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 is Ludovic Bource‘s delightful nod to Hollywood’s Golden Age — 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.
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.
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.