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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 15, 2001

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Soundtracks

When I wrote the novelization of "The Abyss," I worked from the rough cut of the film. I saw all the action, heard all the dialogue.

But the soundtrack hadn't been written, and it made a huge difference. Long stretches of silence, without much tension.

When the score was added, it gave otherwise empty scenes their rhythm, energy, pace, drive -- or helped give voice to our emotions during times of crisis, discovery, or even of peace and joy.

When a soundtrack is working right, we usually aren't aware of the music at all, and when we are aware, it adds to the mood of the scene or clinches what we already knew about the story and the characters.

When a soundtrack isn't working, however, it becomes intrusive, forcing us to notice it and distracting us from the story.

Even soundtracks that work, however, don't always make good cds. That's because when you aren't actually watching the scene, the music composed for it (or the song chosen for it) can be irritating or uninteresting.

So for a soundtrack album to be good, it not only had to work within the movie, it also has to work in your living room or bedroom or office or car as a musical collection in its own right.

Flaws you would never have noticed while watching the film become glaringly obvious when you listen to the cd for the third or eighth time.

A recent issue of Entertainment Weekly listed the best 100 movie soundtrack recordings of all time.

Not one of my favorites was on their list.

This is, of course, because the reviewers at Entertainment Weekly are a bunch of idiots.

It could not possibly be that I like weird things.

Because I don't. I'm a normal guy. I majored in normal in college, and I graduated summa cum ordinaribus.

If I like something, it means that every normal person who reads this column will like it, too.

That's why the Rhinoceros Times has devoted precious column inches to my reviews of whatever I think of to review.

So if you ever find you disagree with my judgments, you'd be wise to keep it to yourself, because it will be firm evidence to your friends and family that you are, in fact, not normal.

Therefore, in the interest of helping you find truly wonderful cds, I will provide you with a short list of soundtrack albums.

I don't know if they're the best. I haven't listened to all the others, so how can I compare? I just know that these can be listened to with pleasure, over and over again.

"One Fine Day." The film didn't make a lot of money, and my wife and I can't figure out why. We loved it. But we love the soundtrack even more. Lots of great songs. Some old, some new, some new performances of old songs. (But no old performances of new songs.) And at the end, where you get a bit of the background music composed for the film, you kind of wish the album had more of it. Especially because it was so good that you never noticed it during the actual movie.

"My Best Friend's Wedding." The music in this film was obvious, but this is that rare case where it is not a flaw. That's because the music became part of the story. In fact, it became so much a part of the story that without anyone ever saying so, "My Best Friend's Wedding" became a musical. The key emotional moments are almost all carried by a song. And some of those songs are absolutely unforgettable. Cameron Diaz doing hideously bad karaoke. The wedding party singing Bacharach & David together around the table. The slut cousins doing a duet. The otherwise inexplicable opening number. Best musical film since "Fiddler on the Roof."

"Mermaids." From a quirky sentimental comedy that starred, of all people, Cher, a singer who normally sets my teeth on edge, this soundtrack is actually a great oldies collection, most of it not sung by Cher. But Cher's rendition of "The Shoop-shoop Song" is so good that it makes you wish she would remake all the great girl-group numbers of the 1960s.

"The Lion in Winter." This is pure soundtrack -- no songs, unless you count medieval church music. This is powerful stuff, unforgettable in its drama and majesty and, yes, beauty. The composer, John Barry, has just come out with a new recording that also includes some music from "Mary, Queen of Scots"; ironically, the performances are not as good as on the original soundtrack, but only by a little, and it's well worth owning and listening to.

"Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." This is the best movie musical ever. It was a true book musical -- that is, a musical in which the songs are expressions of character rather than numbers performed in shows-within-the-show. The songs were all written for the film, not pieced together out of the whole history of Tin Pan Alley. And it was absolutely tied to film, not just adapted from a stage musical. If you haven't seen the movie, see it. Then you won't rest until you have the cd.

"A Room with a View." Classical music provided the background for this charming but slow movie, and without ever intruding, it stole the show. Kiri Te Kanawa singing Mozart may be the best classical vocal performance by anyone of anyone's music ever, period. It feels like the platonic vision of beauty.

"Immortal Beloved." A better movie than "Amadeus," it doesn't just use Beethoven's music to show the stages in his life, but also explains it by putting it in contexts in which it might plausibly have been conceived, showing what it might have meant in the composer's life. Once you've seen the movie, "Ode to Joy" will never be the same.

By the way ... the soundtrack of "The Abyss"? Sucks. Big time. Avoid it.

One last album, which is also a movie review: If you like movies in which you laugh, you cry, people fall in love, and nobody dies a bloody death, then "Serendipity" is the movie of the year. Don't miss it. When we saw it, we left the theater with the trance still on us and headed straight to Borders, where we bought a copy of the soundtrack cd for each of us. Wonderful album.

Other current things to watch, hear, or read:

Sharyn McCrumb has emerged as the finest novelist writing about Appalachia. Her newest, "Songcatcher," is beautiful and moving -- and even though it doesn't have a soundtrack, you feel as though it did. It also has the best answer I've ever seen to people who insist on mispronouncing the word "Appalachian." Don't wait for the paperback.

And if you haven't been following "Band of Brothers" on HBO, start now. It's an unforgettable evocation of the way men function in combat, how leadership works, what war really is, how it is won, and what the victory costs the people who win it.


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