Tapping into the source

Classic tunes by rock icons often reinvented onscreen

The percussive guitar strikes that open “Jerry Maguire” immediately energize the film with the power of an original score. It’s not so much a song as it is a snippet: For viewers who know they’re listening to the Who’s “Live at Leeds” version of “Magic Bus,” the mental fast-forwarding to the lyrics adds a second layer of resonance.

To those unfamiliar with the song, it’s a pumped-up intro. And to think it could have been jazz.

“Originally I thought Quincy Jones would be great for a score with a jazzy thing,” director-screenwriter Cameron Crowe says. “But that whole jazz feeling never happened.” Instead, Crowe and his music supervisor, Danny Bramson, headed for their record collections and pulled out old faves by rock ‘n’ roll icons – the Who, Pete Townshend, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty – music the two had grown up with over the course of their 22-year friendship.

“The movies,” former Rolling Stone writer Crowe says, “are always an excuse to play with the music, whether the movie is about the music or not. It begins with the music. And sometimes you can reinvent a song,” such as McCartney’s “Sing-along Junk” in “Maguire” and Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” in Crowe’s 1989 teen romance “Say Anything.”

As studio films go, it would be difficult to find a source-music soundtrack this year that worked better, from the urgency of “Magic Bus” to the disturbed calm of Springsteen’s “Secret Garden” and the coda of Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.” The film may well have put wind back in the Boss’s commercial sails, as interest in the 4-year-old track has risen due to its inclusion twice in the film.

“Music can be a helpful partner and it can be a cruel partner,” Crowe says. “All you have to do is know the music. If you don’t, the music won’t affect you.

“If you love music and want to bring the way you feel about a song to the screen, if you use music with the best intentions, it will reward you. You aren’t able to press a button and make it work.”

Crowe and Bramson share a bond that has placed music first in their films “Singles,” “Say Anything” and “Maguire.” Their passion for music as an impetus for a film is hardly unique. They’re joined by Mason Daring and John Sayles, who have worked together on nine features, as members of a small group of filmmakers who not only choose to emphasize music in their works but give it as much time and care as any other facet of a film.

The results in 1996, TriStar’s “Jerry Maguire” and Sayles’ Tex-Mex flavored “Lone Star,” released by Sony Pictures Classics, stand out as distinct soundtracks of source music accentuated by an original score.

“John chooses and guides music at an early stage,” says Daring, whose Rounder-distributed label Daring Records released the soundtrack. “I will write a score according to a script. His influence gets me to look in a direction I might not have seen.”

For Daring, that meant boning up on 50-year-old music from Mexican border towns. For “The Secret of Roan Inish,” he turned his fancy toward traditional Irish numbers. “All of the music in his films reflect his taste.”

Taste can be a complicated issue. Take Shirley Barrett, the 35-year-old director of “Love Serenade,” whose $5 million budget went mostly to a seven-week location shoot – and securing the rights to ’70s soul songs, all of which were specified in the script. Barrett says the music, with an emphasis on crooner Barry White, plays a large part in building “an atmosphere of yearning and desire and longing.” The reason behind the songs? “They were favorites of mine,” she says. “I’d grown up with them.”

Certainly that familiarity factor helped in the decision-making of Crowe and Bramson. That they snagged each number they requested and, sources say, licensing rights that cost less than $800,000, shows what can be done when a music budget is allowed to stay intact.

“In the last five to 10 years, there have been dramatic increases in the license quotes, whether it’s synch licenses or masters,” says Bramson, who was hired in May to head Warner Bros.’ soundtrack division. “With ‘Maguire’ we really needed a healthy budget to secure our wants.”

Bramson’s current project, “Batman and Robin,” is a whole different animal. For starters, the soundtrack will be introduced to radio with a new single from the Smashing Pumpkins and the goal, Bramson notes, will be to get more songs in along with the orchestral score that has defined the other “Batmans.”

“When you talk about ‘Batman,’ you’re immediately talking international proportions,” says Bramson, whose first taste of the corporate life was turning into hits the “Phenomenon” soundtrack and Eric Clapton’s “Change the World.” “So it raises the stakes creatively and financially. But more often than not it comes down to collaborating with an inspired filmmaker. It’s no surprise that the films that struck you the most were made by filmmakers who had confidence in and a love for music as an art form.

“When the marriage of music and film works, this is the best job in the world.”

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