Hollywood movies are above all a middlebrow medium: When they’re not ladling out sensation, they’re panting after class. And one of the easiest ways to buy class is with classical music — or, at the very least, music that sounds classical.
‘Twas ever thus. In the ’30s, the movie studios enlisted emigre composers to tosh up their product: Erich Korngold, for example, provided The Adventures of Robin Hood with a now-legendary score. The current taste among Hollywood filmmakers is for full orchestral scores delivered with as much emotion and as little irony as possible (it’s up to the pop soundtracks to provide cynicism). Combine that with the recent upsurge in period films, and you’ve got an awful lot of imitation Copland out there.
That’s no slight to Aaron himself, but the music of his late-’30s cowboy-ballet classics (El Salon Mexico and Billy the Kid) has become the cliched sound of movie Americana. The camera will sweep over a 19th-century opening shot and you’ll hear those buckskin strings yahooing away, that high, noble trumpet, the rough-hewn hymn transformed into an orchestral paean to pioneer indomitability.
Pastiche-Copland often sounds tired (check out James Horner’s Legends of the Fall soundtrack for an example), but Thomas Newman’s glowing score to the latest version of Little Women proves that it can also, occasionally, be inspired. Newman works with four primary melodies, all of them memorable: a tender, unswayable main theme, the yearning, nostalgic ”Spring,” a sigh of loss called ”Burdens,” and the mysterious air called ”New York,” that sends Jo March (Winona Ryder) out into the world.
If Newman’s score works so miraculously well, it may be because he seems to have peppered the Coplandisms with canny seasonings from Charles Ives, the mad genius of Danbury, Conn. Ives, of course, was spiritual kin to Little Women writer Louisa May Alcott, and even went so far as to honor her in the third movement of his 1920 ”Concord” piano sonata — a lovely work that transmutes the rebellious opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony into a subtler, more feminine defiance. Overall, though, Ives’ rugged eccentricity — the true music of Yankee Transcendentalism — is too clangy for mainstream Hollywood movies, whereas the uncomplicated romance of borrowed Copland pushes all the right buttons. And that, let’s face it, is a movie score’s job.
This only gets complicated when you’re using Beethoven to do the pushing. The soundtrack album for Immortal Beloved, the biopic that stars Gary Oldman, offers up a full platter of Ludwig’s Greatest Hits — which is exactly the problem. Since Beethoven tended to write in complete statements, it’s a disservice to hear just the first movement from the Fifth Symphony, or part of the first movement of the ”Eroica,” or some of the Adagio from the Kreutzer Sonata.
Even weirder are the movie-moment titles under which the cuts are listed on the CD. The opening of the ”Moonlight Sonata” is called ”Julia and Her Father Secretly Watch”; the ”Thunderstorm” segment from the Pastoral Symphony becomes ”Ludwig and Caspar Fight.” This gives the melodramatic game away: Despite Immortal’s high aspirations, there’s no real difference between the way the tick-tock fatalism of the Seventh Symphony’s second movement is used here (to underscore a suicide attempt) and the way it’s used in the 1934 horror film The Black Cat (to accompany Boris Karloff ranting at Bela Lugosi in his crypt, if I recall correctly).
Much saner is the attitude of the Death and the Maiden soundtrack album: Play the music and get the hell out of the way. The first half of the CD lets the Keller Quartet cut loose on Schubert’s ”Death and the Maiden” — the music heard as a former political prisoner (Sigourney Weaver) comes to terms with the man who may have been her torturer (Ben Kingsley). It’s a genuinely harrowing work — perhaps the most sublimely bummed-out piece in the classical repertoire — especially if you know Schubert only as the gay butterfly of his lieder.
Wojciech Kilar’s original score follows, and, interestingly enough, it bears no thematic relationship to the Schubert. Kilar, a serious and much-awarded Polish composer, was praised for his score to Coppola’s Dracula, but his work here is more varied and intriguing, bouncing from Herrmannesque moodiness (”Paulina’s Vigil”) to the Morricone-meets-Rachmaninov of ”Paulina’s Theme” before finding its own voice of propulsive, unhinged menace. Between Schubert and Kilar, Maiden’s a schizophrenic disc — and better for it.
For an even more faithful approach, try the soundtrack for Joan of Arc, the 1994 Jacques Rivette epic that has yet to be released in this country. Composer Jordi Savall, the musicologist and bass viol master who dubbed Gerard Depardieu’s licks on the intoxicating Tous les Matins du Monde score, has rounded up appropriate period music. And if he can’t find the plainsong or battle-march he wants, he simply makes it up — in exquisite 15th- century style and orchestration. Savall’s verisimilitude here is so precisely opposite Hollywood compromise that it’s a little frightening — but, then, so was Joan of Arc. All four of these films — Little Women, Immortal Beloved, Death and the Maiden, and Joan of Arc — are about rebels, but Savall’s score is the only one that matches its hero stride for stride. Little Women: A-; Immortal Beloved: B; Death and the Maiden: B+; Joan of Arc: A