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The sound of silents
on November 29, 2011
Each year, around this time, an unexpected art house film emerges as a critical darling with Academy Awards potential. It happened to Life is Beautiful in 1998, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in 2000, Brokeback Mountain in 2005, Juno in 2007, Slumdog Millionaire in 2008, Precious in 2009... the list goes on and on. In 2011, that film could be The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius's story about a silent movie matinee idol in 1920s Hollywood whose career is threatened by the advent of sound in motion pictures. The difference here, unlike those other films, is that The Artist is a silent film itself, shot in black and white and in such a way that the style and tone of the piece mirrors the very films in which Hazanavicius's protagonist appears. The movie stars Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle and Penelope Ann Miller, and has already opened to great critical acclaim in the United States.
Back in the early part of the 20th century, films were often accompanied by a live pianist performing `photoplay music', or by an orchestra performing classical music of the day, to accentuate the mood of the film. Occasionally directors would hire composers to write original music that would be played during the film's performance - the first recorded instance of this was in 1908 when the revered classical composer Camille Saint-Saëns wrote 15 minutes of original music for the historical drama L'Assassinat du duc de Guise, and later Joseph Carl Breil's wrote a significant score for D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in 1915 - but the first feature-length film with synchronized sound effects and a pre-recorded musical soundtrack was the 1926 film Don Juan, which had a score by William Axt and David Mendoza, and came out a year before Al Jolson changed the world with The Jazz Singer. It is against this backdrop, and with these early stylistics in mind, that French composer Ludovic Bource approached The Artist.
Ludovic Bource scored the director's previous three features - Mes Amis in 1999, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies in 2006 and OSS 117: Lost in Rio in 2009 - as well as a handful of short films and a 2009 documentary called Nous Resterons Sur Terre, but other than that is a virtual unknown, both inside France and internationally. This could all change with The Artist. Being a silent film, with all that implies (no audible dialogue, no sound effects), the music for The Artist takes on a whole new dimension, having to convey every emotion, every nuance, and every direction of the story without overwhelming the film. In his research prior to writing the music, Bource looked at the scores from Charlie Chaplin's films, as well as early works by composers such as Max Steiner, Franz Waxman and Bernard Herrmann, trying to re-create that classic sound in 2011. Remember, no-one has really scored films like this since 1936, when Charlie Chaplin released Modern Times, the last significant conventional "silent film" made before talkies became the dominant entertainment media.
On the whole, Bource has succeeded admirably, recapturing the sound of the earliest part of the Golden Age, while simultaneously crafting a score which is thematically appealing and enjoyable to modern audiences - no mean feat. Having said that, listeners unused to hearing the unashamedly romantic stylings that flourished during that period, or who are not accustomed to a total and utter lack of subtlety in their film music, are likely to be confused or, worse still, totally turned off by The Artist's intentionally old-fashioned sound.
Parts of The Artist have a Franz Waxman sound from his Bride of Frankenstein years; elsewhere, it could be Alfred Newman, Cole Porter, Gershwin, Charlie Chaplin, Carl Stalling, or an early Disney underscore by composers like Leigh Harline or Frank Churchill. At other times, Bource seems to be intentionally channeling the big romantic symphonic repertoire of the 19th century via composers such as Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel and Brahms, all to generally excellent effect. Be aware that I'm not saying that Bource is being unoriginal with these references; it's all done to illustrate the musical conventions of a specific time and a specific place, and Bource does it with all the flair and panache of a true homage.
The theme for the main character, "George Valentin", is an infectiously upbeat string-based strut, with a prominent xylophone part and a virtuoso piano line, capturing the easy breezy life of a man about town in the golden age of silent cinema. The theme and it's orchestrations are carried over into the charming romantic piece for "Pretty Peppy", George's romantic interest, and into later cues such as the lovely and lush "Fantasie d'Amour", and the quirky "Jungle Bar".
Everything about the score is larger than life; the classic Hollywood flourishes of the opening "Artist Ouverture"; the adventurous brass phrasing and mickey-mouse Korngold-inspired action music of "1927: A Russian Affair" or "Silent Rumble", the beautiful romantic piano solo in "Comme Une Rosée de Larmes", and the stark and dissonant "L'Ombre des Flammes", which has a wonderfully chaotic and occasionally unexpectedly brutal action music conclusion that could have come straight from Steiner's King Kong. "In the Stairs" has a hesitant, almost childlike idyll, with a pretty piano line and blushing, swooning strings accompanied by delicate woodwinds, chimes and harp glissandi, capturing perfectly the burgeoning relationship between the two leads. Conversely, the more tragedy-laden "The Sound of Years" has a sense of both despondent yearning in its lower-register string writing and sweeping, grand guignol heartbreak when the violins pick up the lead of the piece during it's second half.
The score concludes in outstanding fashion, beginning with the charming and sweeping "Happy Ending", which as one might imagine is filled with lush romantic strings and flighty flute impressions. The violence of the shadow of flames from earlier in the score reappears in the rather shocking penultimate cue, "Ghosts from the Past", before everything comes to a solemn, tragic end in "My Suicide", a moving string lament which restates the Sound of Tears theme and finishes the score proper on a largely downbeat, but appropriate note of large-scale pathos.
The conclusive jazz piece, "Peppy and George", re-arranges and re-orchestrates George's buoyant theme for the big band sound of Benny Goodman, complete with a faithful homage to the classic Gene Krupa big drum sound. A couple of source cues and songs, ranging from a performance of Alberto Ginastera's ballet Estancia (which is slightly anachronistic as it was written in 1941), Duke Ellington's "Jubilee Stomp" and songs by Jay Livingston and Johnny Burke, round out the album, adding to the 1920s feel.
If The Artist continues to wow critics in independent theaters across America, and if I know the way the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thinks - and I'm usually pretty good as predicting these things - then this score will likely take home the Oscar for Best Original Score next spring. I'm not saying this is the best score of the year - there are several which rank above it on my own personal list - but this is exactly the kind of thing the Academy likes to honor. Foreign composer, arty film, not likely to pick up many other awards in other categories... it ticks all the right boxes, for sure. It also helps that the score is genuinely very good in and of itself, despite - or perhaps because of - its authentic period sound and sensibility, which is likely to alienate younger listeners more attuned to Remote Control power anthems, but will utterly delight others.