Monday, 21 September 2009

Hollywood's Unsung Elite: The Silver Screen's Overlooked Film Composers

Ask someone on the street to name a famous film composer and chances are the name John Williams will spring to their lips. Or if they're into their hip 'n quirky cinema, Danny Elfman. None of this is without reason: Williams' hard work in crafting some of the big screen's most iconic yet accessible themes is unsurpassed in Hollywood, his repertoire including the Star Wars trilogies, Jaws, ET, the Indy flicks and the first two Jurassic Parks. Becoming Stephen Spielberg's composer of choice certainly didn't do any harm.

There are others high on the list, including the four 'J's': Jerry Goldsmith, James' Horner and Newton Howard and John Barry. But what about those that slave (or did slave) away at the bottom of the ladder, generating popcorn thrills without getting a fraction of the attention Williams gets? Film scoring is a vast collage of musicians and styles and it's inevitable some composers get lost in the mix.

Take the late Michael Kamen for example. When he sadly passed away in 2003, film music had lost what was arguably one of its most original voices. Kamen, in the late 1980s, had the great fortune (or misfortune) to become attached to some of the greatest action movies ever made, including the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series', Licence to Kill and Road House, hard-edged, violent, contemporary fare that simply didn't call for the operatics of a Williams or a Horner. As a result Kamen's contribution to the above movies is overlooked...when it is in fact one of their key attributes.

Forgoing OTT tendencies, in Die Hard, Kamen chose instead to accentuate much of the suspense, with careful 'micky-mousing' (all plucked strings and nervy brass) accompanying Bruce Willis' John McClane through every air shaft and narrow corridor. The flipside is the grand integration of Beethoven's 9th Symphony as a leitmotif for Alan Rickman's classically educated baddie, Hans Gruber, highlighting beautifully the dapper, elegant side of the ruthless terrorist who could recognise a John Phillips suit from a mile off. It's an incredibly intellectual and witty way to score an action picture, Kamen's music blending chameleon-like into the very fabric of the film.

This of course means his score gets ignored in the wider scheme of things. There's no Raiders March here although when the composer pulls out the action stops, he's up there with the best of them (the SWAT assault on the tower in Die Hard and Mel Gibson's frantic on-foot pursuit of Gary Busey in Lethal Weapon being notable examples). On the subject of Lethal Weapon, Kamen also demonstrates how successfully a score can cross over into the pop domain, with Eric Clapton and David Sanborn providing their own themes for Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. It's an example of how a consummate composer is egoless enough to hand over the reins to other musicians in order to create the perfect musical tapestry for the film. Kamen's pop skills have also been broadcast elsewhere in his concert work with Metallica.

Another composer who rose to prominence in the 80s was Basil Poledouris (who also recently passed away) and whose effort for Conan the Barbarian is one of the finest fantasy scores ever written. Yet it's unlikely anyone could hum themes from it because, again, it's been overlooked in favour of other scores unveiled in the same year (1982 saw the certain John Williams flavoured picture ET soar through multiplexes). Recent works like Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings also command more attention through their sheer bombast and astonishing variety of themes.

Poledouris' work shamefully wasn't even nominated for an Oscar but it's better than any of Shore's trilogy works simply because it's more important to the film itself. Instead of acting as underscore, the music fills the gaps between the (hilariously wooden) acting and dialogue, becoming a narrative mechanism in its own right, almost akin to an opera. From the thunderous opening Anvil of Crom to the chanting choir for the Riders of Doom to the screeching, grinding Wheel of Pain, Poledouris is always there, accentuating every emotion with careful orchestration and lush themes. Theme writing is a strength of this composer and it's a pity that so much of his work, including Big Wednesday, The Blue Lagoon, Robocop and Starship Troopers, remains an undiscovered treasure trove.

Replicating the sound of John Williams in the 80s but with entirely his own voice was Bruce Broughton who burst onto the stage with scores for Lawrence Kasdan's Silverado and Barry Levinson's Young Sherlock Holmes, both in 1985. The latter is noteworthy as one of the finest scores ever written composed for a family adventure film, with executive producer Stephen Spielberg's influence evident on both film and music. However this isn't to suggest that Broughton's work is a mere pastiche of Williams'. Far from it. Broughton's central theme for Holmes himself is a delightful scherzo but it's in the incidental music that he really shines, crafting moments of terror in the blowpipe hallucination sequences, a chilling choral chant for the sacrificial cult of the Rametep (what is it with 80s kids films and human sacrifice?) and some breathtaking action pieces (the conclusive Ehtar's Final Battle, for those who can track the all-too-rare music down, is one of the most ferocious pieces of action music ever composed).

So where is Broughton now? Disgracefully he is languishing in the bargain basement of inferior TV dramas and animation like Bambi 2. Just imagine what he could have done with Iron Man instead of the hideous noise peddled by Hans Zimmer protege Ramin Djawadi (sensibly, director John Favreau is returning to his usual collaborator, John Debney, for the sequel). One unfortunate by-product of Broughton's brief career in the spotlight was that he simply familiar films that weren't especially good or high profile from Baby's Day Out to Honey I Blew Up The Kid to the remake of Narrow Margin. True it is that Star Wars is hardly the best film ever made but it was a global phenomemon and made pots of money, shooting John Williams into the stratosphere. Who, by contrast, has heard of The Presidio (scored by Broughton)? Me neither.

So where does that leave the consumer? With an absurd assortment of riches! The net, especially Spotify, Youtube and Ebay is primed for everyone to seek out these neglected artists and other composers who haven't warranted a mention. As for all the brouhaha over who's going to score the next Harry Potter (Nicholas Hooper has jumped ship)...give it to Bruce Broughton!

Friday, 11 September 2009

District 9

Sometimes, aborted movies can bear surprising fruit. Take director Neil Blomkamp's new sci-fi thriller District 9, a terrific piece of entertainment that likely would never have got off the ground had his intended project, an adaptation of the videogame Halo, taken shape. Instead, producer Peter Jackson handed him a $30 million meal ticket to make whatever project he wanted.

Blomkamp decided to enlarge his striking short film Alive in Joburg, a mockumentary about the tensions between Johannesberg-slum based aliens and humans. It's not exactly subtle but it's a witty, edgy concept, a nifty allegory that, with more money pumped into its feature length twin, becomes that intelligent yet slightly tongue in cheek blockbuster the summer has been crying out for.

After some preliminary mocko footage, re-establishing the set-up of Alive..., we are introduced to ineffectual Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley, excellent), desk jockey with corportation Multi National United. Wikus' task, as recorded by the film crew, is to round up and serve eviction notices to the million or so 'Prawns' living in the District 9 slum. Already it is clear that Blomkamp is having tremendous fun painting his ideas on a larger scale, with Wikus acting as a crucial point of focus for the audience and much subversive humour being mined out of the interstellar language barriers between the aliens and their oppressors.

Dare one say... apartheid? True it's as understated as a brick through a window but Blomkamp's straight faced (and semi-autobiographical) playing of events helps steer the film through murkier waters when it carefully dispenses with the doco format and mutates into a more generic sci-fi thriller. Heck, it's terrific to finally again have a sci-fi movie with a humane message.

Soon Wikus has been exposed to a particularly nasty brand of ET-Flu, engineered by hero Prawn Christopher who requires the substance for his own ends. With Wikus rapidly transforming into a human-alien hybrid (cue some David Cronenberg-style body horror - Blomkamp wears his influences gleefully), he is hunted by his former employers, and must return to District 9 to form an uneasy alliance that may save his life...

What the director does so brilliantly is take the story in new directions without ever misleading the audience. After all the concept is inherently daft...but the documentary framework very cleverly lends it a sense of being realistic, so it's a smooth progression when the political message is used to power the more conventional good vs evil conflict. And that message is never lost sight of, be it the chief antagonist labelling the increasingly alien Wikus a 'half breed' or the sinister exploitation of the Prawns by the black magic practicing human inhabitants of District 9. If it does threaten to evolve into Transformers, fear not: this has too much of a brain...and, in the closing stages, real heart too.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct

Pacing is an issue in Mesrine: Killer Instinct, the first of a two part bio-epic detailing the rise and fall of Jacques Mesrine, France's most notorious criminal. Before you can say 'sacre bleur', Mesrine has had two wives, emerged as a violent underworld player, and been imprisoned in two countries...and that's just the entree.

What Martin Scorsese managed so well in his 1990 masterpiece Goodfellas was to convey the wider picture of minor mob hierachy, ranging from the teenage years of prospective gangster Henry Hill to his sell-out days as a mob informant. Everything had coherence, every moment added up to a violent, fascinating tapestry of life on the edge. Killer Instinct by contrast feels bitty and lacks substance.

What it does boast however is possibly Eurostar Vincent Cassell's breakout performance. Cassell, who has worked consistently hard since his breakout role in La Haine (which Killer Instinct superficially resembles) is a force of nature as the title character, always skirting on the edge between anti-hero and reprehensible thug.

We begin in situ in a harrowing Algiers-set opening sequence, where Mesrine is enlisted as a soldier during France's colonial occupation. Forced to execute a suspected traitor at point blank range, this is cleverly structured as the genesis of Mesrine's uncompromising criminal character, framing the brutal activities to come. On the return to Paris, his next step is to reject his bourgeois parents' platitudes of a 'normal life' and he soon falls in with a murky crowd, making an impression on local kingpin, Guido (a menacing Gerard Depardieu).

Imagine all of the above crammed into a mere 15 minutes and you have an impression of Killer Instinct's breathless pace. With such a fascinating life to cover, director Jean-Francois Richet has created a rod for his own back in attempting to cram his film with incident rather than insight. There's such a rush to portray Mesrine's rise to fame (in preparation for the second installment), that the story loses credibility, although certain vignettes crackle with slow burning tension (Mesrine and Guido's nighttime disposal of a pimp builds suspense to nail-biting proportions all through carefully timed glances).

It's a pity that such depth only occasionally breaks forth; indeed, the film's subtle indictment of France's colonial policy, as witnessed in the opening scene and later on, lend it the edge it so desperately needs. Thankfully events are better staged in the latter half when Mesrine conducts a pulse pounding Canadian prison break before recklessly returning to take the guards on himself. Here, finally, the film is content to let the anti-hero's psyche speak for itself, to let the implications of violence and criminality sink in through extended, leisurely set-ups rather than chopping and changing throughout the decades. The climactic callous act of violence may in fact tell us we have underestimated the troubling character we have just spent two hours with...complexities that can only deepen in the second installment.