It’s impossible to see an Almodóvar film and not come away a) raptured and b) contemplating what it means to create art and to live as an artist, and Dolor y Gloria gives more fodder to the latter than any of his films for at least a decade.
I’d heard that this was “a return to form” or a “comeback” (both impossible: Almodóvar has never lost his way.) I’d also heard it was a new direction for him, a departure from his earlier films, and here I also disagree: it is a deeper exploration of themes and techniques that have been a consistent part of his work for decades:
Mother-son relationships. The art of filmmaking. Self-medication via illicit drug use. Stories told in several temporal layers. Rural Catholic education. Young boys singing and reading. Unrealized desire. Hospitals and death. City/village life. Theatrical performances (featuring audience members crying.)
There’s also the cast, including Penélope Cruz, Antonio Banderas, Cecilia Roth, and Augustín Almodóvar’s obligatory cameo. And certain stylistic elements that make Almodóvar Almodóvar, particularly his bold use of color and the inclusion of fine art in almost every shot. And let us not forget the unforgettable music of Alberto Iglesias.
What’s amazing is that, given the consistency of the tropes, themes, and tone palette with which he builds his films, each one crystalizes in a unique way, based on the weighting each element receives.
[A side note: I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I’ve deepened my appreciation of the music of Herbert Howells. Just think about how many times he set the phrase, “my soul doth magnify the Lord.” He uses similar melodic gestures and harmonic structures in all his canticles, and yet, some sound ancient and ethereal, others bluesy and grounded.]
Most importantly, the film offers a beautiful answer to the question “why do we create?” Put simply, it’s for the physical and mental health of the creator.
That’s an answer that I resonate with deeply. I’ll never reap fame or fortune from writing music. I feel lucky to have a handful of friends and family who remain curious about my work, and to obtain the odd commission or sale. I think the music I write is pretty good, but I’m under no illusion that any of it is groundbreaking or life-changing.
What I do know is that when I’ve gone too long without composing, I fall into bad habits, and my body and my soul cry out to me to begin work on a new piece. (Thankfully my vice is eating too much vegan junk food rather than smoking heroin, but we all take our kicks where we can get them.)
Which means I should stop typing and start plunking out notes on the piano. But before I go, two recommendations:
La La Land is a movie I should have enjoyed, what with the singing and the dancing and its many references to classic Hollywood movie musicals and 60’s French jazz style – my very bread and butter! And occasionally I did enjoy it, but most of the time I just had this nagging feeling that something, or a lot of things rather, were missing.
There’s two basic approaches to a movie that trades in this brand of nostalgia:
you tell a deeply felt story using an anachronistic style enriched with contemporary detail/sensibility to give it a new texture and a timeless feel or
you do a loving, high camp homage that is all about style, recontextualizing/repurposing/juxtaposing it as the very clay in your hands.
or you know, some combination of both. Which is what I think La La Land was trying to do, but ended up doing neither, or, perhaps more charitably, did such a watered-down version of both that it canceled itself out and left us clad in GAP khakis when we’d rather be swaddled in mink stoles.
Strategy #1: historical style X contemporary detail = a new story imbued with a sense of timelessness
If you’re going to do this, you have to put a lot of thought into the details, because therein lies the interest and texture of the film (/play/opera/musical/project). Almodóvar does this even when he’s nominally going for the campier (#2) approach. He can’t help it.
So if you’re going to make a movie about a contemporary jazz pianist whose main struggle is one of artistic freedom v. societal norms and expectations it would maybe help to get the details right about what a contemporary jazz artist looks like w/r/t the realities of the music and such a career.
Now. Our protagonist’s basic musical sensibility is ‘pure jazz’ = McCoy Tynerish post-bop, ‘free jazz’ = Claude Bolling Writes a Cadenza, and ‘sell-out jazz’ = mid-career Stevie Wonder.
And you know, there are those dudes out there who are still into the post-bop purist thing, but if that’s what we’re going for, let’s go for it, especially in the music. The score, which consists of six original songs, isn’t bad but it definitely doesn’t go there. Harmonically, the songs hover in a mildly jazzy 5-to-6 chord pop fusion area, when they might instead ascend to a more complex 10-to-12 chord jazz standard territory, or even 8-to-9 chord broadway showtune territory – can someone give me a straight up secondary dominant up here??
[Cred where she be due though: the composer, Justin Hurwitz, wrote not only the songs, but the entire score, including the orchestration, a rarity in Hollywood, and I loved some of his orchestrational touches, with obvious nods to Philippe Rombi (Angel, for example) and the Björk/Vincent Mendoza collaboration on Dancer in the Dark(though I longed for that score’s kaleidoscopic brilliance!)]
Our protagonist isn’t only angry with every post-Weather Report development jazz, he’s also upset that his former club is now a “tapas and samba” place – as if that didn’t sound like a veritable match made in heaven! It seems to me like a more interesting and plot-consistent take on the new place would be if it were cast as a pop/hip-hop venue, aka the music of our very time.
But mentioning hip-hop or other Contemporary Urban Musicks would veer us into a whole racial dynamic that Mr. Chazelle seems very squeamish about, and any time the film strays too far into said territory it reveals a nervous tokenism. (Two lily-white protagonists? Fill up your jazz club with black people! That’s not what most jazz clubs look like these days, but hey, you stay balanced.)
Strategy #2: historical style X heightened/deconstructed detail = high camp (which often turns out to be a potent delivery system for a serious messages about our own time)
Chazelle leans more towards this approach and he has some successful moments. My favorite was the dream ballet at the end (whatup Agnes!!) with its use of On The Town style backdrops set on a studio soundstage and its nods to Jerome Robbins choreography.
Jacques Demy is a big influence on the film too, particularly Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. But it’s like, whatever you use as your starting point, you gotta Next Level that shit, and that’s hard to do with Demy, because his approach to film style and fantasy are already pretty gonzo (have you seen, par example, Peau d’âne??)
François Ozon is a director who loves to play pastiche with the likes of Demy and Minelli and these old Hollywood musicals and it’s worth comparing his work with Chazelle’s. In Water Drops on Burning Rocks, 8 Femmes, and Angel, Ozon imbues his stylistic allusions with a zany irreverence and a free spirit that makes La La Land look clichéd.
And here’s the secret about these two approaches: you don’t have to pick just one! Get you a man who can do both! You know how there’s “Serious Almodóvar” and “Playful Almodóvar”? Guess what girl – she the same mofo!!!
Am I being too mean? The Dream Ballet, the Observatory sequence, the opening party were all fun and interesting and good. The movie offered these and other magical moments where the combination of picture and score set sail (flute trillz be praised y’all!)
But the stakes were low, and I can only imagine the protagonists’ bland trade-offs are indicative of Damien Chazelle’s rather frictionless career. This struck me as an honest movie, just not an interesting one.
And I’m not suggesting that he should write a gritty, racially-charged story of an out-of-control artist struggling with abuse. If he had just imbued this particular story with a richer level of detail and zestier approach to style, it would have burst off the screen instead of just sitting there. For a movie about lives not lived and paths not taken, there were an awful lot of missed opportunities.
If you happen to have read this blog in the past few months, you know that I’ve been chomping at the bits finally to see The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito), the newest feature by the great Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. So did I see it? Yes, when it FINALLY opened a few weeks ago in ‘my part of the country’ after its May premiere in Europe. So why have I remained mute about it? Well, it’s like this: after I saw it, the only thing I could think was, “I need to see that again.”
La piel had a strange effect on me. Though it runs for 117 minutes, when the credits rolled, I couldn’t believe that I had just finished watching an entire feature film. I’m hard pressed to say why. It’s not like the pace of the narrative was dizzying or frantic. In fact, when it was over, I had the distinct sense that there were many fewer twists and turns than in a lot of Almodóvar’s plots.
But upon further reflection, I don’t think that’s quite right. The central plot of the film resolves into one stupendous twist so spectacular that it obfuscates many smaller revelations and surprises along the way. But that largest of revelations comes about late in the game, and it feels slow to arrive. Maybe the issue is that the film’s tone is so austere that we aren’t as invested emotionally in the plot’s unraveling.
But this is where it gets really tricky, because I would never say that this movie is “cold”. It’s not. It’s got plenty of deep, complex emotions (though no humor to speak of, a major departure for Almodóvar.) And yet, when the movie was over, I felt numb, like I was coming out of a haze. There’s something about this film that anesthetizes the viewer to its own content, and I can’t pinpoint what it is. Nor do I think this is a miscalculation. Much to the contrary, I think this is exactly what Pedro was after.
And now I’m chomping at the bits to see it again, but it only played for one lousy week in Cincinnati. Jehovah only knows when it’s coming out on DVD.
Thankfully, the score is out on iTunes, and, as we’ve come to expect from Alberto Iglesias, it’s a humdinger. Iglesias’ talents are simply amazing. I don’t know how he manages to match Almodóvar tone for tone in all of his movies, though, when I think about it, maybe it’s not that hard — Almodóvar might be the most “musical” of all film directors. The emotional landscapes he chooses to explore are the very interstitial places that are usually accessible to harmony alone.
But no, Alberto Iglesias is really pretty amazing.
ps. I just found out that Dan Tepfer, who I’m mildly obsessed with because of his exquisite work on the new Bach Goldberg Variations/Variations album (which you should all buy and listen to immediately), wrote his second ever blog post on The Skin I Live In. It may be time to change that ‘mildly’ to ‘intensely’. I’ll try to keep it short of ‘unhealthily’.
Our fourth in the series of top 10 lists, this list focuses on people who might be termed “the best collaborative composers”. Composers who are distinguished by their contributions to film, theater, dance, TV, or some other non-musical medium. In some cases, their works have a life on the concert stage, or in yet another medium. In some cases, they also double as brilliant composers for the concert hall. (In other cases, they double as not-so-brilliant composers for the concert hall. Quite a smorgasbord we’ve got here.)
Each of these media requires something different. Opera, pantomime, and ballet often require the music to tell the story as much as the action on stage. Some music theater composers do this as well, but some just write great songs that propel their story along at a really entertaining clip. Movies, TV, and “incidental music” for the theater are different – if the music distracts from what’s going on in the drama, it has ceased to serve it’s function. But the really excellent composers for these media do more than just set a mood – they come up with ingenious ways of working the musical material into our minds and play subtle psychological games so that we interact with what’s going on in front of our eyes on a subconscious level.
1. Stephen Sondheim (1930 – )
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I think Sondheim is our greatest living American composer. The irony of my including him on this list, however, is that I always find that his music is ruined when I see it staged in the theater. His music (not to mention his lyrics) does such an amazing job of telling the story that I can lean back, close my eyes, and see every move, facial expression, and visual image in the play.
But it’s not Sondheim’s fault that the people in the business of recreating his works can’t possibly match his genius and live up to what he’s written. Here’s a glimpse of a nearly-original production of Sweeney Todd (the ’82 touring company). It’s directed by Hal Prince, so let’s just go ahead and call it “authentic”. Notice how Sondheim writes all of Mrs. Lovett’s slaps, stomps, and sighs into the music? That’s good theater.
2. Bernard Herrmann (1911 – 1975)
Would Alfred Hitchcock’s films be what they were without Bernard Herrmann’s music? No way. His pre-Hermmann films were excellent, and had that certain Hitchcock touch, let there be no doubt: through Herrmann, we see Hitchcock at his best. Herrmann’s music elucidates and amplifies everything in Hitchock’s visual language.
He scored Orson Welle’s Citizen Kane. He scored Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. He wrote the iconic opening sequence for The Twilight Zone. What more do you people want?? Whatever it is, he’s got it. A horror score using only strings? Psycho. A heavily ironic score for a romantic comedy adventure? North by Northwest. An intricate psychological dreamscape? Try this:
3. Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)
Name a single ballet in the common repertory written before Tchaikovsky came along. The only ones I can think of are “Giselle” and… that’s it. Even Ballanchine said that before Stravinsky, the only ballet scores of any merit were Tchaikovsky’s. He is a brilliant musical storyteller. Add to that the fact that his music is so very danceable, and you’ve got a hit, baby.
More than any of the previous lists, this list is bound to reflect my personal view as an American. And what could be more American than seeing The Nutcracker during the month of December. No, seriously, I think we’re like the only country who really gets into this ballet at Christmas thing.
Swan Lake moves me to tears, and it’s no surprise that it’s featured prominently in films like Billy Elliot and the highly comedic and altogether craptastic Black Swan.
4. Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924)
Now, my friend Marcello and I have gotten into a lot of debates about Puccini v. Verdi. He thinks that Verdi is a better storyteller through music, whereas Puccini more or less writes soundtracks for the action on stage. Point well taken, though not entirely conferred.
My biggest problem with opera is pacing. A composer is invariably tempted to stop the action and tell us everything about a character’s inner depths. That’s great, and it’s a really unique property of music that it can do just that, so why not go for it? Because if the characters aren’t doing anything, why should we care about their inner lives?
For me, Puccini is that rare combination of an opera composer who can pace the action in a scene and simultaneously tell us everything we need to know about the characters in it.
5. John Williams (1932 – )
Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, Indiana Jones, E.T., Home Alone, Hook, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, and don’t forget a little something called THE OLYMPIC GAMES.
Yes, it does read like a Steven Spielberg filmography, but fine. The two are ideally suited for each other. They are both unabashed manipulators of our emotions, and they both do it incredibly well.
John Williams may be a red-handed thief when it comes to his material. But he doesn’t waste what he’s stolen. His music may be as cheezy as an overflowing fondue pot. But I bet all of you could sing the main themes from each of the above listed movies, and that’s saying a LOT.
I mean, come on, right?
6. Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990)
Wait, so you’re saying street gangs don’t do ballet? Could have fooled me.
7. Alberto Iglesias (1955 – )
During their generation, Hitchcock and Herrmann were the most distinguished practitioners of their respective art forms. It also happens that they were ideally suited collaborators – they shared an artistic soul. One expressed that soul in a visual language, the other in an aural one.
I would say the exact same thing about Alberto Iglesias and Pedro Almodóvar. Again, the movies Almodóvar made pre-Iglesias are very much his own, and excellent in and of themselves. The ones he made with Iglesias as collaborator are just way better.
8. Igor Stravinsky (1882 – 1971)
Stravinsky’s first three major works, all ballets, are staggering accomplishments in every category: harmony, form, orchestration, instrumentation – everything. And I don’t care that we’ve lost a lot of the original choreography – I know that these are perfect works for the stage. Much like what I said about Sondheim, Stravinsky’s music tells the story.
My primary example would be Petrushka, his 1911 ballet about puppets coming to life (a Russian sort of Pinnocchio, you might say). Every character, every argument, every laugh is vividly portrayed in the music. Different musics interact with each other, and pile on top of each other, just like freaks at a carnival show.
He did plenty of experimenting in weird little stage genres, like pantomime (Renard), narrated chamber music (Histoire du soldat), and ballet chanté (Les noces). But what I find really striking is that he could be as moving in the overblown romanticism of The Firebird (1910) as he could be in the refined and formal classicism of Apollo (1928):
I think Guys & Dolls is the perfect musical. Great tunes, great pacing, great dialogue – everything you’d want. The amazing thing is that Frank Loesser is the first and only Broadway triple threat, having written the score, the lyrics, and the libretto for this gem of the musical stage.
Plus, how do you not include someone who looks like that?
10. Danny Elfman (1953 – )
Everyone just looves to talk about how Danny Elfman doesn’t write his own music. Admittedly, there is so much rumor-mongering out there, it can be really hard to sort the facts from the fiction. I think this article makes a really good case, and I’m willing to take it at face value.
OK, so the guy writes his own music. And it’s really, really cool. I can hardly think of a more inventive score than Beetlejuice – it’s a wild romp, just like the movie itself. And who doesn’t tear up when that choir comes in at the end of Edward Scissorhands?
The pièce de résistance however, has to be Nightmare before Christmas – I loved it when I was a kid, and I was really surprised when I started conducting youth orchestras 10 years later that it was still so very popular.
(so, Danny Elfman:Tim Burton::… do we really have to go through this whole thing?)
So that last list didn’t seem to generate much talk… I guess it was just a little too tame for the Webern crowd. But I’m anticipating that this list could get real territorial real quick. Will the opera queenz, the balletomanes, and the Hans Zimmer fanatics get all up in each others’ grillz? Will there by any video game music people out there? Will anyone say Adam Guettel? Will Gabe say Monteverdi?
And are there any Lost fans out there? I never watched the show, but I almost thought about including Michael Giacchino just on Alex Ross’s recommendation. And speaking of TV, how about Alf Clausen?
Just remember, we’re not trying to glorify any cults here; we’re just taking a chance to reason and discuss and think about music. But the fun of this game is to face the artificial limits it provides and organize your thoughts accordingly. So, either a) come up with and present your own list or b) suggest alternatives and remove someone from my list in so doing.
Some thoughts on Los Abrazos Rotos (“Broken Embraces”) and Nine, two movies that I happen to have seen recently:
I had been wanting to see Los Abrazos since like 2008, or whenever it was listed on Wikipedia as Pedro Almodòvar‘s new project. That little wikiblurb was so enticing, because it promised both an homage to American noir and another start turn for Penelope Cruz. I followed the progressive openings of the film as it made waves in Spain, France, across Europe and seemingly everywhere else except the US, my anticipation mounting and my expectations reaching monumental proportions. By the time I finally got to see it, the movie actual move itself could only be a disappointment because it could never live up to the masterpiece that I had created in my mind.
And yet, it did. This might be my favorite Almodòvar film, but I think I say that after every one that I watch. But seriously, this one has everything you want from the man, from the luscious color palette to the engrossing plot twists and characterization to the near constant dialogue with cinematic history (including the history of Almodòvar’s own films!).
Plus it’s a killer score, which I already mentioned in an earlier post. But now, just for the sake of comparison let’s look at Abrazos v. Inglorious Basterds, the two most recent offerings by two of the cinema world’s supposedly great auteurs. Juxtaposed thus, it just becomes so obvious that Pedro is the way more serious filmmaker than Quentin Tarantino. And I don’t just mean that his films are “serious” and Quentin’s are not – certainly both have aspects of humor and gravitas. What I mean is that for two writer/directors who load their works with cinematic references, Pedro is the one able to seamlessly interweave his commentaries into the structure of the film, whereas Quentin handles the whole meta level with total heavy-handedness.
As for Nine, let’s just say thanks to Maury Yeston and Rob Marshall for making something not only palatable but actually ENTERTAINING out of Fellini’s 8 1/2. Only the most extremely loyal of readers will know that I do not much go in for that particular film. But when you mix in some peppy songs and a little pornographic choreography (,and of course stir,) the whole thing really comes to life! Who knew? Anyway, Penelope Cruz continues to amaze:
PLUS, the editing of Nine by Marshall & co. was featured on a very special episode of Barefoot Contessa. Who wouldn’t like that?
In other news, relating more to me than to Penelope Cruz, rumors are flying that the Cleveland Orchestra, which is (was?) scheduled to come to my school is going on strike. For us students down in Bloomington, this comes as a rather perplexing turn of events, since the general student attitude is that any musician who has a “real job” ought to hold onto it for dear life.
This is just a guess, but I suspect that it’s probably the old-timers in the orchestra who oppose the contract that’s on the table right now (5% salary reduction this year, restored next year, 2.5% increase in two years). Back in the Szell days, Cleveland took an immense civic pride in its orchestra and treated the musicians as minor celebrities, certainly a rare thing for orchestra players. It’s conceivable that anyone who lived through that period might be unwilling to face up to current social and economic realities. But what a shame that they would have to deprive a hard-working bunch of student musicians of their expertise and inspiration.
Supposedly, we’ll find out late tonight or early tomorrow whether or not they actually plan to come (the rumor mill has it that they won’t), but either way, the whole affair leaves me with a sour taste.
PLUS, they’d also be depriving us of a chance to hear Thomas Adès’ Violin Concerto, which is I think one of the greatest pieces of the past decade.