Thursday, January 20, 2011

Butch, Barbarella and the Pain Threshhold

Music is so prevalent in motion pictures (and television, video games, public spaces, smartphones, etc.) that for the most part we don't even notice it unless it's trying to flay us (like the stings in Inception-- Yes, I'm sure we have all pushed the button on that link by now. I never get tired of it). For the most part, good movie music seamlessly underscores the tone and rhythm of the film and reinforces it's genre-- the double-beat percussion of a Michael Bay film, the whimsical strings of RomComs, the oldies abuse of Tarantino or Wes Anderson.

But there was a time, quite a while ago, when Hollywood could not figure out what sort of music to put in films-- and I ain't talking about the eighties, when the studios apparently fired all their musicians and hired a keyboard guy. Things have improved as far as major motion pictures go, but television still uses just that one keyboard guy: synthetic music technology has gotten so good that you really can't tell it's just that one guy anymore.

No, I'm talking about the late 1960s, and I have two examples of films, quite good films, that were very nearly sunk by their music. The youth-culture explosion of the era must have left some studio executives completely clueless as to how films should be scored: They may have thought symphonic music would be considered "square." And there were few actually young producers genuinely connected to the times, such as Peter Fonda and the remarkable soundtrack of Easy Rider (1969). So some producers tried to bring in the kids with a "hip" score-- and they didn't always succeed. And nothing, in the historical long view, dates a film as badly as poorly chosen music.

Barbarella (1968) is a big-budget European sci-fi psychedelic freakout of a film, directed by Roger Vadim. It stars Vadim's wife Jane Fonda wearing costumes with transparent sci-fi bits in a role I think was calculated to give Henry Fonda a stroke. It's over-the top, tongue-in-cheek, breezy fare, sure, and it didn't exactly set any box-office records when it came out, but it has an undeniably unique visual style. It's also the very first film adapted from a comic book (Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were serials).

For reasons I can only imagine were tied to a sincere effort to be groovy, Bob Crewe, a former member of The Four Seasons, was hired to composed the soundtrack. The result is painful. His idea of creating a sci-fi mood is to run a guitar through a super-wet coil (you can hear this on Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," which Bob Crewe co-wrote). It's such a overwrought, high-pitched, silly sound that it begins to hammer at you, turning from merely annoying to mild torture by the end. Which is a shame, because what's onscreen is quite lovely to behold.*

On the more Hollywood side of cinema, the producers of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) must have thought they had a pretty hip property (two guys, one gal, not married!) so they hired a musician who must have seemed pretty far out by studio heads at the time: Burt Bacharach. (I just saw this in sublime HD, which is why I wrote this piece.)

(And I'd like to point out that I am not just making fun of old movies here. I'm sure audiences at the time were as bewildered as I am now that someone would hire a Doo-Wop artist to score a sci-fi love-in, or Dionne Warwick's songwriter to compose a western.)

I'm quite amazed by how, in several sequences, the music sucks you completely out of the film. There's a scene where Butch and his maybe-girl Etta goof around with a bicycle (which was a new invention in the film's setting in the 1890s). "Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head" plays. This gets you half-way out of the film. Then, for some reason, the soundtrack starts blaring what can only be described as three minutes of obnoxious circus music. You are then pushed completely out of the film, left watching Paul Newman and Katherine Ross aimlessly improvising bits with a bicycle on a ranch set. This out-of-film experience happens again later in a sequence where Butch and Sundance elude a determined posse to a peppy, mixed-chorus New Christie Minstels sort of scat deal.

But bad music, in this instance, does not kill the movie. It's still a remarkably good watch, much of that credit going to George Roy Hill's interpretation of William Goldman's amazing script. Never a dull moment-- though there are some hard-on-the-ears ones. Katherine Ross was sexy and great, Paul Newman gives an amazing performance and Redford, well… The producers lucked out by getting Robert Redford at the exact moment when he was in full bloom, at his absolute maximum amount of handsome. I'm not generally attracted to men, but in many scenes I found myself unable… to... stop… staring at him.

Jane Fonda, Robert Redford: I guess you can turn the sound off.

*And yeah, they're remaking Barbarella, and the talk is Rose McGowan will be playing her. Maybe they can get Sha-Na-Na to do the soundtrack.

1 comment:

  1. ...and don't get me started on Code Name: Butterfly!, my internet radio of choice, devotes a surprising amount of its programming to Film Music That Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time. The interesting thing about so much of this stuff is, out of context, it's STILL jarring.