Gilbey on Film: the greatest movie scores

And does "A Single Man" boast this year's finest music?

If you find yourself losing faith in the subtlety of film music, allow me to suggest a few composers with restorative powers. Like the couple in a recent New Yorker cartoon who stroll unwittingly from the pastures marked "rock" through to "pop" and then "easy listening" (caption: "They never even knew"), the once-intriguing Danny Elfman, a regular Tim Burton collaborator, has lapsed -- perhaps irretrievably -- into mediocrity.

But Carter Burwell is still on the money. Burwell is best known for his work with the Coen brothers -- he's scored every one of their films, from 1984's Blood Simple to last year's A Serious Man.

My favourite scores of his can be heard in Rob Roy (this is how good he is: he makes Celtic pipes palatable), Adaptation and especially Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (where Burwell was called in at the 11th hour to replace another composer's score).

I was going to add The Hi-Lo Country: I can still hum that one despite not having seen Stephen Frears's film for over a decade. But on reflection, it's not a good fit. It's very grand and rousing, whereas those descriptions don't pertain to anything in the characters or story; you can't tell what the music is expressing.

It's not Burwell's fault, nor is it a slight on his work. Pure speculation alert: I wonder if the music was brought in once everyone realised that no one in the movie was particularly heroic, nor did they want to be. The idea may have been to get the audience excited, and hope they wouldn't realise until they got home that there was nothing on screen to be excited about.

Surely a fundamental rule of any score is that it has to have a correlation to what we're watching; otherwise it floats free of the movie, and can be as incongruous as an unnatural light source or a visible boom mic. Stuart Staples of Tindersticks has done some incredible work for Claire Denis, including her new film White Material (which I review in the next NS).

Check out the Tindersticks' score for Denis's last film, 35 Shots of Rum, where it ebbs and flows in gorgeous synchronicity with the performances, camerawork and editing -- a model not only of how to compose great film music, but of how to weave it into the action.

I also rest easy when I see on the opening credits of a film the names Alexandre Desplat (best scores: Birth and Lust, Caution) or Mychael Danna (The Ice Storm, Capote and 8MM -- the latter a classic case of great score/dud movie).

A contender for the finest film music of this year is the score for A Single Man, Tom Ford's adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel about a gay professor in early 1960s Los Angeles, mourning the death of his lover. (The film has just been released on DVD.) I should clarify "finest" by explaining that this score seems to emerge fully and organically from the movie, with no suggestion that it wasn't in fact generated spontaneously by the images, or vice versa.

"The music was an extension of George," Ford told me last year.

I was thinking about it as I was writing and shooting. Violins I knew I wanted to be prominent because they're the most human instrument; they can convey the most incredible sadness and also joy. Shigeru Umebayashi, a brilliant Japanese composer, wrote three pieces; he works with Wong Kar-Wai a lot, he's incredible. And Abel Korzeniowski is a Polish composer in Los Angeles, he's also incredible: he scores not just action but emotions. That's a crucial device in helping the audience know what George is feeling. Abel is the difference between someone scoring and just composing. When I was working with him, I was saying, 'This is great, but I need more.' And he said, 'More? Usually I get asked for something that just goes away into the background.' That's incredible! Why have music that just fades away, fills space?

"Often a finished film can be a slight disappointment," Firth chipped in,

or it might go off in a different direction to the one you'd anticipated. But the musical choices in A Single Man conformed to what I felt the film should be. Very rarely have I heard music on a score that reflected what the film felt like to make. If the music is an extension of George's thoughts, then it's bang on. It could not be more right. When I heard it for the first time, I had this strange idea that I'd sung it or something because it felt like it had come out of the character. To feel that this was what Abel was doing, following the thought processes of the character -- well, that really made sense. I want to meet this guy, because I really feel like we worked together. And you almost never feel that.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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