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Review: Two films better heard than seen

'Geisha' and 'Zorro' may have you cheering Dolby

By Porter Anderson
CNN

Geisha
John Williams' soundtrack for "Memoirs of a Geisha" features Itzhak Perlman, and Yo-Yo Ma.

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Arts, Culture and Entertainment

ATLANTA (CNN) -- One of the less happy facts of filmmaking is that some really strong music can be overlooked because it's created for a film that doesn't knock over the box office. Or even slash a big "Z" on the concession stand.

Two cases in point: James Horner's score for "The Legend of Zorro" and John Williams' music for "Memoirs of a Geisha."

Both soundtracks are out on CDs from Sony Classical and have good reasons to find their way into your collection as music, while the films may not get much closer to you than your Netflix queue.

Williams' 'Memoirs'

If you appreciate Craig Armstrong's darkly regretful, ruminative soundtrack for "The Quiet American" (Varese, 2003), you'll know what a formidably inward tack Williams has taken in scoring director Rob Marshall's "Memoirs of a Geisha."

Williams has created a sonic 'scape of vast, powerful currents, rumbling forces of gender subjugation and sexual politics often pierced by vocalise -- wordless song -- for a haunting soprano voice. When the story's tempo picks up, razor strings and flashing blades of brass, particularly a steely use of trumpet, arc upward into a nighttime world over-floated by that distant, crying woman's voice.

This is the direction you heard Williams start solidifying in his soundtrack for "Minority Report" (Dreamworks, 2002) probably his most accomplished work to date. This music is carefully embellished with Asian instruments -- nervously tapped blocks, covered brass bells, hollow-windy flutes, sparkling tiny bells.

Williams could hardly miss, of course, when he brought in not only Itzhak Perlman to add violin solos atop a glowingly sonorous Ensemble Nipponia, but also cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma to lead the moodier voices among the instruments.

The set piece in which you hear Williams' key theme for this one is in "The Journey to the Hanamachi" (a geisha house, in Western terminology), the second track on the CD. Ma's careful, sure exploration of the theme climbs upward into a field of strings that flatten and broaden into an endless plain of duty and dreams.

What will make this music mean a lot to some moviegoers is the fact that its minor keys explore what the film dodges. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert pinpointed this as a seeming lack of concern for the human toll, the oppression represented by the uglier side of the geisha tradition.

As CNN reviewer Paul Clinton wrote: "The whole complex life of the geishas, and the world in which they live -- so beautifully examined in the novel (by Arthur Golden) -- has been streamlined for mass consumption. The love story has been dummied down. Gone also are the bleak realities for women in pre-war Japan." (Read Clinton's full review)

Williams, of course, is the Jude Law of composers, seemingly in every film released at times. In addition to "Geisha," you're hearing his music this season in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (though Patrick Doyle wrote the score, Williams originated many of the "Harry Potter" themes), "Munich" and "War of the Worlds." How good that, like Law, this artist really works on what he's doing. Nothing here has been tossed off because he was writing for a film The Village Voice's Dennis Lim calls "a disastrous pageant of dragon-lady catfights."

At 73, and after so much success, John Williams remains an artist, not a hack. He still reports for -- and to -- the minority.

Horner's 'Zorro'

zorro.cd.jpg
Sony Classical released the James Horner soundtrack for "The Legend of Zorro" on October 25.

Do you know James Horner? He's not a household name like Williams. But you know his music: "Titanic" (Sony, 1997), "The House of Sand and Fog" (Varese, 2003) and the achingly beautiful "Iris" with violinist Joshua Bell (Sony, 2002).

In fact, it's Horner who produced the soundtrack for "Troy" (Reprise, 2004) in very short order to replace a soundtrack composed by the profoundly gifted Gabriel Yared, whose music for "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (Sony, 1999) is still one of the landmarks of the last decade's cinematic music.

In "The Legend of Zorro," Horner employs a familiar structure, hitting the clichés quickly -- the opening note is, of course, a popcorn-dropping strum on a guitar -- and then filling the Great Southwest with bona fide artistry. Right at the end, he comes back with the requisite Tijuana trumpets and inevitable "Malaguena" riffs.

But in the interior of this ranging soundtrack, Horner sticks closer to the second movement of Joaquin Rodrigo's concerto for guitar and orchestra. A regal, high-Spanish aura of spacious, desert danger underlies cuts from "The Cortez Ranch" to "Statehood Proclaimed" for California. (There, now you know what the plot's about.)

It's hard to beat Horner as a colorist, his harps rippling under the cactus shade of a meditative mandolin, then gently blown by a cirrus-canopy of majestic French horns.

And would you like to know just how much better music can be than the film it scores? Follow this two-step program.

(1) Get the CD. Listen to the straight-up, militant-mariachi glory of "The Train." Strings race snare drums, furious guitars drive a wise-brass smart-boy's dream of action-adventure right up into a galloping release of cosmic size, an Andean flute waiting to pipe you straight into a nest of strings Mendelssohn's himself would recognize as "Midsummer" mania. This is lush, urgent beauty.

(2) See the film. You're going to hear this music in a sequence Ebert describes this way: "Zorro and his horse race a train and then the horse leaps from a trestle and lands on top of the train. That Zorro thinks a horse would do this shows that Zorro does not know as much about horses as he should. For that matter, the horse itself is surprisingly uninformed. It must have had the mumps the week the other horses studied about never jumping blind from a high place onto something that, assuming it is there, will be going 40 mph."

This Zorro may be a zero, but his music is as sharp as that eternal blade that cuts the air, remember? Whish, whish, whish -- and suddenly a huge "Z" has been sliced into your clothing, you're branded by the sunbaked thrill of this rip-roaring romantic hero. How we loved Zorro once.

So keep loving him. And hang in there for Antonio Banderas (Zorro), and the richly intelligent Marshall, who directed "Geisha." We all have our lesser moments. And thanks to Horner and Williams, these are guys to be reckoned with -- even when their films are better heard than seen.

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