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Lalo Schifrin: ‘Impossible’ Composer Receives Oscar for Jazzy Career

Lalo Schifrin has been writing movie and TV music for 60 years, including such iconic themes as “Mission: Impossible,” “Dirty Harry” and “Cool Hand Luke.” And while he has been nominated for six Oscars, he’s never won.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will rectify that oversight when it awards him an Honorary Oscar for his entire career at the 10th annual Governors Awards on Nov. 18 at the Ray Dolby Ballroom.

Schifrin is the third composer in Academy history to receive such an award. Alex North was voted one in 1985, Ennio Morricone another in 2006.
“It’s a great honor, and an incredible surprise,” says the Argentine-born composer, now 86. His numbers alone are staggering: more than 100 film scores, nearly 90 television projects and more than 50 classical works since the late 1950s. He’s also won four Grammys and received four Emmy nominations.

“Lalo is a model film composer,” says Academy music governor Laura Karpman. “His use of modernism and jazz is strikingly original, and his ability to use complex musical ideas in a simple, singable form is completely unique. He never overwhelms the picture, but he does not shy away from using bold musical strokes. His music dances with the moving images it accompanies.”

Three of his most-famous scores are personal favorites: “Cool Hand Luke” (1967), bluegrass flavors for Paul Newman as a prisoner on a Florida chain gang; “Dirty Harry” (1971), a mix of jazz, rock and avant-garde sounds, one of eight Clint Eastwood films he scored; and “The Amityville Horror” (1979), which used children’s voices as an eerie counterpoint to the film’s haunted-house terrors.

Schifrin’s merging of jazz and classical sounds in film music was both innovative and fresh in the 1960s — a time when Hollywood scoring was shifting from the traditionally symphonic to a more modern approach incorporating pop, jazz and blues. His unique blend of classical training and jazz experience enabled him to incorporate both in a seamless, organic way that didn’t feel like one was simply grafted onto another.

Born in Buenos Aires, son of the concertmaster of that city’s philharmonic, Schifrin studied at the Paris Conservatory (including with French composer Olivier Messiaen) but, after returning to Argentina in the mid-1950s, met jazz trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie, who was impressed with his piano chops and arranging skills and eventually invited him to America.

“I studied with the best teachers in Argentina and France,” Schifrin recalls. “However, Dizzy taught me things that I didn’t know. Dizzy really taught me harmony more than any treatise could have. He was an incredible musician.”

Schifrin joined Gillespie’s band in 1960, wrote the extended “Gillespiana” suite for his new mentor and earned his first Grammy nomination for original jazz composition.

Schifrin, a film buff from childhood, had already scored, and won an award, for the Argentine film “El Jefe” (1958). So when MGM’s offer came to compose for Hollywood films, “I was ready,” Schifrin says. “In Buenos Aires, I saw a lot of operas and ballets at the Teatro Colon. The combination of movement, colors, story and music, comedy, tragedy and drama … there was a correspondence with movies.”

Lalo Schifrin has composed iconic themes for movies including “Dirty Harry” and has been nominated for work on “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Sting II,” among others.
The Kobal Collection

He cites the jazz backdrop he wrote for French director Rene Clement’s “Les Felins” (in the U.S., “Joy House”) as an early seminal work, although relatively obscure today. More popular films followed, including “The Cincinnati Kid” (Ray Charles performed the title song), but it was television that provided an initial taste of fame: music for “Mission: Impossible” not only struck a chord with viewers but hit the charts as an album in 1967.

Oscar attention soon followed. Guitars, banjo, harmonica and country fiddles for “Cool Hand Luke” (one track from which wound up, incongruously, as the “Eyewitness News” theme for ABC stations for years after); a chilly, chamber-music ambiance for “The Fox”; a melancholy tone for the doomed World War II Jewish refugees in “Voyage of the Damned”; the inventive, unnerving children’s choir and dissonant strings that made “The Amityville Horror” so frightening; “People Alone,” the song from “The Competition” that evoked the love story of Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving as classical pianists; and a clever adaptation of early 20th-century ragtime for “The Sting II.” All earned Oscar nominations.

Sometimes, however, it takes longer for the true classics to be recognized and appreciated. “Bullitt,” for example: top West Coast soloists performed his jazzy, bluesy accompaniment to Steve McQueen as a San Francisco detective. In 1971, there was not only the groundbreaking “Dirty Harry” (one of four Harry Callahan detective movies scored by Schifrin) but also the powerful choral score for George Lucas’ sci-fi classic “THX 1138” and a wildly eclectic one for the Oscar-winning insect documentary “The Hellstrom Chronicle.”

“Enter the Dragon,” acclaimed as the greatest-ever martial-arts film and Bruce Lee’s finest hour, sported a Schifrin score that combined Asian influences, Moog synthesizers and a massive percussion battery. (It turns out that Lee asked for Schifrin because the kung-fu master worked out to the “Mission: Impossible” soundtrack.) Director Brett Ratner loved the music so much that when he made “Rush Hour” (and two sequels) he insisted on Schifrin as his composer.

Schifrin delved deeply into Renaissance music for “The Four Musketeers”; saw his love theme for wartime thriller “The Eagle Has Landed” become a song (“On Rainy Afternoons”) on Barbra Streisand’s top-10 “Wet” album; revisited his Argentine roots for a musical take on his country’s darker history in Carlos Saura’s “Tango,” and was surprised when his old TV theme got big-screen life in Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” franchise.

Asked about his role in combining jazz and symphonic music for film, Schifrin responds: “I felt very comfortable in both idioms. I studied so much classical music, and I practiced so much jazz, that the two came spontaneously. I never felt that there was any difference between the two. Good music is good music.”

He’s retired from films but still composing for the concert hall. Schifrin has recently completed a tuba concerto and a piece for guitar and chorus, both of which will be unveiled next year or the year after.

“Lalo has always had that rare combination of ingredients that set him apart as a film music genius,” says Academy music governor Charles Bernstein. “He is an immensely gifted, innovative composer with a unique background and highly individual voice. And he could play jazz with Dizzy and write truly world-class concert music at the same time. Lalo is a phenomenal gift to the art of film music.”

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