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A Few Thoughts About Film Songs

by Cary Wong

Part 1: "Wise Up"

Film music fans may have varied opinions about who's the best composer or what's the best score of any given year, but the one thing they will most likely agree on is this: all-song soundtracks are the bane of our existence and will cause the downfall of civilization as we know it. Exaggeration? I think not.

This viewpoint is especially valid when an all-song soundtrack is released INSTEAD of a score soundtrack. But, this strong opinion may cloud a very important trend that's been occurring in Hollywood especially in this last decade: film songs are not only getting better, but they are probably at their peak. Now I'm not talking about those teenybopper or gangsta rap soundtracks, which just seems to be a dumping ground for generic songs by the artists on the label the soundtrack is released on, but I mean actual songs that are written for the movie and which plays an integral part of the movie-going experience.

A lot of movies still rely on standards to get a particular nostalgic response (the films of Nora Ephron and Woody Allen come to mind) but daring and adventurous directors are now turning to established songwriters to help in telling the story. These directors include Gus Van Sant who asked indie rocker Elliot Smith to write songs for "Good Will Hunting" and Kevin Smith who had Alanis Morisette not only sings but stars (as God, for God sake) in "Dogma." The art of film songs are getting a big lift from these collaborations of pop stars with film directors.

The most dramatic example of this is Paul Thomas Anderson who showed that songs could still make a difference in a movie even though the two songs that made the most impression in "Magnolia" were an older song ("Wise Up") and a remake ("One"). The connection and inspiration for Anderson was Aimee Mann who sang and wrote most of the songs featured. The controversial sequence involving "Wise Up" was particularly inventive in a movie full of surprises. A lot of people either snickered at Thomas's musical interlude of applauded its audacity. The beautiful and Oscar nominated "Save Me" was relegated to the end credits which didn't make the song any less enjoyable, just less important to the integrity of the movie. It perfectly captured the themes and ideals of the film, and the video, which Anderson directed, placed Mann squarely in the action of the film's many plotlines was an added bonus to the film's many fans.

But, trying to get film score fans to talk about film songs is like trying to get Jerry Goldsmith to talk to Lukas Kendall. The only time film score fans will even discuss songs is when it involves James Bond title songs. In this and in only this context will score enthusiast talk about the merit of say Duran Duran and Tina Turner. For some reason, it's OK to discuss this since the composer is usually involved with the title song of each Bond movie. One notable exception for the longest time was "Live and Let Die" which had the good fortune to use super-hot Paul McCartney who brought some sort of legitimacy to the proceedings. After that, pop stars began lining up to be a part of this tradition. Super-hot Sheryl Crow made a blunder with her solo-penned title song for "Tomorrow Never Dies" which doesn't compare to the beautiful (in both writing and performance) song from the same movie by kd lang, "Surrender." The song was co-written by composer David Arnold as was Garbage's "The World Is Not Enough," which I like a lot.

The best song of last year in my opinion, was "When She Loved Me" from "Toy Story 2" which dramatized something in the story and made us care for a character who up to then was slightly unlikable. This beautiful song, sung a little too earnestly by Sarah McLaughlan, is probably the most heartbreaking song in an animated movie since "Baby Mine" in "Dumbo." However, unless they change the gender of either the singer or the title pronoun, this song seems destined to be a big lesbian anthem.

Tomorrow I will talk about animated features, Broadway composers and the worst songwriters in the business: film composers themselves.

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