February 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

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

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Music from The Cooler  
Original music composed and conducted by Mark Isham
Performed by Unnamed Ensemble.
  Available on Commotion (CR001)
Running Time: 52:50
Amazon UK   Amazon US

Magic realism is hard to come by in American cinema. And when there are science courses devoted to the physics of Star Trek and linguists who write exclusively on Tolkienian languages, it’s not hard to understand why: there’s a literalism to many Western filmgoers that demands even the most fanciful cinematic landscape resolve into a logic of some kind. Fortunately there’s a rare film that gets away with a fanciful touch, and Wayne Kramer’s film The Cooler is such a film.

The film hinges on the science of luck, one of whose greatest mysteries is Bernie (William H Macey). He is a ‘cooler’, a man whose bad luck in life is infectious – he need only stand near a gambling table before the tables turn on a winning streak. To ruthless old-style casino manager Shelley (Alec Baldwin), Bernie is an asset that need not be explained. But when Macey finds love in Natalie (Maria Bello), his luck begins to change. The twin novelty of a good narrative birthed in imagination and a sexy screen couple in Macey and Bello makes The Cooler a joyful film to watch, even if the finale does tempt one to cry out ‘Deux ex Machina!’

It is rarely the case that a small arthouse film will deliver completely in the music department, but the album liner notes are a testament to how much director Kramer values his music:

“I love writing to film music: it sets the mood for me. Mark Isham scored The Cooler long before he even became aware of the project. I had crafted most of the screenplay to the luxuriant jazz riffs of Mark’s music – scores like Afterglow, Gotti, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, and Little Man Tate – all which ultimately found their way onto the film’s temp track. At a certain point I realised I would be in deep shit if I couldn’t convince Mark to score my film.”

Fortunately Isham could be convinced, and his fine jazz-based score is presented here in Commotion’s re-issue of the 2003 soundtrack with two additional tracks from Isham and one of the less tolerable source cues removed. ‘The Cooler’ sets out Isham’s sexy theme for saxophone, over gorgeous synthetic strings and piano. A full brass performance of the theme climaxes the cue with cheesily-cool washes of synths. A sultry duet for jazz trumpet and soprano sax opens ‘Better Life Motel / Tables on Fire’ downbeat theme, the cue picking up towards the end with incredibly cheesy synth-organ melody. The downbeat theme returns in an elegant variation in ‘Shangri-La’, counterpointed with Isham’s main theme. The first new cue is one of the best in the score: ‘Bernie faces Shelly / Trumpet Melody’ is a haunting theme for (you guessed it) trumpet that speaks of Bernie’s bad luck and resignation to it.

Isham consistently finds ways to mould the jazz idiom to the dramatic demands of the story. ‘Amateurs’ features an ominous piano solo over light percussion and strings, evoking well Bernie’s good-for-nothing son. The main themes move in and out of this track beautifully. The added cue ‘You Leave Me No Choice’ opens with an entirely listenable kind of suspense music. ‘Look in My Eyes’ features a soft piano reading of the main theme with a lovely synth motif. The way the cue explodes into brass is perfect scoring for the way Natalie’s acceptance of Bernie brings him new luck.

No luck-change story would be complete without a momentary return to the doldrums for the hero, and the subdued piano and saxophone writing of ‘Heartbroken’ fits the bill here. As the heroes make a lucky break from Las Vegas at the end of the story, the main themes are reprised in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, sending the score off to a triumphant finish.

This is a wonderful score, well recommended for those who can take a bit of jazz with their film music. Isham navigates so well both the emotional demands of the film and the jazz listener that even those who’ve never really gone for jazz in soundtracks before should consider picking this up. The source tracks border a little bit on the obvious, and the listener who desires to cut to the chase would do well to program them out altogether. But they strengthen the feeling of romance at the heart of this story, with the best cues from the previous release of the album (Rebecca Kyler Down’s ‘Love Me Like Candy’, anything by Diana Krall) and the worst (Paul Sorvino’s vocals) not returning for the encore. For those who have the earlier album, there is probably not enough additional material here to merit a repurchase unless you really are a fan of Isham or the film.

Michael McLennan

4.5

NOTE:
The earlier release of this album (Koch / Commotion Records KOC CD 5707) was the Editor’s Choice for November 2003 and was reviewed by Gary Dalkin: http://www.musicweb-international.com/film/2003/Nov03/cooler.html

A related album Love Me Like Candy containing more songs by Rebecca Kyler Downs was the Editor’s Choice for December 2003 (also reviewed by Gary Dalkin): http://www.musicweb-international.com/film/2003/Dec03/love_me_like_candy.html

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