Monday, July 11, 2011

Catching the Spirit: The Film Music of Ry Cooder

"What you’re trying to do is catch the spirit of a picture. And that means sometimes you go contrary to what’s on the screen, and sometimes you go with what’s on the screen. It’s a matter of instinct; if your instincts are good, it’s going to work for you.”David Raksin (Laura, The Bad and The Beautiful).

I used to think about this music (blues, gospel, etc.)…as being environments…so I’d look for chances to add this music to the environment in the film…I didn’t go to school to learn this…it has more to do with your own personal awareness.”—Ry Cooder.

The first time I heard Ry Cooder’s guitar was in a film score. The blues-soaked bottleneck featured in Donald Cammell's 1970 film Performance (seen in a small New York City theatre) captured my attention even more than Mick Jagger’s acting debut. I rushed to Times Square the next morning to buy the soundtrack, which wasn't yet released. It was months before I was able to find it — and I've been hooked on slide guitar music ever since. The music in Performance was overseen by Jack Nitzsche. Cooder was merely a hired hand. Yet it’s Cooder’s work (on Jagger & Richards' "Memo From Turner" and Randy Newman's performance of "Gone Dead Train") that is memorable.

"Jack Nitzsche was doin’ Candy…in those days they didn’t have rock’n’roll movie scores…played a lot of blues, Howlin’ Wolf…just sound…Mac Rebennack on piano, Earl Palmer on drums…the producer didn’t understand at all, he wondered where the strings were, where was the orchestra…then Jack did Performance which was essentially the same score…I learned…watch the film and play somethin’…”— Ry Cooder.

“Watch the film and play somethin’!” It seems like the simplest advice. But can it really be that easy? 

The Complete Guide to Film Scoring states, “Of the many elements that go into creating the music for a film, one of the most crucial is spotting.  Spotting refers to where the music goes and what it will sound like.  Frankly, one could have fabulous themes, sparkling orchestration, great players and a terrific creative relationship with the director, but if the music comes in and out at the wrong places, it can ruin a film.  If a particular instrument enters in a way that is obtrusive, it can destroy the dramatic impact of a scene…”

Does that mean, if I remember the music more than the images, that the score was a failure? I would argue that the images and sounds are of a piece, and any part of it which causes you to recall what you’ve seen (and heard) works. The images in Performance are unforgettable, especially the scene where Jagger plays the blues on an acoustic guitar, when James Fox takes on Mick’s persona and the bedroom scenes. But they are all enhanced by Cooder’s moaning guitars and by the exotic sounds of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s mouth-bow. The soundtrack truly works its magic.

It was several years before Cooder was called on to do another film. In Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (1978), Cooder uses slabs of Howlin’ Wolf blues, and the voice of Captain Beefheart, to paint a musical picture of union practices among a group of Detroit auto workers. That same year Jack Nicholson incorporated some of Cooder’s acoustic bottleneck in his cowboy comedy Goin’ South. These two films brought the guitarist’s work to the attention of Walter Hill, with whom Cooder would form a long working relationship.     

“Ry Cooder is not simply a film composer, a guitar player, a rock singer, a folk singer, a blues collector, or an experimenter with musical forms from exotic or little understood cultures. He is all of the above, and in addition, a great and uniquely American artist—the work displaying recurring patterns, moods and attitudes that are distinctly his own.” – Walter Hill.

For Hill’s re-invention of the Jesse James legend The Long Riders (1980), Cooder provided a historically authentic score that used polkas, square dances, waltzes and other traditional tunes played by a small band finally moving away from the Jerome Moross/Elmer Bernstein bombast of earlier western films. Hill and Cooder worked together through eight films in total as Cooder’s broad knowledge of American music added to the texture and tone of Hill's work.When we think of the breadth of those films it’s astounding. Southern Comfort (set in 1973 in the Louisiana bayou) featured Cajun music. Streets of Fire (1984) relied on urban rock and roll. Brewster’s Millions (1985) didn’t feature much music at all (although you can hear Cooder’s guitar from time to time). 

Hill's Crossroads (1986) tells the story of a young white classical guitarist (who loves the blues of Robert Johnson) and a retired blues harpist who both travel south to the legendary source of the blues. This score is the closest Cooder has ever come to recording 12-bar blues. On his solo records, he has always favoured the more obscure blues of people like Sleepy John Estes, but here he worked with blues musicians Frank Frost and Sonny Terry. He had essentially given up touring by this time and his solo albums were being released with big gaps of 5-7 years between them. He was becoming more interested in collaborations with older musicians and it shows in this score. 

His work for Walter Hill continued with another urban film Johnny Handsome (1989), another Western Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), and Last Man Standing (1996), Hill's prohibition period gangster remake of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961)Cooder says, “You look at the film and see if you connect to it…do you hear anything?  What does Apache music sound like?”  For Geronimo: An American Legend, he echoed the two sides of the story musically, recording with two different groups of musicians. Military brass band for the Cavalry and Tuvan chant combined with Navajo flute for Geronimo. In 1992, Hill's Trespass took Cooder’s slide guitar even into the realm of hip-hop. But Walter Hill was not the only filmmaker with whom he developed a relationship.

When the German director Wim Wenders made Paris, Texas (1984), he called on Cooder to add the music. This score is possibly Cooder’s greatest achievement in ‘catching the spirit’ of the film. The opening sequence in which Harry Dean Stanton wanders though the desert is perfectly matched with Cooder’s bottleneck inventions on a theme from Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night.” It is almost a seminar on the perfect marriage of sound and image. 
“Wenders must have thought that he had a film that was so fragile and so delicate that if anything too much happens in the music, the film is going to tip over," Cooder remembers. "I think he was thinking something atmospheric but minimal, small, that would stay out of the way of these characters that he was trying to depict and the tempo of the film.”Washington Post interview.

Wenders used Cooder’s music again in The End of Violence in 1997. By then, Cooder was working with trumpeter Jon Hassell whose evocative and moody horn adds to the mystery of the film, especially when combined with the spooky sounds Cooder was getting from his floor slide!

There were other films, made for other directors, all of whom were looking for that special magic that would set their film apart from the rest. Blue City (1986) betrays Cooder’s admiration for the twangin’ sound of Duane Eddy’s guitar. Cooder had worked with Eddy (he appeared on one track on a Duane Eddy comeback album in 1979) and there exists a bootleg tape of two nights they played together in a California club. It’s quite delightful to hear them. The Border (made by Tony Richardson in 1981) finds Cooder leading a Tex-Mex band of pros including Sam the Sham Samudio, Flaco Jiminez and Freddy Fender.

In Louis Malle’s Alamo Bay (1985) two cultures are in conflict. The Vietnamese refugees face off against the American shrimpers in south Texas and Cooder captures the cultural divide using modal Eastern tones and electric roadhouse blues. John Hiatt, Cesar Rosas, Van Dyke Parks and Jim Keltner appear here, and throughout Cooder’s recording (both for the film and on solo albums). Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors (1998) found many of the usual suspects revelling in a mixed gumbo of AmericanaDead Man Walking (1995) allowed Ry the opportunity to play behind Johnny Cash and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. This cross-cultural melange suited Cooder perfectly as he had been doing pretty much the same thing for years. Over his career, he has investigated blues, gospel, folk, rock’n’roll, Hawaiian, Vietnamese, Okinawan, Cuban, African and Indian styles. He has been all over the map which is why Aldo Peron entitled his biography Ry Cooder: il viaggiatore dei suoni (Traveller of Sounds).   

Ry Cooder has now all but walked away from film music and gone back to recording albums full of songs. Of course, he’s writing fiction currently as well, and his records are taking the shape of concept albums, where he adapts old folk and blues tunes or composes new folk songs to tell his stories. He continues to travel on his journey. My Blueberry Nights returned him to soundtrack work in 2008. Director Wong Kar Wai explains why he looked to Cooder for the music:  

“A good collaboration with a composer is a precious thing because no language can describe music.  Ry Cooder and I communicated through images. I’d send him a rough cut, and he’d return it with music married to it.  I’d re-edit picture and music and send it back to him.  The on-going cycle of creativity was the unintended consequence of our busy schedules, but it turned out to be the most direct way to swap ideas with Ry. Part of the magic of Ry’s music comes from his unique team. Joachim, his son, supplies the drumbeat heart and father supplies the guitar-soul.  The honorary third member of the family is Martin, Ry’s mixer and composer of ‘Bus Ride.’ Ry knows Elizabeth’s journey better than I.  Having traveled that landscape many times in all his years of touring, he brought a veteran’s eyes and ears to the film.”

Ry Cooder has said that he hates touring, although he did brief tours of Europe and Japan with his son Joachim and Nick Lowe a little over a year ago. He is preparing for an August release of a new solo record (which will also be available on vinyl) called Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down that will again blend his own ‘everyman’ philosophies with his special blend of American (world) music. His fans obviously can’t wait. They long for the Guthrie-esque characters, the rocking band, the stinging slide guitar. And some of them are glad that he’s moved away from the film work. But I, for one, am glad he made Hollywood one of his stops.  It opened up his toolbox and it helped the rest of us 'hear' the sights. If Ry Cooder could say, “I looked at Paris, Texas and it all sounded like Eb!” then we could see things the way he heard them. He is still fond of the experimentation he was able to do for those soundtracks…new ways to make the noises in his head.  His advice to us? “…swingin’ hoses, bangin’ chopsticks on the guitar [it’s fun]…[get in your car] take a trip…a little cruise and just listen [to this movie music].”

Ry Cooder quotes (where not credited) come from Words & Music: Music by Ry Cooder (Warner Bros. PRO-CD-7737)

-- David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.  

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful presentation, thank you. Love the quotes too.
    ”... Music is the only language with the contradictory attribute of being at once intelligible and untranslatable...” - Claude Lévi-Strauss

    Bertrand Laurence