June 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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Inside Man  
Music composed and conducted by Terence Blanchard
Performed by Hollywood Studio Symphony, with Terence Blanchard (trumpet), Brice Winston (saxophone), Aaron Parks (piano), Derrick Hodge (bass), Kendrick Scott (drums).
Orchestrated by Terence Blanchard and Howard Drossin.
Produced by Spike Lee and Terence Blanchard.
Except ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya Bollywood Joint’, written by A.R. Rahman, Gulzar, Panjabi MC, performed by Sukhwinder Singh, Sapna Awasthi featuring Panjabi MC. Orchestral arrangement by Terence Blanchard. Produced and scratched by DJ Premier.
  Available on Varese Sarabande (VSD-6722)
Running Time: 56:16
Amazon UK   Amazon US

See also:

  • Jazz in Film
  • She Hate Me
  • A thriller that ridicules itself treads on thin ice. It risks disarming its taut narrative fuse and collapsing in a heap of inconsequential plot. Part of the problem is that the viewer no longer experiences the film purely on a visceral level – the cerebellum has been activated, and the typical plotlines of the modern thriller generally don’t survive the scrutiny. Take Mission Impossible III – from a certain point, quite early on, that film invites the skeptical viewer to laugh at its own plot, but the makers don’t ever invite that viewer back into the film. The logic is far-too-strained, the plot so by-the-motions, the characters so naively developed, that they should never have made people think about it in the first place. Now of course what good thrillers do when they get self-referential is they engage the brain of the viewer on a positive level. Florent Siri’s Hostage from last year trod the fine line very well between the visceral and the intellectual – with style and wittily over-the-top iconography that only a French crew could imbue a film with.

    Another recent case is Spike Lee’s Inside Man, a bank heist film that relies less on its many twists and turns to excite than the humour-laced friction between the ethnic divisions of New York’s public service as they jockey for career-elevating positions across cordons of red tape in crisis. In fact it’s tempting to say Spike Lee regards the plot as complete nonsense, with mise-en-scene and editing all cluing us into the joke. Performances are generally excellent – with Denzil Washington having a great deal of fun as a disgraced cop in a white suit who doesn’t seem to mind too much about anything. His banter with actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s detective is a consistent strong point in the movie. Add in Clive Owen (more Robin Hood than Hans Grueber as thieves come and go), the ubiquitous Christopher Plummer and a host of small star turns, and Lee’s got a well-cast genre film that never takes itself too seriously. (The only sour note is a performance by Jodie Foster that feels ok, but a little too much like power casting – perhaps Catherine Keener would have been better?)

    One thing about thrillers that don’t take themselves terribly seriously is that the composers nearly always need to be in on the act for the thing to come off well. An expressive score that leaps off the screen and announces itself to the viewer seems to strengthen the humour. Truly Hostage wouldn’t have drawn such macabre chuckles without Alexandre Desplat’s hyperactive orchestrations signaling Armageddon. Elliot Goldenthal’s S.W.A..T also comes to mind, though in that case the composer’s humour was somewhat at the expense of the film rather than in aid of it. And Lee’s regular collaborator Terence Blanchard is very much part of the team here – the jazz-trained composer turning in what may be his first action score after acquitting himself finely with jazz-symphonic fusion scores for Lee’s Clockers and The 25th Hour.

    The film actually opens with the last track on the album – a boisterous remix of the A R Rahman song ‘Chaiyya Chaiyya Bollywood Joint’. Under the showy editing of the opening titles, the piece follows the robbers as they set out to execute the “perfect bank robbery”. Blanchard adds a subtle brass layer to the piece – based on two-chord intervals – that interacts nicely with the editing of credits. Instead of this fine opening, the album launches straight into the first setpiece – ‘Ten Thirty’. The theme for the robbers is introduced with rolling percussion and bellicose brass, the cue giving way to more ambiguous writing for solo horns lost in a wash of keyboards.

    The ‘hero’ themes – for the police and Denzil Washington’s negotiator – are introduced in ‘Thrown a Bone’. The opening phrases hint at the signature sound for Washington’s character – a small ensemble sound with prominent bass and guitar. The brass announce an appropriately stern fanfare for the police forces soon after, before the track descends into some interesting light percussion atmospheric effects – Blanchard and Howard Drossin’s orchestrations are filled with nice touches throughout. As with the robber theme – the police fanfare is short and catchy, fairly immediate in its descriptive effect and extremely malleable compositionally. ‘357’ presents the theme for Denzil Washington’s character with cheesy brass, later to appear in many other cues, the highlight being a duet for piano and saxophone in ‘Press Here to Play’.

    Though the police fanfare and the robber theme are the dominant thematic material throughout the score, there’s no shortage of interesting variations. Consistently the main melodic instrument will present the theme in a jazz-influenced variation on its core ideas. ‘Stevie Switcharoo’ introduces the catchiest variation of the robber’s theme as the brass play variations over a 6/8 rhythm in the strings – later heard in ‘Nothing Yet’. ‘392’ puts the theme in the woodwinds, interchanging with the brass. Orchestral mayhem overcomes the police fanfare in ‘2nd Floor Window’ in a more serious cue. In one of the more curious scenes in the film, marimba carries the robber theme in ‘Defend Brooklyn’ over rhythmic arpeggios.

    ‘Above Your Pay Grade’ introduces the theme for Jodie Foster’s power broker: there’s a confident step to the rhythm and a hint of swagger in the woodwinds that is later voiced by saxophones in the catchy ‘Demands in Place’. ‘Everything Hunky Dory’ and ‘Frazier’s Tour’ are effective atmospheric cues subtly spotted with the principle thematic material – the bass writing opening the latter a nice hint of Blanchard’s jazz background. ‘They Bugged Us’ restores the power of the visceral in the film’s tensest scene – the police themes adapted into a tense setpiece. ‘Good and Ready’ closes the score with sexy swagger as the Washington character finally joins his girlfriend on the bed she’s been waiting on for his return the whole movie.

    There are three cues that particularly stand out. As Jodie Foster’s character pulls her trump card in one of the film’s final scenes, her playful flaunting of leverage over all others is voiced by a string quartet reading of her material in ‘Nazis Pay Too Well’. As the Denzil Washington character puts together the final pieces of the puzzle in ‘Follow the Ring’, the main themes are presented in a cohesive piece with both small and large statements. ‘Hostage Takedown’ is a brilliant piece of scoring – blending martial measures and confused elation as the standoff between robbers and police ends in a way the latter never expected. As police search the bank following this exchange, echoplex trumpets summon the memory of Jerry Goldsmith’s Patton. The orchestration effect so specific to the Goldsmith score that even though the melody is not the same, either a composer honest about his process or an over-eager music clearance department referenced it in the liner notes of some versions of this album. (If only all albums featured such creative modesty!)

    The music here is not beyond criticisms. The cue-changes are thick and fast, reflecting the editing of the film, and while this is horse-for-courses in film scoring, some of the cues here suffer more than usual from this, ‘Nothing Yet’ a prime case. Also after a while, despite the variation in the score, with such a simple thematic basis, the piece starts to sound repetitive. It’s not hard to imagine ten to twelve minutes of the score being removed and improving the focus of the album as a whole. A more chronological arc to the presentation of the cues couldn’t have hurt either. (Placing the Rahman cue at either end of the score album, not just the conclusion, would have improved things for one, as the intentional boisterousness of the score is never really apparent until that track comes around at the end. It would have set the tone perfectly as an opener.)

    Blanchard’s score, generously represented on Varese Sarabande’s CD, might not come from as refined a composer for orchestra as Desplat or Goldenthal. But the composer has a strong voice, and his incorporation of jazz ensemble into the score works well throughout, so while it’s not the best thriller score composed in recent years, it’s a strong part of the film’s interesting tone. And while the material is a little slim to sustain such a long album – reminiscent of the film’s extended denouement – it’s still a great deal more listenable on its own than the stern-faced synth-orchestral fusion scores that have graced thrillers scored by some of the more regular faces in the genre.

    Michael McLennan

    Rating (in current album form): 3
    Rating (if edited down and re-ordered): 4

    Mark Walker adds:-

    This is one of those scores that really enhances the movie’s visuals: just as Spike Lee’s freewheeling, almost documentary-like style captures the authentic feel of New York and its fabled melting-pot population, so Blanchard’s score swings with an urban groove that inhabits a soundworld not quite jazz not quite straight orchestral. The hugely enjoyable main theme song sums it all up: Bollywood, rap, and Blanchard’s jazzy orchestra all jumbled happily together. That said, this is also one of those scores that works better in the movie than on CD. There’s no opening title track here (the movie uses the song “Chaiyya Chaiyya” for both front and end titles), so we’re plunged straight into an album where there’s just a bit too much fairly anonymous underscoring, a bit too much repetition of themes that don’t really go anywhere to make it a completely satisfying musical experience away from the picture. Still, I’m glad I have this album, though I’ll probably want to watch the movie on DVD and enjoy the music in situ more often than I’ll play this CD.

    Mark Walker


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