#17, NOVEMBER 2004



by Brian McMahon

moovymusic! moovy -- cuz movies make us who we are (and I mean way down deep in some very groovy places, baby!); and, integral to picture is -- music! So much for origins of the name. Now, do I wax words to a donnish dialectic calculating the degree to which synergy of score & image sets a film’s comparative strength/weakness in the cinematic milieu, or let moovymusic! leap -- boot leather first -- into a www. ring to ref a commodious calendar of seemingly unfair fights!? Hmmm ...

7 Days In May vs 3 Days of the Condor

M*A*S*H vs. Married to the Mob.
The MASH soundtrack by Johnny Mandel has it all; a great theme song, and a -- well, let’s start there. “Suicide is Painless” is first heard at the opening of the film as an ironic, upbeat, light-pop-with-chorus-vocal counterpoint to aerial quick-cuts setting us down somewhere inside war torn Korea. By the time my ear catches up to the existential lyric (penned by Mike Altman), I’m riding a stolen army jeep with stars Donald Sutherland and Tom Skerritt into the Mobile Army Surgical Hospital where -- excepting for Elliot Gould’s finagled 2-day golf outing to Seoul -- director Robert Altman will have us spend the rest of the movie.

      About mid-film the theme’s heard again. This time actors are assembled to a tableau not unlike the Son-of-God’s Last Supper for a deliciously blasphemous pre-death ceremony -- it’s a suicide party for the MASH’s well-endowed Dentist Walt “Painless Pole” Waldowski. Centered Christ-like amid his fellow doctors, Painless is about to ingest the “black capsule” -- guaranteed to bring an end to Walt’s crisis of faith in his own sexual prowess. Of course, a thematic situation as well wrought as this can prove hazardous duty for composers; while success can be huge, so, too, can failure. But Johnny Mandel pulls off the perfect paean: “Suicide is Painless”. Not only does it work lyrically for this, the best of the film’s darkly comic scenes, but the sweet gospelesque solo vocal w/sparse guitar arrangement renders the tune memorable for a lifetime’s humming.
      In addition to the signature anthem, excellent original music cues are featured throughout. Plus, well-chosen popular tunes -- contemporaneous with America at the time of the Korean conflict -- season dozens of dialogue bits dubbed off the movietrack of perhaps the funniest war film ever made. Released during the unfunniest “police action” ever waged (Viet Nam), the Altman antidote had, too, the interesting side-effect of aiding and abetting just about every counter-culture lifestyle conceived in the early 1970’s.
      And, no, it doesn’t seem to bother me that I still haven’t the slightest notion if this LP works as a stand-alone. Having heard it first in context with picture, then that same way a dozen times during its initial theatrical exhibition, subsequent retrospective showings, and later on VHS -- before ever buying the album -- I can be no fair judge. But, people, if you’ve not seen the film and feel that the soundtrack on its own is not working for you -- well, goddamnit, SEE THE GODDAMN MOVIE!” Then forever after laugh your ass off.
Oh yeah, the scheduled opponent in this bout, Married to the Mob -- the Jonathan Demme picture with Music by David Byrne -- hasn’t even been seen since the “weigh-in”.
Winner by forfeit: M*A*S*H!

7 Days In May vs. 3 Days of the Condor.
Fittingly, I’m reminded of the dice game “Craps” where 7 is a winner and 3 is “craps”. Scored brilliantly, certainly a winner, Jerry Goldsmith’s “Days in May” are numbered aptly. As, too, are the “Condor”’s days, I’m afraid . . . eh, Mr. Dave Grusin. And, well, that’s the match.
      But, I wonder: Will a terse “round-1” decision trigger the displeasure of readers who’ve come to expect more in the way of wordy carnage in their moovymusic reviews? Perhaps, I can push my “dice” conceit beyond just this one title fight . . . yes, of course; if there indeed exists the same kind of qualitative gulf between these composers with respect to their career contributions as I suspect does. Then, the numerical analogy may hold allowing me to lend this lopsided affair by at least a few more paragraphs.
      Let’s see, setting aside for the moment the bane of the “Condor” score -- electronic instruments given a funk-fusion treatment! -- I listen through much of Grusin’s oeuvre. Hey, this all sounds a bit like “work for hire” to me. I’ll grant you Dave’s got chops; I mean, there’s no denying he’s been busy in Tinsel Town since the early 60’s, “The Graduate,” “Candy,” “On Golden Pond,” etc. But isn’t that more the
reason to fancy him well-cast in the TV series about a prolific composer who just can’t pass up a fare -- “Hack, Hollywood”?
      Now, consider “A Patch of Blue,” “The Sand Pebbles,” “In Like Flint,” “Chinatown,” and Jerry G.’s winning hands down -- but only if this contest be judged by notes on staff paper. No, what this bout needs to keep Dave G. down on the mat for the first time in 40 years is a definitive knock-out punch! Has his opponent got one? Well, take a look at the company these guys keep: Scan the “Condor” soundtrack’s
back cover and note who’s paying the freight for Grusin’s scoring. Holy shit -- in
36-point caps -- DINO DE LAURENTIS! On the other hand, Maestro Goldsmith for “Seven Days in May” invents at the pleasure of director John Frankenheimer, whose celebrated corpus demonstrates both a sharp eye for cinema and an ear compeer (sensitive to both story and score). And, too, Herr Frankenheimer often mined “gold” out of lesser composers than Jerry -- i.e., Bill Conti for 1991’s “Year of the Gun” (a very “electronic” soundtrack, by the by, and not funked-up). Would that Dave’d hung with John once in a while! Or once, even.
      In closing, my “Thanks” out to Dino (or responsible parties) for not going with the original James Grady title: “Six Days of the Condor” -- it’d surely have been (gulp!) a double album!!

SPECIAL FEATURES @ moovymusic!

HOUSECLEANING is a monthly listing of the latest “throwaways” here at moovymusic!. These are soundtracks, original cast recordings, or “movie music” compilation albums whose worth has been reconsidered ... and assessed to be less than the value of 1/8th-inch more usable shelf space for storing our burgeoning Wicker Park construction dust collection.

1. RAIN MAN / Even godly love of Lou Christie and an airy adoration for his solo track here—a resplendent version of “Beyond the Blue Horizon”— won’t keep aloft this cd which may long hover above your trash can as it did mine. This day, song contributions of lesser performers and the leaden Jan Hammer score pulled it down.

2. THE EYES OF LAURA MARS / But what really concerns me are the Ears of Laura Mars. Oooow !

3. TIMES SQUARE / Even the cult-spawning teen lesbian love storyline can be of no consequence here. “Times Square”’s 20 songs by 20 artists soundtrack fast-dissipates any amnesia that for nigh 20 years allowed you to misrecollect the 1980’s so pleasantly!

4. COCO / Obviously, a star (Katherine Hepburn) vehicle. Like the Hummer Limo, this soundtrack was never intended to get much mileage for its many gallons of gas.

5. CAMELOT, GIGI, MY FAIR LADY, THE LITTLE PRINCE / Hmm, there must be something common to all these musicals that has me chucking the lot at once. A-ha, Lerner & Lowe!

6. ARTHUR (The Album) / Burt should’ve taken the 1980’s off like I did.


Featuring: Jackie Gleason (Music for Lovers Only / Capitol,1953), Peter Nero (Young & Warm & Wonderful / RCA, 1962), Nelson Riddle (101 Strings / Alshire, 1970), Mantovani (Golden Hits / London, 1966), and more!

If . . . and I say if . . . I confess a craving for the easy listening music of my forebears, then I won’t blanch when you call me its crack baby -- junk sick for the 1950s. Nor wilst I wither when whispers adduce that I rifle moldy thrift store album stacks for a taste of the same wall treatments as papered the rooms of my childhood. Fairly find me desperate to recreate those 1960's pastel-painted & pop-patterned suites of pleasing tranquility from which I fled screaming into the waiting arms of my beloved Electric Eels way-back-when and I shan’t stickle your twit: “McMahon now dredges the dregs of discarded discs for the very vinyl-y slabs which dropped in layers off the record changer of his parents' phonograph console!”

But, hold on -- I make no such confession. Therefore, make no such findings! For, certain distinctions in the entire matter immediately impress me, as they should you: If it be by the hand of Mother Dearest that I am so addicted, then where is the Mitch Miller, the Ed Ames? Nor am I in the market for Lombardo, Luboff, nor any of the other drugs, er, listening preferences of Good Old Dad! You must conclude then, as I have, that my passion for the genre is both select and unrelated to the circumstances of my birth and upbringing.

Comes old friend and ex-Eels guitar player John Morton: different family background; different private schools; different interior decorator -- does the milieu of his childhood or the ambience of early adolescence explain the kind of stuff that's been on his turntable lately? He doesn’t say. Instead, Morton recommends "Mantovani and Gleason" to me. To which I return "Faith and Previn". Suddenly, we’re speaking in tongues. Dead language? No, it’s more like an abandoned dialect: a dusty, idiomatic skeleton-key to a veritable treasure chest of forgotten rites and mysteriously wonderful involutions. Like Latin unlocks the liturgical cache that is the Catholic Church, our exchange of rapid-fire references to "good music" personalities soon has us swooning amid the thick incense clouds of a kind of easy-listening high mass! Before we know it’s happening, collateral citations of the individual works of worthy composer / arranger Nelson Riddle have segued us seamlessly, effortlessly, into our first truly-substantial post-Eels conversation in more than 15 years!

In the days following, several theories are tried and rejected by me in an effort to explain how John and I, estranged for these many years, could have come by different routes to the same end -- a dénouement odious in the eyes of the punk world which yet holds our oeuvre in no little esteem: he, now a tardy aficionado of Lawrence Welk; I, a late-to-the-party fan of Peter Nero! Coincidence? More chance that than we were by some master plan infected -- pricked with the same stylus! Science may have the explanation: Identical toxins hiding in the blood awaiting cracks in our immune systems attacked with a kinda case of musical shingles. But what odds the virus would’ve struck us at the same time? Still, we do seem a pair doomed -- destined to ride out the rest of our lives in the same . . . elevator.

So, I play the Mantovani. And it hits me: This shit's way bigger than what I’ve been listening to. Too damn big. And Gleason is so, uh, soft-focused that he’s downright creepy! Hey, I like eerie, but Jackie’s in the ghoul squad with Winterhalter and Weston. And, John, please don't even ask me to reconsider Ray Conniff. As I'm tracking Welk alongside my Nero, I’m realizing that while Morton and I are
definitely not alone in our appreciation of easy listening music (millions have been sold!), we're also, decidedly, NOT on the same elevator.

I flip through my recent acquisitions: Gordon Jenkins, Burt Bacharach, Les Baxter -- for me, THESE are antidotes to the airport ether of Earl Klugh and George Winston; rescue from the phone-hold tortures of Lee Ritenour and Bob James; therapy to the lobby lobotomies of Larry Carlton and the Yellowjackets. I figure it all comes down to how strong a cocktail one needs mix to counter the deleterious effects of 25 years of saturation-bombing by the worst exemplars of late 20th-century muzak. And, hey, if you’ve not been around that long, probably you don’t need the service . . . and you don’t have my gout either.

In closing, I dub Mantovani the heroin of mood music: John may need it — others may need it — I don't. Okay, once in a while I chip—but, usually, just make mine a Mancini . . . neat. Gleason’s a fistfull of psychotropic drugs far as I'm concerned; if you worry like I do about overmedicating, try some Michel Legrand. And, finally, regarding Nelson Riddle, I only paraphrase Steve Buscemi's simple plaudit of Jose Feliciano in Fargo: “you really can't go wrong with Nelson Riddle.” Even here, though, I attach a caveat emptor. Just because you see the name of a favorite composer/arranger in a particular label’s catalog, don’t assume you’re not getting a placebo: Remember, no drugs can be worse than too many!

MANTOVANI: "The heroin of mood music . . ."