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Sound + Vision 

Music and the movies

Wednesday, Jun 23 1999
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"Wait a minute, wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!" It’s a famous quote, this interjection from Al Jolson in Warner Bros.’ Vitaphone feature The Jazz Singer. On October 6, 1927, audience members first heard Jolson shout out the phrase between super-sassy renditions of "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face" and "Tootsie, Goodbye" — when it burst forth from the screen, the crowd went wild.

"Hard-boiled indeed will be the audience that refrains from spontaneous bursts of applause during the singing," wrote an enraptured critic for Moving Picture World. "Unresponsive indeed will be the throng that fails to feel the quivers reaching straight to the heart when the ineffably sweet, pure notes of Cantor Rosenblatt intone the cadences of the impressive ‘Yahrzeit.’"

It was clear then there was no going back, and if you watch The Jazz Singer today, the excitement is still palpable. A soaper about Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor who turns his back on tradition to become Broadway star Jack Robin, the film is actually a silent embellished with musical numbers. When Jolson is performing, though, the film sparks into effulgent life. Jolson is practically a cheerleader for the new era of moviemaking, but his famous outburst signaled far more than the birth of the talkies, or even musicals, for that matter.

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"My songs mean as much to my audience as yours to your congregation," says Jack (in titles) to his indignant father, and he doesn’t know how right he is. Consider the timelessness of the plea, contrast the raucous jazz tunes with the schmaltzy underscore and note that Jolson, with his wild eyes, undulating body and Afro-charged vocals, is no less than a rock-star prototype, a ragtime Jagger, and "You ain’t heard nothin’ yet" becomes a slogan for the future, a sign of the times when, over the course of a century, Hollywood and popular music would grow into each other inextricably.

It’s obvious today that Film music occupies a significant place in the pop landscape — that each year since 1992 has seen multiple multiplatinum soundtracks (one apiece in ’90 and ’91), that people like Celine Dion are ruling the world on the strength of event-movie title themes, that no big film is released unaccompanied by ç a heavily promoted soundtrack, that song-driven (as opposed to instrumental) film scores are now the norm and that they have settled into a brisk and seemingly unstoppable stride.

In turn, movies themselves are making more room than ever for song scores and their attendent marketing boons. Released on June 11, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me illustrates one of the more perfect unions of film and music, in terms of both the shape of the picture and score, and the formidable scope of their promotion. The song score features tracks from the likes of R.E.M., Madonna, Lenny Kravitz and Quincy Jones, most of which are woven into the title or end credits or the body of the picture, which frequently views like a music video itself. Other tracks, such as the Flaming Lips’ "Buggin’" or "Alright" by the Lucy Nation, are not — they might fit the flavor of the score, but they also happen to be cuts on the bands’ own upcoming albums and are apparently, as is the fashion these days, along for the promotional ride. And what a ride it’s shaping up to be — the week that Austin Powers the movie was released, Austin Powers the soundtrack, released a week beforehand, debuted on the Billboard album chart at No. 14. Meanwhile, Madonna’s swell excursion into summertime psychedelia, "Beautiful Stranger," released to radio three weeks before the film, was moving its way up the Hot 100.

In the ’80s, movie music supervisor Danny Goldberg popularized the term "synergy" to describe the workings of film and music cross-promotion. At that time, the respective industries were still high on the success of Robert Stigwood’s RSO records, an unprecedented if fleeting late-’70s phenomenon that churned out chart-topping soundtracks for Saturday Night Fever and Grease and, in the process, revolutionized the ways in which film music was conceived and promoted. But the popularity of song-driven scores still rose and fell over the next decade, an ancillary aspect of the industry goosed here and there by a Big Chill or a Dirty Dancing, and given an extra promotional dimension in 1981 by the introduction of MTV. It wasn’t until the commencement of the ’90s that things began to change, and that "synergy" began to take on new meaning.

"The soundtrack game through the years had been that cyclical thing," says Danny Bramson, senior vice president of Soundtrack Development/Warner Bros. Inc. and producer of the Austin Powers soundtrack. "Think about the feeding frenzy you saw after the great RSO soundtracks — you’ve always seen those benchmarks that have spawned and re-stirred the interest, but now, with these huge media empires under the cloak of huge multinational corporations, this is no longer a cyclical or one-off novelty. This has become a core area for any record label."

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