Musical ear open to the unconventional

Many of the great filmmakers forged strong, ongoing relationships with a single composer: Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann, Truffaut and Georges Delerue, Fellini and Nino Rota, to cite a few of the legendary pairings.

Not so with Francis Ford Coppola. If there’s any continuing thread in the music of his movies, it’s in the freshness of his musical ideas and a willingness to break with film-scoring convention.

Think of Coppola’s use of a Bach organ prelude to underscore the Corleones’ revenge in the climax of “The Godfather.” Of the offbeat choices of ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland for “Rumble Fish” and Joe Jackson for “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.” Of Tom Waits’ songs for Coppola’s Vegas musical “One From the Heart.” And, perhaps most strikingly, the use of The Doors’ “The End” in the opening of “Apocalypse Now” and the Wagner that blasts from the helicopter speakers during one memorable air-strike sequence.

“The thing about Francis is, he knows music and he’s very open,” says Oscar winner Elmer Bernstein, who just finished scoring “The Rainmaker” for Coppola. “He’s experimental. He’s willing to try something and abandon it.”

In the case of the current film, “Francis started with a clear concept of what he wanted, mood-wise,” Bernstein says. “He was attracted to the Memphis-music ambiance.” So the composer employed the Hammond B-3 organ, muted trumpet and guitar for a bluesy feel.

Composer Shirley Walker, who began her film career as a performer on the all-electronic score for “Apocalypse Now,” agrees about the director’s innate musicality. “He has a very operatic sense,” she says. “He likes that dramatic, overstated use of music.

“(On ‘Apocalypse’) the film was bigger than life; he wanted the music to be bigger than life.”

Looking back, none of this should come as a surprise. Francis’ father, Carmine Coppola, was a composer and his maternal grandfather was a major Italian songwriter. Some colleagues even think of Francis as a frustrated composer: He gave himself co-composer credit on “Apocalypse” based on his suggestions about, and in-studio manipulation of, father Carmine’s original score. At one time he had planned to write the “Rumble Fish” score himself.

When composer David Shire went to work on “The Conversation” — long before shooting began, not after the picture was edited, as is the norm — he was intrigued by Coppola’s ideas about the music.

First, the director didn’t want an orchestral score. He wanted one that consisted entirely of solo piano, to reflect “the lonely soul” of electronic eavesdropper Harry Caul (Gene Hackman).

Then he gave Shire a series of exercises, asking the composer to write several short piano pieces based on episodes in Harry’s life. “He worked with me like a director would work with an actor,” Shire says, “freeing up their insides, getting their subconscious working on it, not in a head-on fashion.”

One of the piano pieces contained the germ of what would become Harry Caul’s theme, its restrained jazz feel suggesting the lead character’s repressed emotional life. Sound designer Walter Murch was “a wonderful collaborator on the score,” Shire adds, shifting pieces around, filtering some electronically and making the music “so much a part of the fabric of the soundtrack.”

In “Apocalypse Now,” it’s not just the musical choices that were exceptional, it’s their integration into the filmic whole. When Jim Morrison begins to sing “This is the end,” it’s against stunning images of a Southeast Asian jungle going up in flames. His phrase “all the children are insane” comes as the camera pans slowly across Martin Sheen’s Saigon hotel room to the .45 on the bed beside him. You need no other information to tell you that you are about to descend into a world of madness.

Coppola’s father Carmine, who shared an Oscar with Italian composer Nino Rota for the music of “The Godfather Part II,” composed music for “Apocalypse” that a small team of musicians, including Walker, translated into an electronic score.

In addition, he hired Jimi Hendrix-style guitarist Randy Hansen and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart to augment the score with their own sounds of the era.

Recalls Walker: “Francis was fascinated by the idea that electronic instruments, and synthesists in particular, could bring a feeling of technology to the score that the Vietnam War itself had, all those incredible weapons (of destruction).”

Coppola’s teen angst picture “Rumble Fish” demanded a contemporary soundscape, and it launched Stewart Copeland’s second career as a film composer. “I never would have thought of writing for movies. It was Coppola who got me into this,” he says. “He invited me to rehearsals before the shoot, and we talked about the concept of the film. He said he wanted to feel time passing in music.”

While the picture was shooting, Copeland booked time in a Tulsa, Okla., studio and laid down rhythm loops. “I was just building tracks. I didn’t have a movie in front of me,” he recalls.

“Francis and the editors bonded with the temp tracks,” and Copeland spent “three or four weeks of the best fun in my life” back on the West Coast, fine-tuning the final score.

Coppola turned to new wave singer-songwriter Joe Jackson to contribute the hopped-up, swing-band sound of “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” and to renowned jazz authority Bob Wilber to authentically re-create the ’20s and ’30s sounds of “The Cotton Club.” (The “Cotton Club” album won Grammys for Wilber and score composer John Barry.)

No Coppola choice was more surprising than gravel-voiced Tom Waits to compose and perform (with Crystal Gayle) the song score for the director’s lavish, whimsical romance “One From the Heart.”

Waits’ psychologically probing lyrics and often lush orchestrations became, in his words, “a cocktail landscape … a lounge operetta” in which the songs became the film’s interior dialogue. The score was nominated for an Oscar and Waits then began appearing in Coppola’s films, including “The Outsiders,” “Rumble Fish” and “The Cotton Club” and even garnered raves as Renfield in Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.”

Notes Elmer Bernstein, “With Francis, his thoughts about music are developing all the time. It’s always a work in progress. It’s never finished.”

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