We've all read those sycophantic liner notes by directors claiming the CD we hold in our hands contains music so fine it has elevated their humble film beyond their wildest imaginings. Well the notes for The Cooler by first time director begin, "Anyone who knows me, knows I'm a film score junkie…" and this time it's actually true. I can't say if Mark Isham's score works wonders for The Cooler – the film hasn't been released in the UK yet – but I do know that like Steven Spielberg and Nicholas Meyer before him, Wayne Kramer is a genuine film music fan who understands the purpose of music in film.
Kramer is also a man who was fortunate enough to acquire the services of Mark Isham for his score even though the budget didn't run to such a big name composer. Isham, a musician who has long had one foot in the film music world and one in jazz, recognised a rare opportunity to write a classic jazz score and took it.
A gambling/crime drama set in Las Vegas, jazz is entirely appropriate to The Cooler. The milieu also means it is appropriate that film and album feature several songs – not fashionable pop inserted to sell records, but jazz numbers in-keeping with the locale and story.
Usually when a soundtrack contains score and songs I prefer them to be kept in two separate sections, as generally even if the songs are good they tend to clash with the mood of the score. That was even the case with the comparable album for Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, reviewed on FMOTW here
The Cooler is a rare album where songs and score blend almost perfectly, though for convenience I'll discuss the two separately. The album contains 14 tracks, seven score cues, seven songs, devoting roughly equal running time to each.
The first song is 'Candy' by Rebecca Kyler Downs, an unknown number written and performed by an unknown (at least in the UK) singer. Yet this is a sensational big band swing anthem, playfully sensual, smoky and filled with lustful longings. Not only is this a fine song which had it been written 50 years ago would now be considered a standard, but it receives a glorious performance by Ms Downs. This is a lady who so far only has one album to her name ("Love Me Like Candy"), but believe me, if there's any justice she is going to be a big star.
All of which makes the following number particularly painful, a take on 'You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me', delivered by cast member Paul Sorvino; a good actor, but only an amateur singer. To make his cut follow Ms Downs borders on the sadistic, and really this should either have been omitted or left as a bonus track. Later we get Diana Krall singing another Warren/Dubin classic, 'I'll String Along With You', showing us how it should be done. This is as fine a performance as one might expect from the fabulous Ms Krall.
The songs also include a very good version of 'My Funny Valentine' performed by Tieney Sutton and 'Almost Like Being in Love' delivered by the little known Nick D'Egidilo in good imitation Sinatra form. Speaking of which, and key to the film's gambling theme, is a rousing, wonderfully confident rendition by Bobby Caldwell of 'Luck Be A Lady'. One can only think of Sinatra, but then Caldwell did star as Frank (no last names used due to opposition from the Sin*tra estate) in the David Cassidy/Don Reo Las Vegas theatrical production The Rat Pack Is Back. Short of Sinatra himself its hard to think of anyone more appropriate to sing this number for the film, or to conceive of a better performance.
And onto the score…
The album begins and ends with deeply atmospheric, big band versions of Isham's main theme, with Isham himself on trumpet. It's a 16 piece band, with apart from Isham, four sax players (one doubling on clarinet), three further trumpets, two trombones, bass, keys, violin, guitar and two percussionists, including the celebrated Peter Erskine on drums.
This is fabulous stuff, imaginatively arranged and featuring a big, boldly conceived main theme which spins through various moods from rousingly optimistic to late-night melancholy. Some of the finest silver screen jazz since Howard Shore's The Score (2001) and Joel Goldsmith's Diamonds (1999). 'Better Than Life/Tables on Fire' fuses two cues, a moody introspective piece and an optimistic funky workout, while 'Shangri-La' offers a lonely clarinet over solemn strings and a repetitively fatalistic piano not so far removed from Badalamenti Twin Peaks territory.
'Amateurs' brings us slow motion early morning suspense, music waiting for something very bad to happen, 'Look in my Eyes' being the dreamily romantic sound of hopeless film noir love brought up-to-date with ambient soundscapes and a simple, resigned piano melody. Finally 'Heartbroken' does what it says on the tin, all with tremendous panache.
Forget the latest almost inevitably disappointing blockbuster score and try something both really interesting, enjoyable and musically creative. Take a chance, place a bet on The Cooler.