Music in Film: new films about music

In his latest Music in Film column, Ivan highlights two independent films with great soundtracks...

It takes a special sort of film to tackle music head-on, but this month we had two in very quick succession – and as the upcoming wave of blockbusters starts to flood your eardrums, it would be quite easy to overlook them altogether.

So, before Music in Film goes into bombastic action soundtrack territory, I’d like to highlight two small, but delightful, treats for your ears.

A Late Quartet – Angelo Badalamenti

With Twin Peaks celebrating its 23rd anniversary, Angelo Badalamenti’s theme tune will be played around the world by David Lynch fans. But ever since that wonderful composition (arguably one of the best TV series soundtracks of all time), Badalamenti’s been busy all over the place, from the sinister (Mulholland Drive, The Wicker Man, Dark Water) to the romantic (A Very Long Engagement, Secretary) to The Beach.

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His latest, for Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet, sees him working with someone even more intimidating than David Lynch: Beethoven. The film, which follows a string quartet performing Beethoven’s Opus 131 – a daunting, revolutionary piece in seven movements designed to played without pausing – uses recordings of the Brentano String Quartet for a large chunk of the score; a slow-moving series of performances that layers up each character’s part, particularly the second violin (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with increasingly complex (and sad) harmonies.

Badalamenti echoes that with his own music, letting secondary parts bleed into the main melody while avoiding happy resolutions. Even the tracks that start off hopeful (Reflections) end on a downer.

Watch Angelo composing a scene between Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener as they fight in a cab (Stop Right Here) and it’s a synth-ed up sound, almost as if he has his keyboard permanently set in Twin Peaks mode. But the final version of the track is subtly complex, led by woodwinds and cello, while A Jog In The Park takes percussion and flutes in a dance that in other hands would be cheeky, but here is given an unsettled vibe from a sinister French Horn.

It’s these instrumentations that give the film’s soundtrack enough colour to stand apart from Beethoven’s original work, while highlighting its own fragile beauty. It’s a tough ask composing music for a film about music, but like all of his work on Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, the versatile Badalamenti makes it look easy.

The best thing about the album? Like the film itself, it’s as much about the classical music as its own thing, and so you get both pieces, leaving the breathtaking Brentano recordings till last.

How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song? – Ken Lampl/Joe Schermann

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At one point in A Late Quartet, one of the characters refers to Ken Lampl. A quick Google will tell you three very important things about him: one, he studied under John Williams. Two, he was one of several composers to work on the first Pokémon movie, and three, he wrote the music for How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song?

How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song? That’s the question Gary King’s indie film tries to answer. A post-modern musical about composing a musical, it follows songwriter Joe Schermann (playing himself, naturally) as he becomes torn between two women.

Why should you care about a tiny Kickstarter film? Because it’s that rare thing: an original musical. It’s not based on Abba’s greatest hits, Queen’s back catalogue or a West End stage show. And Joe Schermann runs with it, singing his own witty lyrics like his beard depends on it.

He’s backed up by Christina Rose as frustrated girlfriend Evey and romantic rival Summer (Debbie Williams). Rose spits out angry lyrics “Summer _____” with wonderful venom, before switching to likeable angst in the opening number I Want (_____). Schermann’s playing, meanwhile, skips from old-school Hollywood through to Sondheim with real energy; coupled with some fantastic bluesy power ballads (Thanks To You), it’s a thrill to hear something new that’s unafraid to have its own identity. The fact that it recorded most of its songs live on set before Les Miserables had even started post-production only makes it feel even more natural.

The showstopper arrives in one central sequence, which combines Bob Fosse, Chicago and Queen into a surprising montage. The album splits it across several tracks, but Ken Lampl is clearly having fun. At other times, he subtly extends Schermann’s licks into moving background tracks – After The Party is a sparse guitar reworking of Thanks To You, while A Typical Day is a breezy play on I Want – but Lampl’s skill is in never distracting from Schermann’s personality. Just as Badalamenti accompanies Beethoven in A Late Quartet, Ken complements Joe with understated class; each composer has a knack for working with existing music that is often underappreciated in soundtrackland.

The musical climaxes with How Do You Write A Joe Schermmann Song, a titular track that features the entire cast in a fun, but uneven finish. The real pay-off, though, comes two tracks earlier, when Rose and Williams duet on Moth To The Flame. A bitter, angry rant with a jazzy piano backing, it’s the kind of perfection that belongs on Broadway – and at the very least deserves a spin on your iPod.

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A low-budget musical with original songs, live recording and the guy who wrote the music for Pokemon: The Movie? How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song? may not be 2013’s biggest release, but it’s well on its way to becoming one of my favourite soundtracks of the year.

A Late Quartet is now out in cinemas and available on-demand through Curzon Home Entertainment. How Do You Write A Joe Schermann Song? is available (in album and video form) through iTunes, while the film is also available to buy in PlayStation Store and Xbox Live.

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