February 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

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

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang  
Music composed, produced, and orchestrated by John Ottman
Performed by the Northwest Sinfonia
  Available on La-La Land Records (LLLCD 1039)
Running Time: 54:46
Amazon UK   Amazon US

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang... a title lifted from the book of critical reviews by the late Pauline Kael—who, decades ago, found it on an Italian movie poster.  Unsurprisingly, the critic’s still fresh remark on the title sums up the whole of Shane Black’s comedic film noir: “…perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. …(it’s) what attracts us and ultimately makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this.”  True, but trash also has its unfathomably tasteless high points.

Black, best known for his written work in the classic Lethal Weapon quadrilogy, The Long Kiss Goodnight, The Last Boy Scout, and The Last Action Hero, debuts as a director in this 2005 violent, guns-and-girls, screwball flick.  It’s a hard-boiled, messy experience of styled shots, gratuitous gore, and rapid-fire banter that you’ve seen in movies ŕ la Tarantino.  But merge those elements with fragments of Charlie Kaufman’s world (think Adaptation with time-bending bits of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Helgeland’s Payback, Leonard’s Get Shorty, a dash of knowing sauciness, all the while leaving out noticeable portions of sense to get Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  (“Comprehension” isn’t a relevant factor in appreciating the movie.)  Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey, Jr., in a role similar to his eponymous part in The Singing Detective) serves as narrator who’s a petty thief-turned-actor in New York, then an aspiring private eye in LA.  Latching on to a genuine PI, Perry Van Shrike (aka Gay Perry—[insert giggle here], played by Val Kilmer), for initial research purposes, Harry quickly gets sucked into the twisty world of crazy capers.  Although laden with myriad flaws (plotholes, pacing et al), Black’s choppy film is an exciting maelstrom of ricocheting characters, “amateurs”, and non sequiturs.  Fortunately for him, composer, John Ottman, provides a score that’s slightly more stable than the film itself.

Brought aboard by producer, Joel Silver, Ottman was probably the best man for the job having racked up a number of thrillers and mysteries, e.g., Gothika, The Usual Suspects, Urban Legends: Final Cut, Apt Pupil.  Ottman, also possessing director and editorial skills, has the necessary eye to discern key moments and moods in the midst of chaos.  (When combined with the musical end, the results can be thrilling to behold.)  As a straight up composer this time around, his jazzed composition is still able to follow the film closely, almost embodying the torque of events—which isn’t an easy feat for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  This near hour-long album from La-La Land Records demonstrates just that.

Normally, it’s a divine rarity when one artist complements another so fully...  But in this case, the film is devoid of a great deal of substance, and the composer takes pains to underscore most every detail (excessive and key).  The outcome is one of mildly redundant sameness—which is both good and bad; requisite comedy is highlighted, the air of present day film noir is fiendishly apt, innovative, but Black’s strict, meticulous style—a sharp, ferocious, yet intellectual one—dominates most everything.  Much like the actors on-screen, Ottman’s score smoothes out aspects of the tone, bolsters humor, and adds rare moments of poignancy, but it doesn’t stray far from the odd, emotional aloofness that permeates the movie.  (Maybe it’s the conspicuous lack of emotive subtext.)  While situations are narrated to a T, characters are developed via dialogue or outlined by visuals.  The only character that Ottman focuses on is Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), the childhood friend and love interest of Harry.  She has a simple, recognizable piano theme that reflects on mystery (expressed through layered sax and horn), youthful nostalgia (with the aid of a choir or winds), and temporarily banishes the faux-serious moods whenever introduced; first heard in “The Fair” in its purest form, the idea—much like the character—is later tinged by sadness.

The composer borrows heavily from his previous scores—notably the styles from Goodbye Lover, though instrumental phrasings from Incognito and slick synths from Point of Origin also make appearances.  While the tracks have their own casual allure, they’re far from the seductive, sexy shapes of his Cruel Intentions (rejected) score.  Nevertheless, Ottman’s creativity works wonders with the use of essentially three expressions: the love interest (abovementioned), mystery, and escapade—the first two being most clear-cut of the three. (Why there are only three is unknown, but thematic details are given by the composer in the liner notes.)  When merged with classic film noir sounds and synths, Ottman’s work takes on an inventive flair similar to that of Thomas Newman’s work on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.  There’s a distinctly hypnotic, sinuous rhythm moving throughout the score; it’s a nebulous thing that segues or accommodates the ebb and flow of prominent themes through variations of instruments or melody.  While the use of such structure is creative, the majority of the composer’s score is based on the astute observations of the visuals, not so much intuition. And if on album it lacks the aesthetically pleasing experience of Newman’s Lemony Snicket, it’s due to excess repetition (motif or instrumental)... and perhaps Ottman’s struggles to make sense of a convoluted work.

The most prominent cues on the album are the first two, “The Fair” and “Main Titles”—one segues directly into the next.  The primary escapade motif (latter piece) sounds crisp and breezier than its forthcoming renditions; and it piques especially when combined with the Saul Bass-homage of a title sequence.  (Incidentally, this opening animation was custom tailored to the track.)  Another standout would be “Surveillance Lesson”, a lazy, extended version of the “Main Titles” with more illustrative frills.  The last track, one to avoid, features a random, soft rock scare—er, song entitled, “Broken”; sung by Robert Downey, Jr., it’s an odd, maudlin … bombshell that jars you out of whatever mood you were in prior to hearing it.

As an ultra-functional score, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is (no doubt) solid work by Ottman.  But take it out of the cinematic realm, and you’ll have a technically sound album lacking in vibrancy.

Tina Huang

In Film: 4
Album Rating: 3

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