November 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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DVD Review

Magnolia (1999) Film's cast includes: Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore and Jason Robards. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Music by Jon Brion
  New Line Home Video N5029  

Any soundtrack collector who's played the 49 minute Reprise album of Brion's score and not seen the 3 hour long movie can have little understanding about what they're listening to. Tracks lasting over 10 minutes are a rarity in film music, and yet there are 2 of them alongside others generally over 4 minutes. In fact, although the album is a terrific listen, it's a bit of mis-representation of the film. There the cues are much longer!

At any given time during the film's internal timeframe there are as many as 6 independent story threads being intertwined. When initially edited together, the picture must have been the driest viewing experience imaginable. To turn the sound off while watching the picture makes many sections look like someone is playing with your remote control and channels are being flicked between at random. The director's craftsmanship is therefore to be congratulated in several capacities. As the documentary accompanying this DVD presentation explains, Anderson conceived this film with a very specific approach to music from the start.

The only musical incongruity on the album is the 44 second long 4th track, "wdkk theme". It's an upbeat jazzy quiz show opener, and ought really to have been sequenced first or last so as not to interrupt the album's flow. This piece was written and recorded during the shooting of the movie so as to be used in playback during the scenes taking place around Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) respectively hosting and taking part in the popular 'What Do Kids Know?' TV hit. Anderson scheduled the recording of this all together, so as to maintain the actor's momentum and also have video playback on TV screens in the background of the other character's sequences. Those other sequences were then shot in bulked together isolation themselves.

Composer Brion was asked for 'something slow but fast, scary but romantic, sad and happy, is this possible?' Their working relationship once the film was cut together stemmed from Anderson gesticulating with his hands to articulate the emotion he wanted carried across these sequences now they had been blown apart and inter-cut with one another. So off Brion went to compose to these uniquely unorthodox methodologies.

Meantime, Anderson had fallen in love with, and a deal had been struck for songs by Aimee Mann. In the film's most controversial sequence, Anderson's pre-conceived musical approach is illustrated at a far higher volume level than most of Brion's mix-challenged score. All the principal characters suddenly burst into a Mann song. In a far more universally appreciable manner than the music, this technique explains that it's all one grand interconnected story. Operatic if you will.

Brion's score performed exactly the same function throughout the film at greater length, but sadly (as hinted at above) it's oftentimes buried under dialogue and sound effect. Other sourced songs are allowed to do the reverse, to actually swallow the principal soundtrack layer of dialogue, such as to illustrate Claudia's drug-fuelled hearing problems. When the score is allowed to shine it can be perceived as something almost waltz-like or certainly cyclic in design. It revolves around itself in the same way as the editing pattern which deals with each independent sub-story thread by turns.

The film won and was nominated for numerous international awards, but noticeably none for music. It would be interesting to see critical opinion of the film if presented with the piece devoid of music. Not only is this a fantastic demonstration of the technical and emotional contribution a score makes to a film, it's also a classic example of the craft being maligned as an invisible artform.


Paul Tonks

[No rating given]

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