Like so many other film nerds, I’ve been a huge fan of soundtracks all my life. I asked for Disney soundtracks as a very young child and the first album I bought with my own money was the score to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. An addiction began that day that unfortunately hasn’t ceased, though I am thankful for downloads rather than CDs since at a certain point the CD towers in my home, like so many other film nerds, became rather embarrassing. Just as embarrassing were times such as when a high school buddy was going through my LPs and pulled out the soundtrack to Carrie, which on the front cover features Sissy Spacek drenched in pig’s blood.
“Why the hell would you buy this?” he asked. I stammered through an explanation about liking the sole pop song on the album. I wouldn’t be embarrassed today. Great score, proud buy, I still have the LP which I play on my turnable even now. (A couple of friends, Stacey B in particular, are cringing for me now. At least someone gets embarrassed for me, since I am past it.)
ANYWAY, about a year after moving to Los Angeles, I was invited by a good friend, Cissy, to a concert at UCLA honoring film scores. I was thrilled. Not only did the benefit feature some big film stars introducing each piece, when possible the actual composer would conduct his own music.
It was a wonderful night. Besides seeing some huge movie stars so soon after moving to LA (Kathleen Turner in her heyday, Va Va Voom! Robert Redford, also pretty Va Va Voom, etc.) I made some discoveries. I heard for the first time two pieces of music that instantly became favorites of all-time: Alex North’s exquisite love theme from Spartacus and Miklos Rozsa’s stunning Madame Bovary Waltz.
Then Henry Mancini walked onto the stage and changed my life.
Quick primer… with links and music!
When you hear people list the best film composers, Henry Mancini’s name rarely comes up. Yet he was and remains one of the most popular and prolific composers of all time. His music changed the way film scores and pop music were written. His influence remains today. He was one of the first composers to have his film scores — not just his pop songs but the actual scores themselves — cross over and become huge pop phenomenons. His soundtrack album for the TV show Peter Gunn, for instance, won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1959/60. Take a listen to the ultra cool title track:
Mancini’s range was broad. He did comedies, dramas, thrillers, sci-fi… at his start, he worked years in the studio system as an uncredited composer and, among many other movies, did some of the music for Creature From the Black Lagoon. His longest collaboration was with the often brilliant writer/director Blake Edwards. They did 30 projects over 35 years, similar to the still continuing partnership of John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Their work stimulated some of Mancini’s most famous scores and songs, including the music for which he is perhaps the most famous, The Pink Panther Theme. As great a piece of music as is The Pink Panther, I love even more his theme to the second Pink Panther movie, A Shot in the Dark, arguably the best film of the series. Here is A Shot In The Dark. (When the brass explodes around :38 seconds in, I admit I become supremely happy. When it repeats, even bigger, at 1:47… oh my.)
A Shot in the Dark
People born after he died even know his music, not just because of The Pink Panther Theme. His work can still be heard everywhere and, if nothing else, a new generation was introduced to Mancini by the brilliant use of his ridiculously smooth song Lujon by the Coen Bros in The Big Lebowski.
Lujon (just a snippet)
Ok, primer over and back to the benefit.
I knew Mancini’s work before this benefit. I was a fan and had quite a few of his albums. Thus, it was a thrill just to see him in person. But I could not have expected what happened. One of the stars introduced him and he walked onstage. He was tall, lean, angular… a dapper man who was handsome even though mostly bald, God bless him. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t seem to need to call attention to himself. As he approached the podium, he turned to the audience and smiled the most charming smile. Then he stepped onto the podium, planted his feet, picked up his baton and started to conduct.
The piece they played was the main title to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. It’s a famous movie and a famous score. The main title of the movie is famous for a number of reasons, most of all because of the justifiably famous single take that opens the movie. See the PS below for the video of the shot and some information on the controversy if you don’t know about it. This night was about the music, though. If you haven’t heard it, take a listen:
Touch Of Evil Main Title
Mancini’s at the podium. I’m sitting there, already fired up, and the music begins. After a strong brass note, this simple latin rhumba starts, a beat that slowly builds and builds and builds as the song progresses. Almost immediately, Mancini began to conduct not only with his hands and arms, but with his body. Slowly at first and then faster and faster, his entire body, from his toes to his shiny pate, moving almost like a sound wave. He swayed, he leaned, his hips bumped beautifully, rhythmically. I teach yoga and I haven’t seen even the best yogis in the room move with this kind of style and grace. His feet never left where he’d planted them yet his hips seemed to reach each far wall of the auditorium. His entire being seemed to jazz as he leaned into and cajoled the orchestra, a huge grin on his face the entire time. As the song continued to build and Mancini continued to sway, an electricity started to ripple through both the orchestra members and the audience, not only from the wonderful music but from the life Mancini himself brought to it, the energy and joy that exuded from his limbs.
It was breathtaking. I’ve never before or since seen someone having so much fun… working.
He loved the music and loved, purely, what he was doing. When the music finally ended, there was a moment of silence, then the audience erupted and leapt to its feet in wild applause. As the audience continued to go nuts, Mancini applauded the orchestra himself. He then turned to the audience, smiled once again, bowed a deep graceful bow in his tuxedo, and walked off the stage.
I’ve no idea what happened after. I sat in my seat, 23 years old, my mind churning, Cissy momentarily ignored. What made such an effect on me was seeing someone who so loved his work. Until that time, I’d always viewed work as a means to an end, something you did to make money so you could do other things you wanted to do. I knew intellectually people had jobs they enjoyed. I’d even had one. Among other various jobs, I was a lifeguard through high school and college and I didn’t mind being paid to lay out in the sun all day. But this was something different. Being a lifeguard wasn’t a passion. Mancini was having the time of his life. You could tell he leapt out of bed wanting to do this. Suddenly, at age 23, I realized a number of things. It was okay to have a career about which you were passionate. It was also okay, even important, to find in any job, good or bad, some kind of joy. I could enjoy work.
More people than not in the world work as a means to an end in jobs that are not their dream. Many do it for sacrificial reasons, to support family or friends or people in need. I have a deep respect for people, some dear friends included, who choose to work at jobs that are not their passion to benefit the people that surround them. It’s an amazing choice to make. Others have to do it by circumstance. Not everyone can throw their belongings in the car at age 22, drive to Hollywood and chase a dream. Even chasing a dream is not always wonderful… I’ve worked many different jobs over the years as I’ve pursued my passion. It’s a humbling list, some are pretty wretched. I wasn’t working in a coal mine, but a few of them sucked. Even the best of jobs can make you want to slap someone silly, or down a few martinis. Even now at times I feel like I am beating my head against a brick wall.
But because of that night and watching Mr. Mancini, I realize I can choose to find some kind of joy in what I am doing. And when I get the chance to do exactly what I want to do, I remember his movement and happiness on that stage, doing his work.
It might be easy to write off his joy as something that came from the natural benefit of his incredible talent and success. But I saw it. It was real. He’d have been swaying joyously to that music, with that love of his work coming off of his body, even if he was conducting a crap trio in a dive bar in Toledo. I have a feeling he’d have evidenced that joy were he waiting tables, a job I worked over 10 years, or were he on an iPad assembly line in China. That was his perspective. That was who he was as a man. It was a beautiful thing to behold and has stayed with me every day since.