JAZZ IN FILM: Looking at Two Examples

By Roger Crane

Jazz in film vs. jazz on film. In the former case jazz is on the soundtrack but no musicians appear on screen. In the latter, jazz musicians do also appear, perhaps as cameo only or perhaps given roles. In my first example, The Talented Mr., Ripley, Jude Law portrays a jazz loving and jazz playing pianist and he and the Matt Damon character do patronize jazz clubs along with the jazz aficionado Freddie Miles who is brilliantly portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. But Gabriel Yared’s score is also jazz influenced. In the second example, The Firm, no jazz players appear but the score is distinctly jazz informed.

THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, 1999
Director/screenwriter Anthony Minghella is a meticulous craftsman, known for his luxuriant style and attention to every element of a production. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, his 1999 adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel he gave particular focus to the film’s music. In her novel, the gregarious and charismatic American expatriate Dickie Greenleaf (portrayed by Jude Law) was a painter. But Minghella made him a jazz enthusiast, contrasting Dickie’s tastes with the classical inclinations of the enigmatic title character Tom Ripley (Matt Damon). The result is a film that gains much texture and appeal from its carefully chosen musical selections. The film’s soundtrack opens with a pair of jazz numbers taken from two of the most fascinating scenes in the movie. In the first, Dickie takes Tom to an Italian jazz club, and both end up on stage exuberantly singing “Tu Vuo’ Fa L’Americano.” The song establishes Ripley’s captivation with his friend’s hedonistic lifestyle.

The second scene accomplishes the reverse: Dickie is captivated by the depth and sensitivity Ripley expresses in his evocative rendition of the Rodgers and Hart song “My Funny Valentine.” The very talented Matt Damon did his own singing. Guy Barker is the trumpeter.

The remaining music intersperses several jazz tracks (including performances by Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie) with excerpts from Gabriel Yard’s Oscar nominated score which perfectly captures both the sun-kissed beauty of Tuscany and the dark intrigue that characterize the film. Yared also wrote the music for the quietly disturbing Sinead O’Connor ballad, “Lullaby for Cain,” that is played over the opening credits. That gripping song sets an appropriately ominous tone that effectively foreshadows the gruesome direction the film will eventually take. It is a solid contribution to a soundtrack that is as carefully and thoughtfully constructed as the movie itself. Here is that opening sequence including some dialog.

A link to the mysterious and reflective main theme.

THE FIRM, 1993
Confession time – Dave Grusin is a favorite film composer. I listen often to his scores, such as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and On Golden Pond and will attempt no objectivity. His score for Sydney Pollack’s treatment of the John Grisham legal thriller The Firm starring Tom Cruise is equal to those two and arguably one of the most effective he has composed. Most people were baffled as to how it would work when Grusin first proposed his concept that scoring should take the form of blues-based piano alone. The resulting score stands out not only as one of his most innovative, but also one of his most successful, netting him Grammy and Academy Award nominations. I’ll provide brief discussions of four pieces from the exceptional score.
The Main Title
This piece feels like a march but is distinctly jazz. The deep notes evoke the South, to which Tom Cruise’s character, Mitch McDeere, moves. While he interviews at the titular firm, “The Main Title” plays in the background. It is a good introduction to the movie, and the type of music heard in the film.

Mitch & Abby. After Mitch accepts the Firm’s offer, he and his wife drive to Memphis, where they see the delightful dream house and a shiny new Mercedes that the Firm has provided them. The music is deep and rich. Everything is calm, like a Tuscany morning. You can see Tom Cruise smiling as the music plays.

Memphis Stomp
This is probably the most popular piece from the film and represents the middle portion of the movie as Mitch enjoys his new job and the parties. He feels rich and successful. This theme plays while he has fun at a bar with Avery, played by Gene Hackman.

The Death of Love and Trust
The Firm tries to control Mitch. While overseas, he cheats on his wife with a woman the Firm hired to lure him into bed. Mitch loses his self-assurance and begins having doubts. He confesses infidelity to his wife and she leaves. Played in a minor key, “The Death of Love and Trust” is pure blues in the night, soulful and conveying all the pain of marriage on the rocks. Nevertheless warm-hearted, it is one of the most haunting and listenable pieces in the Grusin repertoire.

How Could You Lose Me?
Mitch and Abby summon courage to leave the Firm. They pack their beat up Honda and drive home to Boston The music is evocative and more confident than the rest of the score. It picks up like Memphis Stomp and becomes a celebration. Their ordeal is over.

Complementing the solo piano, there are some additional vocals slotted in at various points in the film, as well as Caribbean material to accompany the scenes in the Cayman Islands.

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