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Musicians embrace collective on films

Jon Brion, will.i.am, Jack White put egos aside

Nirvana, for any film music exec, is that serendipitous moment when a musician’s signature sound resonates with a story onscreen. However, given the eleventh-hour demands of film scoring, not to mention the studios’ boardroom work ethic, some gifted artists prefer to operate within their own head space and, as Jack White explains, “keep their sanity.”

“I’ve seen a lot of my performer and songwriter friends have a difficult time,” observes Jon Brion, who wrote the score for Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York. “They have the creative gene, but they aren’t natural collaborators. They’re not used to anyone saying, ‘Can you trim that by 10 seconds?’ or, ‘That tune sounds too purple.’ ”

This award season, however, three music mavericks take different approaches into the movie song and score realm: White, with his James Bond title song “Another Way to Die” for “Quantum of Solace”; will.i.am, who co-composed the music for “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa”; and Brion with “Synecdoche,” his 12th foray into movie music.

Known for their distinctive sounds and encyclopedic music knowledge — White with blues and garage rock, will.i.am with R&B hip-hop and Brion with alternative pop — the trio’s finesse for working within the confines of film can largely be attributed to their roles as producers shepherding other artists’ work.

White warmed to the challenge of penning “Quantum’s” title theme, with his trademark metallic guitar licks, as a lifelong Bond fan. In fact, he admits his White Stripes song “Seven Nation Army” was originally inspired by the more hardcore 007 themes. The film marks the second song contribution by the White Stripes frontman after contributing five bluegrass tracks for “Cold Mountain” (2003).

“I’m the most creative when I’m boxed in,” says White about writing for film. “However, I don’t like having 300 cooks in the kitchen. You don’t know who to please, and you begin to feel like a vegetable in a giant stew.

“When it comes to editing or changing music, it’s not an ego thing,” he adds. “The music just needs to make sense.”

“Madagascar 2” marked the second scoring job for will.i.am after working with Mark Isham on 2007’s “Freedom Writers,” for which he turned Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech into song.

“People often call on me for my musical perspective,” says will.i.am, who was paired with Hans Zimmer by Jeffrey Katzenberg for “Madagascar 2.”

The two hit it off immediately, sharing an affinity for synth sounds and impressing each other with their respective strengths: will.iam’s predilection for ’60s and ’70s soul and Zimmer with his think-tank adaptability.

“On the track ‘Big and Chunky,’ there was this shameless slap bass that I hadn’t heard since my misspent youth at Studio 54,” remarks Zimmer about will.i.am’s accents.

Prior to collaborating with any film director or overseeing another musician’s work, Brion sizes them up in his head: “The first step is part Groucho Marx,” he says. “I ask myself, ‘Why do they want me as a member in their club?’ Ultimately they want to co-op something they heard by me; however, they better have something original to offer.”

Brion’s vintage melodic pianos and organs gave an emotional grounding to melancholy themes in “Synecdoche,” which follows the topsy-turvy pursuits of a blocked theater director.

Brion credits Kaufman’s flexibility in achieving their mutual aims.

“He’s articulate in stating what he’s thinking, but he’s not married to his ideas,” Brion says.

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