I was already thinking about the art of the film score composer, having recently given James Horner’s work a look in the wake of his untimely death. A question I sometimes ponder: what is the hardest sort of music to create? Or to turn this around, what is the hardest sort of film to score?
Some people seem drawn to certain genres, perhaps because their music seems well-suited to a particular genre. Now on the other hand, what about making something that is cliché or sentimental or hackneyed sound fresh? I would call that the greatest challenge for a composer: to inject life into something that has become stale.
I had that unexpected pleasure today with the remake of Disney’s 101 Dalmations. Perhaps you too missed this film when it appeared in 1996. I didn’t realize it was written by John Hughes nor that its score was by Michael Kamen (speaking of untimely death!), one of my favourite composers. Had I know the talent working on this film (Glenn Close, Hugh Laurie, Jeff Daniels, Joely Richardson and Joan Plowright) I would have seen it long ago. There are live animals alongside animatronic special effects, yet the biggest special effect in this film is the one you hear rather than see: from the orchestra. Kamen takes this live action film and rescues it from being a mere cartoon.
I’ve watched this film four times in the past 48 hours, and only on the last viewing did I figure out the secret of the simple mastery Kamen displayed. The old saying was attributed to Edmund Kean on his deathbed. He supposedly said “dying’s easy. Comedy’s hard.” While he was talking about acting it goes double for film music. What Kamen does in this film is the complete opposite of what you’d expect, and is the reason composers should listen to this score as a touchstone of how to compose. That’s what I am getting at with the headline, that one can learn a lot from watching 101 Dalmations.
In terms of genre we’re in a strange place, that isn’t at all what one might expect from Disney & the dogs. I kept staring at the film, not quite able to figure it out until I realized Kamen was largely doing what he usually did, as the latest incarnation of Erich Korngold, writing swashbuckler music for such films as Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, and The Three Musketeers. His mastery of the large orchestra gave him a kind of versatility you see in composers such as Richard Strauss, who once boasted that he could depict anything through music. I believe the same is true for Kamen.
One shouldn’t denigrate the film or its score merely because it’d a remake of a feature-length cartoon. Indeed, what Kamen does in this score is nothing short of miraculous, in elevating sentimental moments & animal scenes to the realm of epic. The key is that the genre isn’t allowed to be a stumbling block to the composer.
Don’t be fooled. This may be a movie about dogs and fashion, but the score could fit into a film with sword-play and heroics. He writes about dogs and romance as though it were vitally important: perhaps because it is. If we make that kind of leap of faith, we are into a different realm, and indeed, a different kind of genre. The conviction he brings to chase scenes involving cute little doggies elevates the action, bringing a degree of seriousness to the proceedings that changes the way we see and hear the film. The first and most important lesson is to always treat the film as serious.
For example, when Cruella DeVil appears we’re in a parody of a horror film with some very genuine sounding nastiness. There’s an echo of the dies irae or ”day of wrath” when she walks into her office. The high strings scurry like terrified birds scattered by her nasty arrival. At this point we don’t yet realize what nastiness she might perpetrate. Two minutes into this clip you get the most delicious exchange between Cruella and one of her many terrified minions:
Cruella: Do you like spots Frederick?
Frederick: I don’t believe so madam, I thought we liked stripes this year.
Cruella: What kind of sycophant are you?
Frederick: (pause) What kind of sycophant would you like me to be?
If Kamen were a parent I would be giving him credit for never talking down to his children, but in this case I am thinking of the audience of the film. He never infantilizes or condescends to us. At all times we are in the presence of great seriousness. The glory of the humour is precisely that it is done with a straight face, as gloomy as Bob Newhart.
Kamen gives us several large set-pieces. One of the chases takes the song “Daisy”, that you may recall had slowed gradually in 2001: a Space Odyssey and instead, increases it to a breakneck pace. Cruella has a leit-motiv based on the song in the old film, this time insinuated at odd moments like the pong of cheap perfume in the air. This is a score that does not comment upon the morality of anything we see, but simply sets us up. At times Kamen creates something grotesque, even invoking something that reminds me of Mahler. We encounter many different emotional snapshots via Kamen’s orchestra, all the while implying that this story is important and worthy of his art.
We are in a realm of parody, at times making a reductio ad absurdum that is always deadly serious even as we are in the presence of great silliness. But this muscular orchestra gallops full out for minutes at a time.
This is like a textbook study in comedy, never obvious but always subtly deadpan, dark and at times very scary for a movie children might see, always very British with more than a hint of European colour. Kamen takes the gig seriously, even when offering us a wee bit of a recognizable tune such as Beethoven’s fifth symphony or “How much is that doggy in the window”. We experience horror, suspense, and also, ecstatic joy. Kamen treats his puppies and horses and raccoons and skunks and birds and dogs and people with no signs of chauvinism.
And this is how it should be done, because we get the laughs while simultaneously experiencing art.