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Music, for the special touch

FILM SCORING is an art. And Hollywood is nearly in danger of forgetting that. Compilation scores — loosely strung together pop songs — are what make a soundtrack today. The original instrumental film score has taken a backseat. The last number on a compilation track will read: Theme music by Danny Elfman. Or fill in the names of any of the great film composers or your own favourites — what their music score has been reduced to is seven minutes of playing time when it was once the entire soundtrack. The reason? Financial, not artistic. Compilations sell, original soundtracks don't. Exceptions: Vangelis's ``Chariots of Fire" and James Horner's ``Titanic," which, with its orchestral sweep and New Age style choral touches overtook the legendary Vangelis score as the top selling instrumental film score of all time.

I thought I had some idea of what a film soundtrack meant to a movie but it was not until I saw ``The Mission" and heard Ennio Morricone's great score that I realised how a film score can actually become the movie. Austere and spiritual, it always fills me with joy and sadness each time I see the film. Sometimes I hear just the soundtrack on a CD and it is enough to move me to tears. In his autobiography, David Putnam, producer of ``Chariots of Fire," tells us that he and director, Hugh Hudson, saw a rough cut of the film without the Vangelis soundtrack and came out impressed but unmoved. A week later they saw it with his soundtrack and described the experience as exhilarating. "I didn't understand what had happened," noted Putnam, "It was the same film and yet it wasn't." Hudson often says: "Vangelis's score is the film."

The compilation trend began with ``The Big Chill" soundtrack in 1983. A classic rock compilation to evoke the sound and feel of the 1960s, it got on to the Billboard chart and went platinum. In the 1990s, it was ``Forrest Gump." The studios rushed in - why hadn't they thought of this before? They tied in with record labels. At first it was only a period movie - something nostalgically set in the 1950s and 1960s - that had rock and roll compilations.

In the 1990s, however, pop songs totally took over. The official Batman soundtrack was songs by Prince and not the Elfman score! Rap, house music, rave and grunge were arbitrarily shoved into a movie. When you saw the movie, all you heard from the soundtrack was a snatch. Sometimes the songs on the album weren't even in the movie! Because it would say: "Songs from and inspired by `Four Weddings and a Funeral.' It got so ridiculous that Newsweek ran an article in 1995 called: ``How to Sell A Soundtrack: First Ignore the Movie." What also replaced film scores in the late 80s and 90s was the use of classical music and opera.

Interestingly (and hopefully) Indian films are just making a start with original soundtracks: Sandeep Chowta's background score for Ram Gopal Varma's ``Satya." Our movies haven't — and will not — abandon the six songs formula but once in a way you see that one of the tracks is the theme: for instance, A. R. Rahman's memorable flute theme for Mani Ratnam's ``Bombay" and Ilayaraja's evocative score for ``Hey Ram." The background scores of Vanraj Bhatia. Satyajit Ray, of course, composed theme music for his own films.

Sometimes I wonder if film scores, so lush and orchestral, are not the classical music of today? Not in their musical complexity, of course, but in melody and emotional intensity. Many of the composers actually were (and are) trained classical music composers and conductors: Max Stiener (``King Kong") Alex North (``A Streetcar Named Desire"), Georges Delerue (``Jules et Jim") Nina Rota (``The Godfather") Bernard Hermann (``Vertigo") Maurice Jarre (``Lawrence of Arabia") Jerry Goldsmith (``Chinatown") John Williams (``Star Wars") Michael Nyman (``The Piano"), Tan Din (``Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and Philip Glass (``Kundun"). Moody and subtle, film soundtracks also strike me as contemporary jazz suites: Dave Grusin for ``Falling in Love" and ``Three Days of the Condor" and Mike Figgis's for ``Leaving Las Vegas."

What would the shower scene in ``Psycho'' be without Bernard Hermann's jangling violins? The Pink Panther credits without Henry Mancini's jazzy theme. The running sequences in ``Chariots of Fire" without Vangelis's exhilarating background score? ``The opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey" without Richard Straus' Das spake Zarathustra? The James Bond titles without John Barry's dangerous, dashing score that has become a signature tune? The Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood ``For a Few Dollars More" series without the Ennio Moriccone tunes? And the ``Mission Impossible" titles without Lalo Schifrin's score? Add your own favourite movie-music moments to the list and you'll see without the music, it isn't even the same movie anymore.

(The author can be contacted at pradeepsebastian@hotmail.com Visual by Netra Shyam, poet, illustrator and artist in Bangalore.)

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

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