“The Artist” Formerly Known as Ludovic

Ok, so I lied. Three days later isn’t exactly the same as tomorrow. I’d like to make the excuse that I got sidetracked from my blog because I have a busy life doing busy important things… But we all know better than that, don’t we? You’ve seen how long my blog posts are. Clearly that’s an indication that I have too much free time on my hands.

The truth is that I’ve been working on a little side project for the last few days. It kind of popped up out of nowhere and swallowed all of my time. I was so absorbed I forgot to eat on Monday. It wasn’t until late-afternoon that I thought to myself “Maybe the reason I’m feeling so weird and shaky is that I haven’t eaten anything since six in the evening yesterday.”

But I’ve surgically extracted myself from my unimportant but nonetheless very engrossing side project, using the time-honored technique of freaking the hell out about all of the things that I was supposed to have done instead. And now, having done enough of those things to get my heart-rate back out of the hummingbird range, I can get back to important unimportant things, like my blog, instead of the unimportant unimportant ones.

Anyway, this past Friday night I saw the movie The Artist. It was a pretty unusual occurrence for me. For someone as deeply invested in the cinematic arts as I am, I really don’t go out to the movies very often. But that’s mostly because I’m poor. I don’t have a job, a massive savings account, a trust fund, or a winning lottery ticket. So I don’t like to shell out the price of a meal for three to see a movie along with 70 people I don’t know. But this time it was on someone else’s tab, so I was happy to go.

Watching The Artist was a strange and intriguing experience. For one thing, I’d been awake for about 32 hours straight (for some very complicated reasons that mostly boil down to “I’m stupid”), so everything was taking on a slightly surreal quality. But even without the fun sensory enhancements that sleep-deprivation provides, the movie itself was fascinating. For those who don’t know, The Artist is a silent black-and-white film, made too look like it was filmed in the early 1930’s, but with way better production values. Also, although much of it takes place during the Great Depression, everyone looks surprisingly happy, well-fed, and employed (I’m a little jealous). But I digress.

The story is pleasant enough, if not fantastic. It’s a romance and drama thing, with a fair amount of comedy as well. It’s charming, funny, and enjoyable. The two romantic leads were actually pretty generic, in my opinion, but some of the side characters were great. The movie was worth it just for John Goodman’s obscenely over-dramatic and silly facial expressions. Also, the main character’s butler was played by James Cromwell, who – in my mind anyway – will never stop being the farmer from Babe.  When you’ve been awake as long as I had, things like that seem a lot more entertaining than they otherwise would be.

But the real star of the show is the fabulous orchestral score by the mostly unknown French film composer Ludovic Bource. Many film experts say that a good film score is as much of a character in the story as any of the protagonists are (emphasis on a good score – a crappy one is mostly just a detriment, and a lukewarm one isn’t even noticed). And in a silent film, the score could almost be considered the main character. It has more screentime than anyone else does, and it’s the only thing you hear for the entire duration. No dialogue, no sound effects. Everything must be conveyed by the music. It’s an opportunity for a film composer to really go all-out and do something special.

And Ludovic Bource certainly did so. What’s more impressive is that almost no one in the film music community knew who the hell he was until this film came out. He was more or less a nobody. Now he’s up for an Oscar against (among other things) not one but two highly rated scores by John Williams, and there’s a good chance that he’s going to win. His score already won in both the BAFTA’s and the Golden Globes (but really, does anyone actually watch the Golden Globes?). It’s the sort of jump from moderate “pays-the-bills” success to relative superstardom that film composers dream of. A-List film composers James Horner and David Arnold both first appeared on the scene with similarly unexpected and career-changing scores (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Stargate, respectively).

The score to The Artist is a perfect and artful imitation of the style of film music that dominated Hollywood back in the early days of film (known in “the biz” as the Golden Age). It’s lush, beautiful, romantic, dramatic, and sounds like it was written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. While music in a style that was already a little old-fashioned back in the 1930’s may seem like an odd thing to be a crowd-pleaser in 2012, the truth is that this style of music never gets old. Hollywood film scoring was founded on the music of the early 20th century Post-Romantic composers, and to the average American that music always sounds like it belongs in a movie.

I strongly recommend this score to anyone, but especially to people who are new to the world of real film music. It’s extremely accessible and user-friendly. It’s the sort of music for which you couldn’t really imagine a situation where someone would say “What is this crap? Turn that down!” It’s just really enjoyable, beautiful, and expressive music. And I’m pretty sure that it’s going to win Ludovic Bource an Oscar.

I’m not sure if I want him to win or not. Everyone likes to root for the underdog, especially when the underdog is actually quite good, instead of just being cool because they’re unknown (hipster logic shouldn’t apply to the Oscars, but sadly, it sometimes does). It would be great to see a new composer of his caliber on the scene getting lots of high-profile films. And since the Oscar winning score often influences the next couple years of directorial choices for film scores, it would be nice to see a winner who knows more music theory than an 8-year-old (I’m looking at you, Trent Reznor). I’m always in favor of anything that pushes the film score industry in the direction of classically-trained musicians, and away from synthetic loops that you could probably create with GarageBand.

But on the other hand, I’m a full-blooded, dyed-in-the-wool, [insert cliche here], John Williams fan. He’s my favorite film composer, and for about fourteen different reasons I think he’s also the best one. I will be a John Williams fan until the day I die. Which will hopefully be long after the day he dies, since he just turned 80 a few days ago. And that’s kind of my point. Williams had sort of retired after 2005 (which was an amazing year for him). This year he came back on the scene with a Spielberg/Williams one-two punch of War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin: Something About Unicorns, I Don’t Know, It’s a Very Silly Title. And while I’m probably the only person who would be willing to give John Williams an Oscar simply for returning to active duty and bitch-slapping Trent Reznor and Media Ventures back to kindergarten, War Horse and Tintin happen to have extremely good film scores.

I can just imagine Williams coming back to Hollywood after nearly 7 years away. “What the hell, guys? I leave you alone for a little while and you give Academy Awards to the scores from Babel, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Social Network? Are you guys actually listening to any of these scores, or have you just given up on quality and resigned yourself to giving the award for purely political reasons? Seriously, when did ‘Best Original Score’ become the Nobel Peace Prize of the Oscars?” I’m sure Williams would be a lot more polite, but it’s just so goddamned refreshing to once again hear new film scores that sound like they were written by a professional composer and not an overpaid rockstar. Williams won’t take Hollywood to town for rewarding lackluster efforts, so I’ll do it on his behalf.

Nevertheless, Bource’s score to The Artist is probably going to win. Ironically, it will probably win because both the composer and the music are “new and exciting,” even though the score is an almost perfect example of a style of music that’s over 100 years old. War Horse and Tintin are excellent examples of modern composition techniques applied tastefully and creatively to a film score. Tintin in particular is more creative and original than most new scores I’ve heard in a while. And it accomplishes this without sacrificing quality and technique for the sake of simply being “original.”

I really do love Bource’s score to The Artist. It’s fantastic, it’s great, it’s beautiful, it’s engaging… I just wish he’d written it last year instead, so it could have kicked the crap out of The Social Network (can you tell that I really don’t like that score?) instead of Oscar-blocking John Williams during what will probably be, unfortunately, one of the last years that he’ll be in the game. Still, I offer a preemptive congratulations to Ludovic Bource. May you have a fantastic career and write many high-profile scores, make lots of money, and improve the overall quality of the music the industry produces. Best of luck on your Hollywood adventures.

As for John Williams, he’s scoring the Spielberg-directed biopic Lincoln next year, and if a John Williams score to a Spielberg film about a famous and tragic historical figure can’t win an Oscar, then I don’t know if I can feel certain about anything anymore.

Damn, I am SUCH a fanboy.

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2 Responses to “The Artist” Formerly Known as Ludovic

  1. harvey says:

    I haven’t yet seen “The artist,” or either of the two films that John Williams scored this past year, although I’ve heard good things about all of them. So I won’t make any comments about the scores, however uninformed those comments might be. However, I take issue with your indelible labeling of James Cromwell as the farmer in “Babe.” To me, although I’ve seen him in several other noteworthy movies, he’ll always be the President in “The sum of all fears,” a movie you’ve probably seen as often as I have. It’s a generational thing.

  2. joespiro says:

    True. “The Sum of All Fears” would be my second choice, and it’s certainly the better and more interesting role. But the farmer always pops into my mind first.

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