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THE LIFE OF LEONARD ROSENMAN

PART TWO: MORE EARLY SCORES, AND THE LOSS OF A FRIEND

(All sources for Rosenman quotes are listed at the bottom of this column. Paragraphs in italics are contributed by the editor)

Rosenman followed East of Eden with the all-star MGM production THE COBWEB:

The film was directed by Vincente Minnelli, a man of taste and imagination, and produced by the very literate John Houseman. (MM)

Houseman...said he wanted me to write a score of my own style. I said, "Are you sure you know what you're doing?" He said, "Yes, I'll give you carte blanche -- do anything you want." I thought the score would be thrown out, but he said, "So be it. I'll fight for it." (FF)

The setting of the picture is a Midwest psychiatric clinic, where the staff seem almost as psychotic as the patients. The place is thrown into a tizzy over a seemingly trivial incident, the hanging of new drapes in the clinic's library, which initiates a mess of conflicts and jealousies. Those of us working on the film came to call them "the drapes of wrath." What I wrote was the first twelve-tone film score, non-thematic except for one main motif to denote the madness of the place. (MM)

[Rosenman chose the 12-tone approach not] simply because I felt it was important to write a serial score. I felt that the film really could have used this kind of treatment. I also felt that it would have set off the film as not simply a pot-boiler melodrama which happened to center around an insane asylum but rather a film in which this kind of expressionistic music could be, so to speak, mind reading, or as I say, super-real.

I simply mean it was not naturalistic. It was my intention not to 'ape' or mimic the physical aspect of the screen mise en scene but it was more my intention to show what was going on inside characters' heads.

[The score's function] would be to enter the plot and show something that wasn't immediately perceived on the screen and to try to create a kind of atmosphere that was, in my opinion, conspicuously lacking in the movie. The movie was a very refined and very slick and very well-produced film. But I wanted more neurosis; much more of the inner workings of the people which, I think, were a bit lacking in the overt action of the film. (FM)

Rosenman chose to feature the piano prominently in his main title:

The problem of writing a piece which featured the piano interested me academically because I had just heard, for the first time, the Schoenberg Piano Concerto and I was tremendously involved with that piece. As a matter of fact, I taught a seminar in it at that time. I was interested in exploring the whole process of doubling between the piano and orchestra.(FM)

To my surprise the score was liked by the MGM music department and actually recorded. I was beginning to think everything I'd heard about Hollywood was untrue.

Andre Previn said to me at the time, "They are going to throw out your score." I said, "I bet they won't, there's no frame of reference between this and any other score, it's all atonal." I didn't care. I lived in New York at the time. Not that I didn't try to do the best I can, my name was on it, but at the same time I just didn't take films very seriously.

At any rate, they just loved the score, because there was no frame of reference. That became one of the basic scores that influenced an enormous amount of composers in film. (S55)

At the time, Dimitri Mitropoulus was conductor of the new York Philharmonic. He saw the film and asked if I would like to have the soundtrack album done by them. I replied that I didn't, because I felt the music was composed for the film. The amount of work it would take to refashion it as a concert piece. I don't believe in soundtrack albums except as a commercial endeavor.

It was remarkable that I was accepted the way I was and could make a living and try things out. I used films to buy the leisure to write concert music. I used films as a laboratory for dealing with problems. That is not to say I sloughed off writing films, because if your name is on it, you do the best you can. It was a felicitous arrangement because the filmmaker would get something unusual and interesting, and I was able to try out a lot of problem areas in my own work and see what they sounded like. But when I work for a film, my main objective is to serve the film. Most composers who work in films have a serious problem: they do not write other kinds of music. That means their entire musical ego is tied up in film music. It's very easy to get confused about what kind of music you are writing. (FF)

Rosenman was approached to score his friend James Dean's next film project, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, by its director, Nicholas Ray.

He came to me and said "Would you like to write Jimmy's next film?" And I said, "Of course," and that was that.

This was not an independent film. This was a Warner Bros. film, and Warner Bros. films at that time had music from the first frame to the last frame. A lot of the reviewers for East of Eden suddenly said that it was the first film they had seen with very dramatic silence. Rebel, I felt, had too much music.(ER)

I played [the planetarium scene] as a drama, because the end of the world was a kind of symbolic end of the world and later on became the end of the world for the kid [played by Sal Mineo], because he died. That's why I didn't want the thing to stand out as a different scene. (S56)

I did some research in pop music at the time, I knew nothing about pop music, I had the same kind of concept that I had in East of Eden except that it was a little less complex. I had motifs for people that little by little came in counterpoint with each other.

A lot of people felt the score sounded like West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. I found that rather interesting, because West Side Story came three years later! I remember I used to go to Lenny's house with Aaron Copland and Aaron would say, "Well, he's listening to Rebel again." I'm not saying for a second that Lenny stole anything from me, but he was very inspired by it, like a great many people in Hollywood, probably Benny [Herrmann] too. Benny at one time asked me to coach him in areas he was writing in, in terms of his concert works. (S55)

At that time, I would take off -- and I still do -- one to four years between films to do my own work. And so when I started another film, it was very hard to get back. So I would do small films, and the result was that I had a lot of very, very avant-garde scores with small films. (ER)

Rosenman did not write the score for Giant, James Dean's third and final film, and the assignment went to Dimitri Tiomkin.

I was busy doing another film, and I think the director, George Stevens, also wanted another composer. I didn't really care about it. At that time I used to do the score for a film and go home to New York. I didn't even live in Los Angeles. It was very alien to me. Most people who write film music had ambitions to be in film music. I had no ambition. It was an accident. (S56)

Sept. 30, 1955. I was in New York, spending an evening with my parents, when the phone rang. It was my agent, Jane Deacy, who also represented James Dean. She was calling from California and had somehow tracked me down to tell me that my friend Jimmy had just been killed in an automobile accident.

For weeks afterwards, with gradually diminishing frequency and vividness, I kept hearing her voice in my mind, telling me of my friend's death. It seems to me analogous to the brain running traumatic information over and over again, until it gradually digests it and ultimately assimilates it into one's total awareness.

As one of Jimmy's closest friends, as well as the composer of the musical scores to East of Eden and Rebel without a Cause, I suddenly found myself on the edge of what had turned into a cult phenomenon. On the strength and impact of his first film, East of Eden (Rebel and Giant had not yet been released), Jimmy had become a legend overnight.

Magazine articles, newspaper stories, tons of letters to the studio (Warner Bros.), to his friends and colleagues; all kinds of material, from learned papers seeking to explain this social explosion to expressions by mentally ill people, were published all over the world. Many tried to bring Jimmy to life by assuming his identity (or at least what they thought was his identity). Other claimed he wasn't really dead, but was either mad or terribly scarred and hidden away in some secret institution. There were many communications (some directly to me) from those claiming to have spoken to Jimmy in a world of life after death.

The upheaval was, for the most part, that kind of entity associated with a universal trauma emanating from the sudden death of an idol at the top of his career and in the prime of life. Certainly President Kennedy's death elicited the same kind of response, though of a more momentous nature.

Like that process of digesting traumatic information, people all over the world reacting to Jimmy's death gradually assimilated the event. The mystique and symbol of James Dean was slowly absorbed into the consciousness of the culture, gradually metamorphosing into many of the diverse elements contributing to what we call the rock or pop culture today.

One important aspect of the private tragedy of Jimmy was that he had the natural intelligence and potential to become most of what he desired, to be versed in what he had only admired from afar. The public aspect of that tragedy was his hatred of the very aspects of his personality that called public attention to him: his "not-caring" attitude, his daredevil exploits on motorcycles and in racecars, his seeming independence from society.

His true friends responded to him despite these latter elements, and not because of them. Shortly before he died, at the insistence of Stanley Meyer and myself, he went into psychoanalysis. He had at least taken as positive step in his behalf towards consciousness and possible change. It was unfortunately too little and too late. (LAT)

Rosenman began to be more prolific, scoring Martin Ritt's EDGE OF THE CITY, John Frankenheimer's feature directing debut THE YOUNG STRANGER, and several war films including PORK CHOP HILL, with a score based on a Chinese folk tune:

It was my idea from the beginning. I looked it up and picked this one. It was free. I formed a kind of a march based on that. I haven't heard that score in years, but they tell me it's good. (S56)

Rosenman began to work in a greater variety of genres, including gangster drama (THE RISE AND FALL OF LEGS DIAMOND) and airline thrillers (THE CROWDED SKY). He also began to balance his feature work with television scoring, including the "And When the Sky Was Opened" episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and the popular legal drama THE DEFENDERS:

It's very important for the composer to know what music can't do. I did a main title for a series that became a tremendous hit, The Defenders. The guy in charge, a very bright guy, said, "I'd like the music to express the law." I said, "Well, music can't express the law. It's not possible. If you want the music to express majesty or something like that, it will only express majesty if what you have on the screen is majestic." (FF)

If music is associated with, let's say, a pictorial thing which describes a courthouse, then from then on when you hear it, you will think of the law. (TV)

Actually, the theme I wrote for The Defenders is almost interchangeable with my theme for [Marcus] Welby. Musically. But heard against different images, they have different meanings. (TG)

Richard Strauss came as close as any composer in being able to communicate pictures, but five people listen to Ein Heldenleben, and if they have no idea what it's about, you'll get five different stories. (MM)

Music can't open and shut doors. National General called me once and asked me to save a picture. I said, "Yes, if I can reshoot it with different actors and a different script, by all means." Because most filmmakers don't understand music, they feel it has the power to heal, to cure broken legs, to cure stuttering, to cure bad photography, bad acting. I'm sorry to say that it can't do any of that. It's up to you. You have to do good films; then the music will appear better too. (FF)


NEXT TIME: Rosenman battles the Germans and shrinks to microscopic size.


Part One of this series is accessible on the website.


ER: Liner notes by Royal S. Brown for the Nonesuch CD Leonard Rosenman: East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause
FF: Filmmakers on Filmmaking: The American Film Institute Seminars on Motion Pictures and Television, edited by Joseph McBride; published by Houghton Mifflin, 1983
FM: Film Music: A Neglected Art, by Roy M. Prendergast; published by W.W. Norton & Company, 1992
LAT: Los Angeles Times, December 18, 1977: "Jimmy Dean: Giant Legend, Cult Rebel," by Leonard Rosenman
MM: Music for the Movies by Tony Thomas; published by Silman-James Press, 1997
S55: Soundtrack vol. 14, No. 55, September 1995, interview by Wolfgang Breyer
S56: Soundtrack vol. 14, No 56, December 1995, interview by Daniel Mangodt
TG: TV Guide, May 19, 1973: "Could Dr. Welby Practice Without Music?", by Rowland Barber
TV: TV's Biggest Hits by Jon Burlingame; published by Schirmer Books, 1996


Edited by Scott Bettencourt

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