July 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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BOLLING, Claude (1930- ) by Didier C. Deutsch

Bolling By Bolling ****
Hortensia/France 873 132 [74:42]

Bolling Films ****(*)
DRG CDSBL 13120 [74:03]

Bolling Story ****(*)
PlayTime/France PL3052192 [74:32] Crotchet

Les musiques de Claude Bolling ****
Travelling/France K 1505 [48:17] Amazon UK

Lucky Luke au cinema ****(*)
Playtime/France 3020842 [75:40] Crotchet

Annee sainte, L' ***
CAM/Italy CSE 008 [29:48]

Borsalino/Borsalino & Co. ****
Milan/France 74321 57961 2 [69:32]

Brigades du Tigre, Les (TV) ****(*)
Playtime/France PL 9201 [70:00]

California Suite ****(*)
CBS MK 36691 [37:50]
[alternative version Amazon UK]

Louisiane ****
Hortensia/France CD FMC 532 [50:52]

Magnifique, Le ****
CAM/Italy CSE 017 [38:02]

Claude Bolling's name seldom shows up in the lists of French film  composers whose popularity extends beyond the confines of their own country. Certainly, outside of France, he is not as well known as some of his peers like Michel Legrand, Georges Delerue, Francis Lai, Philippe Sarde or Maurice Jarre. In fact, the only nod of recognition mention of his name might get would involve the string of successful light classical albums he recorded in the 1970s with such players as Jean-Pierre Rampal, Pinchas Zukerman, Alexander Lagoya, and Yo-Yo Ma, among others, or an occasional film score like California Suite or The Awakening.

Yet, Bolling, a prolific and diversified composer whose career and overall style often evoke Henry Mancini's, ranks among the most inventive and interesting contributors to the art of film music in France. The comparison with Mancini is more than a casual recognition of the various types of films Bolling has written for. Like Mancini, his scores have included comedies, in which his originality has found new accents to underscore the misadventures of screen miscreants like Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Gabin, Alain Delon and other familiar figures of French cinema; thrillers, in which his riveting jazz-influenced compositions have helped keep the action on the screen more tense and frightening; and historical dramas, in which the color and solidity of his writing have given new dimensions to the scope of the films themselves. [When one compares him to Mancini, Bolling often denies the comparison, and, with typical Gallic gesturing, simply replies: "Oh, no! Mancini is much bigger than I am."]

A child prodigy, Bolling was born in 1930 in Cannes, on the French Riviera, and studied harmony and counterpoint, first at the Nice Conservatory, then in Paris. At the age of 14, when most schoolboys still learn about Napoleon and Joan of Arc, he already was making music as a professional jazz pianist, performing with such reputed artists as Lionel Hampton, Roy Eldridge and Kenny Clarke.

Bolling's frequent contacts with expatriate American jazz musicians who, like Sidney Bechet or Bill Coleman, had established residence in Paris during the 1950s and '60s, was a determining factor in his formation. But he acknowledges a special debt to Duke Ellington, who acted as his mentor and eventually became a close friend. "The first time I heard (his) music, it was as if some magic was actually happening," Bolling comments. "I remember that moment very well. It was ‘Black and Tan Fantasy' and ‘Creole Love Call' from a 78 r.p.m. recording on a cranked-up phonograph. Since that time when I fell in love with the Duke's musical world, all the Ellingtonians became my idols."

In 1957, Bolling was commissioned to write the music for a documentary short about the Cannes Film Festival, a move that determined his career in film. The response to his music was such that he received other assignments, including two films that starred Mel Ferrer, Les mains d'Orlac (Hands Of Orlac) and L'homme a femmes (The Ladies' Man). "I always had in mind to write for the screen," Bolling says, "but my big break came in 1963 when Rene Clement asked me to compose a jazz piano piece for Le jour et l'heure (The Day and the Hour), starring Stuart Whitman. Undaunted, I told him I'd love to score the whole picture.

"One week before he was scheduled to go into post-synchronization, he gave me the assignment. It took him another three days to decide whether he really wanted some music, which means that I had exactly three days left to come up with a complete score. It was horrendous, and a fascinating experience all at once..."

However it wasn't until Borsalino, in 1969, that Bolling's film career began to take off in earnest. The film, based on a novel by Eugene Saccomano, "Bandits de Marseille," was directed by Jacques Deray, with whom Bolling subsequently established a long-lasting working relationship, notably scoring Flic Story, in 1975, and Trois hommes a abattre (Three Men To Gun Down), in 1980, both starring Alain Delon; and On ne meurt que deux fois (You Only Die Twice), with Charlotte Rampling and Michel Serrault, in 1985. Set in Marseille in the late 1920s, Borsalino, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon as two petty gangsters trying to achieve standing in the 'hood, and its sequel, Borsalino & Co., enabled the composer to express his admiration for early jazz and blend with it sounds that were reminiscent of French songs from the period.

"Long before I met Bolling, I had in mind to work with him," says Deray. "Even though he had never written a ‘period' score, when I began thinking of him for Borsalino, I instinctively felt that he would be quite comfortable in this environment. I told him what the film would be all about, and right there and then, Claude played a honky-tonk piano theme that was both brilliant and nostalgic. That was exactly what I was looking for. In other words, we had found the main theme from Borsalino just like that. As a result, I was able to play Claude's music on the set, in the scenes in which there was no dialogue, and to integrate it in the action as an element of the overall direction."

"Right from the start, I wanted to write a score that was original, yet evocative of the '20s-'30s, as opposed to redoing the period's greatest hits," adds Bolling. "It became my goal to avoid creating something that was ‘phony-dated'... while keeping within the spirit of the era, but with a contemporary sensitivity. As a result, I dedicated myself to writing a modern score with a retro flavor."

In 1971, Bolling created the music for the first of two feature-length cartoons based on the Lucky Luke comic strip by Morris (ne Maurice de Bevere) and Rene Goscinny. The second, La ballade des Daltons, was released in 1978. "Rene Goscinny was one of the great French humorists," Bolling says. "I had read the albums of Asterix and Lucky Luke (for which Goscinny had written the text), and when I found out he was planning to make a film based on the latter, I told him I wanted to write the music for it. It was a great experience.

"Rene was a true professional; he had a keen eye for details, and he always knew exactly what he wanted. To write the score, I took my cues from a lot of sources – Tiomkin, of course, who is the reference in western film music, but also Victor Young, whose score for Around The World In 80 Days I have always admired. I also used elements of blue grass, tijuana music, and even a full-scale choir to underscore the last scene in which the hero rides away into the sunset.

"In one scene, in which Joe Dalton, one of the outlaws Lucky Luke is forever chasing, evokes to an Indian chief what America will become if the white man takes over, I even wrote a jazz number, ‘City Life,' which I have since added to the repertoire of my big band."

In 1972, Bolling worked on a film by Philippe de Broca, Le magnifique, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, which was a huge success in France, and became a highlight in a series of features in which Belmondo perfected the screen persona he had fashioned since That Man From Rio of an accident-prone happy-go-lucky individual forever thrown in spite of himself in the most incredible adventures.

"I told de Broca I wanted to write something unusual for the film," says Bolling, "and for a scene in which frogmen, armed to the teeth, come out of the sea and threaten the hero, I devised a riotous piano concerto, which was totally unexpected in this kind of setting.

"When I score a film, there are times when I feel I should go along with the screen action, and other times when I should go against it. Some scores should progress naturally, but there are times when a contrast may be needed to make the image on the screen ‘sing' even more. There are also instances when a score must express things that the screen visuals cannot, and other times when the score must take second place and simply be a part of the overall setting and nothing else. It's really a question of balance.

"Ideally, a score should be a concert piece which closely follows the action while it complements it. I find totally unbearable when a leit-motif heard behind the credits is repeated ad nauseam throughout the film. That drives me crazy..."

The success of Borsalino led many in the French film industry to think of Bolling as the composer of choice when a "retro" score seemed appropriate. In 1973, he was asked to work on another highly popular effort, the television series, Les brigades du Tigre, which had a spectacular 36-episode run. "The ‘Tiger' of the title is Georges Clemenceau, the hero of World War I, who organized in 1910 a police squad to combat crime," comments Bolling. "The series, using real reports from the blotters of that era, reconstructed some cases and fictionalized them. It was later expanded to include cases that took place in the 1920s and 1930s. Had Victor Vicas, the director, lived, I'm sure the series would have continued through the 1940s and '50s, up to today.

"Victor Vicas was very precise and meticulous in his choices – whether it was his stars, the supporting cast, or even the sets," Bolling continues. "He wanted for the series a score that was specific to each episode, while the publisher kept asking for something that was more generic. Caught between the two, but leaning in the direction of the Vicas, I tried to satisfy both, and had to be particularly inventive. I often wrote for a wide range of solo instruments within small groups: flute, clarinet, bassoon or saxophone, trumpet, trombone, two strings, sometimes a quartet, guitar or banjo, bass, drums and of course piano. Thanks to the excellent sound I obtained, I was able to give the impression of density whenever necessary. Sometimes, it's when you're under that kind of pressure that you do your best work!"

Bolling's international career took a new turn in 1979 with the release of California Suite, based on Neil Simon's popular stage play, in which his smooth, easy-going musings perfectly matched the screen antics of stars Alan Alda, Michael Caine, Bill Cosby, Walter Matthau, Jane Fonda, Maggie Smith, Richard Pryor and Elaine May. "Ray Stark, the producer of the film, had heard the ‘Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano' I had done with Jean-Pierre Rampal, and asked me to write a score in the same vein. Initially, I wanted to do it with Rampal, but apparently that created a problem in Hollywood, and I ended up working with American musicians instead. All told, there was very little music in the film itself, as it was mostly dialogue, but it was an interesting project to work on."

Louisiane, in 1984, starring Margot Kidder, reunited Bolling with de Broca for a lavish adaptation of the novels "Louisiane" and "Fausse riviere" written by Maurice Deniziere, and set in the American Deep South in the mid-1800s. The film, released theatrically in Europe, was seen as a television series in the U.S. The period as well as the setting enabled Bolling to write a score that included waltzes, folk dances and French operettas, all stylistically removed from anything he had done before.

In recent years, Bolling has seemingly kept a low profile as a film composer, only scoring a handful of films such as Race For The Bomb, a 1987 documentary, Jacques Deray's Netchaiev est de retour (Netchaiev Is Back), starring Yves Montand, in 1991, or Claude Lelouch's Hasards et coincidences, in 1998, while expanding his activities as a big band leader. But after scoring more than a hundred films, he can reflect with pride on his many achievements and the enduring work relationships he has established with some of France's most renowned directors. "It's always rewarding for a composer to work with a director you know and respect, and who knows and respects you," he says. "Looking back on all the scores I wrote, the ones that gave me the greatest satisfaction are the ones I created in 1968 and 1969 for the reissue in France of several silent films made by Buster Keaton, including Seven Chances, Steamboat Bill Junior and The Navigator. Can you imagine that: no dialogues... and no director to argue with you! It was sheer bliss..."

Perhaps as a result of his formation, Bolling's scores often reflect a strong jazz influence – from big band swing to fusion, from bebop to cool, depending of course on the moods wanted by the films. But his music, always catchy and cheerfully melodic, is also characterized by its wide diversity, as it touches upon many genres that include American folk, musicals, classical, and traditional pop, among many others. Another characteristic is the humor that often permeates some of the cues, particularly those written for comedies, where a sly wink to the listener goes a long way in helping share the composer's sense of unabashed fun.

Many of these musical traits can be found in the recordings selected above, which provide a fairly good overview of his oeuvre. Among the various compilations, Bolling Story, a limited numbered release from 1999, and Bolling Films, with 23 titles and 27 titles respectively, are the most comprehensive and rate the highest, though they sometime duplicate each other. Also with 27 tracks, Bolling By Bolling is another interesting compilation, though it should be noted that most of the selections it includes come from only three films, Race For The Bomb, Catch Me A Spy (1971), and Night Life (1967).

Released in the celebrated series "Movies To Listen To," Les musiques de Claude Bolling focuses on four films directed by Jacques Deray, Borsalino and its sequel, Borsalino & Co.; Doucement les basses! (Easy Does It), from 1960; and Flic Story, from 1975. As is usual with this series, musical excerpts are presented with dialogue and sound effects from the films. Lucky Luke au cinema, a limited edition 30-track compilation, offers most of the cues written for the two Lucky Luke animated features. No doubt inspired by the subject matter, Bolling let his imagination run amok and came up with two rollicking scores, in which the cartoonish accents are but the most salient aspects. With mariachi music, Tijuana Brass moments, square dances, 1950s rock, big band jazz, saloon songs, and even a hilarious musical number in La ballade des Dalton that evokes some of the wildest moments in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, among the many highlights, the whole thing served with a wink in the direction of Elmer Bernstein and Henry Mancini, Bolling managed to create a brilliant series of cues that are totally engaging and entertaining.

Of the selected individual titles listed, California Suite may well be the most popular, and for good reason. Bolling's light jazzy musings (performed by such stalwarts as Hubert Laws on flute, Chuck Damonico on bass, Shelly Manne on drums, Bud Shank, Tommy Tedesco, Ralph Grierson, and thecomposer himself on keyboard) did much to capture the essence and enhance the moods of this delightful comedy based on Neil Simon's Broadway play. Perhaps not a groundbreaking score by any stretch of the imagination, but a pleasant one that leaves the listener often asking for a repeat performance.

Les brigades du Tigre is equally fascinating for the diversity of its themes and instrumentations, with the main title, "La complainte des Apaches," appropriately catching the flavor of the early period and setting up the dramatic frame of the series itself. Because it covered a wide span, the series afforded Bolling an opportunity to write in many different styles, reflective of the various times in which each episode was set. As a result, the soundtrack album is a diversified affair that particularly shows to best effect the composer's unique range.

Completists will no doubt enjoy the two Borsalino scores on the Milan label, another striking series of cues that properly define the moods of these police dramas set in Marseille in the 1930s, with Bolling's music not only enhancing the screen action, but drawing a strong parallel with similar musical echoes heard around the same time period in Chicago..

Likewise, the period flavor of Louisiane is appropriately evoked in a soundtrack album that is noticeably fetching and attractive. The time period and setting of this film by Philippe de Broca (the American south in the mid-1800s) gave Bolling an opportunity to display his brilliant sense of melodic invention in cues that include a sparkling waltz (with vocal by Dee Dee Bridgewater), a traditional dixieland, a quadrille, and even a three-part concerto for piano and orchestra, among the most striking moments. Rating for L'annee sainte (The Holy Year) reflects not so much the quality level of the music, also quite enjoyable, but the fact that playing time is shamefully short (29:48). Adopting a frequently baroque tone, the score reflects the moods of this amiable screen caper, Jean Gabin's last film, in which he played a phony priest on the lam who finds himself the victim of a sky highjack. Similarly, Le Magnifique, which starred Jean-Paul Belomondo in one of his familiar screen roles as an easy-going, ne'er-do-well, happy-go-luck adventurer, is another delightful score, a joyous mixture of cues built around two themes, a forlorn, romantic tune, and a wild, Mexican-flavored mariachi. Rounding out these obvious cues are two totally different selections, a rather ambitious (and slightly ponderous), "Concerto For Piano Killers and Orchestra," which actually ends up being fun as it collapses within 2:45 all the tenets of the genre, and "Karpoff," a lengthy (4:45) tune for percussion instruments that gets a bit tiring as pure audio, though it serves its purpose on screen, and certainly adds a new facet to Bolling's creative versatility.


Didier C. Deutsch


Didier C. Deutsch

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