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The Place Beyond the Pines

May 6, 2013

It struck me the other day when watching Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines that we tend to undervalue all music when it’s attached to images of any kind, most obviously movies. It’s certainly fair to say that most people consider film music itself to be subsidiary to ‘proper’ classical music, but what about using classical music as film music?  It’s common practice to use it as a temp track, i.e. to synch classical music in the early stages of post-production, often as a guide to the film composer. In the case of someone like Kubrick, the music stays, thus many of us learned of Also Sprach Zarathustra not from studying Richard Strauss, but from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And film music can in turn become classic (though not necessarily counted as classical music). Think of Hermann’s jagged-string Psycho (used endlessly) or his magnificent score for Vertigo, which was used on The Player(and probably earned it its film-composer Oscar).

The Place Beyond the Pines is an interesting movie, not least for its use of music. At first it’s just another indie movie about a loner who discovers deeper meaning in family. A third of the way through it shifts somewhat upsettingly to a new story, that of an ambitious cop, seemingly trapped by corruption and redeemed through honesty and ambition. The final act takes a swooping turn into melodrama, when the sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons. It has the epic scale of The American Novel and, at 140 minutes, its length too. The performances are universally good, though a lot rests on the shoulders of the two young leads (rather than upon its stars) and would surely have failed had they not been so convincing (Emory Cohen and Dane Dehaan, names to watch out for, though the latter’s filmography is already impressive).

As is seemingly common these days with character-led movies, the soundtrack is an eclectic mix of source material (classical music) and short, composed interludes, the whole overseen by a rock artist rather than by the standard Hollywood film composer (in this case, Mike Patton of metal band Faith No More). There’s no lush orchestration. Instead you have a soundscape of guitars, synth and real voices, strings, honky-tonk piano, scratches, bangs, crackles and the occasional wailing saxophone.

This last is, for me at least, the most interesting. The particular timbre, a keening soprano sax, is clearly indebted to Jan Garbarek’s hard-reeded sound, and the looped, Renaissance music over which this plays (some in a scene in a church) is obviously indebted to the Norwegian musician’s work with The Hilliard Ensemble. There are other early-music references. At one point, the ubiquitous Allegri Miserere makes a brief appearance, and Fratres by Arvo Part, a composer with an acknowledged debt to the modality and minimalism of medieval music, appears in several guises.

Of course, early music doesn’t have any role in the movie. None of these characters would have heard of Monteverdi, let alone Machaut, and few of the audience members either. But that’s not the point; early music and its derivatives suggest various things, amongst them spirituality, history, and religiosity. Perhaps most obviously, though, it makes great mood music, by which I mean it imbues a scene with an ambience of generic mysticism and suggests that the characters are thinking deep and enigmatic thoughts.

All of which means that film occasionally pimps the classics, with music offering up its unchallengeable virtues to popularism and happily accepting the cash that Hollywood leaves on the nightstand. That gets many classical musicians hot under the collar, though not this one. Can anyone put their hand up and say that they haven’t discovered a new composer or band by hearing them in the background, or as an accompaniment to a moving image?

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