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[whitespace] Billy Corgan Composed: Corgan has created a compelling score for the new devil-possession thriller 'Stigmata.'


Cinema Sounds

Craig Armstrong and Billy Corgan resurrect the art of the movie soundtrack with music for 'Best Laid Plans' and 'Stigmata'

By Michelle Goldberg

THE MERCHANDISING for The Blair Witch Project is much more frightening than three days in the woods without GPS and a cell phone. Consider The Blair Witch Soundtrack, which claims to be "music found on a tape in Josh's car" and consists mostly of old Goth and industrial tracks. The scary part: the indie blockbuster doesn't have any music, just lots and lots of snapping twigs and crackling leaves. Anybody who buys this album ought to be ordered to stand in a corner.

No wonder the art of the film score is dying faster than Al Gore's campaign. When George Lucas replaced the traditional movie score with a carefully selected roster of rock & roll oldies in 1973's American Graffiti, he helped set the template for what would become a new era of crossover marketing. In the years since then, soundtracks often have become merely tie-in merchandise for franchise blockbusters.

Rather than conjure up a cinematic mood related to the narrative onscreen, the soundtracks to recent Hollywood films are either clumsy collections of disconnected rock numbers shoehorned into movies for business reasons (Teaching Mrs. Tingle, Brokedown Palace) or nostalgia exercises--excuses to capitalize on the kitsch factor of radio music from the '70s and '80s (Detroit Rock City, 54).

Of course, in American Graffiti the songs were chosen to re-create a specific sweet moment in time. In the hands of visionary directors, soundtrack compilations rise to the level of genius mix tapes--take Spike Lee's exhilarating soul selections on the Crooklyn soundtrack or the bittersweet indie tracks that Gregg Araki uses to make teenage rebellion and longing visceral on Nowhere and Doom Generation.

If original film scores--aside, of course, from the mawkish histrionics of hacks like Titanic's James Horner--are wholly replaced by pop-music compilations, modern composers will lose the one venue where they've been able to get their works widely heard.

Bernard Herrmann's brilliant collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, for example, still stand out as some of the most stirring instrumental music of the century's second half. As Herrmann observed in the '70s, "Cinema and television is the great vehicle for contemporary music. You can have experimentation in both those mediums in the most avant-garde music techniques, and an audience will accept it provided it is compatible with the dramatic situation."

ALL OF WHICH explains why the appearance of two new inventively and beautifully composed Hollywood scores is so heartening. The music to the new Reese Witherspoon film, Best Laid Plans (which gets a limited release Sept. 10), by Craig Armstrong, and to the new horror film Stigmata (opens Sept. 10), by the Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan, suggests that the movies can lend vitality to the most experimental--and ordinarily unmarketable--sonic explorations.

Though his name isn't widely known, Armstrong creates gorgeous, string-based music that is incredibly influential. He's worked with such artists as Massive Attack (whose label, Melenkolic, released his debut solo album, The Space Between Us) and Madonna.

Rooted in the Bristol trip-hop scene, Armstrong combines the moody, dubby beats and loops of that genre with an almost classical sensibility, creating instrumental epics that are alternately menacing and heartbreaking. Massive Attack, Portishead and other trip-hop artists are heavily influenced by film noir and spy-movie music. Steeped in both hip-hop and cinema sounds, Armstrong has turned around and created some of the most luminous movie music of the last few years.

The Best Laid Plans score swirls with soaring strings and aching piano interspersed with ominous trip-hop beats. It creates a mood of drama and intrigue without the narrative devices of pop, building to repeated climaxes before drifting out into subtle, melancholy reveries.

"The music can give to the audience their feelings; it must really convey to an audience what words cannot do," Herrmann once said, a description that aptly encapsulates the way Armstrong's music works--it's deeply emotional without ever being manipulative.

There's little room in the current pop landscape for such meditative, sprawling compositions. Although The Space Between Us was critically acclaimed, it occupies a nicheless zone between classical and electronic music that prevented Armstrong from reaching the same kind of audience as his Bristol peers. That's why it's thrilling to see his work get so much film exposure--he may very well be the Bernard Herrmann of his generation.

The six pieces he created for Best Laid Plans are interspersed with pop songs that maintain the forlorn mood. The consistency of the record's bruised, bittersweet tone gives it a cohesion that makes it seem more like an album than a mere compilation.

Especially stunning is Neneh Cherry's "Twisted Mess," a choked-up soulful lament that coasts over quiet, elegantly chiming beats, shimmering loops and ethereal hints of piano and strings. As in Armstrong's work, the strings are slightly muted and restrained so that their heart-rending power never becomes maudlin. Combined with the wounded passion of Cherry's voice, the effect is devastating. Three beautiful songs by Mazzy Star are similarly spine-tingling, aching with singer Hope Sandoval's narcotic faraway blues.

WHILE FILM has helped provide Armstrong's introspective, experimental work with a mass audience, it has also allowed some pop stars to expand into composition. The most notable is Oingo Boingo's Danny Elfman, famous for his scores to Batman, Tim Burton's films and The Simpsons. Billy Corgan has followed his lead, first scoring Ransom and now Stigmata. For Stigmata, he's created a haunting, anxious soundscape that is often far more adventurous than anything he's done with the Pumpkins.

For this horror movie about demonic possession, Corgan creates an atmosphere of creeping terror and schizophrenia interspersed with moments of quiet and grace. The score starts out conventionally enough with "Identify," a lugubrious original pop song sung by Natalie Imbruglia, whose thin, flat voice makes the whole thing rather disappointing. Soon after, though, we're thrust into the echo chamber of "1,000,000 Voices," followed by the sprightly, otherworldly "Pop Pop" and the plaintive, spare piano of "Await."

From there, Stigmata's score is a study in chiaroscuro. There are moments of angelic beauty, with tendrils of synthesizers twirling over crystalline washes and ticklish percussion. Often, though, these moments quickly give way to chaos and even terror. On "Reflect," the music begins with whimsical, pretty percussion that reminds one of stones tossed in a placid lake.

Soon, though, it segues into a chaotic tumult of electronic noise, a sonic evocation of pure panic. On "Distrbnce (After Sckhausen)," noises bubble up and then evanesce like ghosts. A brief piano interlude lends a bit of order, but it is quickly replaced by a pulsing electronic beat that sounds like racing footsteps.

Happily, Corgan eschews the "O, Fortuna"-style operatic hysteria once so popular in horror films. Instead, he creates an urban kind of entropic fear with jagged electronic elements, creeping percussion and doleful sonic shadows.

Unfortunately, the pop songs on the Stigmata album (unlike those of the Best Laid Plans soundtrack) don't all have the evocative power of Corgan's score. Chumbawamba's shrilly bombastic "Mary, Mary" starts the record on a sour note, and David Bowie's "The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell" is weighed down by ugly heavy-metal guitars.

But Björk's "All Is Full of Love" and Massive Attack's "Inertia Creeps," though both familiar, are stunning. Anyway, the six pop songs that start the album are almost beside the point, because it's the intricate instrumentals that make the record so resonant, transcending the five-minute pop format and giving the whole thing its epic, cinematic sweep. Bernard Herrmann would be proud.

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From the September 9-15, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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