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Memphis Flyer Instant Soundtrack!

By Stephen Grimstead

MAY 4, 1998:  This is arguably bigger than the Titanic. Bigger, even, than the dubious and pervasive “date movie” phenomenon itself. This is about the movie industry’s tendency to substitute pseudo-topical pop music for well-conceived, captivating scores – soundtracks composed by artists who vigorously endeavor to coordinate their efforts with those of the director, screenwriter, cinematographer, etc.

This is about cinematic Hamburger Helper.

Not that the incorporation of pop music within the sonics of a motion picture is, as a matter of course, a crime against creativity. Many great and interesting movies have utilized (and have, on occasion, been driven by) vulgate noise. But anyone who has alertly experienced the successful union of intriguing visuals, well-written dialogue, and sympathetic music understands the difference between a fully integrated, masterfully realized work of art and some slapdash attempt at procuring the youth market’s highly disposable income.

Circumstances have degenerated to the point where it’s now very difficult for me to refrain from prejudiciously dismissing the possible merits of a movie when its corporate hawkers (promotional professionals, you know) make a big deal of the fact that the flick is loaded with groovy tunes from 15 or 20 of MTV’s biggest cash-cows. Talk about a red flag! Screw Ice Cube, screw Oasis, and I don’t even want to discuss Celine Dion. Give me Elmer Bernstein, John Barry, John Williams, Ennio Morricone, Marvin Hamlisch, early Quincy Jones, and Henry Mancini (R.I.P.). Hell, give me Danny Elfman or Ry Cooder (two of several venerable rockers who know where the theatre exits are located and have no trouble distinguishing Goobers from Raisinets).

So, when is the presence of pop music in a motion picture a positive thing, an experience-enhancing thing? For starters: When it doesn’t sound like some middle-management suit throwing darts at a copy of the latest Billboard Hot 100 in order to choose the most bottom-line-friendly collection of aural rubbish by which his corporate masters might hope to ensure a particular demographic turnout at the box office. (A maneuver which, in turn, ultimately translates into an impressive showing at the corporation’s next quarterly accounting … which, of course, keeps that particular soulless ass-kissing dart-tossing wanker in a position of perpetual strength and influence.)

Vicious cycle, huh? As always, art is in jeopardy when the artists rely too heavily upon the bean counters to provide paint and canvas.


Quentin Tarantino’s use of “found” music and pop noise in his films is fairly righteous.
Quentin Tarantino’s use of pop noise is fairly righteous, and the same can be said for a number of similarly strong, vision-bound filmmakers. Why is that? For one thing, Tarantino and his ilk aren’t so damned gratuitous when decision-time rolls around regarding the insertion of such music into the cinematic mix. However, it’s important to note that period pieces and period approaches (as in Tarantino’s obsessiveness regarding ’70s tunes) sort of ease – or grandfather – pop music into the realm of cinema in ways not available to those filmmakers who don’t function in quite that fashion.

Nonetheless, good for Tarantino. And good for people like Stanley Kubrick, a filmmaking icon whose rep was initially established partially as a result of his tendency to juxtapose classical music pieces (pieces which carried an enormous amount of import in more than one region of the popular mind) with often seemingly incongruous imagery. Who can forget the first time they encountered Johann Strauss in space? Béla Bartók at the Overlook Hotel? Ludwig Van as filtered through wicked little Alex’s world-view?

And so on. Obviously, “found” music can be used to brilliant effect. I just wish it were more often gracefully introduced as a legit complement to movies of intrinsic substance, and less often shoved into every gaping nook and cranny of the insubstantial junkers that endlessly tumble from movieland’s 24-7 assembly line.

Think back to the last time you watched one of the more recent Hot 100-infested date movies: Didn’t it feel like you had endured two hours of really lousy music videos, “held together” by the most hackneyed of “plots”? Now, think back to the last time you watched one of the older versions of the same type of crap (oh, let’s say one of the John Hughes Brat Pack embarassments). It was very much like opening an old refrigerator full of rotting food, right?

Lastly, think about the earliest and latest times you heard Elmer Bernstein’s thrilling score inform and punctuate Robert Mulligan’s/Horton Foote’s/Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird.

Still want to Wang Chung tonight?



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