Friday, June 22, 2007

Music Makes the World Go Round

The following is my addition to the Film Music Blogathon at Windmills of My Mind.

We all understand the importance of music to films. Hell, the idea behind soundtracks now exists in every facet of our daily lives. Who doesn't have an Ipod stuck in their back pocket so we can instantly change the soundtrack of our hum-drum days? The fact that music presents us with a varied catalog of emotions and feelings speaks directly to the innate ability of movies to reach us on a basic level. We've all watched a movie where the soundtrack is often more involving than the film itself. And, when a soundtrack is REALLY good, it not only punctuates the strength of the moment, but it rattles around in our heads for days, refusing to loosen its grip. The music of Georges Delerue has been rattling in my head for several years now.

First off, a quick list of some films that Delerue has composed the soundtracks for: "Platoon", "Salvador", "Contempt", "The Conformist", "Silkwood", virtually all of Truffaut's films, "Beaches", "The Black Robe" and "True Confessions", plus over 300 other various film and television projects dating back to the early 50's. Prodigious, yes, but not well known, even though he won an Oscar in 1980 for his score to "A Little Romance" and was nominated 4 other times for "Julia", "Day of the Dolphin", "Agnes of God" and "Anne of a Thousand Days". The lack of recognition shouldn't be surprising. With the exception of James Horner, Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and possibly Howard Shore, there aren't that many composers who break into the global limelight unless they pen a true honest to God classic (think Williams and "Jaws"). Delerue, like so many other composers, harbor a deep passion for relating images to sound and they often go about their business in relative anonymity. But for me, Delerue burst into my global limelight about thirteen years ago.

Being the Godard nut I am, I was quickly burning through his oeuvre of playful, revolutionary 60's films when I rented 1963's "Le Mepris" aka "Contempt") from the local Blockbuster. I turned it on and from the opening moments, Delerue's theme wafts across the images with such a stunning clarity. I re-watched "Contempt" 3 times that weekend, falling in a deep obsession with the film's soundtrack. I quickly checked out this French composer, born in 1925, and saw that he worked largely with French filmmaker Francois Truffaut. So, Truffaut films it was. I think this was the first time in my formative years as a movie lover that I was guided through the images of certain films by a composer rather than the true auteur, the director. From there, I traveled back to Oliver Stone who employed Delerue on two of his films, "Platoon" and "Salvador". I was slowly being seduced by Delerue's lyrical and haunting music. It seemed to hit a pitch perfect harmony with the brutal images of death and destruction presented by Stone. Then there came Delerue's arrangement of Samuel Barber's Adaggio For Strings in "Platoon" that defies words. This was a man who understands the powerful suggestions music can have on the human soul. I was hooked. There was no looking back. Georges Delerue was and is my favorite composer and his music often deepens my appreciation for the images they accompany. That can't be said for many. But the theme that, in my humble opinion, defines the nature of Georges Delerues is known as "Theme de Camille" from "Contempt". It's a hypnotic, lush tune that replays itself over and over during Godard's exploration of a marriage disintegrating between two very beautiful people (Michel Piccoli and Brigitte Bardot). "Theme de Camille" has no other mission in the film than to play as a backdrop against the pulling and tearing of emotions and conversations that exist between the feuding couple. In one instance, it serves as a poignant exclamation of sincerity as Piccoli (and Godard for that matter) lingers over the naked body of Bardot, telling her that he loves each and every inch of her. Later in the film, the theme acts as a mournful elegy as Godard's camera tracks around the wreckage of a vehicle. Like the best of Delerue's theme songs, his music is a multi-purpose, not content to point the listener (and viewer) in one direction. His music takes on a variety of purpose. It's mood music at its best.

The enduring legacy of "Theme de Camille" has surfaced over the years, resurrecting itself in commercials for Chanel, compilation movie clips, and even sampled in the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese's "Casino" in 1995, no less during an emotional high point that corresponds with the violent outburst between man (DeNiro) and woman (Sharon Stone) as their marriage disintegrates. It's a sly nod to Godard's earlier use.

Delerue would go on to create other masterpieces (as evident above when I listed just a few of his credits) but "Contempt" is something altogether different. Delerue died in Los Angeles in 1992 and he's a composer who never really got his due. Was it because he worked largely in France? Still, placing the musical framework to 90% of Truffaut's films should earn him something. Or have we, as a collective group, become somewhat indifferent to the accomplishments and additions of the film composer? Quite often, a film's score will put it over the top for me. Is there a better modern soundtrack than Jon Brion's expressionistic layers in "Magnolia"? Or the music of Michael Nyman (and I'm thinking specifically of his work in "Wonderland", "The Claim" and especially "Gattaca"). Or what about the oft-hated build ups of sound produced by Philip Glass, a composer whose work often threatens to overtake the film's actual drama but feel so perfect to me? These are just a few examples of the brilliance inherent in film today. Delerue is in a class all by himself. He wasn't showy or pretentious. His music is crystal clear, rendering the many emotions of film viable through sound. Instead of just adding a soundtrack, he often added heart and complexity. And that's the greatest compliment a composer can receive, whether he's popular or not.

1 comment:

Laurent Ledoux said...

Thanks. Good post. I share your love for Delerue's music. I also like Tan Dun's scores for Zhang Yimou's movies. And Yann Tiersen's (Amélie Poulain) or Francois de Roubaix (Le Vieux Fusil). You can find them all on YouTube.
Enjoy your vacations.