Movie music is a kind of twilight genre living somewhere between the glamour of pop and the high-hat respectability of supposedly "serious" concert music. You can usually find it listed under "Soundtracks" at the end of the line at your favorite music emporium.
But appreciation for film composers has been increasing in recent years. As local composer Michael Schelle points out in his nifty anthology of interviews with these artists, The Score: "In many ways, these younger composers stand at the forefront of a natural evolution of our country's struggle for a musical self-perspective."
Milan Records is a somewhat obscure but mighty purveyor of CDs based on music delivered by movies. Milan's catalogue is eclectic, a nice mix of what's old, new and repackaged. Milan has responded to the holidays with a flurry of new releases, four of which are presented here for your consideration.
I Heart Huckabees is a collection of music and songs by Jon Brion for the existential comedy directed by David O. Russell. In his liner notes, Russell says he and Brion agreed on a sound inspired by the likes of Burt Bacharach and the Beatles. Brion comes pretty close. Actually, what we have here sounds more reminiscent of XTC by way of Marshall Crenshaw. The tracks feel like sunny miniatures, at their best like Joseph Cornell boxes - if Cornell drove a convertible and lived in a motel off the Sunset Strip. The instrumentation is small ensemble, featuring lots of nicely arranged details involving, by turns, harp, flute and euphonium. Think of it as a Strawberry Fields smoothie.
For those in a more vintage mood, Milan offers a collection of film scores by the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, with another film legend, the late Elmer Bernstein, conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Herrmann wrote for a tremendous range of films, from Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver. He is probably best known for his work with Alfred Hitchcock on such classics as Psycho, North By Northwest and Vertigo - all of which are represented on this disc. Herrmann fans will doubtless dig finding this trove of their favorite's greatest hits so lovingly recorded. Casual listeners, though, may find most of this material dated. Hitch clearly brought out the best in Herrmann, pushing him into a more modernist mode. Otherwise, with but a few exceptions, the melodrama on Bernard Herrmann Film Scores: From Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver is pretty thick.
Moro No Brasil is another deal entirely. "I live in Brazil" is how this title translates. It goes with a film by Mika Kaurismaki, a documentary about the street musicians he's found in his adopted country. Listen to this album while cleaning the house: Your place will be spic and span in no time - and you'll feel like you've been to a party. The music here tracks the roots of samba, teasing out the Indian, Portuguese and African influences as they are now found in their natural habitats. Kaurismaki calls what he's done "a musical road movie." What we get may be the Brazilian equivalent of Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? "Music plays a big role in the minds of the Brazilan people," Kaurismaki writes. "Music for them is often like a ritual, a way of survival and a means to gain self-esteem." Lovers of roots music, rejoice.
Finally, Milan brings us Ultra Noir, an unabashedly gorgeous collection of pieces culled from this seemingly inexhaustible genre. As the name suggests, film noir evokes darkness, the underside of life. In the movies, this means heartbroken tough guys and ruthless dames, the people who are left to make the best of society's mess. The liner notes for this CD claim this music is the sound of evil.
Wrong. A listen to these works by the likes of Pino Donaggio, Miklos Rozsa, Carter Burwell, Christopher Young, Hans Zimmer, Jerry Goldsmith and Angelo Badalamenti proves that the source of noir ain't evil but melancholy. The performances here are by a variety of orchestras and ensembles, but the recordings have been remastered, thoughtfully juxtaposed and are rendered with a pristine consistency. Movie history is represented (The Laura Suite and, yes, Herrmann's prelude to North By Northwest) but this CD is primarily a showcase for the younger composers that Schelle finds so attractive. Ultra Noir is an after-hours pleasure.