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Changing Tunes: The Use Of Pre-Existing Music In Film

Phil Powrie and Robynn Stilwell, editors

Ashgate Publisthing, Gower House, Croft Road, Aldershot, Hants GU11 3HR

205 Pages

ISBM-10:0 7546 5137 1

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The study of Music and Film is a relatively new area of Film Studies, partly because the film genre has typically been addressed primarily from a visual point of view. This is now changing and, to complement the interest in the study of music and film, Ashgate have issued this book on the subject: a symposium with some 12 chapters by a variety of contributors covering topics ranging from ‘Ears Wide Open: Kubrick’s Music’ to ‘Narrating Sound: The Pop Video in the Age of the Sampler’. Along the way, the various authors consider a wide variety of topics such as the sound-track of the film ‘Amadeus’ and whether of not it does violence to Mozart’s music; the use of the opera ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ in ‘The Godfather part III’ and the use of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ in popular films.

This is a book which is academic in its origins. All of the authors have academic backgrounds and the majority are on the staff of an academic institution. The editors are a Professor at the Centre for Research into Film and Media at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and an Assistant Professor at the Department of Art, Music and Theater, Georgetown.

This academic background means that, whoever the book’s intended audience is, it is constructed very much like an academic symposium. Most chapters start with a review of the literature with references, which might not always be germane to the popular reader. This is not strictly a music book so the language used can often include the technical language of film studies. More problematically, the writing can verge on the abstruse. To read the book satisfactorily, you must negotiate some of the following:-

‘Gender destabilization is also effected through performative strategies which deliberately blur binary divisions between masculinity and femininity as exemplified by the multiple simulations of ‘Tacones ljanos’….’ (p.92)

‘More intriguingly, music in ‘Amadeus’ functions as a structural guidance for visual rhythm and a unifying device for narratively related yet spatio-temporally disjunctive scenes…’ (p.58)

If such language does not deter you, then there is much of interest in the book.

Claudia Gorbman examines Stanley Kubrick’s use of pre-existing music in his films after 2001, most particularly in his last film Eyes wide Shut. Kubrick’s technique is surprisingly subtle, even going as far as editing a three minute film sequence so that it fits exactly to a Ligeti piano piece.

But of course, one of the interesting aspects of music in films is that many items come with a pre-existing background. Film-makers since the 1920s have used the audience’s knowledge of a song’s title to provide commentary on the film’s action and Kubrick continues this in ‘Eyes wide shut’.

But of course, if you take a piece of classical music out of context then all sorts of interesting issues arise. Mike Cormack analyses the pleasures of the ambiguity that this can give rise to. Audiences can react to the music’s familiarity, but change of context can also have a distancing effect. Thus adding complexity and ambiguity to the film.

Of course, it might be that the film director is using pre-existing music simply because it is far cheaper!

Joengwon Joe attempts to argue that the sound-track of ‘Amadeus’ is a carefully crafted work and that it does not do violence to Mozart’s music in the way that musicologists have argued. Joe successfully argues that we need to take a filmic view of the score and the inter-cutting of the music, rather than considering the musical sound-track on its own.

Ann Davies looks at the use of film versions of the opera ‘Carmen’ as a way of presenting her theory of operatic high culture being used to somehow validate popular culture. Her chapter raises some interesting points about the whys and wherefores of the deployment of opera in popular films. As early as 1915, Geraldine Farrar’s playing of Carmen in a silent film helped bring the illusion that filmgoers were participating in a highbrow cultural form. There are perhaps links to be made here with Pasolini’s use of Maria Callas in a spoken role in his film ‘Medea’.

She makes some very valid points about the way film directors mediate the opera. We never see the opera strictly but their view of it. The result has to be judged as film, not as music theatre - something which did not happen when the Bizet estate complained over the musical text used in ‘Carmen Jones’. But Davies is rather prone to over-analysis.

This tendency carries over into some of the other chapters as well. Lars Franke makes much of the use of ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ in ‘The Godfather Part III’. He seems to omit the idea that Coppola might have used the opera simply because opera was part of popular culture in Italy of the period. Kristi A. Brown examines the use of Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’. Brown goes off in search of ‘The Troll Among Us’ in a rather interesting way, but I think loses sight of the fact that film-makers have used that piece of music partly because it’s a damn good tune.

Similarly Vanessa Knights seeks to examine Almodovar’s use of the popular bolero song genre in his early films, raising issues regarding Queer theory, Camp etc. As is often the case when Queer Culture or Camp are examined academically, I feel that a sledgehammer is being used to crack a nut. But, as a gay man, perhaps that’s because I feel a particular ownership of these issues.

The book concludes with a quartet of surveys. ‘The Popular Song as Leitmotif in 1990s Film’, the use of Accordion in French Cinema, ‘Vinyl Communion The Record as Ritual Object in Girls; Rites-of-Passage Films’ and ‘Narrating Sound: The Pop Video in the Age of the Sampler’. How much you enjoy these chapters will depend on how interested you are in their particular object of survey. But that’s all part of the fun of this sort of book.

There is much of interest here to the popular reader, but the book only gives up its treasures slowly. Much careful reading and consideration will be needed on the part of the reader.

Robert Hugill



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