Music In Pictures – Sundance 2009

It’s unseasonably warm this, the 10 year anniversary of Film Music Magazine’s coverage of the globe’s most prestigious film festival, Sundance – virtually no snow, what? – unheard-of! – can’t recall a Sundance absent the sub-zero chill of winter-white – for those not previously immersed in “festival-frenzy,“ veterans can attest to an inverse relationship between the skin-numbing temperature outside and the white-hot heat in theaters as previously unknown music talent (composers, musicians, bands, producers, music supervisors) strike audience lightning-in-a-bottle – but we digress – lol.
So much has changed for both Sundance and Film Music Magazine. The festival has evolved into its inevitable gynormous behemoth that so many prescient industry avatars predicted – what with never-before-witnessed undeniable applying and selected talent, the fleeing mimic-fests (X-dance, No Dance, Porn Dance, Golden Trailer, etc.), ratcheted-up official festival corporate sponsors as well as countless “party-crasher“ companies who always “squat” space for the week on Main Street, and finally the cumulative consequence of so many freewheeling moving parts – the longest admittance lines on record, unwieldy congested Park City streets, and, for the purposes of Film Music Magazine, arguably, some of the world’s finest filmmaker/composer/music supervisor collaborations.
Let’s splay ’n play around the mountain and see what orchestrates harmonic convergence.
Hey, dudely, look! Ain’t gonna get into Eccles anytime soon this year – due to aforementioned “Gigantor-level” attendance, they’ve erected one of those just-add-water “poles ’n rolls wedding tents” adjacent to the entrance, and we’re told by the Herculean volunteer staff that “most of those shiverin’ peeps ain’t gonna get in.” It appears the tent crowd exceeds Eccles capacity, and the high school auditorium – yes, Eccles screenings are in the school auditorium – but it’s a really nice one, as school gathering-yards go – appears already at capacity. So —
— to the Batcave! Er, uh — to the Short Films – (INSIDER SPOILER ALERT) – we can always access admission into the Shorts, which rocks! ‘cause annually, the Short Program never ceases to deliver on the synergizing filmmaker/composer/music supervisor conceit magic.
Sundance ‘09 was a remarkable year for picture music. Louie Psihoyos’ “making-of-a-making-of” non-fiction picture “The Cove” won this year’s prestigious Audience Award presented by Honda for U.S. Documentary.
The score was crafted by New York phenom J. Ralph – himself, an inspired former J.D. Salinger-like rascal recluse New Yorker, untrained and unable to read or write a musical note, once heralded by MTV as the “next big deal.” His prior scores were for such notable projects as the Academy Award-winning documentary, “Man On A Wire” and Bruce Willis/Morgan Freeman-starrer, “Lucky Number Slevin.”
First-time filmmaker (former Executive Director of the Oceanic Preservation Society and Hunter “Gonzo” S. Thompson disciple), Mr. Psihoyos reflects that composer J. Ralph “had this vision to have an Armenian flute player come in, who played this 3,000 year old instrument called a Duduk. (also featured in the picture, “Gladiator“) And the instrument sounded like the soul of the universe, like if the earth had a voice, this is what it would sound like.”
The soloist is non other than the world‘s “de facto”woodwind maestro, Venezuelan Pedro Eustache (www.Pedro flute.com), whose prior soundtrack work includes “The Passion Of The Christ” and “Pirates Of The Caribbean 3: At World’s End,” “Rendition,” and “Tropic Thunder.”
Mr. Psihoyos continues, “Pedro improvised without written music, he’d riff just by watching the video, and the sounds he produced just cut straight through you. The audience feels it too – I stepped into a Sundance screening here and saw audience members crying as the music played. As a filmmaker, you hope that your heartstrings will be pulled, and there was a direct line from Pedro’s flute to people’s hearts. The sound and soundtrack to me is as important as the picture, so for me, sound and music is the most immediate shot into the hearts and minds of the viewer.”
“Whenever the duduk flute comes through, it’s like this haunting, soulful, melancholy sound but in the end, we used it to create a very hopeful result – at the end of our screenings, people were literally cheering.”
In reference to collaborating with J. Ralph, Mr. Psihoyos notes, “Like everybody, we’d dropped in temp music from other films, then Josh (J. Ralph) came in and said, ’it’s all wrong’ and abandoned a lot of musical cues, I’m glad he did because he introduced a voice that gave the ocean a voice. You know, the ocean is dying by human hand, and the music thankfully reflects that.”
Next – honestly, I don’t even know where to begin with covering the music for also first-time filmmaker David Russo‘s “The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle.” Mr. Russo, a former office janitor, who apparently drew on his 11 years of janitorial service – “which nearly killed him” – to develop this hard-to-describe, introverted, hallucinogenic symphony of sound design and original music.
Mr. Russo collaborated with also Seattle-based, first-time film score band, Awesome, who Producer Peggy Case describes “had no prior experience scoring for film – they were just a local band, really – and would just send in random songs and sounds they composed while riding around in cars after watching rough cuts of the film.”
Co-Producer Lance Rosen adds, “I’ve never experienced anything like this – usually producers hire a composer, who works off the filmmaker’s temp track and finalizes a final score. This film was made entirely differently. This filmmaker insisted on working just with this band and we, as producers, were reticent but the final result is truly inspiring.”
Co-Executive Producer, May McCarthy elaborates on the adventure vibe of the main character, “Dory,” played by actor Marshall Allman (“Hostage,” “CSI,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Mad Men”), “The protagonist, Dory loses his job at a data-management firm, and can only find a job as a janitor. So he descends into this world of odd balls and meth addicts, so the music really drives the plot of that world along as well as the comedy – it’s the most unusual plot you’ve ever seen! The filmmaker, David uses these incredible stop-motion animation scenes to create some of the most amazing visual experiences during the characters‘ hallucinogenic birthing-trips.”
Mr. Rosen attempts to describe the almost-indescribable plot logline with, “ the quirky musical collaboration really facilitated that the film is – it’s a combination of low-brow toilet humor and very high-brow philosophical, spiritual stuff – the transformative impact of birth, as one of the twists is that a corrupt corporate firm has developed chemicals that result in men being able to give birth.”
Mr. Rosen’s celebratory closing states, “We were thrilled that literally within 15 minutes of our debut screening, we sold Australia and New Zealand territory.” (The producers also wish Film Music Magazine’s Editor-In-Chief, Mark Northam “hey, to Down Under,” as Mr. Northam currently resides in Australia).
Lastly, we close with Best Short Film Jury Prize, “Short Term 12,” directed by Destin Daniel Cretton – a former bass player in a punk rock band, who describes the music’s creative evolution for the picture with, “originally, we weren’t going to have a score because it’s a very raw portrayal of life inside an adolescent residential mental health facility. We thought maybe music would distract from the gritty, real of the thing, like a documentary. But then, throughout the writing process, the opening shot is this kid attempting to learn to play the ukulele – I grew up on Maui, and it’s pronounced, “u-ku-le-le,” not “you-ku-le-le” – and he turns out to be playing the film’s theme, then bashes and destroys the instrument on a wall.”
Mr. Cretton studied the ukulele in school and wrote the picture’s score on the instrument. He chuckles and humbly adds, “it’s very simple – I’m no maestro on the instrument, by any means. Choosing where to put the music was very deliberate. I didn’t want the music to be telling the audience how to feel about a situation or character. But I did choose certain sections which take you through the beginning melody, one middle part to lighten up and relax – reflect on what they’ve seen so far – and the closing montage.”

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