Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The beat goes on: Confess, Fletch

One would assume, given a soundtrack album laden with iconic classics by Horace Silver, Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon and many others, that this film score is saturated with jazz.

Well … not exactly. But more on that in a bit.


Beloved literary characters rarely get a second chance, if their debut leap to the big screen is sabotaged by arrogant studio execs catering to the whims of a Hot Star Of The Moment.


Consider author Lawrence Block’s gentleman cat burglar/detective, Bernie Rhodenbarr, who became Bernice when Whoopi Goldberg wound up starring in 1987’s absolutely dreadful Burglar. No surprise, Bernie’s subsequent adventures have remained within the safe confines of two covers.


Then there’s Chevy Chase, who initially seemed an ideal choice as Gregory McDonald’s rogue investigative journalist, Irwin Maurice Fletcher; in fairness, 1985’s Fletch was tolerable. But the deplorable 1989 sequel succumbed to Chase’s disguise-overkill vanity, and the character subsequently languished in development hell.


Until now.


Jon Hamm is spot-on as Fletch in this new film, radiating grizzled charm and just enough snark; his comic timing is well-suited to this amusing script’s many cheeky, insubordinate and downright smart-assed one-liners. 


The story opens in Rome, where Fletch has become engaged to the voluptuous Angela de Grassi (Lorenza Izzo), whose father has been kidnapped; the ransom demand is a Picasso from the Count’s famed art collection. Unfortunately, other parties unknown have stolen the entire collection, which leaves Angela frantic. 


She asks Fletch to liaise with an art broker in Boston, where the Picasso is rumored to have surfaced. He duly flies to Boston, arriving late in the evening; he walks into the apartment Angela has arranged for his stay … and discovers a dead woman in the living room.


Fletch duly calls the police, and finds himself in the cynical cross-hairs of Inspector Morris Monroe (Roy Wood Jr.) and his recently minted partner, Griz (Ayden Mayeri). The former, genuinely puzzled when Fletch stubbornly refuses to confess to what seems an obvious case of murder, nonetheless has no obvious evidence to hold his prime suspect. This leaves Fletch free to pursue the Picasso, while also trying to figure out who did kill the young woman.

Additional key characters include high-end art broker Ronald Horan (Kyle MacLachlan), who promises to suss out his contacts; Frank Jaffe (John Slattery), Fletch’s former newspaper editor; and Fletch’s soon-to-be mother-in-law, the Countess Sylvia de Grassi (Marcia Gay Harden).


The plot isn’t particularly deep, and the shortage of potential suspects makes the outcome fairly easy to anticipate. This is a case where the journey is more important — and entertaining — than the destination.

The score per se is by David Arnold, working with a sizeable jazz band … but he gets very little room to stretch. Director Greg Mottola is oddly parsimonious with music, limiting Arnold’s efforts to a handful of brief jazz vamps; the contributions from Horace Silver et al are equally fleeting, often present as barely audible source cues. Where’s the respect?


The title credits unspool against “Nessuno,” a jaunty bossa/jazz pop tune made famous by Italian-Swiss actress chanteuse Mina, in the 1960 film Urlatori alla sbarra, released in the States as Howlers of the Dock. (This tune isn’t included on the soundtrack album; more’s the pity.) A few bars of Trombone Shorty’s “Dirty Water” can just be heard a bit later, as background music while Fletch and Angela make love.


Arnold supplies an energetic little jazz vamp when Fletch, now in Monroe’s crosshairs, cleverly eludes a vehicular tail; and a second, similarly lively vamp when Fletch “borrows” a van for illicit purposes. Somewhat later, Vintage Trouble’s “Before the Tear Drops” can be heard (barely) when Fletch and Jaffe lament the good ol’ days of journalism, while sipping drinks in a bar.


The film’s best running gag is the way Fletch constantly evades Griz’s efforts to keep an eye on him; Astrud Gilberto and Walter Wanderley’s “Portuguese Washerwoman” backs Fletch’s cheeky use of the classic elevator dodge. Arnold supplies a cool horn cue, backed by swinging percussion, when Fletch follows Horan to a high-end outdoor party; the live music is supplied by The Hot Sardines, an animated New York City-based jazz sextet that rocks through “Let’s Go,” a tune from their 2014 album, Frolicking at the Playground.


Back in his apartment, a snatch of Chet Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost” is faintly heard in the background, as Fletch obtains information from a key police report. Silver’s “Señor Blues” is more audible a bit later, when Angela and her mother decide to cook dinner for the three of them; Chet Baker’s “Stella by Starlight” follows while they enjoy the meal.

Once the case is solved, Fletch’s final encounter with Griz is backed by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ “Moanin.” The screen goes dark for the end credits; Arnold and his orchestra finally get to deliver an uninterrupted 3:04 blast of big band swing. 


Where was that in the rest of the movie?

The Blue Note soundtrack album includes only three of Arnold’s cues; fortunately, one of them is the marvelous end credits swinger, titled “Picasso.” 

Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Beat Goes On: See How They Run

This film is a total hoot, and Daniel Pemberton’s fizzy score has much to do with the merriment.

Director Tom George’s mischievous period “whodunit within a whodunit” is a murder mystery thriller married to a character comedy; it’s also a valentine to Agatha Christie, and a cheeky send-up of theatrical storytelling conventions.


Mark Chappell’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek script misses no targets. This is the sort of romp where, if a character laments the “awkwardness” of flashbacks as a plot contrivance, you can bet that the next scene will be a flashback.


Most of the humor is slow-burn: witty, not farcical, in the uniquely British style.


“The performances are slightly dry, in the way the humor works,” Pemberton acknowledged, “and [the goal] was to find music that does that, as well.”1


He succeeded brilliantly. His score is a blend of swing jazz, Dixieland, eerie suspense cues and whimsical character themes. Pemberton employs inventive instrument mixes and orchestrations, with lots of banjo and (occasionally) what sounds like dripping water and bottles being gently struck. I’m reminded of Benoît Charest’s score for 2003’s The Triplets of Belleville, which is similarly playful.


“[I used] very mad percussion, with off-kilter beats,” Pemberton confirmed, “which added a nice, unusual texture.”2


The setting is early 1953, at West End London’s Theatre Royal, as the cast and crew of Christie’s new murder mystery play, The Mousetrap, celebrates its 100th performance. Essential details are supplied by an unseen narrator who, in a nod to 1950’s Sunset Blvd., speaks from beyond the grave.


The festivities are cut short both by the drunken antics of boorish, blacklisted American screenwriter Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody), and — a bit later — the distressing discovery that one of these folks has been murdered. For real.

Cue the arrival of world-weary Scotland Yard Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his eager-beaver rookie, Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan).


The suspects are introduced as the film opens, against a lengthy, swing-inflected cue with cool walking bass and sparkling piano filigrees: a whirlwind blast of music that runs almost six minutes (and is titled “A Lavish Affair” on the soundtrack album).


“[Tom and I] spent a lot of time on the opening,” Pemberton explained. “It’s a key moment; we have to tell so many stories. We introduce every character, and help the audience meet them all, and understand bits about them, and still enjoy the journey.”3


The cue concludes with a brilliant stroke. For most of its length, this is a non-diegetic orchestral cue … until we follow folks into the celebratory hall, at which point — without missing a beat — the cue becomes diegetic, played by a lively on-stage combo. 


The corpus delicti turns out to be none other than Köpernick, who — as flashbacks reveal — managed to irritate, annoy, belittle or blackmail just about everybody else. In true Christie fashion, there’s no shortage of suspects.


They include:


• Aristocratic theater impresario Petula “Choo” Spencer (Ruth Wilson), who has sheparded this play to the stage;


• Petula’s mother, Mignon (Ania Marson), a gourmand who says very little, but misses nothing;


• Film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), who hopes to turn this hit play into an equally popular big-screen movie;

• Ann Saville (Pippa Bennett Warner), Woolf’s personal secretary and mistress; 


• Edana Romney (Sian Clifford), Woolf’s wife, and a hobbyist clairvoyant;


• Pretentious, puffed-up playwright Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), who despises the way Köpernick — hired by Woolf to “Americanize” the material — is ruining his adaptation;


• Giovanni Bigotti (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), an Italian consort who speaks not a word of English, and is madly in love with Mervyn;


• Mildly pompous actor Richard “Dickie” Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), who stars as the play’s investigating Det. Sgt. Trotter;


• Fading actress Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), Dickie’s real-life wife, and co-star in the play; and


• Theater usher Dennis (Charlie Cooper), a tall, brooding fellow who stalks the aisles.


And, when this cheeky saga charges into its third act, we shift settings in order to meet Agatha Christie (Shirley Henderson), her husband Max (Lucian Msamati) and their somewhat sarcastic butler, Fellowes (Paul Chahidi).


Stoppard and Stalker are faced with quite a challenge, because motives aren’t lacking. The biggie, though, is an eyebrow lift: Christie’s contract stipulates that no film adaptation can be made until six months after the play’s theatrical run concludes. Ergo, Woolf can’t even think about making a movie unless this production of The Mousetrap were to, um, suddenly stop. For some reason.


(Believe it or not, this is true. The Mousetrap is by far the world’s longest-running stage play, having racked up 27,500 performances as of September 2018. Christie’s original contract contains that very clause … which is why it never has been turned into a movie.)


Most of the traditional jazz cues are heard in the film’s opening act. Stoppard and Stalker begin their clue-sleuthing against what sounds like a drunken military march with a heavy beat (“Investigation Day 1,” and an appropriate touch, since the inspector does drink too much). When that habit and Stoppard’s slovenly appearance earn a dressing down from his boss, Pemberton supplies whimsical banjo jazz against heartbeat percussion (“Commissioner, Inspector, Constable”).

Terrific walking bass and thoughtful drumming cue Stoppard and Stalker’s realization that some of their suspects are being less than truthful (“Tell a Lie”). And when they wind up hot on the trail — of something — the intensity mounts against increasingly frantic percussion, eerie bass licks, and what sounds like a bottle being struck by a small metal rod (“Keep Your Eyes Peeled”).


From that point forward, the traditional jazz elements diminish in favor of sinister suspense cues and bolder orchestral flourishes.


“As the film goes on, the story gets bigger,” Pemberton confirmed, “and the music gets bigger.”4


And if the score as a whole sounds as if it might have been lifted from the 1950s, that isn’t accidental. 

“On the one hand, the score feels really familiar,” George confirmed, “like those films of that period, but at the same time something’s niggling at you, because it’s not quite like that; something’s a bit off … which is the whole tone of the film.”5


Pemberton’s score superbly complements and amplifies all on-screen activity, which adds greatly to the wink-wink-nudge-nudge tone that George delivers so effectively. Watching this film is fun, just as the music — even as an isolated listening experience — raises a smile, and likely prompts some means of echoing the beat.


“The difficulty was making these cues feel very simple,” Pemberton concluded, “when actually there’s something very complex going on. 


“And if you’re tapping your foot, that means you’re happy!”6




1. Scottish radio DJ and television presenter Edith Bowman’s Soundtracking podcast interview with Tom George and Daniel Pemberton, September 13, 2022:


2. Ibid


3. Ibid


4. Ibid


5. Ibid

6. Ibid 

Saturday, April 2, 2022

The beat goes on: The Duke

On the very early morning of August 21, 1961, somebody broke into London’s National Gallery and stole Francisco Goya’s painting, “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington.” The carefully calculated crime baffled police investigators, who assumed that the caper must have been masterminded by a professional gang of experienced and well-funded Italian art thieves.

Four years later, the painting was returned by 61-year-old Kempton Bunton, a disabled pensioner who subsequently confessed to the crime.


That was wild enough … but what happened at Bunton’s subsequent trial was so audacious, that it prompted an amendment of British law.


Director Roger Michell’s engaging depiction of these astonishing events, a cheeky slice of gentle British whimsy, is fueled by endearing performances from Jim Broadbent and Helen Mirren, as Kempton and his wife, Dorothy. Michell, cinematographer Mike Eley and editor Kristina Hetherington emphasize a retro look, atmosphere and pacing, strongly evoking the sense that their film could have been made during the early 1960s. Screenwriters Richard Bean and Clive Coleman compress the time frame, but otherwise present the saga pretty much as it actually went down. George Fenton’s score is a vibrant blend of swinging, big band dance hall jazz — the title theme and several interior cues — and softer, piano-driven melodies for somber moments.


(For unknown reasons, this 2020 film languished for a year and a half before reaching our side of the pond; it’ll finally achieve U.S. theatrical release later this month.)


Kempton, a taxi driver and frustrated playwright, has long been annoyed by the BBC’s television license fee. His sad efforts to stoke public awareness with a home-grown campaign — “Free TV for the OAP (Old Age Pensioners)” — has gone nowhere; indeed, he has been imprisoned several times, for non-payment of the license fee. When a wealthy American art collector purchases Goya’s painting, intending to take it to the United States, the scandalized British government buys it back for the same sum of £140,000. Kempton, outraged, grouses that the such a sum could have provided free television to thousands of OAPs. Shortly after he learns that the National Gallery’s sophisticated alarm system is deactivated during early mornings, so the cleaning crew can work, the painting winds up in the Buntons’ Newcastle flat. He and younger son Jackie (Fionn Whitehead) cleverly conceal it by constructing a false back to a bedroom wardrobe.


Although ostensibly concerned with the stolen painting, Bean and Coleman’s script focuses equally on the broken relationship between Kempton and Dorothy. Their mutual devotion — although visible — is mostly buried beneath frustration and anguish: the latter prompted by the untimely death, a few years earlier, of their 18-year-old daughter Marian.

Time passes; circumstances eventually force Kempton to return the painting. The story then takes an astonishing turn during its third act, with Matthew Goode making the most of his choice role as Kempton’s wily barrister, Jeremy Hutchinson QC. 


“Working on the film,” Fenton recalls, in the soundtrack album liner notes, “I frequently thought, ‘There aren’t enough Kempton Buntons around now.’ I tried to reflect the wonderful eccentricity of the man, against the backdrop of 1960s Britain. It feels like an era of comparative simplicity and innocence, [but] the story is shot through with regrets about things unresolved.”


Fenton’s bouncy main theme opens against title credits that swoosh in and out, via Eley’s captivating split-screen work, against images of Kempton typing away at his latest would-be theatrical opus. Drummer Ian Thomas and bassist Chris Laurence establish a saucy beat, while unison horns introduce the theme’s primary 1-4-1-4-2-2-1-1-1 motif, with pianist Simon Chamberlain supplying tasty filigrees; the bridge is punctuated by a feisty trumpet solo, after which the core motif repeats when Kempton, manuscript in hand, saunters away to the post office, as Fenton brings the tune to a climactic close.


The mood is more dour when Jackie collects his father, after the latter’s 13-day stretch at Durham Prison, for failure to pay the TV license fee. A slow two-beat backs Howard McGill’s quietly lyrical clarinet melody, while Jackie and Kempton motorcycle to the cemetery where Marian is buried. 

“At that point, with his campaigning — and he also knows it — he’s a failure,” Fenton explains. “So there is a kind of trudging plonk plonk with the brass there … I thought it would give the feel of ‘this useless man from Newcastle’ … with a 1960s feel.”1


Fenton’s theme for Marian, repeated during Dorothy’s most anguished moments, is a sweet, soft melody on piano and Laurence’s gentle bass. A bit later, after Kempton is rebuffed while trying to have his plays seen by somebody at the BBC, the pensive two-beat returns — this time behind a thoughtful trumpet and sax melody — as he spots a newspaper article extolling the National Gallery’s display of the Goya painting.


Cut to nighttime: The two-beat and clarinet follow a gallery guard, making his rounds; the clarinet is joined by a solo trumpet, as a shadowy figure leans a ladder against the building exterior, then climbs up and enters via an unlocked second-floor bathroom window. The figure plods (not at all stealthily) through an interior gallery; the theme intensifies via additional horns, building to a softly mysterious climax as the Goya is confronted … and then Fenton abruptly cuts to lively big band swing, as the painting’s theft is reported the following morning, and police field questions from a battery of reporters.


Time passes; an unexpected development — notably elder son Kenny’s greedy girlfriend Pamela, who has discovered the painting — forces Kempton to return it to the gallery. He mounts the interior steps to the second floor, accompanied by a mournful horn backed by a quasi-regimental drum beat, and hands the wrapped package to a startled guard. Needless to say, Kempton’s arrest is immediate. Dorothy is surprised enough by this; her shock mounts further when Jackie confesses that he’s the one who actually stole the painting (!). Fenton supplies another cheeky “skulking theme” as Jackie recounts the details of his amateur heist; the cue’s intensity builds, with horns adding color, when he removes the Goya from the gallery wall.

Kempton’s subsequent trial proceeds without music; Dorothy’s visits to his cell, in between court appearances, suggest emotional rapprochement (again, without music).


The film concludes as Kempton and Dorothy, reunited and much happier, take in the first James Bond film, Dr. No. Michell focuses on their smiling faces, and then the screen fades to black against soft solo piano, as a text block informs us that “Free television licences were eventually introduced in 2000 for the over 75s.” (Alas, by then Kempton had been dead for a quarter-century.) A drum roll kicks off an extended reprise of the lively jump jazz title theme, as the primary end credits slide across the screen from all directions; saucy solos on trumpet, vibes, sax and clarinet lead to a full-band flourish when the final credits vanish at the top of the screen. (Congrats to young Austin Haynes, cited for his role as “Scruffy Little Boy.”)


The 2021 Quartet soundtrack album includes another variation of this vivacious main theme — “Kempton’s Place” — highlighted by equally sparkling solos on piano, clarinet, sax and vibes. It apparently wasn’t used in the film.




Michell’s feature choice, when Kempton and Dorothy take in that movie, is a deliberate wink of the pop-culture eye. 

Dr. No debuted in the UK on October 5, 1962. When Bond and Honey Ryder are taken to Dr. No’s lair, and invited to join him for supper, Connery pauses at the foot of the dining area, and does a slow take as he spots the Goya painting among their host’s art treasures.

(As Bond production designer Ken Adam later recalled, in a 2005 interview for The Guardian, “We thought it would be fun for [Dr. No] to have some stolen art, so we used Goya’s ‘Portrait of the Duke of Wellington,’ which was missing at the time. I got hold of a slide from the National Gallery — this was on the Friday, shooting began on the Monday — and I painted a Goya over the weekend.”)


At the time, British viewers would have been delighted (or perhaps appalled); they certainly would have gotten the joke … which probably cannot be said of those coming to Dr. No all these decades later. We’ve now been reminded anew: the cherry on top of a thoroughly charming big-screen confection.



1. George Fenton, quoted by Sebastian Scotney, in an interview for London Jazz News published on February 21, 2022. 

Monday, March 7, 2022

From the cutting-room floor: The Lost Man

This was a tough call.

The story certainly is ideal; this is a brooding crime drama in the classic all-will-not-go-well mold. But “brooding” also is an apt description of the bulk of Quincy Jones’ score: far more orchestral gloom than actual jazz cues. On top of which, the minimal jazz elements are further obscured by the numerous gospel and R&B tunes that director Robert Alan Arthur seems to favor over Jones’ contributions. Reluctant as I was, to discard a Quincy Jones score, at the end of the day there simply wasn’t enough jazz to justify inclusion.




Time hasn’t been kind to 1969’s The Lost Man, which at this point is almost a lost movie (and an equally lost soundtrack album). The plot is a quaint relic of the late 1960s rise of Black militant groups, with star Sidney Poitier’s character displaying a level of calm nobility that seems out of place, given the era’s combustible national mood. Director Robert Alan Arthur’s script is a disguised remake of British author Frederick Laurence Green’s 1945 novel, Odd Man Out — adapted to the big screen in 1947, starring James Mason — with the then-contemporary Black militants standing in for that book’s focus on Northern Ireland’s WWII-era unrest.


Poitier stars as Jason Higgs, a lieutenant in a well-organized — but never identified — group of Black militants operating from the slums of an average American big city. Needing funds to help the families of imprisoned group members, Higgs leads a payroll heist that goes horribly wrong; he’s wounded while fleeing with the money, and — worse yet — kills somebody in the process. Higgs’ three confederates don’t last long on the run, but he briefly stays ahead of a massive police hunt, thanks to Cathy Ellis (Joanna Shimkus), a liberal social worker who has fallen in love with him. But the net tightens quickly, leading to a bleak conclusion lifted directly from Green’s novel.


By this point in their respective careers, Poitier and composer Quincy Jones had become a highly successful team; The Lost Man was the fourth of their seven big-screen collaborations, following (among others) In the Heat of the Night, and prior to that film’s sequel, They Call Me Mister Tibbs

Jones augmented the studio orchestra with jazz cats such as Bud Shank (reeds), Arthur Adams (guitar), Ray Brown and Carol Kaye (acoustic double bass), and Emil Richards (percussion). Given the inner city setting, and the importance that some of the characters place on church activities, Jones laced the score with numerous gospel numbers that he co-wrote with lyricists Dick Cooper and Ernie Shelby. The funk-laden title song is one such example: The film’s credits appear behind a grim montage of big-city slum life, while Jones’ catchy, percussive theme is augmented by whistles, vocal shadings and the voices of The Kids from PASLA. Their cheerful lyrics gradually are overpowered by rising horns and strings, anticipating the dangerous heist that is about to unfold.


Once the plan is set in motion, Higgs and his confederates exit their decaying tenement headquarters; Jones inserts an anticipatory cue that mimics footsteps before developing into a throbbing groove — ba-bum ... ba-bum ... ba-bum — given additional intensity with the insertion of bass, guitar and electric keyboard licks. (A variation of this tense, expectant cue repeats later, when the cops close in on two of Higgs’ associates.) The doomed heist kicks off to a similar percussive cue, which also introduces the film’s primary action theme: a tense, 2-2-2-3 horn motif backed by wicked bass licks. The cue initially sounds expectant, given Higgs’ careful planning, but the musical mood shatters as everything goes wrong. Moving forward, Jones’ occasional references to this theme reprise in slower, grimmer arrangements.


On a gentler note, Jones contributes a lovely, minor key lament — the melody taken by woodwinds, with soft piano comping — that is heard each time Higgs and Cathy share a quiet moment. Before the crime goes down, the cue’s mood is playful and exploratory, reflecting Cathy’s barely concealed wish that she and Higgs could become an item. Much later, once Higgs is on the run, Jones gives this love theme bleaker instrumentation: This final moment of intimacy will, indeed, be their last.


The various source cues include the reverential “He’ll Wash You Whiter Than Snow,” performed by a church choir that Higgs hears, in passing; and the R&B-hued “Try, Try, Try,” which emanates from a pier side restaurant/bar dubbed The Swingin’ Lighthouse. When two of Higgs’ confederates try to hide in a brothel, they party with the girls as a pair of saucy R&B tunes — “Sweet Soul Sister” and “Rap, Run It On Down” — play on a phonograph. (Alas, they’re betrayed by the brothel madam, who immediately calls the cops.)

Perhaps because of these gospel and R&B songs, Jones’ soundtrack earned LP release on the UNI Records label. UNI also released the title tune and one instrumental track — “Main Squeeze” — as a 45 single. Unfortunately, the album is dominated by those vocals; Jones’ instrumental underscore rates only four tracks. They’re excellent cues, but represent only a small portion of the thematic complexity that Jones wove into the entire score. The album finally was digitized for inclusion in Decca’s six-disc The Cinema of Quincy Jones box set, released in France in 2016.