinda, the Witch of the North (Billie Burke).

The oboe triplets that signal Dorothy’s lighthearted trip to the cornfield will appear in various guises as underscoring to the three versions of “If I Only Had a (Brain),” sung by the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley), and Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). The scene in the apple orchard uses a subtle quote of “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree.” Memorable marches are used as Dorothy and the gang emerge from the poppy field into the Emerald City and the “March of the Winkies” voiced with the classic syllables “O-Ee-Yah! Eoh-Ah!” Toto’s chase is based on Mendelssohn and the rescue of Dorothy in the castle uses a quote of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” followed by some exciting action music as our troops is chased around the castle.

Stothart’s Oscar has been debated for years. Considering the film has so many songs, it can be argued that is should have been placed in the Scoring category, thereby opening up a slot for Max Steiner to win for his immortal Gone With the Wind. It’s a tough choice. But as much as I like Steiner’s score, Stothart, who embodied the smooth sheen of the M-G-M pictures, deservedly won.