Did John Adams Save The Day?

by David Yearsley, August 18, 2010

Before I Am Love, directed by Luca Gaudagnino and released into American movie theaters this summer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer John Adams had never written a soundtrack. In a way he still hasn’t, since more than 30 minutes of music he supplied for this Italian soap opera without the suds were cannibalized in one and two minute bites from his earlier work. It’s not an unusual way for a composer to get a screen credit, even from beyond the grave. Beethoven did it for A Clockwork Orange, Mozart for Amadeus, and Bach for Tree of Wooden Clogs. Each one of those was a far better movie than I Am Love. At least Adams is still alive and might one day sign on to a movie worthy of his gifts.

Adams once turned down an invitation to do a film score for Francis Ford Coppola, but the composer seems to be on board for I Am Love, which cost him little or no creative energy. After having seen a rough-cut of the film in London in 2009 he made some suggestions, and for the American campaign he has promoted the movie along with the film’s star and co-producer Tilda Swinton.

“It’s strange to hear your own music used in a con­text you didn’t create,” says Adams, even while he approves of the final product. It’s a vital vote of confi­dence, and it’s music to the ears of the filmmakers, since a downward thumb from Adams would be a serious blow. The soundtrack is far and away the best thing about the movie, which sketches — chronicles is far too big a word for the film’s flimsy narrative — the turmoil in a rich Milanese textile clan resulting from the seduc­tive power of a swarthy, bearded caterer exerted on the alabaster-skinned and red-haired lady of the house (played by Tilda Swinton). Her orgasm over a prawn in that chef’s restaurant might have gotten the picture an X-rating. Soon enough he’s in her kitchen and before too long in her Prada knickers too. Without Adams’ music this wide-screen serving dish smeared with globules of plot and the stale crumbs of characters would simply sink into the dirty dishwater.

As seen on the menu, Gaudagnino’s tale of culinary lust and dynastic disaster might seem the right thing for this music, which the director himself fell in love with in 2005 after a friend gave him a recording of Adam’s Naïve and Sentimental Music. Adams’ minimalist idiom is built largely on small-scale melodic and rhythmic repetitions heard in the process of their own transforma­tion. This interplay between stasis and movement yields large-scale change, bringing the listener to places not expected at the outset. Against a hypnotic accompani­ment, slashes and feints of melody suggest human striv­ing. Adams’ music has character and movement and it embodies the desire to change.

Gaudagnino claims that his film hopes to resuscitate the Hollywood melodrama of the kind served up by Douglas Sirk, ever the cineastes’ idol. Concerned to evoke the sweep of events — perhaps even something so grand as fate — Guadagnino’s epic necessarily sheds character. He fills the screen with fine furniture and accoutrements, but they serve as the backdrop for stock figures and plot-points that lack the spice and texture of the food he is much more concerned with: the grizzled patriarch who deeds the family company to his son and grandson, because, as he says in the opening scene’s Christmas dinner succession speech, it will take two men to succeed him; the strong-jawed and distant husband and father; the lesbian sister; the two brothers, one greedy capitalist the other idealistic and brighter; and the dark and mysterious outsider who happens to become the best friend of one of the brothers and the lover of his mother.

These figures flash across the screen in expensive out­fits and do the kind of decisive things that the super rich do: get married; come out; plan a fancy dinner. They appear at a poolside engagement party in Milan or in a London boardroom and announce an engagement or accept a bid for the family business by an American Sikh, who makes a stupid joke about being an Indian American not an American Indian. This takeover is meant to fissure the family fabric, but it means little since the characters and their empire mean so little them­selves. The capitalist Recchis have invested far more in their business than Gaudagnino has in his story and char­acters.

The most interesting character in the movie is Recchi’s Fascist villa erected in the 1930s along with the family’s collaborationist wealth. At the opening scene’s Christmas dinner at the long feast table sumptuously prepared by the busy servants the dialogue is portentous and pretentious. It is only when the soundtrack mutes these human voices in favor of Adams’ pulsing piano concerto, Century Rolls, that things get interesting. The music weaves a Wagernian fate over the ritual, and an epic seems almost ready to pull itself from the morass of this movie, only to be bogged back down when the char­acters start talking again. When the lady of the house moves through the drawing room and past that symbol of bourgeois refinement we heard brittle piano chords on the soundtrack. Adams’ music conveys the message what the script only clumsily attempts: the massive foundation of this malevolent mansion is cracking.

The Recchi factory is a close second to the villa, though like many of the human actors, we see it only once or twice, its relentless industrial labors perfectly captured by Adam’s propulsive music unspooling with elegant and irrepressible efficiency.

Adams himself clearly understands the cinematic potential of his work, as can be heard in his 1995 cham­ber piece for violin and piano, Road Movies. Over its 15-minute duration, this music captures both the monotony and excitement of a road trip: the way the sameness of scenery gradual shifts, progress over land highlighted by the nearby detail of fence or field or the distant appear­ance of new topographical features — mountains, forest, river.

There are some driving scenes in I Am Love, and they are the best ones in the movie. A chance encounter between the chef and the lady of the house in San Remo on the Italian Riviera as she stops for a breather while driving to Nice to see her lesbian daughter. Suddenly the lady spies the chef in the mirror of a bookshop. Her fateful pursuit of him begins to the pounding music of The Chairman Dances heard at the very opening of the film as snow comes down on Milan’s eerily quiet Christmas streets. Now it is summer: this music works for the cold and the heat. The frenetic non-chase in San Remo (should she follow him, or run from him?) would be silly and even more unbelievable than it already is without the Adams’ music grabbing us by the scruff of the ear. Gaudagnino has invoked Hitchcock for this cat-and-mouse scene, but I’d go with Tom and Jerry.

Timed to coincide with one of Adams’ searing chords, Lady Recchi bumps into the chef and they pile in his pick-up with dog in the back and head up into the steep, verdant foothills of the Alps to his mountain retreat where he grows organic vegetables for his restaurant back in Milan two hours away. To Adams’ intense traveling music — though not Road Movies nor his Short Ride in a Fast Machine — the pair drive up to their high-altitude consummation of the affair that really began back in the lowlands of Milan with that shellfish, appearing all the more succulent in this post-BP spill world we now live in. The chef plucks a few weeds in his garden then peels off Tilda’s trendy top and trousers.

Raptures concluded, lady and chef head out to join the birds and bees — shot in close up against flowers and grass and humans — and have an encore in the Alpine meadow to the overture of the third act of Nixon in China, the music pulsing with desire on the cusp of ful­fillment.

The tragedy that inevitably ensues comes poolside back in Milan at the hands of a metaphorical banana skin, no doubt encrusted in an orange-lavender reduction metaphorically braised with the blowtorch that had been an earlier instrument of the chef’s amorous pursuit of his best friend’s mother. At this dramatic crux, one thinks of Mel Brooks line that tragedy is when you cut a finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die. As always, Adams’ music is there to try its best to pull this moment from farce to plausibility.

The music attends to the moment, but it gains its true effect over the long haul. Still, it holds up well to its dismemberment as cues for a lavishly foolish movie. It is as if Adams’ music wills, however impotently, the film to come alive. Image does not give rise to music. Instead music creates a world, and when it is silenced, that world simply vanishes. ¥¥

(David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of ‘Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint.’ His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London,” has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu.)

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