When Paul Cantelon was tapped by first-time feature director Harry Mavromichalis to score “Olympia,” the documentary on Academy Award-winning actress, Olympia Dukakis, he was more than prepared to craft music that underscored her Greek heritage.
When Cantelon’s preacher father met his first-chair trumpeter mother, their family life becomes one of traveling evangelical tent meetings with Cantelon growing up on couches in different people’s homes. A number of these homes belonged to Greek families where he heard Greek music that became part of his musical lexicon. Over 30 years ago, when Cantelon met his wife, vocalist Angela McCluskey, she had a great love for Greece and took him to that country, where Cantelon was immersed in the music.
“[Mavromichalis] has a lyrical sense for picture,” says Cantelon from his Nichols Canyon home studio in Los Angeles. “He was a dancer and he has a musical, rhythmic sense to the way he shoots and edits. I had Philip Glass’ string quartet play the delicate strings and some wonderful bouzouki players and traditional Greek artists whom I let cut loose and improvise.”
This is not to say that “Olympia’s” soundtrack is only Greek-influenced music. The non-linear documentary has such a wealth of footage from throughout Dukakis’ life, it’s like she’s been in a reality show from birth. The film is arranged in thematic segments such as Dukakis’ childhood, her LGBTQ involvements, her marriage to actor Louis Zorich, her theater work, her children, her screen acting and trips to Greece. Best of all is Dukakis’ current day-to-day activities including one scene at the grocery store where a fan wants to take a picture with her and Dukakis accommodates while asking if she knows where the bottled teas are. The disparate segments are threaded together by Dukakis’ irreverent personality and Cantelon’s score. He employs his extensive classical training on the violin and piano alongside his firsthand knowledge of Greek music to create a score that is his response to Dukakis’ character as portrayed in “Olympia.”
“[Mavromichalis] didn’t necessarily want a sound from a particular period, but more guiding pinpoints along her journey,” says Cantelon of the director’s vision for the music. “I didn’t write to picture at all. I wrote themes that were my take on her strength, her vulnerability and her humor, my attempts to put elements of her personality in different chapters of ‘Olympia.’ I sent them to him and he told me I had the right tone and emotion and to keep writing. He was very precise and knew exactly what he wanted. When the person directing you doesn’t know what they want, and you keep trying, that can become enormously painful.”
Cantelon added film scoring to his impressive repertoire of music activities 15 years ago. In his extensive catalog are Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007) and Justin Chadwick’s “The Other Boleyn Girl” (2008) as well as several documentaries, including “Jane Fonda: In Five Acts” (2018) and “Letters from Baghdad” (2016).
For the documentaries, Cantelon composes an inordinate amount of music, although not nearly all of it what he wrote made it into “Olympia.”
“She was such a towering circus herself, she didn’t need anything,” says Cantelon of the documentary’s subject. “My pieces tend to be longer. If there is a cue with an arc that’s over three or four minutes or longer, the music falls out. [Mavromichalis] uses music like paint. I wrote big suites of music from my heart about all the elements of ‘Olympia’ that touched me. He would then cut them up and place to picture as he wished, like paint on his canvas. Writing score to try and hit something on the nose doesn’t produce music that is as valid as writing my impressions of a character. I was taught early on in scoring film that when you write in that way, you must relinquish everything and trust the director to do what he feels.”
Whatever is heard and not heard of Cantelon’s score in “Olympia” will be available via his Bandcamp page as a free download album upon the film’s official release on July 10. There is an optional donation, which will go directly to the Los Angeles Food Bank. This is the fourth of Cantelon’s free download albums since the pandemic started. The first is “Repose,” dedicated to those at the frontlines of the Coronavirus and to comfort those distressed by its effects, followed by the Wildwood EP, a collaboration for piano and harp with his daughter, harpist Florence Astley. Last month Cantelon released “Sanctuary,” piano and cello music he performed with noted cellists Sara Sant’Ambrogio, Wolfram Koessel, Vanessa Freebairn-Smith and Martin Tillman.
“I have volumes of music that have never been used,” says Cantelon. “Some you’ll recognize from ‘Olympia,’ but you’ll realize they’re much bigger.”