Tag Archives: film score

Dario Argento’s Operatic Terror


Dario Argento must be one of horror’s most operatic auteurs. Few directors can lay claim to such a consistency in the blending of image and music with the Grand Guignol theatrics of his most celebrated murders. He is also a great director of women and writer of female characters – this was, after all, one of the reasons he was brought on as a writer for Sergio Leone’s epic Once upon a Time in the West – in a grand Italian tradition that stretches back, at least, to the prima donnas of Puccini and Verdi. But it was only after he stopped working with his regular musical foils, Ennio Morricone and then the various members of Goblin, that the occasional oblique references to opera composers in his films (the great dorm house in Phenomena, we are told, once belonged to Richard Wagner) evolved into the full-scale quotation of actual operatic arias.

His most recent work, Giallo, opens in the lush surroundings of Turin’s legendary Teatro Regio with a burst of recitative from Mozart’s late opera seria, La clemenza di Tito; his Phantom of the Opera re-tread features the overture from Gounod’s Faust as well as the famous habanera from Bizet’s Carmen; even The Stendhal Syndrome manages to squeeze an aria, played on a little boom-box, into one of its murder scenes.

In 1987’s Opera, however, Argento came to believe his choice of quotation had rather got the better of him. Against the advice of many, Argento insisted that the opera being rehearsed in the film’s story should be Verdi’s Macbeth, and during filming, Argento suffered a number of misfortunes that led him to believe he may have become the victim of the famous curse of ‘The Scottish Play’. Major actors pulled out of the film at the last minute, minor actors were accidentally killed on set (crushed by a car), Argento’s proposed marriage to Daria Nicolodi was called off, and his father died suddenly during production. ‘But I felt,’ says an ever sanguine Argento, ‘that I had started with Macbeth, so I had to finish. And anyway, there could be no ravens in Cosi Fan Tutte.’

Apparently, the part of Marco in the film (played by Ian Charleson in his last screen role), the horror film director turned opera director, was based on Argento himself. A hint perhaps, now that film directors from Patrice Chereau to Werner Herzog have taken the helm at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, that Argento is waiting for the call from La Scala.

Opera is available on DVD in the UK as Terror at the Opera from Arrow Video.

Robert Barry

Triumph of the Will: Feeble Bombast

Triumph of the Will

Director: Leni Riefenstahl

Writers: Leni Riefenstahl, Walter Ruttmann

Original title: Triumph des Willens

Germany 1935

114 mins

The ghost of Tannh√§user haunts the opening scenes of Leni Riefenstahl’s hyper-real document of the 1934 Nuremberg rally. The surging rhythms and melodic leaps from Wagner’s great overture are intertwined within Herbert Windt’s blustery score. Ironic, perhaps, that the theme for the Goddess of Love should here soundtrack the entrance of the high priest of hate. Shortly afterwards, we hear something that at first we might mistake for the Internationale – of course, it’s not. But the resemblance is typical of the way the National Socialist regime appropriated motifs from the International Socialist Movement. Later on, the manner in which the front ranks of the crowd will speak in unison was, in the words of Siegfried Kracauer, an ‘outright imitation of communist propaganda methods’.

It is tempting to see in Herbert Windt’s diffuse and oleaginous appropriation of popular themes and classical allusions some sort of articulation of a distinctly Nazi aesthetic – the analogue in many respects to their rhetoric. But Wagnerian motifs and Straussian harmonies were as common to pre-Nazi German cinema as they were to Hollywood films before and after the war. What Triumph of the Will‘s music lacks, of course, is the element of doubt and uncertainty introduced by the influence of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system on many Hollywood composers. Nonetheless, in its jingoistic heroism, and the peculiarly thin, under-composed feel much of the music reveals on closer examination, Windt’s style finally recalls none other than John Williams. It is a fact remarked on by Mervyn Cooke in his recent History of Film Music, that many of Windt’s themes and fanfares would not sound out of place in Star Wars.

Robert Barry

Cours Lapin

Cours Lapin

Cours Lapin are four film composers from Denmark, and their new, self-titled album is an evocative homage to cinema, lovingly performed in the French ‘chanson’ tradition. Louise Alenius provides the breathless, child-like vocals for the eleven theatrical, atmospheric songs performed by Peder Thomas Pedersen, Asgar Baden and Jonas Struck. The result is the perfect soundtrack to an imaginary film full of mystery, adventure and longing. The album is out on September 13 on Fake Diamonds Records, but in the meantime you can listen to their free track ‘Cache Cache’. Catch them live in London on July 7 at Death Disco, Notting Hill Arts Club and July 8 at Rough Trade East. For more information, go to their MySpace page. Below, they tell us about their favourite films. SARAH CRONIN

Peder Thomas Pedersen:

1. King of Comedy (1982)
De Niro is heartbreaking and sad, I’ve never seen him in a role like this.

2. Mulholland Drive (2001)
When I stepped out of the movie theatre I had a headache and no idea what just happened. But I loved it.

Louise Alenius:

3. Life of Brian (1979)
It is the best laugh ever – and it works for me every time. I’m not into comedies at all, they rarely make me laugh, but Life of Brian is just so extremely funny that I laugh just by thinking of it.

4. Goodfellas (1990)
Because I loooove men with attitude saying cool things. If I were a man I would definitely be a gangster.

5. Blue Velvet (1986)
I’m fascinated by the characters, especially this sad, sad singer and her fucked up relationship with the freak. I must admit that I find it really interesting to watch extremely cruel people abusing some weak person without any ‘scruples’. It’s a theme I often work with in my own music and lyrics, and many of the lyrics on the Cours Lapin album are also about the relationship between a person doing something really bad, and the victim… In Blue Velvet we also meet this prototype young and sweet girl. She is all good but also really boring, and she almost makes me forget that it’s actually a good thing to be honest and helpful. I just find the dark side of people more interesting. The music is also amazing.

Jonas Struck:

6. Naked Lunch (1991)
I like the way Howard Shore’s score understates the mystery and darkness in this fantastic movie. The mix of the symphonic score with free-jazz virtuoso Ornette Coleman on top is absolutely stunning. The movie is very abstract and Peter Weller’s performance as drug addict William Lee taking bug powder is really far out.

7. South Park (1997)
The title theme was composed and performed by Primus. This crazy ragtime tells us what to expect from the episodes – and it’s really a funny signature that sums up the madness of Kartman, Kenny and the rest of the kids.

8. No Country for Old Men (2007)
I love most of the Coen Brothers movies but this one is really something special. It’s very exciting, violent and super-tense, and funny in a darkly comic manner. It’s very meditative with almost no music at all – and it works without music. I don’t miss a single note and it makes it even scarier with just silence. Javier Bardem as psycho Anton is scary but also very funny.

9. City of God (2002)
This is one of my all-time favourite films. It’s about gang wars, drug dealers and young people growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. It’s very shocking but there’s also a lot of humour in it – a kind of Brazilian Tarantino vibe. The songs selected and the 70s score by Antonio Pinto and Ed Cortes really set the right mood. The characters are absolutely fascinating and very endearing, and they are convincingly played by young, unknown actors. The story is well told, and is alternately funny and brutally shocking. The style of the film includes Tarantino-style time-jumping, freeze-framing and titles to indicate the different chapters of the film. It is a sort of Brazillian Pulp Fiction or Goodfellas, but with its own unique flavour.

Peder Thomas Pedersen + Louise Alenius:

10. In the Mood for Love (2000)
Peder: Extremely beautiful cinematography by Christopher Doyle… It’s like you’re standing next to the movie and watching it in extreme saturation. Maggie Cheung isn’t exactly bad-looking in all those colourful dresses, and the score is happening too. Louise: 100% because of its music. After I saw this film I began to write music for classical instruments, and that’s what I’ve been doing since.

Reel Sounds: Psycho Strings


Hitchcock once said that when the images of a film and its soundtrack are doing the same thing, one of them must be redundant. In the famous shower scene in Psycho, it is perhaps truer than ever. The superficial impression that image and music are simply ‘mickey mousing’ is a tribute to the effectiveness of the music. For all we see is a raised knife, a woman’s screaming face, blood around the plughole. The knife scarcely moves, and certainly never meets the flesh of Janet Leigh. It is Bernard Herrmann’s music that pierces the skin, plunges the blade and carries out the murder.

From 1-30 April the BFI will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho (1960) with an extended run of a new digital print and a season putting it in context – from cult classics Peeping Tom and Repulsion to traditional horror with screenings of Halloween and Deranged. More info on the BFI website.

By 1960 Herrmann was already an old hand, having started his own chamber orchestra at 20, before working for many years at the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles. The Psycho score was unusual for a horror film at that time in being only for strings, but this approach (with the addition of a little percussion) would provide the blueprint for many of James Bernard’s classic scores for Hammer Horror.

Heard in isolation from the picture, the prelude resembles at times the stringent sonorities of early Schoenberg only with added soaring, plaintive melody and machinic rhythms more akin to the work of Schoenberg’s student, Hans Eisler. Elsewhere, themes recall the sombre menace of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Snooping in Norman Bates’s bedroom, Lila Crane (Vera Miles) spies a copy of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony on the record player, and Herrmann sneaks in a pastiche of the funeral march from the second movement.

Then there is the shower scene. Initially, Hitchcock wanted the scene to play just with sound effects and no music but Herrmann talked him round, creating in the process one of the most famous pieces of film music of all time. Working as a kind of expressionist intensification of Janet Leigh’s scream, it is the aural equivalent of Edvard Munch’s famous painting, and is culturally just as central. The reference to Eroica is apposite; just like Beethoven’s symphony, Herrmann’s score meant that things would never be the same again without sounding thoroughly old-fashioned.

Robert Barry

Watch the trailer: