by Michael Goldberg
Monday January 7, 2002
The Sound Of 'Amélie'
A film soundtrack gets it right
I don't know about you, but I don't listen to many movie soundtracks (except when I'm at the movies, of course). I'm not talking about those compilation albums which, outside the context of the film in which fragments of the songs appear for 10 or 20 seconds, often make no sense at all. I almost never listen to those (the soundtrack to "The Harder They Come" being a rare exception) what's the point?
The soundtracks I'm talking about are the ones in which music a score has been created specifically for a film. I think the first soundtrack I bought as a kid was Henry Mancini's music for "The Pink Panther." What I was after was the film's theme song, which I thought at the time was the best detective music I'd ever heard. You had to buy a whole album to get it, so I did (and learned about the existence of albums that had just one piece of music I really liked). Over the years I've occasionally found soundtracks that worked as albums: some of Bernard Herrmann's scores, Mancini's soundtracks to "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Touch of Evil," and a few others.
Sure, I recently bought (and recommended) the "Ghost World" soundtrack for the cool, obscure songs it contains. But it's like most collections of songs that are used in films, in that if you listen to it straight through it doesn't hold together. (I never need to hear that rap parody again, nor the young-rockers-play-the-blues satire either.)
I Put A Spell On You
When the right film uses the right song, the film infuses the song with something new, and vice versa. I think of Jim Jarmusch's use of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" in "Stranger Than Paradise." As soon as I'd seen the movie I had to locate an album of Hawkins that contained that dark voodoo-rock classic. For me, Hawkins' song became even cooler (and weirder) than it was on its own after I'd heard it in the context of Jarmusch's film.
The film music that recently drove me to find an album that contained it was the theme from David Mamet's wonderful "The Spanish Prisoner," a movie I've watched perhaps half a dozen times (I saw it in the theater twice, then got the DVD as soon as it was available and I'm not one of those people with a veritable film library in their home.) For me, that theme is the sound of the double-cross. Modern-day film noir music.
Cool Music From France
Yann Tiersen's music for the French film "Amélie" is the exception to my unwritten rules regarding film soundtracks. Eleven of its 20 pieces are either from previous Tiersen albums or old songs from the '30s. It's only because I looked at the liner notes that I know this. For from start to finish, this soundtrack holds together to my ears, this music is all of a piece; one musical interlude flows into another in the most natural way. This album is a delight. It will make you smile, make you want to go outside, get on your bicycle and ride.
I've always assumed that the reason people listen to soundtracks is to remind themselves of the film. After all, when music is composed for a film, it's meant to enhance the scene that's on screen when it's heard. Often it is music meant not to draw attention to itself it's background music, mood music. A kind of environmental music.
The music for "Amélie" manages to work both in the background and in the foreground. In either case, though, is it still a kind of mood music? (But then, I've recently been listening to some Bach pieces performed on cello, and that, too, can be heard as mood music.) And even if it is mood music, is there something wrong with that? One of the two songs (both with vocals) from the '30s, "Si Tu N'Étais Pas Là (Fréhel)," certainly stands on its own merits, but I think the whole album does too. And when I listen to this soundtrack, as I'm doing as I write this, I don't think of the film, even though I love the film. Rather, I think of my recent visit to Paris, of beautiful old buildings and walking along the Seine, of narrow side streets and a courtyard I discovered on a walk one morning, where I stood for a while taking photographs of trees and buildings.
The film itself is whimsical with touches of the surreal. The heroine, Amélie, is a shy young French woman who grew up isolated from everyone but her parents. We see the world through her eyes, and it is a playful, romantic, dreamy place (even a porn theater/store comes across as innocent here). Now she is grown up, living in Paris on her own. She is scared to open up to others, and at one point decides that she will help people get their lives on track, unbeknownst to them. The story, in essence, is about her eventual decision to take a chance, put herself on the line, and in doing so find love.
Amélie is a beautiful film, and Tiersen's music played on accordion, piano, melodica and violin is the perfect soundtrack. Both his original pieces for the film, and the music drawn from his previous albums sound like the past, or perhaps an imagined past, like the Paris of our imagination. I think of my romanticized idea of Paris in the '20s, of Truffaut's early films, of paintings by Monet and Renoir.
This music also makes me think of photos of Coney Island in the '50s, and of the merry-go-round I loved to ride when I was a child. I think of my dad, in his 20s, with a crew cut, romancing my mother in Brooklyn.
Sometimes the pieces are just solo piano, sometimes the arrangements are more complex but in all cases this music is dramatic. Like the film some of it was made for, the music is both serious and fun, whimsical and melancholy. For all I know, Tiersen uses a synthesizer to get some of his sounds, but I doubt it. This music feels handmade, like it was played on real instruments to convey real emotions, like it matters. Like life.