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February 20, 2012

The glory that was Hollywood: Soundtracks

I'm Hollywood's worst nightmare, which is ironic, given that I'm a lifelong film buff, a lover of film, someone who grew up in and surrounded by the movie business. Neighbors, classmates' parents, Dad's golf buddies; they were all part of the Biz, and going to the movies was a thrill from my earliest childhood days.

That having been said, I rarely see a film in a theater; there are countless reasons for this, including the behavior of audiences, who treat the experience as if they're sitting at home on the couch, talking, texting, crinkling wrappers, seemingly incapable of just sitting still and letting themselves -- and their neighbors -- enjoy the show.

But that's ignoring the elephant in the room: The movies themselves are often lacking: poorly written, badly acted, unoriginal, uninteresting, seemingly hell bent on ignoring Sam Goldwyn's timeless advice to filmmakers: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union."

That's a telegram reference, kids.

Let's focus for now on one aspect of the movie experience: The soundtrack. There's nothing like a stirring soundtrack, the composer able to perfectly compliment the onscreen action, ears and eyes working together to draw the viewer into the story. We respond viscerally to things aural, and I suspect that we've all gotten goosebumps far more often from a thing heard than seen.

Big Hollywood columnist Ben Shapiro shared his Top Ten Best Film Composers of All Time this weekend; I disagree with some of his choices, but there are several that are simply magnificent, beginning with his pick for Number 2: Elmer Bernstein.

Bernstein was a prolific composer; his IMDB profile lists 242 titles over 53 years, and some of his work is so good it's become part of the American collective consciousness.

There's no better place to begin than his score for the 1960 blockbuster The Magnificent Seven, starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Eli Wallach and Robert Vaughn.

This is perhaps my favorite theme in the entire canon of cinema soundtracks, a sweeping orchestral piece, so evocative of the West that it stands separate and apart from its film. Give it a listen and then we'll continue.

There are people who've never seen The Magnificent Seven, but instantly recognize the theme; it's truly iconic, reminiscent of Aaron Copland, at least to my untrained ears, not surprising, as Bernstein was Copland's protégé.

Three years later, Bernstein provided the score to another star-studded blockbuster, The Great Escape, also directed by John Sturges, with some of the same cast: Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, along with James Garner, Richard Attenborough and Donald Pleasance.

Based on a real-life mass escape of Allied POWs from German captivity -- and the aftermath -- the movie was lauded by survivors and remains popular for its casting and attention to detail.

Bernstein's score is used to great effect, and stays with the viewer long after the lights come up.

I find myself often whistling the melody, and did so whilst marching in boot camp, albeit very quietly. It's been nearly 40 years since I first heard this, and it instantly evokes scenes from the film in my mind's eye, especially Steve McQueen being escorted back to "The Cooler," and the sound of his baseball thumping off the cell walls and into his glove.

Topping Shapiro's list is Jerry Goldsmith, who scored 250 titles over 53 years. I first heard his work in 1970, when Dad took me and Grandpa to see Patton at the Studio City Theater, now a bookstore, on Ventura Boulevard, just west of Laurel Canyon. The film is most famous for George C. Scott's virtuosic portrayal of the brilliant and troubled general (he won an Oscar, which he refused), especially in the opening scene, with it's iconic monologue delivered against a gigantic American flag hanging behind the beribboned and bemedalled Patton.

But it's the score that's stayed with me over the years, the haunting, plaintive wail of trumpets, martial, echoing, like half-forgotten memories of past lives, past victories, past defeats; fitting, given Patton's belief in reincarnation -- and his belief that he'd walked ancient battlegrounds when the battles were still fresh.

The discordant notes figure prominently when we first view the aftermath of the Allied defeat by the Germans at Kasserine Pass in North Africa, buzzards feasting on the corpses of GIs, and later when Patton stands amidst the ruins of Carthage, telling Omar Bradley:

It was here. The battlefield was here.

The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked by three Roman Legions. The Carthaginians were proud and brave, but they couldn't hold and were massacred. Arab women stripped them of their tunics and their swords and lances.

The soldiers lay naked in the sun ... 2,000 years ago.

I was here.

And Goldsmith's horns softly wail and moan, fading, fleeting ... like all glory.

Chilling. And marvelous.

Goldsmith made effective use of horns again in perhaps my favorite relatively-recent score, L.A. Confidential (1997), starring Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger, Guy Pearce and James Cromwell in director Curtis Hanson's marvelous, gritty, neo-noir adaption of James Ellroy's novel.

There's corruption galore festering just beneath the glittering and glamorous surface of post-war Hollywood and Los Angeles, and Goldsmith's horns capture for me the yearning for lost innocence, the dreams turned to ash and sackcloth, of the cold reality that awaited those who came so eagerly to the City of Angels, and the faint hint of perfume and romance still to be found amongst the ruins of dreams.

Goldsmith and Bernstein are gone, and so too are the kind of scores they wrote. One less reason to buy a ticket at the box office, and why the best films are often playing at home.

Posted by Mike Lief at February 20, 2012 11:21 AM


The movies are a microcosm of what is wrong with so much of today's culture, the inattention to detail. Movie soundtracks, spelling (LOL), customer service, you name it ....

Posted by: Anon at February 20, 2012 08:08 PM