SMASHERS OF THE PAST - LALO SCHIFRIN

Lalo Schifrin

Max shares some thoughts on the iconic composer behind Dirty HarryCharley VarrickEnter the Dragon, and many more.

Argentinian composer Lalo Schifrin, along with Quincy Jones and David Shire, defined the sound of the 1970’s in American film. These guys incorporated bebop sensibilities, an experimental and daring compositional flair a la Duke Ellington and Gil Evans, and new palettes like 12-tone theory, to articulate the political paranoia and nihilistic outlook of the era. You’ve gotta remember, these were the Nixon years: Vietnam was still fresh in people’s memories, Watergate was unfolding, and corruption seemed omnipresent.

Lalo scored so many of the era’s key genre movies, adapting his style seamlessly to crime, horror, action, political thriller, martial arts, and more. Even a cursory glance at his accomplishments – film scores for Enter the Dragon, Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, The Amityville Horror, Dirty Harry, THX 1138; television themes for The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Starsky and Hutch, and most famously Mission: Impossible – is enough to make Frank Zappa’s head spin.

Lalo also composed and arranged for a laundry list of jazz legends: Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Stan Getz, and many more. These accomplishments don’t even take into account his unfinished projects – including rejected work he did on William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which is quite simply one of the heaviest pieces of music ever recorded:

What made Lalo’s music so unique? I’ve read a few critics who point to his keen ear for pop melodies; his fresh take on arranging; his daring combinations of instruments rarely heard together (like tabla drums and synthesizers); and other factors. But this isn’t enough for me. The more I watch his movies, the more I am drawn to two things: his respect for the tone that a movie is driving towards, and his pure musical excitement.

Among Lalo’s many non-film collaborations with major jazz figures was 1977’s Free Ride, performed by Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra and composed/arranged by Lalo. The pair had last worked together in the early 60’s – and Free Ride marked their first meeting since Lalo’s storied film composing career. Far from a “normal” jazz album, this fascinating and beautiful piece of music feels like a distillation of everything that happened in music the 70’s, but played through the horns, drums, and wah-wah guitars of dudes with serious improvisational chops. It’s a stark contrast to the squeezed-tight performances of British prog rock bands that could write, but not necessarily wail. It’s also, of course, melodically and harmonically beautiful.

One of my favorite Lalo film scores was for Charley Varrick, a Don Siegel heist film starring Walter Matthau (and much beloved by people like Quinten Tarantino). Set in the American Southwest, it tells the story of a botched bank robbery, in which the thieves accidentally made out with almost a million dollars in dirty mob money.

Lalo’s score complements the mood and images of Varrick unlike almost any other spy or crime movie of its time – from his driving left-hand piano riffs, a haunting descending bass line, dissonant and trumpet chords, chromaticism, and his use of odd-time signatures. It’s just, like, heavy man.

I’ve been rewatching David Fincher’s movies over the last few weeks, and thinking more and more about how powerful Trent Reznor’s scores for The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl are. Like Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, Trent’s scores – despite their modern electronic sounds – recall the compositional sensibility of people like Lalo Schifrin.

We live in a time where most movie and TV music is either generically composed (big studio movies), completely referential and “throwback” (Stranger Things, It Follows), or stuffed to the brim with audience-pleasing and pandering pop songs (Guardians of the Galaxy, Suicide Squad). Other than Reznor and Greenwood, it feels as though we are a far cry from the focused, defined compositional voices of musicians like Bernard Hermann in the 50’s, Lalo in the 70’s, and Howard Shore in the 90’s.

Lalo paved the way for two of our most vital and treasured modern composers to express an aesthetic vision that was both personal and in service of the movie. That he was able to do so without access to digital playback and convenient editing workflows (not to mention, though he scored fantastic movies, he never worked with a director with so clear a vision as Paul Thomas Anderson or David Fincher), is all the more impressive.

He’s not just a smasher of the past, by the way: well into his 80’s, Lalo continues to write tremendous music for equally tremendous movies.

Max Frank's picture

About Max Frank

Max is a writer and musician based in New York City.

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