Don’t ask writer-director Curtis Hanson to identify the music supervisor on “L.A. Confidential.” “I’m the music supervisor!” he proclaims, ever so slightly annoyed at the suggestion that someone else might have chosen the songs that weave so seamlessly in and out of Jerry Goldsmith’s original score for the ’50s-era police-corruption thriller.
Despite all the praise and awards lavished on “L.A. Confidential,” scant attention has been paid to the musical tapestry that both establishes the period and underscores the shifting moods of the movie based on James Ellroy’s crime novel. For Hanson, who also co-wrote the script, the music of “L.A. Confidential” was a key element long before production began.
“I started thinking about it as soon as I started thinking of making a movie about of Ellroy’s novel,” he says. In most movies these days, songs are chosen more for their marketing value rather than relevance to character or storyline. Not so with “L.A. Confidential,” where Hanson selected all of the source music prior to shooting.
“Each song is as specific and significant to me as the dialogue in the scenes,” says Hanson. “One of the great advantages of having picked it in advance was, I could actually play it on location when we shot the scenes.” For example, when Kevin Spacey dances to Lee Wiley’s “Oh Look at Me Now” in an early scene, that tune was actually playing during shooting. And later, when he is sitting at the Frolic Room bar filled with remorse and the jukebox is playing Dean Martin’s upbeat “Powder Your Face With Sunshine,” Spacey was hearing that very music at the time.
Even the film’s opening features a meaningful musical backdrop: Johnny Mercer’s own vocal of his “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive” (“if ever there was a phrase that described the ’50s,” says Hanson) set against Danny DeVito’s narration about peeling back the city’s image to reveal the seamy underside of Los Angeles. “It’s all there, not for the audience to pick up on and be distracted by, but in a subtextual way, it’s there for them to get,” says Hanson.
A crucial sound element, however, and one that would have an impact on the underscore, was Hanson’s choice of songs that featured Chet Baker and Bobby Hackett on trumpet. Baker and baritone player Gerry Mulligan’s legendary appearances at the Haig even figure in the script. “I was using the source music to set the period,” Hanson explains, “and what I wanted Jerry Goldsmith to do was not worry about the period, but play the emotions of the characters and, of course, underscore the action.”
Goldsmith’s connection with this film goes far beyond the fact that he and Hanson collaborated three years ago on “The River Wild.” Like Hanson, Goldsmith grew up in Los Angeles. Hanson also screened Don Siegel’s 1958 film “The Line-Up” for his production crew — the TV-series version of which Goldsmith scored in 1959 when he was under contract to CBS.
Both composer and director dislike comparisons that have been made with their film to “Chinatown,” but some similarities are inescapable. Both are period films set in Los Angeles, both deal with corruption and tragedy, and both have a Goldsmith score that ignores the era and features solo trumpet.
“I felt the same on that film as I did on this,” says the 16-time Oscar-nominated Goldsmith (who won 20 years ago for “The Omen”). “The period is on the screen, and it’s amply reinforced in this case by the songs of the period. So I wrote music that felt right to me dramatically.”
Goldsmith’s approach was dictated by the moody, low-key nature of much of the film. “The music had to have quite a bit of energy to it. I wanted to keep moving, (create) a nervous energy in the music which was the underlying element of the drama.”
As for the solo trumpet, Goldsmith explains, “You’re dealing with four principal male characters, and to my way of thinking, the trumpet is a very masculine instrument. It wasn’t a picture where you could have a theme for each character; there were too many characters. I really went for a general overall feel for the music, more of a motivic feel than a thematic one. And the trumpet seemed to work very well.”
Hanson liked the fact that the score’s solo trumpet (played by veteran studio musician Malcolm McNab) dovetailed beautifully with those in the source music. “By writing trumpet solos into the score, even though Jerry’s writing is contemporary, it ties into the source music and we have a more cohesive musical whole,” says the filmmaker.
“Curtis’ sense of how to relate music to drama is terrific,” adds Goldsmith. “That’s really the most that I could hope for from a director, that he understands how the music works in conjunction with the drama.” Goldsmith even got to write a ’50s-style cop-show theme for the movie’s “Dragnet”-style TV show, “Badge of Honor.” “I wanted to use ‘The Line-Up’ theme as a joke but nobody knew how to get a clearance for it,” the composer says with a laugh. “So I quickly wrote a new one” for a small combo with a similarly jazzy feel.
“Jerry cut his teeth doing the score for ‘The Line-Up,’ ” adds Hanson, “so for him to have the opportunity to write the theme for ‘Badge of Honor’ was both great fun for him and also one of those serendipitous completions of a circle.”