MFTM: March, 2008 (Online Edition)

Return to:  HomeDVD Music Column (Music from the Movies)

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MARCH 2008

Made two years before Toru Takemitsu’s untimely death in 1996, Music for the Movies: Toru Takemitsu is the final volume in the quartet of composer documentaries produced in the 1990s and released on DVD in the fall of 2007 by Kultur, and alongside the previously reviewed Bernard Herrmann doc, Charlotte Zwerin’s film is the most concise yet personable portrait of a genuine artist whose career easily could’ve continued for many more years in the concert and film worlds.

Takemitsu wasn’t prolific, and that’s perhaps partly due to his devoting time to concert works, and his very picky nature in choosing a film: it simply had to move him in some way.

Whether it was for the rare project outside of Japan or another score for one of several filmmakers with which he enjoyed long if not fruitful associations – Akira Kurosawa, Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, and Hiroshi Teshigahara – Takemitsu could recognize from an early screening of coarse rushes whether a project was worth the effort.

He never seemed to be an artist who took film work for extra income; a quick scan of his fairly modest filmography reveals films that were frequently strong social commentaries on Japanese issues rarely depicted or addressed in movies.

Zwerin’s direction is very simple and concise, and in her past work she’s focused her camera lens on subjects in very personable moments of reflection – qualities redolent of her association with Albert and David Maysles as co-director on Salesman (1968), Gimme Shelter (1970),Running Fence (1978), or as their editor on the brothers’ early shorts, A Visit with Truman Capote and the infamous Meet Marlon Brando (both 1966).

Her final work, which included Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser(1988) and Ella Fitzgerald: Something to Live For (1999) dealt with musicians and composers, and in both films Zwerin drew from archival sources and current interviews and distilled the bare essentials of what made each subject unique within his/her idiom.

Takemitsu deals exclusively with the composer’s film work, and contains many film clips that address his peculiar obsession to create natural sounds using a musician’s performance techniques, engineering tweaks, and sometimes focusing only on specific sound effects performed, recorded, and edited into sharp musical statements. “Every single sound can be film music,” says the composer, and he describes his approach as being evocative of the design for the circular, spiraling pathways within a Japanese garden: it’s a journey that emphasizes the sound, images, and textures of natural living things, which in film dramas include the performances and emotions and themes of some very obsessive directors.

The film extracts span seminal works within Japan’s New Wave movement –Woman of the Dunes (1964) figures most prominently, as do other works by Teshigahara – and they illustrate how Takemitsu scored power struggles, paranoia, and fractured family relations, plus the two big subjects that often dominate his work: murder and suicide.

He’s admits to being baffled as to how he got pigeon-holed as one of the primary composers for these heavy, dour subjects, but Takemitsu also confesses an attraction to the eroticism that can be portrayed in films.Woman of the Dunes is erotic, but Takemitsu’s music is the farthest approach to such subject matter when compared to the standard Hollywood style.

Indeed, Takemitsu feels he may have been the first composer to feature Japanese instruments and musical concepts from his culture when many Japanese film composers emulated the western style of American and European composers. One gets a sense this remained an ongoing battle, as his original pitch to score Kurosawa’s Ran with human voices was ultimately nixed in favour of Mahler (which he regards, years later, as a good choice, but less risky and appropriate than the vocal approach originally vetted by the director).

In addition to many interviews with renowned Japanese film directors, there’s two short interviews with historian Donald Ritchie, and some rare vintage clips of the composer with his fellow New Wave filmmakers from the sixties, a clips of Takemitsu on the Ran set, and the composer recording some of his score for Philip Kaufman’s wonky Rising Sun – arguably the film that brought the composer some western attention when Fox released the super-short score on CD.

Japanese composer/rock star Ryuishi Sakamoto still remains a bit of a reclusive enigma in that he’s granted few interviews regarding his film composing, so Criterion’s massive 4-disc set for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor is unique for some rare on-camera interviews, albeit mostly from archival sources.

Co-composer David Byrne fares much better in the set – he was interviewed in November of 2007, and is featured in an edited 25 min. piece on Disc 4 – but his background as a rock star also puts Sakamoto into perspective, since both composers shared similar rock backgrounds and were both assembled by director Bertolucci to score a period Chinese film – probably the most atypical film for anyone whose main performance venue rested in front of massive youth audiences.

Interpolated between Byrne’s detailed comments are extracts from the composer’s synth demo sketches set against specific scenes, and music samples that Byrne struggled to distill into the kind of sounds he could use in his cues without delving into Chinoiserie, a clichéd Western use of Chinese imagery larded into European art.

The most engaging aspect is how Byrne explains his efforts to evoke Chinese culture without being “insulting” and be faithful without being “authentic.” Also of note is his take on Bertolucci’s musical preference – themes, variations, practical application – and his comments on a few specific cues, which really shows how the film’s overall score was a rare, successful integration of material by three composers (Sakamoto, Byrne, and Con Su), and not just one with minor supportive cues.

That’s certainly the impression the original soundtrack album gives, since it favours Sakamoto’s exquisite symphonic material which are more classical and western, whereas Byrne’s material is more evocative of period Chinese music – something even Byrne notes in the closing minutes of the interview.

This is also illustrated within a 13 min. chunk of Paolo Brunatto’s 1986 onset documentary, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Chinese Adventure, basically a making-of doc, that contains shots of Sakamoto recording his main themes at Abbey Road Studios, Byrne (seen in black & white film) at his recording session, and each composer reflecting on their dual careers as artists, performing live versus on a recording stage, and Bertolucci’s influence (“In Bertolucci, I saw what an artist should be like,” says Byrne).

Criterion’s 4-disc set, due out Tuesday February 26th, 2008, includes the original theatrical cut, the longer TV cut, and several hour-long documentaries (some archival, others more recent) covering the film’s production.

Lastly, although released a few weeks prior to the Oscar telecast, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Academy Awards Animation Collection – 15 Winners, 26 Nominees, available as a 3- and scaled-down 2-disc 15 Winners edition, includes several short cartoons with isolated music-only tracks, much like their annual Golden Age of Looney Tunes sets, although here the breadth of material also mines the MGM cartoon library, too (with Tom and Jerry plus Droopy shorts).

In the 3-disc set, Disc 1 has “Speedy Gonzales” and Eugene Poddany’s music for “The Dot and the Line,” whereas Disc 2 has only commentary tracks.

Disc 3 has the best of the lot, and contains “Little Johnny Jet,” the stereo tracks of Scott Bradley score for the CinemaScope Tom and Jerry short “Touché, Pussy Cat!” plus archival vocal outtakes (with bridge commentary) for the Christmas short “Good Will to Men,” giggle-heavy recording session outtakes for “Tabasco Road,” and the score for “One Droopy Night.” Some of the outtake material was discovered when TCM and FSM was prepping their Scott Bradley 2-CDc set, of which material is featured on Tom and Jerry & Tex Avery Too! Vol. 1: The 1950s.

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Mark R. Hasan (2008)

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