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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Robbery, Shootout, Revelation

Turning up the Heat with Elliot Goldenthal's soundtrack.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Robert De Niro as robber Neil McCauley in a still the Michael Mann film Heat.
Image © 1995 Regency Entertainment-Warner Bros.
I don't write much about film music on this blog. Sure, movies and so-called classical or art music have been joined at the hip since the heady Hollywood days of Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. But in today's column I'd like to talk about composer Elliot Goldenthal, and the extraordinary soundtrack for Michael Mann's 1995 heist movie Heat.

Heat is more than just a cops-and-robbers story: it is an epic three-hour Los Angeles saga with an all-star cast (the leads are Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, along with a "laundry list" of skilled actors, many of them in tiny supporting parts) Shot entirely on location and taking place mostly at night (although De Niro's "crew" of robbers stages their two most spectacular thefts in daylight) it immerses you in the lives of both the crooks and the cops, exploring their characters with a depth that goes far beyond the usual formulas of the genre.

But what I really want to talk about is the music.

I bought my CD of the Heat soundtrack in 1996, a few months after I'd moved back to New York City with an early writing check from my work at Citysearch.com. And it was invaluable, an ear-opener. I had loved the movie but this soundtrack opened up a whole new world of sounds to me: new music, industrial, and most surprisingly, techno. As a dyed-in-the-wool metalhead, I had avoided all of these genres. As a budding music journalist, I started to embrace them.

In this robbery sequence, listen to part of the cue "Heat" played by Kronos Quartet. 
All content © 1995 Regency Entertainment/Warner Brothers. 


The vast and wide-ranging score included music by Mr. Goldenthal (some of it played by the Kronos Quartet) alongside electronic gems by then-new techno artist Moby and old-school geniuses like Brian Eno and Einsturzande Neubaten. Some of the tracks (the titular opening cut,) were huge in scope, starting with a shimmer of strings and evolving into propulsive, chugging rhythms. Others were tiny ("Coffee Shop", "Steel Cello Lament.") All were beautiful.

In addition to Mr. Goldenthal's score, the Heat soundtrack had cuts by Passengers (a collaboration between Brian Eno and U2) and Moby, the "downtown" techmo artist who (little did I know) had his home studio a block away from our Citysearch offices. (At the time, he was working on a record called "Play" which would shortly take over the world.)

It was the last track on the soundtrack that made me buy the album. Moby's "God Moving Over the Face of the Waters" is a very simple piece built on minimalist lines. The piano plays a steady arpeggio, looped and overlaid to create a complex web of ever-rising sounds. Eventually as the piano reaches its climax, synthesized string chords rise out of the depths. As the credits roll, the chords change, ending the rising figures with consonant major chords that would have made Richard Wagner proud.

Here's the five-minute "Heat Edit" of Moby's God Moving Over the Face of the Waters.
The original cut appears on his album Everything is Wrong.

The most extraordinary musical moment in Heat is not on the soundtrack. It happens halfway through the movie, in the climactic bank robbery sequence that is the film's centerpiece. De Niro's crew of robbers (Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Haysbert) are staging a daring daylight raid on a bank in downtown Los Angeles. Armed with military grade assault rifles, they get into a full-on shootout with the Robbery-Homicide cops (Ted Levine, Wes Studi, Mykelti Williamson) led (of course) by Pacino. And once the bullets start flying, the music...stops.

For (approximately) ten minutes, all you hear is the rhythmic rat-a-tat-tat of the automatic weapons, punctured occasionally by the groan of a dying character or the husky boom of a shotgun. But using the random sounds generated by these props, the whole carefully choreographed scene has a kind of rhythm to it, a jumpy, staccato sound, the sound of open warfare on city streets. There's absolutely nothing like it.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.