Sound + Vision
"Wait a minute, wait a minute! You aint heard nothin yet!" Its 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.
"My songs mean as much to my audience as yours to your congregation," says Jack (in titles) to his indignant father, and he doesnt 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 aint 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.
Its 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 its 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, Madonnas 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 Stigwoods 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 wasnt 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 youve 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."
Back in 1948, Paramount (and, consequently, other studios) was forced by an antitrust ruling to divest itself of its theater chains. In an attempt to diversify and salvage losses, studios began acquiring or starting up recording arms Paramount bought Dot Records, Columbia began Colpix, United Artists begat UA Records. The trend was reasonably successful for a while, and it was largely responsible for drawing the recording industry to Los Angeles; but it would pale in comparison to the 90s decade of mergers and acquisitions, exemplified by the purchase of both CBS Records and Columbia Pictures by Sony in 1989.
With the Sony deal, the age of corporate synergy had begun in earnest, and just as multinational corporations were now able to produce, promote and distribute movies, soundtracks and videos in-house, the conglomeration extended naturally to consumers. In other words, people now go to the mall, see the movie, then buy the record or toy, or bed sheet or denim jacket. That multivalent approach trickled down to the product as well: Song-driven scores featuring tracks from several different artists offered the extra advantage of maximized purchasing power in the face of ever-outrageous retail prices.
But is it art?
"As you know," Bramson observes, "youve got filmmakers now who so desperately want to sell their film and to market their film that they get into the music and songs for the wrong reasons, purely for the hipness factor or the marketing factor. And I think those are obvious. More often than not, those inspired and amazing films that are so associated with music spawn from that great inspired director."
In the decades after The Jazz Singer, musicals flourished and waned, their songs (and title themes from non-musicals) charted on the Hit Parade and seeped into homes through radios and sheet music. European-born composers, led by Viennese prodigy Max Steiner, the father of Hollywoods "Golden Age" of film scoring, purveyed orchestral soundtracks reeking of Continental dignity and class. Steiner might orchestrate a Berlin tune for Top Hat, George Gershwin might compose a balletic interlude to go with his and brother Iras songs for the Rogers-Astaire vehicle Shall We Dance, but rarely would the proletariat and bourgeoisie of Hollywood film music cross paths.
Cut to 1952. Russian-born, conservatory-trained Dimitri Tiomkin was perhaps one of the more personally flamboyant of the Hollywood Europeans. Maybe it was Tiomkins fondness for Hollywood flash that made him more disposed to associating with the rabble, but whatever the impetus, his score for Fred Zinnemanns High Noon demurred on the days tenden cy toward grand overtures and sweeping ç strings by favoring soft, loping percussion, strumming guitar, lonely harmonica and a title ballad, written with lyricist Ned Washington, the melody of which anchored the scores entire structure. The song, with its plaintive and irresistibly catchy refrain of "Do not forsake me, oh my darling," was sung for the movie by Hollywood cowboy Tex Ritter.
The year High Noon was released, only one movie song topped the Hit Parade, down from a peak 16 in 1936. The sheet music market had collapsed materials used to make LPs were no longer hoarded for the war effort and, with its easy access to whole new musical worlds, sales of recorded music boomed. In this atmosphere of change and diversity, Tiomkins landmark blending of orchestral and popular music may not have been the blow to bring down the wall between the two camps, but, as it prefigured the jazz-minded scores of, say, Henry Mancini, Lalo Schifrin or Quincy Jones, or the Western operatic interludes of Ennio Morricone, it was a sure sign that it was crumbling. Three years later, Blackboard Jungle hit.
Producer Pandro S. Berman had worked on several Rogers-Astaire affairs in the 30s and gone on to great prestige at MGM musicals werent his specialty there, but the producer knew from scoring. It was his decision to put a song by Bill Haley & His Comets over the front and end titles of Blackboard Jungle, a non-musical Richard Brooks film based on the Evan Hunter novel about a sociopathic student body at an inner-city high school. "Rock Around the Clock" had been released as a single the year before and done little, but laid over the opening of the film, as a ramrod-straight Glenn Ford gingerly makes his way through a schoolyard of jeering, whistling, jitterbugging male delinquents, the song takes on a delirious sense of bodily menace and wholesale depravity. When it plays once more over the end credits at the films optimistic conclusion, the songs tone has changed abrubtly to one of rollicking celebration.
"Rock Around the Clock," the first rock song used in a Hollywood movie, became the first rock song from a Hollywood movie to become a No. 1 hit. Meanwhile, police were being called in to control unruly theater crowds, and filmmakers were training their sights on the musics primal possibilities (immediately after Blackboard Jungle, schlockmeister Sam Katzman rounded up Haley and the Comets for a cheap feature called, strangely enough, Rock Around the Clock). As resoundingly as The Jazz Singer had transformed everything 28 years before, Blackboard Jungle had used one song to single out, and thereby legitimize, a burgeoning movement in the most popular of art forms. In so doing, it revealed that, aside from underscoring action, music could be used to signify character. Soon enough, rock and its pop and soul cousins would be appropriated by filmmakers who wanted to describe not only who was making their films, but who was watching or who they wanted to be watching.
With A Hard Days Night, the Beatles found their image radically altered, from insidious corruptors of American youth to four spirited boys who reminded older folks of the Marx Brothers. Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris called the film "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals, the brilliant crystallization of such diverse cultural particles as the pop movie, rock n roll, cinéma vérité, the nouvelle vague, free cinema, the affectedly hand-held camera, frenzied cutting, the cult of the sexless subadolescent, the semidocumentary, and studied spontaneity. So help me, I resisted the Beatles as long as I could."
Mike Nichols used Paul Simons song score for The Graduate to shade a portrait of suburban ennui, while Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix and Moby Grape highlighted a drugged and alienated counterculture in Dennis Hoppers Easy Rider. Sammy Davis Jr. introduced Isaac Hayes as the "Black Moses" at the Oscars, where he would pick up his statuette for the "Theme From Shaft" in a fur-trimmed tux. When movies still offered George Lucas something more than a chance to play with toys, the director wrote song choices into his script for American Graffiti, and created a postmodern Greek chorus.
Today, filmmakers and musicians are increasingly a generation of artists virtually raised on the narrative coupling of moviemaking and pop. "You always had the guys who knew how to use music," says Glen Brunman, executive vice president of Sony Music Soundtrax, the umbrella soundtrack organization for all the Sony labels, and the entity that, in tandem with Sony Classical, unleashed Titanic upon the world. "The Scorseses, the Jonathan Demmes, there were always a handful of directors who really understood music and went out of their way to make it an important part of their storytelling process. But now you have a lot more directors who grew up with music, its been an important part of their lives, and its very natural for them to use it."
For composer and former Devo front man Mark Mothersbaugh, whose work includes music for The Rugrats Movie, Rushmore and the upcoming Drop Dead Gorgeous (as well as TV and interactive games), moving from a rock band to scoring "wasnt really a stretch." Even before MTV, Devo was embracing multimedia presentations replete with manifestos, film and live performance.
"I started forming my thoughts about art and music, as did the rest of my band, during the pop culture of pop art," says Mothersbaugh, who admired Andy Warhols ability to move from medium to medium to "solve whatever aesthetic problems he was dealing with." That all-inclusive approach to the art of popular culture has meant "life after rock & roll" for Mothersbaugh and, apparently, for other pop stars as well. Elton Johns songs for The Lion King helped make the soundtrack the second most successful film score of the 90s (after The Bodyguard and tied with Titanic), and, for better or worse, Phil Collins muscles into the fray this year with songs for Disneys animated version of Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan.
For established artists, song-driven soundtracks offer lower-stakes opportunities to do a cover or try new sounds think Sheryl Crows version of Guns N Roses "Sweet Child o Mine" for Adam Sandlers forthcoming Big Daddy, or Green Days Bond-type instrumental "Espionage" on Austin Powers. For artists low on commercial leverage, a soundtrack is a relatively easy and inexpensive way to gain attention: Christian band Sixpence None the Richer broke their single "Kiss Me" from the soundtrack for the high school Cinderella fling Shes All That given minimal time in the body of the film, the single gained exposure by the films TV advertising.
Talk to anyone in the music business, and theyll tell you that soundtrack fever wont be going away soon. As a graduate of UCLA film school, founder of a record label (Backstreet) and music supervisor on such classic soundtracks as 1982s Cat People, Danny Bramson is a perfect specimen of the pop-culture hybrids powering the fin-de-siècle soundtrack scene. But as he teases with news that hes just finished the score for Stanley Kubricks impending swan song, Eyes Wide Shut, it would probably never occur to him how closely he echoes that first film-music herald, Al Jolson. "Just wait," he says, "till you hear the Kubrick."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.