For four years John Caps was a producer, writer, and host of the National Public Radio syndicated series The Cinema Soundtrack. Here he discusses his new book Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music.
Q: How did Henry Mancini break into film scoring?
Caps: At first, Mancini came into the film industry indirectly, passively. What he really wanted to do was become an arranger/orchestrator for Big Bands. This was in the 1940s. His ear was glued to the radio broadcasts of his favorite bands like Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman. After military service, he was able to land a job with the Tex Beneke band as pianist/arranger. He even married the band singer, Ginny O’Connor. She’s the one who brought him to Hollywood then where she had been living. There, he found work providing music for Hollywood nightclub acts and soon for radio drama. Then it was only a short hop to scoring for movies. He joined the music staff at Universal Studios and worked on an assembly line scoring their cheap
quickie-flicks — B westerns, monster movies, suburban comedies, even teen musicals.
In that factory atmosphere, he was able to learn the basic ingredients of background scoring: how to write simple romantic themes, chases, tension music, comic motifs, and how to time them all precisely to the action on screen. It was all cliched scoring but it was great Basic Training for a screen composer. And as the studio system wound-down in the late 1950s, the new medium of television moved in to fill the gap where fate and fame awaited him.
Q: What were Mancini’s first successes?
Caps: Technically, his first “hit” was the Sammy Davis Jr. recording of Mancini’s film song “Six Bridges to Cross” (1955) which sold 600,000 copies as a single disc. But his real name fame came in 1958 with his cool jazz scores for the TV detective series PETER GUNN and the soundtrack record album of that music. For a time thereafter, almost every year produced another hit for him: the movie tunes “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Charade,” “The Pink Panther…” etc. In 1969, he had an even bigger hit record performing someone else’s tune, the Nino Rota theme from ROMEO AND JULIET. Over the 1970s and ’80s, his career evolved in scope and seriousness but people mostly remembered him (and they still do) for those early successes.
Q: Beyond all those famous hits, what are Mancini’s best songs/scores?
Caps: Mancini always warned people not to think of him as a songwriter. “I’m an orchestral film scorer at heart,” he would say, “not a songwriter.” He just happened to think in terms of melody, of themes, when he was composing an orchestral score. His best scores may be thematic in nature but they are orchestrally conceived. If you want to judge Mancini, don’t defer to his pretty dinner music; study his scores to WAIT UNTIL DARK (horror scoring in which he pits a dense orchestra against two eerie out-of-tune pianos) or TWO FOR THE ROAD (where a complex and intelligent main theme represents the changing dynamics of a troubled marriage) or THE GREAT RACE (a slapstick farce which he scored like a comic operetta) or THE WHITE DAWN (about sailors stranded in an Eskimo culture, scored like a classic adventure tale) or his chamber music for THE SHADOW BOX (about hospice care for the dying). And if you want to sample Mancini as a sincere melodist, don’t just buy one of those compilation CD’s that repeat his hits; search-out his most personal songs: his chilly waltz “Whistling Away the Dark,” the bleak “Soldier in the Rain,” the sensuous “Lujon” also known as “A Slow Hot Wind,” the joyous “Le Jazz Hot,” the reassuring “Life in a Looking Glass,” the bluesy and wise “Dreamsville.” My book spotlights the best of them.
Q: Talk about the book’s subtitle: “Reinventing Film Music.” What does that mean?
Caps: There are two aspects in which Mancini can be said to have “reinvented” film scoring. In the 1930s and ’40s, film music came in big formal symphonic, often operatic, styles where almost every action on screen was underlined by some orchestral reiteration on the soundtrack. By the 1960s, film subjects and treatments were more offhanded, informal. They were stories about modern problems or amusements and those big, heavy old fashioned scores wouldn’t work. So Mancini created a new cool jazz-pop voice to go along with the new films’ contemporary content. There was also a more efficient, minimalist placement of music in those films — music was used sparingly as cool commentary rather than as a constant accompaniment. That’s one of Mancini’s “reinventions.” The other was that he began extracting the melodies and cues from his scores, rearranging and reissuing them as record albums for the general public. Of course, his early melodic commercial scores of the 1960s were perfect for that kind of treatment. They sold well, proving that film music had its own interesting qualities apart from the screen. So that was his second “reinvention” — getting people to appreciate film music as entertainment in its own right — getting people to notice it at all, after decades of neglect.
Q: Did he have any frustrations during the evolution of his career?
Caps: In one sense, the precedent that Mancini set in the 1960s of having a marketable song as the centerpiece of a movie soundtrack came back to frustrate him in the 1980s and ’90s when, for instance, in a film like MARRIED TO IT producers demanded he base his own score on someone else’s hit tune. Later even his old producer-pal Blake Edwards rejected his main theme for the film SWITCH and stuck in someone else’s famous folk song instead, because he liked the lyrics. Even more frustrating were the times when he provided carefully composed orchestral scores in the 1970s and ’80s only to find them being rejected out-of-hand — not by creative decision-makers but by project investors who had no experience in movie-making at all. Even the great Alfred Hitchcock, who had wanted a Mancini score for his film FRENZY, was overruled by corporate execs because the music Mancini had provided was deemed too dark — not pop enough. And Mancini’s huge symphonic score for the sci-fi fiasco LIFEFORCE was chopped up beyond recognition by the money-men who decided they didn’t like the whole film and, so, moved in to re-cut it themselves, slicing up the music tracks wherever they could. Films in the 1990s were often being produced and edited and second-guessed not by filmmakers but by bankers. So Mancini was not the only frustrated craftsman around town.
Q: Where can we see Mancini’s influence today?
Caps: Initially, Mancini’s jazz-pop music style influenced the young up-and-coming careers of film composers like John Williams, Quincy Jones, and Dave Grusin whose early scores resembled his. He likewise inspired an era of Hollywood pop songs in films during which Oscar-winning tunesmiths like Burt Bacharach, Michel Legrand, Marvin Hamlisch followed Mancini’s lead. By now, any songs in movies are pretty forgettable and they lack the narrative qualities and staying-power of the Mancini era, probably because the young musicians today don’t know the heritage of truly composed melodies (the so-called Great American Songbook) and so can’t draw on it for inspiration, invention, technique. This past year’s Academy Awards could only nominate two original songs from films in a category that calls for at least five nominees. So Mancini’s influence is definitely lacking there and, I’d say, much needed. By the same token dramatic scoring seems to be limited, these days, to only two kinds: either slamming and droning synthesized chords modeled on video game music, or generic orchestral adventure scoring modeled on John Williams’ STAR WARS. It IS still possible to hear Mancini’s influence in a few soundtracks, though, if you know where to listen. There is a Mancini-like sensitivity (an awareness of character psychology) in some of the scores of Alexandre Desplat; there is a playful Mancini-like satire in some scores from Danny Elfman or Alan Silvestri or John Powell; there is the knowing use of instrumental timbre and identifying motifs in some scores by Thomas Newman or Carter Burwell. Now if only they had Mancini’s opportunities…