Quentin Tarantino, Portishead, N.W.A and Bruce Lee walk into a bar. They all head for the jukebox at the same time. Since this is a fictional bar that caters to such an eclectic collection of cool customers, we must assume said jukebox's choices are pretty amazing. After some initial bickering, however, they all miraculously agree on one selection: one of the many, always assured soundtrack compositions by the one and only Lalo Schifrin.
Schifrin's oeuvre of more than 100 soundtracks for movies and television (plus the occasional video game and graphic novel) has inspired countless musicians, directors, performers, programmers and orchestras. Tarantino's latest, Inglourious Basterds, repurposes a military cue from Schifrin's 1970 score for the Clint Eastwood vehicle Kelly's Heroes. Portishead's instantly recognizable "Sour Times" is built around a sample from the composer's moody "Danube Incident," from one of his Mission: Impossible scores. Even O.G. badasses N.W.A derived some of the menace in "Approach to Danger" from the decidedly un-gangsta Schifrin soundtrack to Dirty Harry.
Then there's Bruce Lee, who was very excited when he was told Warner Bros. had commissioned Schifrin to score his breakthrough U.S. movie, Enter the Dragon — back in Hong Kong, Lee liked to practice in his dojo to the rhythm of the maestro's unquestionable masterpiece, the Mission: Impossible theme.
Still active at 77, Schifrin is one of the last of the great cult soundtrack composers of the 1960s and 1970s, a stellar roster that includes Henry Mancini, Jerry Goldsmith, Nino Rota and the godfather of them all, Ennio Morricone. And he's very much active: When interviewed recently in his cozy Beverly Hills home (previously owned by Groucho Marx), Schifrin was preparing to depart for Ireland, where he's to conduct a program of suites arranged from his soundtracks, at Dublin's National Concert Hall.
"I had to write special arrangements," he says in the award-lined work cottage behind his home, "because sometimes what you write as film cues doesn't work for a concert hall. I can actually develop it further, because I don't have the images to lean on, and I have to entertain the audience with music alone."
Schifrin is excited to work with a full orchestra. "The musicians are buenisimos," he says, with the no-nonsense authority of a man who trained in 1940s Buenos Aires under exiled disciples of Schoenberg, and later in Paris (where he went on a prestigious scholarship after World War II) with Olivier Messiaen and the other imposing personages of the Conservatoire.
Schifrin has always found ways to combine his classical training with more popular yet equally complex forms, like tango and jazz — and in the early 1970s, even outright funk. "I still compose a lot of [non-soundtrack] classical music," he proudly announces. "An orchestra in Detroit is about to perform my 'Tangos Concertantes for Violin and Orchestra,' and I get many commissions from chamber groups, symphonies and soloists."
Like Morricone, whom he admires enormously, Schifrin sees himself as a composer in the classical tradition, who just happens to work in the 20th-century version of mass entertainment.
"I would tell anyone who's interested in composing for film to go see a lot of opera," Schifrin advises, "and to listen to it, not on record, but live, at the theater. You have to see the spectacle. In the 19th century, before the movies came along, when people wanted to see something combining drama, comedy or tragedy, acting, music, costumes, they'd go to the opera. And even in the early days of film, the studios and the theaters hired piano players or whole orchestras to play along with the silent films. It's necessary."
And that's one of the secrets to Schifrin's success and of his survival in the highly competitive world of film scoring: He sees movie work as a job he takes seriously (he retains the intensity of the dutiful conservatory boy) and also as a continuum with the great orchestral traditions of mass entertainment. "Technologies might change, but music is still an integral part of [a film]," he says. "It doesn't matter what kind of story. I recently went to see that movie ... what's that movie where they get drunk?"
"Yes, that one. The music works very well on that one," he says, and then lowers his voice to add: "Though I'm not sure we should be discussing this. I was a member of the executive branch of the Academy, and I can't really show favoritism for anyone. It's an ethical question. But I liked the movie, and the music worked well."
Alas, Christophe Beck's score for The Hangover was not nominated for an Oscar this year. But Schifrin's concern for ethics shows his regard for the considerable work that goes into creating any original score, no matter the project. One of his biggest worries is what he sees as a cost-cutting industry trend toward "assembled" soundtracks, like the Robbie Robertson–curated score for Scorsese's current thriller, Shutter Island, or even Tarantino's recent recycling of Schifrin's own 1970s work.