Thursday, January 10, 2008

Action Music

Lights, Action, Music
Directed by Dan Lieberstein
First Look Studios

Nothing creates a stronger sense memory of a great film like an equally great score. Take for instance, François Truffaut’s Day for Night, blessed with themes composed by Georges Delerue which indelibly lodge in the mind. It is love-letter to filmmaking that was recently brought to mind by Lights, Action, Music, a documentary examining the power and process of film compositions directed by Dan Lieberstein.

Originally broadcast on PBS (in New York on Long Island’s WLIW, but not on Channel 13 in the City), LAM combines film clips, interviews, and some original studio orchestra recreations. It gives some historical perspective on film scoring, providing short sketches of great Hollywood composers like Dimitri Tiomkin and Franz Waxman, but more time is given to explanations of the work-a-day process of film scoring and orchestrating.

Lieberstein filmed interviews with some of the top film composers working today, including John Barry of 007 fame, Academy Award winners David Shire (Norma Rae), and Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel), as well as jazz musician and frequent Spike Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard. (Given Blanchard’s participation, I’ll have to give this a “Jazz on PBS” tag.)

Each offers some real insights into what they do, but Elliot Goldenthal, himself an Oscar winner for Frida, comes across as the wittiest. He explains the lesson learned on his first scoring gig for a film of an adult nature, so to speak: “stay out of the way of the movie—just write stuff that doesn’t interfere with what’s on the screen.” Only Marcelo Zarvos, best known for the didactic flop The Good Shepherd seems out of place here, as Osvaldo Golijov brings a certain perspective as a first-time film composer for Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth.

The interview segments are the strongest aspects of LAM, especially for students of film and film scoring. Unfortunately, the selection of film clips is not as strong, likely due to licensing constraints. The only example of a universally acknowledged classic combination of film and music seen in LAM is that of Rocky Balboa running up the steps to Bill Conti’s triumphant theme.

While Elmer Bernstein’s score for Hawaii might have been Oscar nominated, in retrospect it is not as enduring as his scores for The Magnificent Seven or Man with the Golden Arm, the first jazz influenced soundtrack to be nominated for an Academy Award. As for Delerue, he is not represented for his great collaborations with Truffaut, but for Ken Russell’s Women in Love. Again, these might have been selections based on necessity rather than preference.

However, Lieberstein does deserve credit for some shrewd musical choices. Blanchard is heard performing “Levees,” a theme from the Spike Lee miniseries, which is currently up for a Grammy nomination (the resulting album, A Tale of God’s Will was on the J.B. Spins 2007 top ten list). While Taking of Pelham One Two Three may not be Shire’s most famous film, it happens to be a really cool score. The attention given to his soundtrack for Coppola’s The Conversation (another film with jazz influences) is also well warranted.

LAM, the film itself, is actually quite short, just under an hour. However, there are two hours of bonus interview footage on the DVD, which are indeed the strengths of the film. It is definitely well-worth spending time to hear insights into film and music from Blanchard, Shire, and Barry.