CD Review: The Artist

Every year, if we film music fans are lucky, a film score or two will come out of nowhere that surprises us and moves us in unexpected ways. This year’s winner for me (in more ways than one) is Ludovic Bource‘s delightful nod to Hollywood’s Golden Age in THE ARTIST. This silent film is directed by Michel Hazanavicius with a loving fondness for the genre and stars fellow Frenchmen Jean Dujardin (who won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) and Bérénice Bejo in two star-making roles as George Valentin, a famous silent movie star who refuses to make the transition to talkies, and the fresh-faced youth Peppy Miller who takes his place in the Hollywood firmament.

The score serves as the voice of the characters, conveying emotions beyond the facial expressions and title cards. Bource researched the styles of Golden Age greats like Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and Bernard Herrmann, as well as the silent movie musical style of Charlie Chaplin. The resulting score is brimming with melodic charm and simple, dramatic emotion.

The swashbuckling style of Korngold can be heard in the rousing action cues for the silent movie scenes “1927 Russian Affair” and “Silent Rumble.” George’s theme (“George Valentin”) is a carefree melody that captures his good nature, energy and bravado. Brimming with innocent sexiness and a lilting wink its eye, the dotted rhythms in the piccolo and xylophone contrast with the smooth, swooning strings and winds.

Peppy is a acting/dancing dynamo and Bource’s lighthearted music struts with spirit and spunk in cues like “Pretty Peppy” and “Charming Blackmail”. Orchestrated along the lines of classic movie musicals, the music sparkles with a wink and smile. In the fleet-footed dance number that closes the film, “Peppy and George” give Fred and Ginger a run for their money thanks in no small part to Bource’s wicked jazz cue.

[audio:artist1.mp3] Click Track: Pretty Peppy

Whether its the soaring strings of “In the Stairs” or the music box celeste of “Happy Ending,” the score wears its heart on its sleeve, though the emotional content never feels forced or fake. Perhaps no track captures the beauty of Bource’s music more simply than the lovely “Comme Une Rosée De Larmes.” As George’s latest silent film (and his career) sinks into quick sand, a simple piano solo (with a hint of Eddy Duchin) gives poignant, silent voice to the heartbreak of shattered dreams.

[audio:artist2.mp3] Click Track: Comme Une Rosée De Larmes

As Valentin’s situation takes a turn for the worse with the stock market crash, a flop film in the can, and a divorce from his bitter wife (Penelope Ann Miller), the harmonic palette of the score understandably darkens. Minor-key harmonies and the deep sonorities of the lower instruments such as the celli, bass clarinet and contrabassoon convey the drama of George’s life on the skids.

Herrmann and Waxman’s influence can be heard in dark cues like “The Sound of Tears,” “Ghosts From the Past,” and the frightening “L’ombre des flammes.” In one of the many nods to CITIZEN KANE, visually and musically, the dramatic scene accompanies down-and-out George drunken destruction of his films in a booze-soaked, fiery inferno. Tremolos and trills give musical voice to the flames while chromatic strings, piano, and brass capture the drama as Uggy the dog runs off to find a policeman to save his master.

If there is one musical hiccup in the film, it is the use of Herrmann’s VERTIGO for the climactic finale. Thanks to Bource’s talent in weaving the Golden Age harmonies in the music throughout the rest of the film, most audiences won’t realize that the music doesn’t belong there. But for film music fans, it is a bit jarring at first. The cue, “My Suicide (Dedicated 03.29.1967),” equally dramatic and obviously modeled on Herrmann’s temp track, in which Bource uses a minor key version of his own love theme, is included on the CD. Various montage sequences are given period flavor with the use of original recordings for Red Nichols’ “Imagination,” “Pennies from Heaven,” and Duke Ellington’s “Jubilee Stomp.”

Sony Classical is only releasing the single soundtrack CD domestically. Available from Amazon.co.uk is the European release which includes a bonus region-free DVD with a “making of” featurette and live performances of the overture, George’s theme and “L’ombre des flammes” from the score recording sessions.

For me, THE ARTIST is a special film and a special score. The packed Saturday night crowd at my most third and most recent viewing applauded loud and long at the film’s end. It will be interesting to see if that enthusiasm translates to the cineplex crowd. Lovers of classic film and film music should not miss it.

THE ARTIST won Best Picture from the New York Film Critics Circle yesterday (as did director Hazanavicius), beginning its long road to potential Oscar glory. How that will play out over the course of awards season remains to be seen. But Bource’s charming throwback to Hollywood’s Golden Age is a surefire and deserved contender. Mark my words, it’s Bource for the gold come February. What a lovely artistic statement that would be for this delightful score.

17 comments

  1. Superb score and a wonderful film. I agree wholeheartedly about the use of ‘Vertigo’ – presumably a case of temp track love. It’s usage took me out of the film completely at the start of that sequence.

    1. When I did my interview with Ludovic for last month’s FSMO, he did confirm it was a case of temp love. The scene had been temped with VERTIGO for three months and they had to show the film to the producers prior to Cannes while Bource was still writing that last cue. (Everything was being rushed to finish it in time for the festival.) Once it had been shown, well, you see the answer onscreen. For those who don’t know VERTIGO, it won’t make any difference, so well does Bource’s music complement the film prior and after the scene. For those of us who DO know Herrmann’s music, if you were like me, once you get over the shock, you’re so wrapped up in the story (and the Herrmann music DOES work well), that it ultimately doesn’t matter. Still, I would have liked to hear what Bource did in context. Apparently you’ll be able to add Bource’s music when the film comes out on DVD. Nice.

  2. I recognized the Hermann clip immediately, but thought it was just an homage to film music in general, Hermann’s among the best. The whole score is full of wonderful and clever references to classic films and their scores!

  3. I was wondering if anyone thinks that the music at the end of the George and Peppy scene in his dressing room sounds a lot like some of Aaron Copland’s film music.

    1. Hi Judy. I haven’t heard that. And even though I saw the film three times, I’d have to go back and revisit the scene to catch any potential similarities. Once I get the Blu-ray next month, I’ll check it out.

      1. When you do, let me know what you think. It’s playing while they’re looking in a mirror at the new beauty mark he’s just given her and then looking at each other. The main instruments playing seem to be horns and a clarinet and it is brief but lovely and simple.

  4. Thank goodness I’m not the only one who has seen The Artist 3 times. My friends and parents thought I was mad seeing a movie twice so I shut up about the 3rd time!
    I was so happy that Ludovic Bource won the Oscar for best score. It was only after this happened that I realised the music accompanying “My Suicide” was from Vertigo. It isn’t credited as being by Herrmann on itunes. On my download it quite happily says the composer is Bource and calls it My Suicide. Very odd. I understand the temp track was left in due to a timing issue but it isn’t really fair to Bource. Herrmann’s music stands out to me and as much as I love the other tracks (esp Comme une rose de larmes) they do fade somewhat in comparison.

    1. Hi Ruth, thanks for commenting. Nice to see someone else has no shame in seeing this movie more than once. :)

      As for the track “My Suicide,” that is actually Bource’s cue for the scene. Though it is definitely an homage to VERTIGO (no doubt at the director’s request), the soundtrack does not include Bernard Herrmann’s music. Herrmann’s music is only heard in the movie. When the DVD/Blu-ray comes out in April, Bource told me in our interview that you’ll be able to program his cue into the scene, which should be interesting.

      1. It is? Gosh, now I’m confused! I’m obviously not listening carefully enough. I guess I have seen the movie with the Herrmann music more times than I have listened to my itunes download! Just listened again and I think the problem is I focus on a particular violin bit at 57 secs and again at 5 mins in to My Suicide, which I particularly like and sounds identical to some of Scene d’amour? I think my brain has some difficulty differentiating classical music. Both pieces are beautiful. You say that My Suicide is minor key version of his love theme. Do you mean Comme une rose de larmes?
        I have to confess to being in love with this movie. I would very happily pay to see it again at the cinema but am trying to restrain myself.
        I am very much looking forward to the DVD coming out. Also…if you don’t mind me talking movies as opposed to music.. I don’t understand how some people manage to be so cynical about it, tear it apart and criticise it for not being as good as actual movies from that era. That really isn’t the point. You can tell its made with love for all things cinema. However, the more I see it the worse I feel for George and the more I want to kick Peppy for not helping him sooner!
        Dujardin is a revelation to me. I have subsequently watched some of his older movies, including comedies, and the range of that man is amazing. It is very frustrating how difficult it is to find French movies just across the channel in England….but thats a whole different discussion….:)

        1. I know what you mean, Ruth. I don’t get why so many tore into this movie. I think it accomplished exactly what it set out to do, and in the style of silent movies. Nothing was too polished, including the orchestra performance and score mix.

          I too went back and watched some of Dujardin’s films. Once I saw what he’d done in the past and what he accomplished in THE ARTIST, there was no way I wasn’t going to root for him when it came to the Oscar. So glad he won. :)

          1. Did you see “The Clink of Ice” “99 Francs” and “OSS 117 Cairo : Nest of Spies” I reckon they are all pretty good and very diverse. Part of the reason he can adapt so well to different roles is that he seems to be a born mimic.
            Also how can people criticise the movie when Douglas Fairbank’s own granddaughter wrote Dujardin a letter including the words: “you have really embodied his dynamic spirit, his joie de vivre and an aspect of his that I often feel on watching his films where I find myself between tears and laughter.” Praise indeed! :)
            I’ll stop rambling now…

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