As far as too many moviemakers are concerned these days, having a score or soundtrack that complements the action and weaves its way into the movie (as opposed to just being dumped on top of it) is a little like transcribing books by hand. Needlessly impressive or impressively needless busywork, depending how you look at it. Why would anyone go through all the trouble of writing music when all you really have to do these days is round up a bunch of chart-friendly, completely irrelevant pop songs from bands who are probably under contract with the musical arm of the same multimedia corporate colossus anyway?
Gone are the urgent free-jazz crescendos, wraparound funk and furiously-scraped piano wires of Lalo Schifrin, the shrieking strings and death-defying arpeggios of Bernard Herrmann, the sinuous jazz scores of Elmer Bernstein following every turn in the action like a tagalong kid brother. No one writes soundtrack music for zither anymore, either. In fact, soundtracks these days are generally one of three things (or some profane new hybrid thereof): (1) bland orchestral music with weepy clarinet or flute themes freely interchangeable between Titanic and The Fellowship of the Ring; (2) bland hip-hop/trance music that doesn’t exactly follow the action but maybe, just maybe, strikes the proper tuning fork for the tone of the movie, and; (3) a relentless barrage of shitty saccharine pop or roid-rage nü-metal radio hits crammed haphazardly into every corner of the movie for the express purpose of shifting copies of the tie-in album, which is nothing more than a various-artists compilation with a half-life of about nine months. And which, in case you haven’t noticed, usually gets its own preview now on the video release anyway.
It’s refreshing enough to hear an original soundtrack that sidesteps the aforementioned conventions, even moreso when it’s a good listen apart from its original context. That said, I wonder sometimes if people who buy certain soundtracks do so mostly for the cachet of doing so, as though listening to music from a favorite film is just one more way of showing one’s support for it, regardless of whether or not the music itself was the buyer’s bag, so to speak. I imagine that plenty of people who were dismayed and disgusted by the subject matter of This Is Nowhere will buy this soundtrack as a way of rallying themselves behind Doug Hawes-Davis’ documentary and obliquely against its subject matter: the subculture of RV drivers who camp out in Wal-Mart parking lots. And that’s good—they’ll be making a political statement with how they spend their music dollars.
I’m all for the This Is Nowhere soundtrack, both in principle and as a commercial adjunct of sorts for bringing more money and attention to Hawes-Davis’ High Plains Films and, albeit to a lesser extent, composer Ned Mudd. As for the music, though—it’s just not my thing. I don’t care for Tom Waits or Ken Nordine’s word-jazz deal—and both appear to be big influences on Ned Mudd—and Mudd’s gravelly talk-singing over a bed of acid-jazzy bass, guitar and muted trumpet sets my teeth on edge on too many of the 17 tracks here. I’m also a little surprised that This Is Nowhere, a movie that held off admirably on ridiculing its deserving human subjects outright, would be reprised here by the most loaded sound clips—the ones that really make the RV campers sound like dolts, at least if the listener remembers their context in the movie. The sound clips might be a selling point for mockers and tsk-tskers, but like I say: I prefer a soundtrack that can shrug off the content of movie and still be something I want to listen to. A few of the instrumental tracks are very cool, but This Is Nowhere is still too topical to jibe with my tastes in movie music. Like I say, it just ain’t my bag.
The soundtrack to The Slaughter Rule, on the other hand, is one of those unholy hybrids mentioned earlier: Half original soundtrack scored for and performed on acoustic, electric and steel guitars by Jay Farrar (of Uncle Tupelo fame), and rounded out by a whole slew of previously-released country-nouveau tunes by Vic Chesnutt, Freakwater, Blood Oranges, Neko Case & Her Boyfriends and others. So it’s a compilation with commercial potential quite apart from the movie—just like American Pie in that respect, only with more honorable intentions. I don’t really know how to parse out the fundamental differences between a big studio movie with a soundtrack for the sellin’ and a small independent movie with a soundtrack for the sellin’, except that the soundtrack to The Slaughter Rule just feels more like a worthy companion purchase and less like a crass commercial tie-in.
I haven’t seen The Slaughter Rule yet, but even if I hadn’t intended to do so at the next opportunity, here’s a rare case where I might have been persuaded to see the movie just on the strength of the music. I don’t even like alt-country all that much, but it’s obvious these songs were picked with real care for the images they accompany. And by industry standards these days, that’s needlessly impressive (or impressively needless) busywork.
This Is Nowhere has just been released on DVD (available at Crystal Video) and the soundtrack should be available for purchase at area record shops. The Slaughter Rule will be shown this week at the Wilma, Feb. 21-27. Please see movie shorts for more information.