Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States

Some say that much of independent film has by this time been co-opted by the mainstream industry. The filmmakers who make work entirely on their own—or at least in a fashion which leaves them free from answering to any studio head about their creative decisions—often choose musicians with similar philosophies. Some filmmakers who have made the strong choice to remain outside of the mainstream do so because of the controversial or unique subject matter they cover, and also because they cherish their collaborations with other artists who identify as independent.

Jim Jarmusch, one of the early forerunners of the indie film movement, has a track record for embellishing his films with music composed by popular musicians like John Lurie (from the Lounge Lizards), Tom Waits, and Neil Young. When Jarmusch hired hip-hop producer RZA of Wu-Tang Clan to create a soundtrack for his 2000 film Ghost Dog, the artist disappeared for a couple of weeks and then met Jarmusch in his car to hand him a cassette tape. Upon the first listen, Jarmusch was disappointed. He craved the unpolished sounds Wu-Tang was famous for, and felt that RZA was trying to make too much sense with the music. Two tries later, he got exactly what he wanted. A broken, rough, unmixed, thumping track that RZA composed without ever seeing the film! Jarmusch wanted to get the best of his composer by having him not compromise his own vision for the sake of what he thought Jarmusch might want.

Likewise, after compiling the soundtrack album to Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), industrial-rock giant Trent Reznor (from Nine Inch Nails) along with colleague Peter Christopherson (from Psychic TV and Throbbing Gristle) were asked by David Lynch to create various ominous drones for Lost Highway (1997).

Fortunately, some downtown composers with backgrounds in the peripheral world of experimental film are undertaking more visible work and contributing noteworthy efforts to the art of film music. For example, composer and guitarist Fred Frith furnished the contemplative ambiance to Thomas Riedelsheimer‘s documentary Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time (2002). Sandi “Simcha” DuBowski, the director of the independent documentary Trembling Before G-d (2001) which explores homosexuality in the orthodox Jewish community, gave experimental jazz musician John Zorn free reign with the film’s score. Dubowski’s only requirement was that Zorn include “Idalah-Abal,” a piece originally included on a previous recording, The Circle Maker. The film, a small independent documentary that continues to create discussion around the world is one of several that Zorn has graced with his sometimes light, sometimes cacophonous style. He makes use of his usual band on the soundtrack and also adds some incidental, verbal improvisation of his own that sounds like, well, babbling. Although Zorn respects traditional religious styles of music-making and vocalizing, his take on certain methods sounds almost like a spoof of a prayer here.

It is clear that Dubowski gave him free reign, since at times the score feels like a stranger’s commentary on what is happening to the subjects within it. The “Trembling Before G-d” solo organ theme sounds like a subtle, modern takeoff on a religious song. “Be modern!”, his music says, while a subject speaks in silhouette about hiding her relationship from her entire community. The effect is a bit uncomfortable at times.

Perhaps the separateness of the filmmaker and composer in collaborations structured like Trembling provides a new layer of information. As the creative voice of the composer plays with—or sometimes even against—that of the director, the question arises: Is there more than one way to view the action happening here?

If low-budget independent productions continue to find homes in the theaters, perhaps composers will finally have a place where they can present unfettered musical ideas within the context of moviemaking.

From Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States
By Nicole Zaray
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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