Helmer's choice of 'Vertigo' track favored existing cue

Kim Novak’s ad in the Jan. 9 edition of Daily Variety, saying she felt “violated” by the use of music from “Vertigo” in “The Artist,” generated dozens of stories and even more blogosphere entries, many focused on her incendiary rhetoric (especially her opening line, “I want to report a rape”).

Mostly lost in the discussion was a bigger issue: When is the inclusion of pre-existing music appropriate in a new film? And how pervasive — and artistically questionable — is the whole temp-track process that led to the controversy?

In the Weinstein Co.’s “The Artist,” which has racked up kudos and is a strong Oscar-race contender, director Michel Hazanavicius departs from composer Ludovic Bource’s original score during the film’s climactic scene, as despondent actor George (Jean Dujardin) is about to attempt suicide. For six minutes and 20 seconds, we hear Bernard Herrmann’s music for an equally climactic scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film, when detective Scottie (James Stewart) transforms Judy (Novak) into the image of his lost love and they kiss passionately.

Hazanavicius did what many directors have done before him: License the “temp” music he liked so much in that scene. Famous instances include Stanley Kubrick’s all-classical “2001: A Space Odyssey”; Oliver Stone’s use of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” in “Platoon”; Ridley Scott’s needle-drops of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Freud” and a Howard Hanson symphony in “Alien”; and more recently Tom Hooper’s use of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony during the finale of “The King’s Speech.”

Bource wrote music that was designed to replace the Herrmann. His cue, titled “My Suicide,” is on the soundtrack album. But Hazanavicius has said in interviews that he preferred the “Vertigo” music, and chose to license a 1992 re-recording of it.

The Academy music branch had ruled that Bource’s score (80 minutes of original music) remains eligible for Oscar consideration despite the prominent presence of the “Vertigo” excerpt.

Virtually every film is now temped, composers say, pretty much from the time editing begins. As composer Alan Silvestri (“Captain America”) notes, with his tongue only slightly in cheek, “The temp track is like a hammer. In the hands of a skilled artist, it’s an instrument for great beauty; in the hands of a homicidal maniac, it’s an instrument of death.”

The temp often serves as a guide for the director, helping him find the right rhythm, tone or mood. But, as Silvestri points out, “music is, for many people, a mysterious thing. For a non-musical filmmaker, a temp score brings something unknown into the known, and it allows the filmmaker to retain a level of control that they might not have if they were relying on the composer to bring that voice.”

And if they’ve been living with temp music in that cut for weeks or even months before the composer comes onboard, the composer may have a difficult time prying his director away from it.

“You’re really restricting the artistry of the composer,” says former music editor Daniel Carlin, now chair of the film-scoring program at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “The evolution of film music has been altered tremendously by temp scores, because composers are forced to remain close to what’s already been written. They don’t have the innovative freedom to go off into a new direction.”

Herrmann thought using existing music in films was “vulgar,” reports his biographer, Steven C. Smith. “It’s hard to imagine him being anything but furious about his ‘Vertigo’ music being heard in another movie, even if the intention was partly an homage.”

Novak would like “Vertigo” to remain intact and not see or hear pieces of it in other films. But the reality is that film music is a commodity that can be licensed and placed in other visual media: “Vertigo” music was tracked into FX’s “American Horror Story” last fall; the “Cheers” theme is now being used to sell State Farm Insurance.

Temp tracks are here to stay. As Silvestri says, “That genie will not be put back in the bottle.” It’s up to the director to choose, wisely and carefully, to avoid the kind of brouhaha that “The Artist” has seen.

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