Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Modern Love

Aside from containing my favourite lines, 'I know when to go out / And when to stay in / Get thing done', why is Modern Love my favourite David Bowie song? Well, I have a sneaking suspicion it's because the first time I heard it was in Leos Carax's 1986 film Mauvais Sang, which I loved. I haven't seen the film in decades but remember someone – probably Denis Levant (God I was watching Carax's latest film, Holy Motors, recently and just had a suspicion Denis Lavant was going to get his dick out; that which had been so, well, prominent as he ran along the beach in Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. Sure enough, five minutes later, out it comes) – running along a pavement with Modern Love playing. I heard the song again recently in a film, Noah Baumbach's acclaimed Frances Ha.

Anyway, it occurred to me that a lot of the music I love comes from films. It's something about the interaction of image with music that really stays with me. Not just original soundtracks (Star Wars, Blade Runner, Grease, Paris, Texas; anything by Morricone and Herrmann spring to mind) but pre-existing songs, a lot of which I probably wouldn't have listened to otherwise: The Harder They Come got me into reggae (albeit briefly). Fantastia got me into classical music; a love of opera via Diva and Room with a View. Rossini and Beethoven (via Moog) from A Clockwork Orange; Strauss from 2001: A Space Odyssey; Bach from Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Lo-fi American indy music (Sebadoh, Folk Implosion, Slint, Daniel Johnston) from Kids. Performance, Lost in Translation and Morvern Callar all contain an eclectic mix of memorable music.

When it snowed here earlier in the year (and I'd just got around to buying Leonard Cohen's latest album), it got me in the mood for re-watching Altman's McCabe and Mrs Miller. I'd first watched it as a teenager and found it mesmerising. Set in the snowy northwest, songs from Cohen's first album, The Songs of Leonard Cohen, permeate the entire film. So perfectly do Cohen's songs, in particular Travelling Lady and Sisters of Mercy, echo the harsh, lonely, snowy landscape, it's amazing the songs weren't written specifically for the film. It was my first introduction to Cohen; soon after I bought a cassette (yes, this was the 1980s) of his Greatest Hits, which actually took me a while to get into without the aid of Altman's sweeping yet intimate and poetic visuals. But I got there in the end and have been ever since.

(Altman was the main American director of the 1970s to utilise Cohen's songs but across the water in Europe at the same time, the new wave of German directors were using his songs to dramatic effect in films such as Werner Herzog's amazing Fata Morgana (1971, the same year as McCabe) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Legend of the Holy Whore (also 1971), where Cohen's first album is played virtually non-stop in the hotel lobby; no wonder the characters keep smashing their glasses on the floor in despair. Fassbinder uses Cohen's songs in some half a dozen films in the 1970s but it wasn't until the Cohen renaissance in the late 1980s – where the release of one of his best albums, I'm Your Man, provoked new interest in his music – that his songs were used in more mainstream films, including the controversial Natural Born Killers, and Strange Days. The dreadful Kiss the Sky (1998; sample dialogue: 'I read Sanskrit at Oxford') contains seven Cohen songs. Naturally, tons of Canadian and French films you've never heard of contain his music, but also more recently hit American TV shows such as Lost and Homeland feature his latter-day songs.)

Though I'd been after the soundtrack to Woody Allen's Manhattan for over twenty years, it hasn't been a conscious endeavour every day, you understand. I did forget about it for two decades. I first got some Gershwin after seeing Manhattan for the first time, probably in the late 1980s, on TV. The following day I shot down to Our Price and bought a cheap cassette of Rhapsody in Blue (the sales assistant asked me if I'd seen Manhattan the previous evening), which I rarely played and haven't had for years. Then I saw the vinyl of Manhattan recently in a charity shop (pricey at £3) and remembered I'd always wanted it. And it's fantastic and hasn't been off my turntable for days. God, those opening bars of Rhapsody in Blue – it's like snake charmer music! Needless to say, a few days later, it appeared on eBay – brand new and sealed – and I got it on CD for 99p. I'm saying it sounds better on vinyl though.

Lindsay Anderson's If… contains a recurring piece of music that has always haunted me: Sanctus from the Missa Luba, sung by a choir of Congolese school children, which works brilliantly with the film. I don't think the film's ever been released as a soundtrack, but the whole Missa Luba is easily available and quite beautiful.

In fact, some of the best film soundtracks haven't actually been released as soundtracks, sometimes for contractual or copyright reasons, or the studio not expecting a film to be a hit. But it's pretty easy to put together your own soundtrack album from songs on other pre-existing albums. Scorsese's Mean Streets contains a great mix of songs from the Ronettes to the Stones which would cost thousands today to get the copyright for: Scorsese didn't have the budget but used the songs anyway (sort of the film equivalent of the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique, which used thousands of samples without getting copyright for any of them).

Southern Comfort, Deep End, Harold and Maude, Solaris and, er, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, are just a few films which have great music but have never been released as soundtracks. They can probably be found online in one form or another. Well, saying that, the Cat Steven's soundtrack to Harold and Maude was released as a limited edition vinyl release of 2,500 in 2007 (the film came out in 1971). These limited edition vinyl releases annoy me. For a start, I never get one, secondly, they're too expensive anyway. Recently the soundtracks to Eraserhead and Jimmy Page's score for Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising have also come out on limited edition vinyl releases, as well as, er, the soundtracks to Halloween II and III.


Caspar said...

I've often thought (really often, thisis how sad I am) that a Mean Streets soundtrack album would be a corker. Where else would future generations get to savour the delights of 'Rubber Biscuit' by The Chips?
Another brilliant hypothetical soundtrack album movie would be for Kenneth Anger's 'Scorpio Rising'. In his 60s films, it was Anger who single-handedly invented the entire concept of the pop song-soundtracked movie. If only he could have copyrighted the idea.

Barnaby said...

Yes I agree, the Mean Streets soundtrack would be ace. Yes, I believe Anger was influential on filmmakers such as Scorsese and Lynch in their use of music.