Archive for April, 2010

Cinematic Jazz

April 10, 2010

Compare the carefully placed and well-timed Jazz of George Gershwin in Woody Allen’s Manhattan to the repeated-to-the-point-of-tiresome use of “California Dreamin’” in Wong Kar Wai’s The Chungking Express. Though the two songs clearly have their differences in genre, both serve similar purposes: to narrate the characters’ feelings, to charm into sympathy, or to try to appeal to the intellect and the pathos of the audience. In fact, not only do these two films try to accomplish this, but the entire roster of films that have employed previously existing nondiegetic or diegetic music in any way share these common goals. When a film is scored with original music, the music is completely tailored to the film and therefore subtle, since it has not yet had the chance to erode into popular culture. But when a film adopts an existing song, the film can only fit the song so much before its use can be seen as outlandish. What’s left are the question and the spectrum that the answer falls upon: Did the auteur employ the existing music effectively? Different musical genres transmit different emotions and thoughts, which in turn, provides flexibility for all film genres and their specific situations where music is audible. Thus, music in films have become an archetype; recurrent in recurring situations. Yet, a single genre outshines others through its intellectual and pathological versatility. Enter Jazz: free-thinking but structured, raw sophistication. An absolutely beautiful, universal language, through which the orators flex their muscles in harmony, prowess and precision. Compared to other music genres, the use of Jazz in films is a versatile well-made choice that appeals both to the emotion and to the intellect.

Several different subgenres of Rock n’ Roll exist, but they are often type-casted into the same usage: the empowering triumphant moment. At the end of David Fincher’s Fight Club, The destruction of large, incorporated buildings, Project Mayhem’s goal accomplished, and the defeat of Tyler Durden. The haunting “Where is my Mind?” by the Pixies plays over the triumphant ending, leaving the mood victorious. The song fits well as it ties into Fight Club’s central theme of insanity. The rhythms and instruments of Rock n’ Roll differentiate it from other music genres. It is faster, simpler and steadier. A parallel can be drawn to the beating heart, which also can pick up tempo but stays rhythmic. When the heart beats faster, the body gets excited and mental activity increases. Rock n’ Roll music is used in films to change the pace the heart and to build emotion by engaging the change in heartbeat. Jimi Hendrix’s “If Six Was Nine” plays as Wyatt, Billy and George ride through the southern United States in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider. The song’s lyrics empower with Hendrix’s confidence in his nonconformity, individualism and refusal of pressure to be fit into the mold of the standard bourgeois businessman. It fits Easy Rider well because the two characters only are alike each other and are ultimately killed by stereotypical rednecks. The film echoes the song, “I’m gonna be the one that’s gonna die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to”. The nonconforming characters’ attitudes are expressed well by the song. Its use is not questioned as alienated or misused. In Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds, the character Shosanna sits on windowsill and applies her makeup while contemplating for the night ahead. This elaborated moment is accompanied with the entire length of “Theme from Cat People” by David Bowie. The song emphasizes the moment of the quiet before the storm, draws many parallels between its lyrics and the world of the film, and expresses the emotions and intentions of the character so that the actor does not have to, while still conveying the characters’ thoughts and feelings.

Though Fincher, Hopper and Tarantino did well in their choices, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall utilizes “Seems Like Old Times” much more profoundly than how Tarantino used with Bowie’s “Theme from Cat People”, how Fincher used “Where is my Mind?” and how Hopper used Hendrix’s “If Six was Nine”. Fincher, Hopper and Tarantino’s featuring of the songs only fulfill molecular moments in their stories, whereas Allen’s use of a jazzy rendition of “Seems Like Old Times” serves as a finish line, one crossed in the first lap of Annie’s character arc and crossed again to conclude the growth. Both sets of lyrics tie into the story well, but “Seems Like Old Times” succeeds in doing so with a new meaning each time around. The song ends with the word “you”, which addresses not only Alvy Singer but the audience as well. The “temporary revelation of genuine love [is then] disclosed, only to be repudiated through art. Thus the song returns Alvy and the audience to the reality principle, to the theater, to the incoherence of life” (Morris, 56).

Next to superfluous rambling about shallow desires, the ascent of the rapper from the ghetto to stardom is a key characteristic of modern rap music. Their degenerate behaviors are carried over and continued even after their admittance into aristocracy. After reaping their fortunes, their trashy desires are fulfilled without struggle due to unlimited resources in checkbook. In Todd Philips’ comedy The Hangover, music by Kanye West accompanies the four protagonists as they enter Las Vegas, commonly known as sin city. T.I.’s rap music accentuates their stay at Caesar’s Palace (to the auto-tune of 4200$ per night). What follows is a night of debauchery and degeneration that nobody remembers. Hip hop music was well employed in this instance, for only shallow, pathetic behavior took place. The characters’ ascent from normal life to the glamour and possible fortunes of Las Vegas mirrored the common journey of the rapper. The rap genre also contains the motif of “homies”, which The Hangover echoes in its central theme of “bromance”. The group Three 6 Mafia won the most prestigious award for films, the Oscar, for their contribution to the film Hustle and Flow with their song “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp”. The film deals with the almost stereotypical ascent of the rapper from the gutter to the Grammys. The song, not unlike most rap music, uses offensive language, pre-elementary level grammar, and encourages highly immoral acts, such as capitalizing off of prostitutes and complaining about the hardships that the illegal job endows. The film’s use of the song is mediocre, cliché, and nothing extraordinary, and can only be valued by its slight pathological effect.
Fitting music to a film can be likened to tailoring a suit to a man. In Woody Allen’s Manhattan, he employs George Gershwin’s music to synchronize the lyrics with the ongoings in the film and the emotions of the characters. Allen does not just employ the opening song, “Rhapsody in Blue” as a one-trick-pony song to satiate. Many of Gershwin’s songs are called upon for their guidance to the story’s characters and themes. “Love is Sweeping the Country” contrasts the film’s world of lovelessness, lesbianism, divorce and single-parenting, “S’Wonderful” muses mention of “paradise” over a joyride with Isaac and Mary, “Embraceable You” plays over dancing and contains the lyrics “irreplaceable you” to provide counterpoint to the unsteadiness of the characters’ relationships, “Lady Be Good” fits over discussion of the publishing of Jill’s book revealing embarrassing facts about her marriage to Isaac, “Someone to Watch Over Me” ‘s allusions to a “lonesome babe in the wood…all alone in the big city”, and “Strike Up the Band” and “But Not for Me” connect to the theme of romantic quests as wasted effort and delusions (Morris, 57). The brilliance is sublime, for Allen used The New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s instrumental renditions of the Gershwin songs instead of the original versions with lyrics and singers. Instead of tailoring the suit to the film, the film is given the suit to which the film must grow to fit in. By eliminating the lyrics and leaving the emotional builds of the song as it was written, Allen does not force the emotions but rather lets them subtly manifest through Gershwin’s writing (the suit is elastic). Those who are not familiar with Gershwin’s catalogue experience the soundtrack as just enhancement to the on screen emotions. Yet, those that are familiar see through it see that there is not just one narrator, but two. The emotions of the film and the actions of the film become symbiotic and would not be nearly as strong without the other. To devise such a use for music requires not only a strong intellect, but one that doesn’t lend itself to egoism. In this case, Allen’s acumen displays both attributes, and therefore the usage does not blatantly alert the audience that this is a self-conscious decision and can be mutually enjoyed by those who know Gershwin’s lyrics and those who don’t.
Much of instrumental Jazz’s beauty lies in the fact that it has no lyrics. Without them, the music engages the listener in complex rhythms and melodies, but is not forced to think about the lyricist’s matters. Instead, the listener may form opinions or contemplate freely among the musicians as they assist by constantly providing moods and emotions to think on top of. Rap music cannot provide this, as it is completely opposite to the nature of Jazz. Rappers constantly bombard orally with peer pressure containing ill-mannered behavior and anti-progressive rhythms and beats, which leave only a degenerate influence. There is no virtuousity in the music, opposed to Jazz, which requires that its players are very highly skilled. Jazz also varies greatly in speed, emotion, freedom and texture, unlike the simplicity, emotional bluntness, and formulaic elements of Rock n’ Roll. Both genres seem to have much more complex lyrics than Jazz, which offers infinite intellectual resources by allowing the listener the luxury of neutrality and freedom of deep thought.

Works Cited
Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. United Artists Corporation, 1977. DVD.
Chungking Express = Chung Hing Sam Lam. Dir. Kar Wai Wong. Buena Vista Home Entertainment Inc., 1994. DVD.
Hustle & Flow. By Craig Brewer. Dir. Craig Brewer. 2005. DVD.
Manhattan. Dir. Woody Allen. Perf. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. United Artists, 1979. DVD.
Morris, Christopher. “Woody Allen’s Comic Irony.” The Films of Woody Allen: Critical Essays. By Charles L. P. Silet. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2006. 50-57. Print.