Films focus on tunes, players

Music or musicians were the focus of a raft of films during 1999 including “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The Red Violin,” “The Legend of 1900,” “Music of the Heart,” “Sweet and Lowdown” and “Topsy-Turvy.”

All have Oscar potential, although not necessarily in this year’s two music categories of song and original score. (“Sweet and Lowdown” and “Topsy-Turvy,” as adaptations of existing music, fall into an area that Oscar no longer rewards.)

“The Talented Mr. Ripley,” set among expatriate Americans in Italy in the late ’50s, contrasts Matt Damon’s classically-trained pianist character with Jude Law’s saxophone-playing jazz lover. British arranger-trumpeter Guy Barker re-created the jazz sounds of the late ’50s (classic Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins tunes, for example) and composer Gabriel Yared (an Oscar winner in 1996 for “The English Patient”) created an orchestral score that incorporated both classical and jazz touches.

“The Red Violin” may have the most remarkable pedigree yet. Canadian director Francois Girard convinced contemporary concert composer John Corigliano (who has only done two films, notably Ken Russell’s 1980 sci-fier “Altered States”) to collaborate with him on the tale of a single musical instrument’s around-the-world odyssey. He also hired acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell to play all the solos and popular conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen to direct London’s Philharmonic Orchestra performing the score.

Unifying force

Girard originally planned to use various classical pieces, but Corigliano insisted upon the need to unify the film “with the same musical materials.” The composer wrote a seven-chord chaconne that formed the basis of the entire score, including the various on-camera etudes and the string orchestra underscore. “The piece,” Corigliano says, “needed to have a structure that was relentless, that glued together a two-hour journey over three centuries and five countries.”

Similarly, Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore turned to his frequent collaborator, renowned Italian composer Ennio Morricone, during pre-production “The Legend of 1900.” Morricone wrote both jazz-influenced and classically inspired pieces for Tim Roth’s character, a gifted pianist who spends his entire life aboard an ocean liner crisscrossing the Atlantic.

Morricone, who has scored nearly 400 films — from spaghetti Westerns like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) to gangster films like “The Untouchables” (1987) — later wrote a classically informed underscore that employs lyricism and dissonance within a dramatic framework to illuminate the character — just as he did in Tornatore’s best known film, “Cinema Paradiso” (1988).

For “Music of the Heart,” the true story of Harlem violin teacher Roberta Guaspari, director Wes Craven turned to composer Mason Daring for his experience in filming music (including several of John Sayles’ films involving “everything from marching bands to rock bands”). Like Corigliano and Morricone, Daring was brought onboard before shooting.

“The good news was,” Daring says, “that it went on for a year and three months. It turned into one of the most wonderful jobs I will ever have.” Daring was “on the set a lot,” working with star Meryl Streep and many of the youngsters who played Guaspari’s pupils.

Daring produced the Carnegie Hall session that climaxes the filmwith a stunning array of violin players including Isaac Stern, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell and Mark O’Connor performing Bach’s Concerto in D Minor. But he was particularly impressed with the musicality of Streep, who in one case asked that a piece be re-recorded “so that it would match the cadence of her dialogue.”

Woody Allen’s “Sweet and Lowdown” is the “jazz movie” that the clarinet-playing filmmaker has talked about making for years. At least that’s what pianist-composer-arranger Dick Hyman thinks.

Long-term relationship

Hyman goes back nearly 30 years with Allen, working as arranger or composer on more than a dozen films from 1983’s “Zelig” to the 1996 musical “Everyone Says I Love You.”

Hyman suggested that guitarist Howard Alden play the Django Reinhardt-inspired style and that he teach star Sean Penn how to play the guitar, too. It worked so well that Penn never used a hand double.

Veteran jazz musician Hyman likes the atmosphere the film creates. “To me, it feels like musicians’ tall stories,” he says, “the kind of things that circulate in the trade about the weird things that some of the crazier guys do.”

“Topsy-Turvy” is the story of a crisis in the lives of 19th century British operetta writers Gilbert and Sullivan. The film chronicles 1884-’85, when they were considering a breakup but wound up creating “The Mikado,” one of their greatest hits.

Vivacious vibe

“There’s something very alive and vibrant about what they did,” says writer-director Mike Leigh. “It just seemed the richest, most intensive point in their relationship.”

Accordingly, the director asked veteran composer Carl Davis — “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981) — to conduct the music and adapt it for the underscore. “He knows Sullivan backwards,” says Leigh. Davis’ extensive knowledge of the operettas allowed for note-perfect renditions of the scores for “The Mikado,” “Princess Ida” and “The Socerer,” which are performed onscreen in the movie.

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