Film & Music: A 2010 Sundance Music Odyssey

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Car stopped in the middle of the highway – – – facing oncoming traffic – – – a blizzard of over three feet of fresh snow on the curve that devoured the front bumper – – – that lies on the highway – – – 40 feet away.

What just happened? Was all good, headed for the Press Office – – – tapped the brake pedal on this curve – – – time stopped – – – slid, wheel jockeyed, rollin’, rollin’, rollin’, locked up – – – car fish-tailed toward the center divider – – – BANG!, rear right bumper slams into the metal, then BANG! – – – er, front bumper buys the ticket and POPS off into the snow.

See if the car still starts – – – rao, rao, rao, FLASH, the hamsters spin the wheels and the engine rolls onto it’s full ’n upright position. K, gotta get that bumper off the road before someone runs it over and gets dead. Well, this is happened – – – never before, have I found myself hoisting a burly bumper across snow like Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer – – – now Dasher and Dancer And Prancer and Vixen – – – oh, what I’d give for a vixen right now.

Okay, I’m alive – – – so it seems. Tally-ho, onward and upward in altitude, slipping in slush past wiped-out car carnage off to the side – – – I crest the Park City limits – – – just breathe. It’s all downhill from here.

Last year, only one day of inclement weather. This year, wow, I lost 5 extra pounds, huffin’ up and down Main St. like a snow removal hog. As in most years past, the music in the documentaries and Park City At Midnight pictures was exceptional.

Early in the game, Sundance and a performance rights-organization partnered to sponsor a filmmaker/composer roundtable at Main St.’s Sundance House. In attendance, were some of the industry’s “filmmaker and composer royalty” – let’s start with HBO’s ENTOURAGE star, Adrian Grenier, who’s directorial debut, TEENAGE PAPARAZZO was scored by industry icon, David Torn (THE WACKNESS, LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS).

Mr. Grenier kicks off the roundtable with characteristic laconic delivery: “I didn’t really think I needed a composer until my Music Supervisor, Janice Ginsberg, told me I needed to take out those really expensive songs. She told me I should take on a composer who is perfect – – – who he is because he added another layer of storytelling with his unique music. From now on, I‘m going to take on a composer sooner.”

Composer David Torn chimes in with, “Good idea.”

Music Supervisor, Ms. Ginsberg sent Mr. Torn a cut of the picture and, after spotting it, he states, “I pretty much loved it and said, ‘I’m in. I’ll do whatever we need to do to make it happen, and that was that.”

Mr. Grenier follows up with, “the film is about tabloid, pop media, and the main character is a 13-year-old boy. So, I knew I wanted to have a lot of very poppy, exciting, energetic music and that’s what led us down the road of having so many extensive pop songs – Britney Spears and the like. What fleshed out later is this young boy, my relationship to him, and the danger of his life as a young paparazzi boy.”

He concludes with, “To bring in the human element, it was important for David (Torn) to go in and score the emotional arc of this young boy as I asked him, ‘what the hell is going on with you? You’re a 13-year-old paparazzo?!”

First-time filmmaker, Anthony Burns says he didn’t think he had much more than a slim chance to land iconic musician, Michael Penn (HARD EIGHT, BOOGIE NIGHTS) but after Writer/Producer, Brandon Freeman emphatically pitched, “I really like Michael Penn,” Mr. Burns invited the composer.

To Mr. Burns’ astonishment, Mr. Penn agreed to visit their Austin, Texas editing studio. After their spotting session, the composer agreed to sign on and Mr. Burns’ hopes soared. The filmmaker opines, “half of filmmaking is luck, so we feel very lucky to have Michael Penn.”

The composer adds, “I responded to the film’s rich, textured look, which I haven’t seen captured much, except in films from the period – the early 80’s. So, I worked in textures that sort of matched that feel – and it worked out great.”

Sundance Composer Lab guru, Peter Golub, composer of filmmaker Lucy Walker’s nuclear weapon-cautionary documentary, COUNTDOWN TO ZERO, frankly states, “When I was brought on, I told the filmmakers that I thought the temp score was terrible – absolutely wrongheaded. They were going to have a lot of song – ended up licensing, I think, three songs – and the challenge musically was to not get too ahead of the story, so that the audience can’t even take in the information. Yet, at the same time, have it be riveting.”

During a public screening Q&A, filmmaker, Ms. Walker austerely warns, “I feel this is the most imperative issue we face in our times. If we don’t handle this immediately, as a species, we face imminent peril.”

Also adding to the panel’s wisdom (and comic-relief levity) was Michael Nash, filmmaker of the environmental damage documentary, CLIMATE REFUGEES. Mr. Nash opens with, “I met Michael (Mollura, Composer) while speed dating,” and goes on to elaborate that, “the film is about the human face of climate change and we shot for three years, all over the world. I’m the kind of filmmaker who understands when music fits within a certain scene but I can’t tell you what kind of music we need. But I knew I wanted indigenous instruments from the different cultures throughout, and I also wanted to hear mother nature talking within the music to bring out the soul of the film.”

Composer Michael Mollura expands these points with, “The film is really about the politics of climate change and how these people around the world are not receiving help. What I hoped to do is give the earth itself a voice, so you’ll hear music from China, Indonesia, India, orchestral arrangements, healing chants for the earth that are sung in Arabic – I really saw this as a spiritual journey, the opportunity that the film is being acknowledged here at Sundance because the fate of the world really depends on us.”

Last on the panel, was iconic documentarian, Leon Gast’s (HELL’S ANGELS FOREVER, GRATEFUL DEAD, and Academy Award-winning Mohammad Ali picture, WHEN WE WERE KINGS) SMASH HIS CAMERA, which examines the conflict between Constitutional right to privacy and journalistic freedom issues against the backdrop of notorious celebrity paparazzo, Rob Galella‘s groundbreaking archives.

Mr. Galella, still an active paparazzo, is the film’s featured star as he reminisces about decades of photo-documented, behind-the-scenes private lives of entertainment history’s most regal talent (Marlon Brando, Jacqueline Kennedy, John Belushi, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Robin Williams, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jackson).

Mr. Gast’s composer, David Wolfert (POKEMON, NASCAR) reports he struggled to finesseMr. Gast’s humorously eclectic source cue influences – everything from Ramones to Jane’s Addiction to Nina Rota to Fellini and ON THE WATERFRONT scores – into a score with it‘s own voice while honoring the filmmaker‘s influences.

Mr. Gast admits, “David composed beautiful cue after beautiful cue as I repeatedly demanded revision after revision. Finally, he called and referred to having spent over 60 hours in the studio and I didn’t even want to know what the budget overage was.”

Mr. Wolfert conveys his respectful admiration for Mr. Gast with, “Leon is an incredible storyteller with wonderful ideas and he comes to projects knowing what he wants. Sometimes it’s a little hard to figure out exactly what he wants but working back and forth with the process was a gift.”

We now move up Main Street to the annual Sundance Press/Filmmaker brunch.

Filmmaker Eyad Zahra’s directorial debut, THE TAQWACORES was scored by Omar Fadel (CAMOUFLAGE). Mr. Zahra reflects, “This is my first film so this was my first time working with a composer. I said to the composer, ‘there is going to be just a few scattered cues here and there. But he suggested that there is going to be more score than you imagined.”

Mr. Zahra adds, “the film has this sort-of ambient, gritty punk score, as well as a punk song compilation. It was mixed in mono, so in the theater, it gives you a more lo-fi, gritty, grungy sound that really leant itself to the visual and story of the film. I‘m not a musician, but as far as music in my development, in High School, I followed around my friend‘s punk band – one the first film‘s I made – and in college I did a short film on a guy who thought he was the reincarnation of Bob Marley, so that‘s about it for my ‘musical background, but I‘ve come to realize that sound and picture are equal, 50-50, in relationship to each other.”

Filmmaker John Stalberg Jr.’s laugh-out-loud stoner comedy, HIGH SCHOOL tore through the Sundance viral-chatter mill after its first public screening and I overheard several industry types continuing to praise its intended audience prospects throughout the festival – everything from, “This picture is obviously made for my kids but I laughed my ass off!” to “They should roll this thing out in the Fall, after schools get started from Summer. American kids will be all over this thing like ANIMAL HOUSE and SUPERBAD.”

Mr. Stalberg reminisces about his writing process with, “I write into the script a lot of music cues. Because when I write I listen to music but I think I used just 25% of the music I wrote into the script in the movie. I ended up using “Cheap Thrills” by Frank Zappa because I’m friends with Frank’s son, Ahmet. We were talking and he said we should use some of my dad’s music. We also got the rights to Weezer’s THE GREATEST MAN THAT EVER LIVED when my director’s credit hits. We have 21 needle-drops in the movie.”

The film’s daunting music supervision architecture fell to Mr. Stalberg’s friend Gabe Hilfer (THE WRESTLER, THE WACKNESS) at Clearsongs, as the production didn’t have money to hire one.

Oscar-winning veteran composer Harold Faltermeyer (COP OUT, BEVERLY HILLS COP, TOP GUN) was called on by Mr. Stalberg to spur another notch in his iconic sharpshooter holster. He expands, “What I loved about BEVERLY HILLS COP and FLETCH was that they had big comedic performances but they were grounded in a reality. There was this synthesizer moog thing – – – it was a fun vibe and I wanted that. When I got on the phone with Harold, I told him when I took piano lessons as a kid, when everyone else was studying classical music, I played ‘Axel F.’ at my piano recital.”

Mr. Stalberg goes on to add, “And then I have these friends, a band called Freescha, who do some really cool sounds, sort of warble-y, synth California stuff but they use some organic reel-to-reel stuff. They did some original music that we mixed and layered into an overlay over Harold Faltermeyer’s score. For the brownie baking scene, we were going to use Boston’s ‘Smokin’ but ended up using Metric’s ‘Help, I’m Alive’ just to give it a more contemporary vibe because the actors are two young kids. I’m really happy with it, turned out great.”

We wrap this year’s coverage via a casual morning chat with New Zealand filmmaker, Taika Cohen’s Sundance Lab-developed, BOY outside the Park City Library pre-school. As we talk, we are charmingly interrupted by schoolchildren that Mr. Cohen playfully chides to pipe-down.

Mr. Cohen starts off by championing his Wellington-based artist friends, Phoenix Foundation with, “they’re a brilliant progressive rock band and I was listening to their tracks while I was writing the script, so it set a certain tone. We played old, crooning, lounge act tracks on the set while we were shooting a few scenes which really set a mood for the actors to work off of.”

He further elaborates that, “In the original edit, we laid in bigger songs by acts like T-Rex and obviously Michael Jackson, since the lead ‘boy’ is obsessed with Michael, though, once we got into the edit, bigger international acts that cost lots of money just didn’t feel right. So, we went with smaller, local tracks to create a more intimate affair. We toyed with the idea of attempting to license Michael Jackson tracks – in the original cut, all the characters are watching the ‘Thriller’ video but it was just far too expensive, like $500,000 and I just couldn’t live with myself spending that much on just one song.”

So, there we go, frolicking through another Sundance festival musical-cascade while traipsing around a noticeable increase in non-movie related product sponsors and clearly just-there-for-the-party posers on Main Street. I’m told by my inside-press homies that next year’s festival is already expected to prove even more dynamic as the festival mandate has now been red-shift retrofitted to push the creative edge to ever-more exhilarating plateaus – – – here’s to the peaks of Park City, merci, au revoir ‘til next year!


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