What Is This Miracle Called Movie Music?
One 'Infamous' song in one hour
What would you do if asked by a well-known film director to re-create a musical scene for which the fate of the whole project hinges? How about hiring and rehearsing a band, working out a musical arrangement long distance, then booking the recording date at a studio you've never even heard of while not being able to tell anyone who's on the session? How about setting up said recording session with a vocalist you've never heard sing, with no chance of rehearsal, and no one to tell you what key she likes to sing in? That's precisely where I found myself the first week of January 2005.
I'd been asked to come aboard an independent film production that had recently relocated to Austin. Anne Walker-McBay, the preeminent local producer I'd worked with several years before on Richard Linklater's The Newton Boys, called me up out of the blue one day to ask if I could help with the music for a movie she'd just joined. Douglas McGrath was making a biopic of writer Truman Capote and the backstory behind the writing of his breakthrough novel, In Cold Blood.
McGrath, she explained, is a much respected director/actor, who got his start writing for Saturday Night Live in its early days, and is a member of Woody Allen's stable of actors. His low-budget production had run into trouble in New Mexico, and now came word that a rival studio had a movie in production with the very same storyline, rushing to wrap up. (Capote eventually won Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar.) Less than 16 hours later, there I was, being ushered into a converted warehouse in downtown Austin to take a meeting with the convivial director and his producers.
After the usual how-do-you-do's and sundry pleasantries, the lanky director kicks back in his armchair and launches dramatically into what he envisions for the film's opening scene, an event that never actually happened. On a boom box in the corner, he plays for me a fine recording of the George Shearing Quintet backing Peggy Lee. Over the music, he recounts seeing a singer in a cabaret perform a particularly melancholy tune, filled with lyrics of love gone cold.
Somewhere in the interpretation, however, she found a deeply personal connection to the lyrics, and, suddenly overwhelmed, broke down midsong. Her band train wrecks, as they say in the business, that awkward moment when the musicians fall off a tune's flow, and though attempting to recover, they finally gave in to silence. After a few moments of reflection, the singer regained her composure, and with four snaps of her fingers, led the band to the song's triumphant close. It was a heavy bit of pathos played out in public that evidently never left McGrath's mind.
For his film Infamous McGrath wanted to re-create this scene, only with Peggy Lee as the singer, "What Is This Thing Called Love?" the song, and George Shearing's 1959 quintet the band, playing live at the fabled El Mocombo Lounge.
"It foreshadows all of what the rest of the film will be," enthuses the director. "It's really the most important part of the project. Can you do that for me?" he asks leaning across the table that separates us.
Amazingly, I hear myself say, "Sure. I think I can make that happen," while my inner voice is screaming, "Are you nuts?" Most musicians have likely experienced the dreaded "train wreck" onstage and the awkward and clumsy attempts at getting a tune back on track in front of a confused audience. Sure we know how it sounds when it goes wrong live, but how do you create that in the studio without sounding scripted or contrived? Even after getting the performance on tape, it will have to be pantomimed by the actors on a sound stage months later, so there needs to be some structure so the actors can give a convincing performance on camera.
After many long-distance phone consultations with my musical gurus, the only sensible plan is the boldest: Set up a band with a singer in the studio and play it live like an actual club date. The only difference is that the director will be there, literally directing the music along with the singer's performance. Rather than write out and rehearse a musical performance, we'll "act" one out in the studio. "Anything else will sound corny," says one of my masters, and I could see he was right. To make matters more precarious, the role of Peggy Lee is being played by Gwyneth Paltrow.
Of course she's a movie star and thus won't be able to rehearse with the band beforehand, plus I'm not even allowed to tell the musicians (or anyone actually) who they're working with. Worse, Ms. Paltrow's "people" can't tell me what key she prefers to sing in, and, oh by the way, I'll have four hours of her time on one day in New York to get it done. We either get it right the first time or we don't get it at all.
Preproduction is the key. If the dominoes are all lined up, then we're golden. If even one little thing screws up, we're toast, with my personal reputation ruined, an unhappy film star, and a very disappointed director. Hubris goes before the fall, so I better damn well have my ducks well in a row prior to the green light going on. I still can't believe I said I could do this.
The film production company locates a studio in NYC, Masque Sound, and though much smaller than the rooms we have down in Texas, it proves much more than adequate. The house engineer is knowledgeable, easy going, and enthusiastic, even when I can't tell him who's on the session. He reckons something is afoot, however, when I find out at the last minute that the studio has no private bathroom they share one with the whole floor. I inform him, cryptically, that we must arrange for a female staff member to run "potty patrol," actually guarding the women's bathroom should our singer need to use it. (No lie, I got a memo on this.) The engineer asks no questions and makes the proper arrangements.
Through my old friend and sometime bandleader Frank London of the Klezmatics, I've secured a pianist and drummer. Rob Schwimmer is a keyboardist and thereminist of great renown, late of the Simon & Garfunkel tour. Drummer Aaron Alexander is a fine percussionist and composer in his own right, with whom I've logged many tour miles all over Europe, and points East as a member of London's Klezmer Brass All-Stars. Both men are staggeringly talented and, most importantly, intuitive musicians of the first stripe. For my part, I'll play bass and "produce." I've also prepared and distributed lead sheets and charts in five different keys hoping at least one will be the right one for Ms. Paltrow. Finally, vis-ã-vis my meetings with the director, I've come to the party having formed the outline of a basic arrangement.
With a phone call a few days before, the fine folks from David Gage's bass shop have reserved me a bass with my favorite strings and set up. Every facet I can control, I have, to the extent one can. LBJ, a personal role model, was fond of saying, "Any goal is achievable by definition. All you have to do is everything you have to do." All we have to do now is wait for recording day and do it.
It's a cold January morning in the Big Apple, and I'm supposed to be at the studio early, having flown in from hot Texas the night before. It's the first time I've ever flown first class, and I'm shocked at how nice air travel is when they treat you like a person and not a head of cattle. With great irony I note that I would have preferred sitting in coach and making a mortgage payment with the airfare balance, but never mind. I'm put up in a swanky hotel just a block away from the studio. I grab a slice and a Voice in Times Square, flop down in the hotel bed, and sleep the sleep of the dead.
The next day, Schwimmer and Alexander arrive promptly at 11am and begin setting up in the studio. The rental bass is there already, a wonderful, 80-year-old Czech viol that sounds like butter. As the first coffee takes effect, we trade pleasantries and warm up on our respective instruments. Eventually I spill the beans about who we're recording with today. Consummate pros that they are, they're completely unfazed. As the engineer sets up microphones and gets sound levels, we musicians try running through the tune in three or four keys.
Together we form a happening little arrangement, working hard to keep our swing firmly in George Shearing's signature style. By the time we feel solid, the engineer has all the sounds we'll need. Ms. Paltrow shows up right at the appointed hour. With minimal introductions she removes her coat and scarf and sits right down at the piano with Rob to secure a good key for her voice.
"I'm not really a singer, so please bear with me," she smiles.
We quickly discover, counter to our fears, that she's come to the session completely prepared, knowing the tune's lyrics inside and out, and has even worked to affect a good approximation of the Peggy Lee singing style. Rob quickly ascertains that she sings in the key we worked our arrangement in. Things are looking very good indeed. Not far behind her is our director who sets himself down in the control room. He, like our singer, is all business today, knowing all too well that we have little time to work with. It's right about then, when things are looking like it's all going to work, that the D string on my rental bass breaks. Did I mention the key we chose was D? That means everybody is great except the bass player.
With an emergency call, a Gage-shop technician is at the studio in fewer than 20 minutes, stringing up a new D string and a set of spares, just in case. It's then that I'm reminded why New York is the center of the universe in so many respects. In the time it takes musicians like me to find the beer cooler in a South Austin studio and talk about "the last time I was here making a record with so and so," I have a Swiss-made gut-bass string back on my bass.
Now that everyone's acclimated and a possible equipment disaster averted, it's time to roll tape (or crunch numbers, as everything is digital these days). The band is in the cutting room, with Ms. Paltrow separated from us in the control room, across from the director, now hunched in a folding chair facing her. We run through the swinging number, breaking it down for a slower blues feel, trying not to sound like we're anticipating the breakdown and eventual musical recovery. That's the easy part.
As for our vocalist, not only does she have to sing on pitch and in someone else's singing style, she also has to act like she's falling apart emotionally, even crying at one point, while being directed in real time by the film's director sitting two feet away. While watching all this go down through the studio glass, I begin to understand why movie stars make the "big bucks." This is crazy, impossible work. Yet here she is, doing it and doing it quite well. With all the acting and emoting, each version of the tune runs about five minutes. Each time, our pianist experiments with musical ways to help the singer "recover." In relatively short order, we nail three really good takes and take a break.
While we enjoy our doughnuts from the deli across the street, the director pokes his head out of the control room and announces, quite elated, "We got it!" We had recorded the precise emotional event that McGrath had envisioned. What took weeks of planning, preparation, and many sleepless nights all played itself out in a little more than an hour. It's actually a bit of a letdown.
Ms. Paltrow graciously poses for a picture with the band on a borrowed cell phone, since the memo from her people said expressly "no cameras" before she wraps back up and heads out into the street to be accosted by paparazzi. I jokingly tell her that she should let a fat Texan go out first and knock some heads around for her to clear a path. She tells me no.
"Let them have the photo," she shrugs. "It will be the one they run off to sell for the day, and maybe I can get a free afternoon when I take my kid out later."
After she departs, I tell the boys to meet me later that evening for a celebratory toast at DBA, my favored watering hole on the Lower East Side. I stay behind with the engineer to back everything up on multiple hard drives. Now that there's no "tape," one digital glitch can destroy all of our hard work.
Still emotionally high from the outcome, I take a brisk walk from the studio to the bar, gliding as if on clouds all the way. The movie business is a cold and artless asteroid, covered with massive craters of disappointment and peppered in betrayal. The music business, for its part, is precisely as Hunter Thompson described television: "a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason."
From my albeit limited experience, the business of music for movies, is the worst aspects of both, whipped together into a frothy mix of devastating lameness. To have this one little triumph of a director's vision realized in the studio is a miracle, plain and simple. Yet like the music I contributed to the commercially disappointing Newton Boys, this is one accomplishment I'll relish even if no one sees Infamous.
Months later, I see Ms. Paltrow again on an Austin Studios Sound Stage. The camera's rolling this time, and in only a few takes, she re-creates her performance absolutely perfectly. She's in an amazing gown, hair in an up-do and looking every bit the "star." Me? I'm in an uncomfortable rented tux playing the roll of the "fat bassist." Damn typecasting. On and off the set, she's all class and a real pro.
After the day's shooting, we run into each other in wardrobe, both noting how nervous we were trying to make the pantomime performance look real for the camera. Not half as nervous, she says, as when we did the recording session originally. Go see the film to see how we did. I have yet to see it myself, so I'm on pins and needles. Look for me early. I'm the fat guy sweating in the tux, way behind the good-looking singer.