various artists,
Music from the Motion Picture
The Talented Mr. Ripley
(Sony Music, 1999)

Being the voracious movie buff that I am, you might think I am just as much a fan of soundtracks. You wouldn't be completely wrong, though often soundtracks are unfortunate drivel when listened to without the movie to distract you. Soundtracks can certainly allow one a trip through remembering the film -- not a bad thing in itself -- but unfortunately that's usually all they offer. The music from films can so often be insipid and often features a repetitiveness which works alongside visual clues but just turns annoying alone.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. Gabriel Yared's score for The English Patient was an impressively beautiful collection of original compositions blended with carefully chosen pre-war songsters. So there should be little surprise that Yared's next project with director Anthony Minghella, an admitted music fiend himself, should be so lovely.

The liner notes of the Ripley CD explain very well just how the music came about, and how the compositions and songs were chosen to reflect and inform on the characters. In a film with such an interior main character and which thankfully avoids the device of a voiceover, the music becomes the indication of characters' inner workings. To quote Minghella, who needs no one else to speak for him, "Dickie Greenleaf, son of a wealthy industrialist but living a sybaritic life in Southern Italy, exchanges his paintbrush from the novel for an alto saxophone in the movie. Similarly, Tom Ripley, in the film story, becomes a classically trained pianist, with a personality as clenched as the most formal of fughes, arriving in Italy terrified of letting go, of speaking from the soul in that way that jazz demands of its players. To impress Dickie, his new friend, Ripley learns about jazz, struggles through Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie. His taste and personality seem stolid in comparison to Dickie's freewheeling exuberance. But as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that, just as in music, where truly great extemporizing begins with Bach and Mozart, it is Ripley, the so-called square, who is the more genuine improviser."

Perhaps most importantly, though, the CD stands on its own. The selections are presented out of order from the scenes in which they're heard in the film, and the arrangement on the CD strengthens each tune's independent power. The instrumental pieces are mostly Yared's own ghostly compositions, though jazz selections slide through with equal frequency. The songs are carefully chosen to give the film a period and an impressive musical pedigree.

The album begins with "Tu vuo' fa l'americano," one of the two duets between the lead characters. An energetic and infectious song, it is the perfect emotional high which we will all fall from.

Matt Damon has a fine, if untrained, voice, and his mimicry of Chet Baker, though apparently offensive to some, simply adds to the eagerness to impress and fragility of his character's performance. "My Funny Valentine" is such a beautifully awkward love song and strikes right to the heart of the film's needy and uncertain protagonist. This is the second duet in the film, with Tom on the piano and Dickie playing his alto sax, and is perhaps the most unsullied intimate moment between the two characters.

"Italia" is the first of Yared's original compositions to grace the score, and is the only piece to remain in a major key throughout. Although touched with a bit of that familiar Merchant-Ivory tinkling, it lovingly recalls the beauty and relaxed atmosphere of Southern Italy.

"Lullaby for Cain" reminds the listener than no matter how fiery her politics or unconventional her personal choices, Sinead O'Connor still has the impressive talent which thrust her onto the music scene in the late '80s. Her wavering but undeniably ardent delivery of Yared's carefully eerie lullaby is powerfully creepy and tender at the same time.

"Crazy Tom" introduces the beginnings of the orchestral compositions that break down the first "Italia" into Tom's own tense and elaborate schemes and pent up emotions. The oboes and clarinets provide a keening melody while the string sections punctuate the calm with a panicky rhythm.

"Ko-Ko" marks the entrance of the first jazz trumpeter on the score, the incomparable Charlie Parker. The easy flow of the music is enough to make me buy the soundtrack anyway -- and I am not normally an afficianado of jazz. As Minghella says, the sly and seemingly effortless improvisation has an allure which is difficult, if not impossible, to resist.

Miles Davis' "Nature Boy" continues with that theme, though this selection, with its dated but ghostly vibraphone stylings, is slower and infinitely more melancholy. The slow beat lulls the listener into a sorrowful musical landscape and allows the trumpet its full range of softer feelings.

The vibraphone's undiscovered range again makes itself know in this similarly spooky melody, "Mischief," performed by the Guy Barker International Quintet, Minghella's apt choice for all of the contemporary recordings. Yared understands the importance of making the score seamless and yet remarkable at the same time, and the way in which "Nature Boy" slides into his own composition is a testament to his sensitivity. "Ripley," not surprisingly, echoes "Crazy Tom," but this time, though the theme is louder, it is also more controlled and fughe-like, as the character is growing into his own power.

"Pent-Up House" lifts the gloom for a bit, with a free and engaging jazz selection for piano, again performed by Guy Barker and his crew. The selection romps through the soundtrack and gives a bright note to the inexorable descent which is fast approaching. "Guaglione," performed by Marino Marini, is a deceptively playful and catchy Italian song which defines the period in which the story is set. Whether it's a feature of the recording of the song itself, this particular track manages to be both carefree and unexpectedly emotional. The longing seated in the echoing voice, which itself seems to be floating to the ear across a Venetian canal, adds a disquieting tone to the otherwise sing-song style.

"Moanin'" adds another swinging track to the collection, the horns and drums leading ever onward toward the end of the night. The Guy Barker International Quintet again performs the piece. This also begins the pattern of the end of the album selections alternate between jazz and classical tracks. Each genre seems to be building and showing off its various talents, and the selections are both increasingly complex and emotional.

"Proust" is a fine example of what my roommates and I call "impending doom music." The theme of the lullaby has returned, but with more force. It echoes the use of mirrors in the film to show how Tom is haunted by the memory of Dickie. The loss of perceived love and the slow collapsing of Tom's conscience is perfectly shown in the composition.

"Four" is the next jazz piece, written by Miles Davis and performed by Guy Barker and his comrades, and it's both upbeat and more reckless than the previous selections. The energy feels more manic, and the style a little more fractured, but the beat is just as infectious as before. "Promise" blurs the line between the jazz and orchestral moments by bringing in string accompaniement with a moody oboe taking the lead. An oboe player once illustrated the importance of the oboe to me by pointing out that any time you hear an instrument leading a classical piece which is not a violin, it's most likely an oboe. And the oboe here is absolutely perfect. The melancholy notes slide into each other and create an unforgettable mood.

"The Champ" throws off the progressing gloom by starting off with scat and then roaring away into a loud and energetic swing piece. The song was written and performed by Dizzy Gillespie -- and in a sense, there's little more that needs to be said. Flawless and amazing.

"Synocopes" is the last of the original works and ties together all of the themes in a beautiful final movement. The fugue comes to a close and the different melody threads mesh together. Remarkably, it never reaches some kind of John Williams overwrought climax, but flows along to its natural conclusion with admirable restraint and sensitivity to the spirit of the music.

"Stabat Mater" by Antonio Vivaldi is actually the first piece you hear in the body of the film. The tune is impressive, as Vivaldi often is, and its minor sweetness works well to lead to both the finish of the album and connect into Yared's score. The technical beauty of the composition also underscores Minghella's own point about the versatility and power of well ordered classical compositions.

"You Don't know What Love is" is a note-perfect finish to the album. It brings together all of the emotions -- desire, love, pain, loss, control, guilt and penance fight for recognition in the singer's delivery. Anguish and loss is finally what wins out, and the grumbling, strangely delicate bass closes the album with as much style and emotional impact as the film it scores.

[ by Robin Brenner ]



Buy the soundtrack from Amazon.com.