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Wearing the Crown Again

Bill Conti makes a return to big budget films on The Thomas Crown Affair

by Daniel Schweiger

Part 1 of 2

When looking at Bill Conti's career in Hollywood, the one word that immediately comes to mind is prolific. Almost a hundred films, dozens of TV movies and shows, overseeing the music of sixteen Academy Award telecasts (besides winning three of them), conducting orchestras the world-over, and playing live to the New York Marathon. Conti has numerous awards, nominations, golden records, degrees, commendations, and a star which is walked on daily by Hollywood tourists. But Conti's theme for Rocky is perhaps what he's known best for, the soaring music of "Gonna Fly Now" that's become the next best thing to our national anthem. And that's not to even going into the themes for TV's "Good Morning America," "World News Tonight" and "Dynasty" that refuse to shut themselves off in our heads.

If anything, Bill Conti is a workhorse, a workhorse whose talent for memorable melodies has never allowed his reams of music to become a quagmire of notes. And perhaps a bit like the boxer (and actor) that Conti's theme helped turn into a superstar, the man behind the myths has never quite gotten the acknowledgement of a legend-- the kind of acclaim and continuous work that has been lauded on such composers as John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. And as a guy in his 50's, Conti doesn't have the youth factor of a Danny Elfman or a Marc Shaiman. But truth be told, Bill Conti is as good as any of them. Even if he knows his role in the Hollywood state of things.

Just listen to Conti's inspirational training montage of The Karate Kid, the plaintive Irish melodies of A Prayer For the Dying, the military hijinks of Private Benjamin, the raging Americana of FIST, the jazzy midlife crisis of An Unmarried Woman, the Holst-ian patriotism of The Right Stuff, the ultra-80's 007 groove of For Your Eyes Only, the gritty film noir of I, The Jury, the Latino energy of Bound By Honor and the mini-ballet for Slow Dancing In the Big City. There doesn't seem to be a style of music that Conti can't master, an emotion that his music can't reach. It's the kind of drum roll that should still be going on, a diverse, polished sound that big-budget Hollywood has been crying out for. But as is the fate of most workhorses, the diminishing quality of the films that Conti has worked on for the last couple of years has taken him out of the studio radar screen. Until now.

This Summer's remake of The Thomas Crown Affair marks Bill Conti's return to the fold, a score that's nothing less than an event for those in the know of the composer's talent. When most big directors have a case of instant forgetfulness of the collaborators who helped give them their start, it's nice to know that John McTiernan has remembered that Conti scored his first picture with Crown star Pierce Brosnan, a little-seen thriller called Nomads back in 1985. Things have changed since then. Brosnan assumed the mantle of Agent 007. McTiernan made the macho masterpieces Die Hard and Predator. But don't look for blood and guns with their remake of Thomas Crown. Even the 1968 original's bank heist is out. What this update does offer is a new caper revolving around stolen art, and the sensual fireworks between Brosnan's calculating playboy and Rene Russo's insurance investigator. While the cool suspense of this Crown might not be anything new for Brosnan, it's a different, non-violent playing ground for McTiernan.

Bill Conti's role here also is to be a master of understatement, creating a lush mood for the games that rich, disaffected people play. And that's no easy job, considering that Conti has got to rethink one of the swinging 60's best scores. Led by the theme song "The Windmills of Your Mind," composer Michel Legrand gave the original Thomas Crown a combo of jazz brass and the orchestra that oozed with sex appeal. The horn's call-and-response for the chess game between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway was as close to foreplay as music could get. But even if sex and robbery aren't quite so innocent now, Conti has strove to give this Thomas Crown a refined sensibility, where melody is always on the hunt. It's a mood that the composer can identify with, one that he's tried to live his professional life by. Like Mr. Crown, the awards and accomplishments might fade a bit, but style always remains everything. Especially when a new prize puts you on an elegant high.

DS: Did you actively pursue The Thomas Crown Affair?

BC: I know it's a stock-in-trade to do that, but I don't pursue films at this point in my life. But it's mildly interesting how I got the job. Pierce Brosnan made a film with John McTiernan called Nomads, for which I did the score. It was John's first picture. He remembered me, and called me to do The Thomas Crown Affair. I had seen the original picture and adored it.. So why do they do remakes like this? I have no idea. I did the original Gloria, which wasn't even a hit. But since Pierce was a producer on Thomas Crown, I'd say that he had something to do with remaking it.

DS: How do you get Michel Legrand's score out of your head?

BC: If John McTiernan made a Thomas Crown Affair that was a homage to the original, then I'd have to be conscious of the original score. Michel's score for the original defined an era. But is this a "90's" score? I wouldn't be able to give you an answer. This is a different film. It just has the same name. In my opinion, it could be called many other different things than The Thomas Crown Affair. It's not the same caper, but some story points are similar. If I want to say dark and light, I'd say this one is lighter in its tonal quality.

DS: Tell me about your score.

BC: I scored the film with two thoughts. One came from the opening titles. As a wink to the original, Faye Dunaway plays Pierce's psychiatrist. These lyrical title cards are going on during their conversation. There was a flow, and lyricism to them that I heard. That's my job. It's not a miracle or a mystery. I do that, because I know the language of music. Those things affect me musically, and I told John 'Wow, I really like this. As a matter of fact, I heard the whole thing. I'll let you hear it tomorrow morning.' And that's what I did. I went home, and started messing around with pianos, and ended up with five of them. I brought the music to John, and he liked it. I also have a string orchestra and a percussion section to reflect the slick nature of Thomas Crown. He's like a tap dancer, so you hear tap dancers on the percussion tracks. Those two ideas brought me the entire score.

DS: How did you come up with the tap dancing analogy?

BC: The guy's doing a caper. He's slick. But that tap dancing is subtle, as is the whole movie. The director and actors are winking at us. They don't want us to take the film too seriously. They want us to have fun. There are no gun or car chases, but you sit there and enjoy the movie.

DS: Are there any jazz touches to the score?

BC: There are jazz touches to the score, but I wouldn't call them "real" jazz. Real jazz is improvised. Michel's score was also written, but there are moments of improvisation in his score and mine. I think my score has a unique sound because of the five pianos. But to everyone else, it will sound like a really large piano, even though a pianist couldn't play all of those notes. The score is subtle, and interesting.

DS: Did John have anything he wanted your score to do?

BC: He knew what his movie was, and wanted the audience to be prepared for. So it would've been wrong if I scored The Thomas Crown Affair like an action picture. While there are moments of tension, you aren't going to think that an explosion's going to happen. There's a subtlety of entertainment, fun, intelligence and sophistication. It's not a movie for people who are expecting vulgarity. The score can't do the vulgarity of "He's a bad guy, he's a good guy, here's the chase and this is the sex." In the Greek chorus style, the score is supposed to be as sophisticated as the movie is. Hopefully, I've done that.

DS: What do you think equals musical sophistication?

BC: You'd have to begin by talking about what unrefined music is. It's anything that has rock and roll, rap and repetitive rhythm and harmony. The guy who drinks ripple instead of wine would not expect a sophisticated composer like Mozart. And the guy who's drinking ripple doesn't even know that he's vulgar. They don't get it. You need to acquire sophistication. It's an aesthetic that transcends words and takes your breath away. You have to be educated to know a real kind of sophistication, because the ordinary person just wouldn't get it. You can get a high with a bottle of Ripple, but the explosion of your taste buds with fine wine is like a bigger orgasm.


Tomorrow: The stunning conclusion!

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