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A Zeitgeist Thing:
The Music Supervisor and Modern Soundtracks

by Andrew Poppy
[originally published in International Film Guide]


"Music . . . is more and more replacing the sensuality films have lost. . . . In Easy Rider the images have become superfluous . . . they only illustrate the music, rather than the other way round. They are relics of a visual sense that's far more current in music than in pictures, which are shadows of films that could sustain their own beauty or nostalgia or pathos." (Wim Wenders. Emotion Pictures: "Slowly rockin' on." May 1970).

In the last couple of years, pop music and films have become ever more closely linked. Soundtrack albums abound but their content is often more like a sampler or greatest hits record than a classic like Ennio Morricone's The Mission. Received wisdom is that film companies know the route to a younger generation is through pop; record companies realise that a song in a film can introduce the audience to a new artist or revitalise the career of an older one. A marriage made in stock market heaven maybe, but something about it works.

The effect of placing a pop song is sometimes an inspired aesthetic decision. Apocalypse Now would not be the impressive film it is without The Doors' song "The End". This music goes beyond a simple evocation of 1960s youth culture to the heart of a dark mythical drama. The music works with drones, melisma and a modulating pulse in a unique and expressive way. It frames the narrative, giving the concluding ritual sacrifice emotional depth.

Today, the use of ready-made music in films has reached new levels of sophistication and spawned a new player: the music supervisor. Bob Last and Ray Williams were both in pop management before becoming music supervisors. How had the role developed?

Bob Last: "In the States, it originated by people realising that they could package hit singles. It was driven by the studios concerned that MTV were tapping into an audience. You got to a point where, notoriously, the film would crop up later uncut on MTV as the video. I came to it hoping to bring much more. It is different from production to production how the role is defined. It can be purely a technical role and basically a business one. A small part of the producer's job is delegated to you. It's about doing those deals, you simply get a list and get on with it. Of course, what people want you to do is to get it all cheaper. In fact, the only way you can do this is if you have some belief in what it's contributing. You need to be able to work up a certain amount of missionary zeal."

The authenticity of the operation perhaps hinges on whose list of tracks it is and why. Lsat worked on Dennis Potter's Lipstick on your Collar where the songs were written into the script: a writer's list. Presumably The Doors' "The End" in Apocalypse Now was on the director's list. Bob Last: "If Coppola was making that now and there was talk of using this Doors track, people would be jumping up and down, falling over themselves with excitement about the album deal that could be done and then the marketing of the hit single. Undoubtedly, if it was transposed to now, commercially they would have got more exposure for the film out of the music than they did at the time. I don't know whether those business pressures would have ruined it."

The list of tracks can be a mirror of the pragmatism and Realpolitik that producers operate to get films made. If Breaking the Waves, written and directed by Lars von Trier, had not worked as well as it did, the use of early 1970s hits to break up the action would have seemed gratuitous. However, as Ray Williams the music supervisor revealed, David Bowie's "Life on Mars" was the script's inspiration. The character Bess somehow grows out of "the girl with the mousey hair" in Bowie's song. Williams' job was to find other tracks from around 1972 to accompany the postcard images heading each dramatic episode. And do the deals.

When the French financing collapsed, the music budget halved. Williams: "So we had UKP 68,000. All that was going through my head was [we need] at least 30 licences. How are we going to do it? I thought that the record deal and a TV album would be a good way, so I went to see a friend of mine at PolyGram. I was trying to take on board what PolyGram would want from their catalogue, thinking that if I can use a number of their bits and pieces at least I'll be able to do a package deal. I had worked out that we had UKP 2,000 for each licence. In the case of "Life on Mars", I think the quote was UKP 100,000. So we had to sell it on a creative thing, that we were dealing with a great, great director. Lars said, 'I'll do anything for "Life on Mars".' So I got Lars to write a letter to David Bowie explaining how he would use it."

The resulting soundtrack, while diverse, is evocative as a snapshot of pop music life in the early 1970s: Python Lee Jackson, T Rex, Deep Purple, Leonard Cohen, Roxy Music, Mott the Hoople, John Congas, Thin Lizzy, Procol Harem, Elton John, Jethro Tull.

The placing of a pop song as a cultural object is a sophisticated post-modern tactic. How does it affect the traditional role of the classically based composer, whose unifying contribution was/is part of the film-making process? Both Ray Williams and Bob Last admit that there is a conflict but that in their role they can mediate.

Perhaps the notion of a consistent music world is irrelevant today. People are used to hearing music everywhere, from any place and at any time. Bob Last: "If you look back at the fully integrated single composer score working at its best, these people did not conceive of themselves working in that way. These are conceptions coming from the classical art tradition that we have chosen to impose on them." Ray Williams: "I think it is important that the composer has the opportunity to write the entire score with or without the source pieces, because psychologically the score should develop through the film, so by the end the composer can sort of wrap it up."

Jane Campion chose Michael Nyman over Gabriel Yared for The Piano because of his ability to make a complete and identifiable musical world. Michael Nyman: "There is too much music in film and too much variety. There is more variety in the music than in the narrative. The situation should be more controlled. Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone were more controlled and sensitive to the symphonic aspect of what a soundtrack is. 'Symphonic' to me means something about the sense of structure. I hate it when there is source music. If I had the power I would say, I will only do this film on the understanding that there is no source music unless I sanction it."

The success of the soundtrack album for The Piano was unforeseen. Michael Nyman: "We could not get anyone interested for love or money . . . and then suddenly it became flavour of the month, and the soundtrack album has sold millions. Nobody, least of all me, could have predicted it. Maybe it has to do with the film. Maybe it has to do with the music. Maybe it's a Zeitgeist thing."

A Zeitgeist thing maybe, but what about the art form known as marketing? Bob Last: "Marketing in the film business compared to the music business is insanely naive. In the music business, the Trainspotting campaign would have been one in a million in terms of its inventiveness." Last believes that the director can use the pop track like an object of the cultural mise en scène: "The cross-marketing of a hit is something that directors should be aware of. They can get it to grow out of their film. It really is an extension of whatever the film is trying to say."

Trainspotting included the dance music track "Born Slippy" by Underworld. How had Karl Hyde and Rick Smith of Underworld become involved? Rick Smith: "We got this phone call saying some geezer who had done Shallow Grave wanted to use some music, and we went along to see fifteen minutes on an editing bench. The first five minutes we were thinking, oh no, here we go again, someone just focusing on the dark side. Then after ten minutes we were on the floor going, 'this is amazing'. You could tell he was someone you could trust to be sensitive with something.

"We've had half a dozen requests recently to use Underworld music in feature films. It's producers thinking it's a young people's market; it has nothing to do with the spirit of the film." Karl Hyde: "Working with Danny Boyle is a different thing. We can't give something over if we don't feel it's being sympathetic towards the film and the film towards the music. We are far more interested in the integrity of the whole piece and the music together." In Boyle's new film, A Life Less Ordinary, Underworld worked directly with the image, more like traditional screen composers. Karl Hyde: "They came in and said, here's the scene, we don't want an existing track, we want you to go away and be sympathetic."

Somewhere between the management skill of Bob Last and Ray Williams, the dance music of Underworld and the classical approach of Michael Nyman, is Nellee Hooper, a high-profile pop producer with many writing and music producing hits. (In pop music, the producer has a directorial  role and is often responsible for shaping the music during recording.) He takes the 'music by' credit on Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and was music producer and music supervisor. Nellee Hooper: "I wasn't interested at first and then Baz said that he wanted to work solely with me, I wouldn't have to deal with the film company, no one would come to the studio apart from him. So I got the team together, me, Marius De Vries (keyboards and programming) and Craig Armstrong (orchestral arrangements), and we set to it from there. We did a lot of the music before the films was made. The thing I like about Romeo + Juliet is that there are lots of set-pieces. So you would get, almost like a pop promo, lip synching, and the natural rhythm of the scene works with the music that was happening. The music quite often inspired him to shoot different scenes. Which was what I was interested in doing. It's like Once Upon a Time in the West . . . it's actually a musical but not in the traditional sense."

Hooper describes the opening guitar phrase from Radiohead's song "Talk Show Host" as Romeo's inner turmoil theme and it recurs in orchestral elaboration. Nellee Hooper: "At one point, it's woodwind and at another it's a string quartet. Des'ree's "Kissing You" becomes a big love theme. It goes into a 140-piece orchestra from being a string quartet. We consciously went fro a total mixture: Thom Yorke's guitar being taken over by a massive choral thing, we wanted that contrast in the film."

Radiohead's "Exit Music (for a film)" exquisitely articulates the last moment of the story from Romeo's point of view: a lover's death transcending earthly duplicity. It is a musical contribution far beyond the placing of a commercial time bomb. And the song rings truer in spirit than Wagner's "Liebestod" which precedes it.

The irony is that pop music has a life outside the specific demands of images and narrative, outside film's production base also. This gives it the freedom to grow a particular musical identity. The possibilities are further opening up as a new breed of contemporary classical composer (Glass, Schnittke, Nyman) embrace film music as a legitimate area of work. For finally, the use of pop music in film suggests that it is the strength and individuality of musical personalities that drives contemporary film-makers to work with creative musicians.



ANDREW POPPY is a composer committed to a diversity of media. He was Head of Music at The National Film and Television School 1995-97. There are five CDs of his music currently available. [originally published in International Film Guide. © 1997 by Andrew Poppy]
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Created by Keesjan van Bunningen. Last modified on October 4, 1998