Welcome to Score Keeping, a feature where I dive into overlooked and highly praised songs, scores and soundtracks that accompany great films.
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Usually when I write these columns I tend to focus on how music adds to a film by enhancing its tone, complementing its characters or directing the flow of scene. Typically that’s what a score or soundtrack does in a film. It uses music as a shorthand to illustrate something about a scene. Sometimes that shorthand can be as simple as establishing a time, a place, a mood…and little else. This is pretty common in a lot of period piece movies where the team behind the camera wants to quickly establish the time period. Take for instance Creedence Clearwater Revival, or as I like to call them, “the patron saints of lazy directors who need shorthand for the Vietnam War.”
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You as an audience member get it. It’s the ’70s, it’s probably hot and humid, and the Vietnam War is in full swing. The song choice doesn’t say that much about the characters or what’s happening in the film thematically but you lock into the vibe immediately. Most movies (good ones anyway) will do this only a handful of times and intersperse the rest of film with score or other needle drops that weave in and out of the movie and add depth and character as needed. However, it’s interesting to see a film use its music almost completely as an aesthetic choice, but an aesthetic choice that compliments what the movie is saying about all of its aesthetic choices.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow-Up looks into the life of a photographer (based on real-life photographer David Bailey and played by David Hemmings) in ’60s “swingin’ London” as he discovers that he may have captured a murder on film. That sounds like a Hitchcockian concoction kindred to something like Blow Out (the De Palma film directly influenced by Blow-Up), but the movie’s pacing, tone and content owe more to La Dolce Vita, an arthouse existentialist picture about youth culture at a time in the 20th century where the possibilities felt infinite. The film instead focuses on how hollow all of it can be.
The film’s opening minutes get to this point very quickly. The credits roll and we get exactly what you would expect from a portrait of London in the ’60s. You get some quick-tempo grooves laid down by the film’s young and prestigious composer, Herbie Hancock and his band of jazz legends which included Freddie Hubbard, Phil Woods, Joe Henderson, Jim Hall, Jimmy Smith (but many sources say it was Paul Griffin on organ), Ron Carter, and Jack DeJohnette. It should also be noted that at this point in Herbie’s career he’s fresh off the success of what is arguably his best album of this period, “Maiden Voyage,” and (along with Carter) is a part of Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet. You also have the experimental playfulness of Donyale Luna (oft cited as the first black supermodel) superimposed behind the credits fluidly posing.
Not long after the credits the music drops out and we are met with a strange and alienating London. Wild gangs of mimes roam the streets (truly a nightmare of urban blight). Those same streets are grimey and our protagonist sits alone driving to a photo shoot that doesn’t seem all that glamorous. But it’s the absence of music that strikes me. Throughout the film the music is really only ever present during scenes where you see the characters living the fantasy of this youth culture. In a particularly famous scene of Thomas photographing real life model Veruschka von Lehndorff, you hear Herbie and company play this lazy blues tune named after the model.
And while it’s pretty clear what’s going on in this scene (photography as sex), the music doesn’t really add much the text or subtext. It’s there to add spice to a fully seasoned dish. And it’s not just the non-diegetic music in the film. It applies to performances we see directly on screen.
In what has to be the most famous scene in the movie we see The Yardbirds, with the much mythologized line-up that briefly included both Jeff Beck and pre-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page on guitar, perform a song called “Stroll On” (which both sounds like proto-Led Zeppelin and is a light reworking of the song “Train Kept A-Rollin’”) in a nightclub filled with bored youths.
People stare motionless as the band puts forward a high energy performance and there is not even a head nod to be seen (a scene you’ll recognize if you’ve been to any show in Bloomington). But once Beck decides to smash his guitar out of frustration from feedback and tosses it into the audience, that’s when you see the crowd come alive — when they have a chance to covet a piece of iconography. Thomas, even upon recovering a piece of the guitar, immediately discards it once the novelty wears off. It’s all about the same thing as Herbie’s score: music simply exists in Blow-Up as an accessory because within the film, that’s what the culture and its art is to the people who follow it. It’s all gloss, no depth.
What’s even more fascinating about the film is its legacy. Outside of its famous Yardbirds scene and the parody of the above-mentioned photography session, the film and its score had a decent impact on fashion and music when the group Deee-lite decided to sample the baseline from the track titled “Bring Down the Birds”…
…in their club banger of a track “Groove is in the Heart.”
Which, if the video doesn’t make clear, is pretty influenced by Blow-Up and ’60s aesthetic in general, although to be fair there’s also a ’70s pastiche going on in the video with a Soul Train-esque dance party, and cameos from Maceo Parker and past IU Cinema speaker Bootsy Collins making appearances. This is appropriate and a bit ironic since Blow-Up is so focused on those same aesthetics and how hollow they are, it’s kind of perfect that people would be inspired by only what they saw on the surface.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up is being shown at the IU Cinema on August 27 with IU President Michael A. McRobbie scheduled to introduce it. This screening is a part of the Cinema’s President’s Choice film series, a series dedicated to honoring President McRobbie’s leadership and his affinity for cinema.
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.