I recently watched a slightly schizophrenic love story in the form of The Holiday. I say “schizophrenic” not in a manic sense but in a true, split-personality sense. Following two story lines that do not appear together until the final holiday montage, it does not have enough time to follow either as close as could be desired (even though it is almost 2-1/2 hours long). But I’m not really concerned about the film at the whole (at least, not presently); I’m concerned with music. And irony.
Music is present in the film through two avenues – the traditional film score and soundtrack, and Jack Black’s character, a film composer by trade (amplified by Black’s own musical aptitude). Black spends various scenes talking about the importance of music in a film, how certain songs become definitive, making good scenes iconic, etc. etc. The irony is that The Holiday contains the worst (mis)uses of music I can recall in recent history. I was clued into this fact when Frou Frou’s “Let Go” – which was a captivating song even before it became the ultimate moment in Garden State, itself a defining (albeit divisive) moment in independent cinema – was used within the first 10 minutes of the film. That’s like rewriting The Usual Suspects to reveal Keyser Soze in the first act. While I never expect big-studio films to show particular care in their song selection and utilization, The Holiday kept grabbing my attention with its questionable uses of pop and orchestral music. Plenty of films have committed this crime, but Black’s character's occupation created a keen sense of irony, which began to overshadow everything else for me. There was even a scene where Black and Kate Winslet (who has surprisingly rebounded from her Titanic days to actually be attractive) walk through Blockbuster while he gushes about classic films and their scores, and how they helped highlight certain iconic moments, etc. (Chariots of Fire and The Graduate were two examples.) This created an additional level of irony as I realized that this film is not only not a classic, it doesn’t even contain a defining or pivotal moment of any sort; it is only notable in its mediocrity.
The Holiday also features Jude Law, in a role where he is somehow both shallow (sleeping with Cameron Diaz upon their first meeting – and while drunk) and sympathetic (widower with two young daughters). His role is a mess. Four years before this film, however, he appeared in Road to Perdition, which is, in all ways, the complete opposite of this movie. (I know it might be unfair and inadvisable to try to compare two vastly different films, but… I really don’t care.)
Where The Holiday is long and dull, trying to conjure up sparkling moments and impart some sort of enlightenment, Road is long and brooding, using its chilly ambiance to tell a story of loyalty, nostalgia, and the bond between father and son. By not attempting to impart a message but instead tell a good tale, we are taught something anyway. But again, that’s not really what I’m concerned with. I’m here for the music, man. And Road to Perdition features one of the most stunning soundtracks in cinema history.
The film itself has a number of elements which help the score become so effective: a green filter gives the scenes a gritty and hazy quality (the director and cinematographer reportedly aimed for an Edward Hopper-like feel); the cinematography is largely slow and sweeping; and the script is sparse, leaving long periods without any dialogue whatsoever. These elements leave plenty of room for the score to carry the film, and it does. In addition to this film, let’s see what else composer Thomas Newman has done:
- Revenge of the Nerds
- The Lost Boys
- Little Women
- The Shawshank Redemption
- Meet Joe Black
- American Beauty
- The Green Mile
- White Oleander
- Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
Any questions? Among these, White Oleander also stands out in my mind as having a good score, and Lemony Snicket is also noteworthy. But Road stands above all the rest. Its crowning achievement is its main theme, which straddles the line between major and minor keys, allowing itself to slide to either side depending on the instrumentation involved and the intensity with which it is played. This mirrors life itself, which is rarely just one emotion, but usually somewhere in the midst of a lot of them. It is frustrating to see a movie and realize that the music was considered as almost an afterthought, as filler or, even worse, as a manipulator to explicitly dictate what you are supposed to be feeling. A good score, on the other hand, accentuates but does not overshadow the action on the screen, working together with the direction, acting, cinematography and sound as an important part of a larger puzzle.
There is a saying used frequently in the customer-service industry to the effect that customers rarely remember quality dining experiences vividly, but they always remember bad ones in specific detail. Applied to the cinematic realm, the saying still has merit, but Road is one of the good experiences you can't help but remember. Anytime I hear “XYZ film has great music,” I instantly think “Is it as good as Road to Perdition?” And then I think, “You are such a nerd.”