Mildred Pierce

Composer: Carter Burwell
Labels: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Prices: $14.34
Grade: A

There’s a very fine line between irony and camp, and few composers have balanced themselves on it as well as Carter Burwell, especially given the tugging of filmmakers with far more obviously malicious intent. The Coen Brothers could barely contain their brilliant sniggering when it came to the inept white trash kidnappers of RAISING ARIZONA and FARGO, let alone the annoying sinners of A SINGLE MAN and BURN AFTER READING. Then there’s Spike Jonze making a monkey out of John Malkovich, and an Englishman named Martin McDonagh giggling between the profane Irish accents and hitman splatter of IN BRUGES. Burwell’s responded to these sorts of laugh-at-them efforts with an approach that can be knowingly over-the-top, full of bombastic chords, absurd darkness and cowboy yodeling. Or his approach can be full of downbeat lyricism that barely acknowledges the outrageous subject matter that often makes for his best work.

Case in point is MILDRED PIERCE, Todd Haynes’ solemn true-to-book re-working of the James M. Cain’s 1941 noir potboiler, which has gone from Joan Crawford 1945 melodrama to this year’s deliberately hushed HBO miniseries. Recreating the era with impeccable taste even as the story’s themes are made far more explicit than in those Hays Code days, MILDRED PIERCE is filled with enough backstabbing betrayal, taboo-breaking lust and fried chicken cooking lessons to break open a soap opera closet of wire hangers with, not that you’d particularly feel it from the muted passion that Haynes brings to this entrancing five-hour production.

But that’s been part of the filmmakers’ absurdist kitsch game since his short SUPERSTAR: THE KAREN CARPENTER STORY begat the glam rock epic VELVET GOLDMINE (for which Burwell provided a hauntingly psychedelic score) and FAR FROM HEAVEN, an artistically spot-on, but lifelessly arch homage to director Douglas Sirk (though one blessed with a beautiful Elmer Bernstein soundtrack), Thankfully, MILDRED PIERCE gets it all right, probably since Haynes is drawing from Cain’s material, which doesn’t get lost in the racial-sexual forest of the director’s own commentary. Haynes has packed PIERCE with the kind of somberness that you can either take as a grand melodramatic joke, or presume to be the real, riveting deal of an attractive Glendale hausfrau’s often-delusional drive for self-worth. Burwell chooses to play the latter emotions, with results in a score that’s as poetic as all of the artistic Depression-era trimmings onscreen, his music as delicate as the material is deliciously coarse.

There’s a lyrical pensiveness to Burwell’s best, understated scores like GODS AND MONSTERS, FUR and KINSEY, all movies about sexually unfulfilled, idiosyncratic characters making their way in a wounding world that just wants to keep them in their place. Ditto the beautifully brooding musical character he gives to Mildred’s main theme, the gentle melody of a piano and flute carrying a restless, striving quality on its strings. Burwell can have the heartfelt desperation of “Hungry and Harried,” the resignation of “Position Filled,” or feel the bird-like dawning of good sex in “Mounting Monty” (a definite winner for my favorite cue title of the year). But as Mildred make her climb to the top of the female empowerment food chain with her restaurants, Burwell’s understated approach always carries a lilting, feminine sympathy, urging us to feel for Mildred’s angst at having the worst daughter in the world in the conniving wannabe musical prodigy Veda. Her better sister half passes in the devastating, dirge like pianos and strings in “Ray Dies.” It’s a cue packed with the self-guilt and loss that’s every mother’s nightmare, helping to make for the most powerful scene in the miniseries, as well as a towering example of how less is more in Burwell’s work here.

Burwell continually avoids the conventionally obvious, keeping most of the score at a simmer instead of an orchestral bake. “Mildred’s Escape” from her n’er do well playboy is treated at first in near-Baroque fashion, her theme rising like a self-wagging finger at falling for the wrong guy, a dark piano chord the exclamation point. Most of Burwell’s score here is a derivation of this near-tragic melody, the kind of thematic glue that’s just the right thing for holding a miniseries together, with enough variation never to become boring for all of the music’s understatement.

But all roads to success undoubtedly lead to the big reckoning, which Burwell does with slithering intensity in “Blindsided,” the eerily pitched violins and Herrmann-esque rhythmic suspense socking across moral revulsion in a way that truly jangles the nerves. The score also makes its biggest shriek of moral orchestral outrage, with no small amount of quiet bitchy humor. Yet where the original PIERCE ended up with gunshots and a bitch’s comeuppance, this MILDRED has a far less dramatically satisfying ending, and one that’s far more interesting because of its indecisiveness. Haynes allows Burwell to ends the score on a note of sadness instead of a revenge, music that signals another long road ahead for a heroine who couldn’t see the noir forest from the trees. Where many scores tell you exactly what sort of judgment to make, MILDRED PIERCE’s power comes from the self-reflective intelligence of the music, melody that makes us question what it’s all supposed to mean along with our heroine.

As good as Burwell’s score is, one of the most important elements in socking over PIERCE’s period setting is its source tunes. Leave it to music supervisor Randall Poster to do an exceptional job of selecting from a wide spectrum of pop tunes and classical pieces that convey the good-time, smoke-filled jazz sexuality of the late 30’s with the classical elegance that Veda seems to aspire to as both pianist and opera singer. Having done equally brilliant work choosing the glam tunes of VELVET GOLDMINE and the raspy vocals of I’M NOT THERE’s multiple Bob Dylans for Haynes, Posters song picks (along with music consultants David Weyner and Evyen J. Klean) give a huge amount of lived-in authenticity to MILDRED PIERCE. And this generous 79 minute CD is peppered with them, starting with the original jazz swing of Glen Grey and The Casa Loma Orchestra. Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks bring new, brassy vibrancy to “One More Time” and “Easy To Love,” music so saucily played that you an practically smell the smoke, bootleg booze and nylon stockings. The ultimately empty fruits of Mildred’s labors get an apt musical metaphor with “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” a tune first employed with a vintage instrumental by Hal Kemp and the Carolina Club Orchestra, then given a brief operatic rendition by Sumi Jo, the lush orchestral backing the icing on the bittersweet cake.

The thoroughly nasty, if nonetheless tragic piece of work called Veda uses classical music as a path towards upward mobility, turning such piano standards as Chopin’s “Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor” and Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude” to embody her seething beauty (with Robin Freund-Epstein doing a very good job of letting her fingertips do the walking). Where Sumi Jo does an aria from Bellini, Veda’s stunningly high, and equally rare Coloratura voice gets a beautiful, glass shattering run for the money with Eri Klas’ stunning, eight-minute rendition of “The Bell Song” from Delibes’ “Lakme,” It’s the sacred in the service of the profane- part of the noir whole that makes MILDREN PIERCE a atmospherically stunning listen from score to song- hard-broiled irony as softly served with taste to spare.

Go with Mildred and Carter from Glendale to the big time here

1 Comment

  • May 11, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

    Oh I cannot wait to see this! Kate Winslet is always amazing, and Carter Burwell is one of my favourite film composers, so original, interesting and inspiring. Really looking forward to this miniseries :)

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