Maybe you’re old school, and love the swelling, bombastic scores of Max Steiner and Wolfgang Maria Korngold – or perhaps you’re a rocker and have King Creole or The Girl Can’t Help It constantly on your turntable. Maybe you love the swinging sixties spy vibe, and have John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, and Hugo Montenegro loaded into you iPod. Ennio Morricone, Piero Piccioni, Bruno Nicolai, and Mario Nascimbene have legions of fans with their sophisticated Euro sounds – are you one of them? Does John Williams theme from Jaws still send shivers up your spine?
With a bit of help from a few friends, over the next week or so, I am going to be looking at movie soundtracks – from spy films and beyond. I am going to drag out some of that old vinyl and shine a light on a few of my favourites – and hopefully serve up a few aural gems that you’ve never heard before.
Today I am joined by, Carol Borden, who draws out the best in comics at the, Cultural Gutter. She shares her five favourite soundtracks below.
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If I were to base this on composers I love, it would probably be very different. But then, if you asked me on another day, it would be different. Top 5 or 10 or even 20 lists and I are not good friends.
In The Mood For Love (2001) by Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi
I sigh to this soundtrack late at night. Director Wong Kar-Wai and composer/violinist Michael Galasso’s In The Mood For Love soundtrack represents how well music can work with a movie and how good a soundtrack thoughtfully combining original composition and music by other composers and artists can work with a film. Zhao Xuan’s “Hua Yang De Nian Hua” provides crackly radio nostalgia. Nat King Cole’s covers of Bebel Gilberto classics provide romantic polish to a glossy, stylish film. But what I like best about the soundtrack is the strings. Composers and bands often use saccharine sweet string arrangements, but the real power of a violin is its ability to evoke a rough, raw, yearning ache, and Michael Galasso does that so well in his original compositions and in his arrangement of “Yumeji’s Theme,” from Shigeru Umebayashi’s soundtrack for Seijun Suzuki’s Yumeji.
Night On Earth (1992) by Tom Waits
Tom Waits and Jim Jarmusch are amazing together. I probably like Jarmusch’s Down By Law better as a film, and love all the Waits songs used in that soundtrack. But Waits’ Night On Earth soundtrack fits perfectly with the film, all thumping bass, crooked horns, sad piano, acidic electric guitar and old country accordion. Waits provides different arrangements of a theme to mark the same night experienced by cab drivers in 5 different cities: Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki. And there are variations on two songs he and Kathleen Brennan wrote for the film, “Back In The Good Old World” and “On The Other Side Of The World.” Good for listening to while driving on dark, snowy winter nights.
The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974) by David Shire
For the record, there is no other version of The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three. There is only the one directed by Joseph Sargeant, starring Walter Matthau and scored by David Shire. Shire was a prolific composer of 1960s and 1970s soundtracks, but this is my favorite of his. It’s a perfect synecdoche of 1970s film soundtracks. Again, I like the variations on a theme—particularly the expanded arrangement of the opening them for the end credits. I love the squonking brass echoing street noise and the sounds of the subway, and the complex percussion scoring. Frankly, one of the best inspirations musicians have ever had is the train. I imagine that this is exactly how badass Fun City sounded like in the 1970s.
Tokyo Drifter (1966) by Hajime Kaburagi
Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter is almost more a musical than a yakuza movie. The set design is highly stylized and the color is saturated. And the film opens with protagonist Tetsuya Watari singing, “Tokyo Drifter/ Tokyo Nagaremono.” Watching the movie, it’s easy to think that’s the only song in the soundtrack as it is arranged, reprised, answered and whistled through the film and into your mind. But Chieko Matsubara sings jazzy, operatic elegies in club scenes, including a variation, “Chechez Le Vagabond” and “Furi Furi” by “group sounds” band, The Spiders. Suzuki’s movies are all notable for their jazzy soundtracks, but what makes me choose Tokyo Drifter over, say, Branded To Kill is the way one song infuses an entire film, as if the whole film is just an elaboration of it. Even Chieko Matsubara’s last song, interrupted by the final showdown, bleeds easily into “Tokyo Drifter’s” final reprise. The song itself has become iconic and you can find many interpretations online, from shamisen arrangements to Japanese Academic Punks w/Tokyo Big Beat Junky’s ska version.
Yojimbo (1961) by Masaru Sato
Yojimbo might be the most satirical and catchy as hell soundtrack I’ve ever heard. With his mix of modern and traditional instrumentation, Sato punctuates scenes, underscores the humor in Yojimbo and amplifies mood, whether in a nameless samurai’s decision to follow one path over another, hired swords working up the courage to fight or a young mother’s heartfelt, though foolishly-timed, thanks. The “Burlesque” dance number, in particular, is one of my favorite pieces in the movie for the way it presents a straightforward scene—prostitutes dancing as an enticement for the wandering ronin—and just undercuts the seriousness and slyness of the madame’s scheme. If the theme from The Taking of Pelham One Two Three captures the subway, Yojimbo’s theme really captures rambling along dirt roads. I imagine that Sato just recorded the natural soundtrack that followed Toshiro Mifune around during the whole Yojimbo shoot.
(If I were to choose one soundtrack to represent the best in soundtracks, it would be Ennio Morricone’s The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, which somehow feels like a chorus out of ancient Greek drama, commenting on the film. Also, “The Ecstasy of Gold” graveyard sequence makes my hair stand on end).
Carol Borden is one of the team at Cultural Gutter, a website that ‘takes trash seriously.’ The site is updated Thursday afternoon with a new article about an artistic pursuit generally considered to be beneath consideration. Carol Borden draws out the best in comics, James Schellenberg probes science-fiction, Chris Szego dallies with romance and Alex MacFadyen stares deeply into the screen.