Saturday, 21 August 2010



Rattling and atmospheric this soundtrack is an assertive gesture as to what it is like to have the mindset of a dependent living in a hectic metropolitan setting.  As a result the album is as much about hidden messages as it is outward and overt statements.  As frenetic time changes occur it is as if they are representing the schizophrenic traits of what it is like to be an addict.

That said this album is perhaps a bit misleading if you want to attach drug addiction to music in the fifties.  Rather than being avant garde and even downbeat jazz, this is big swing orchestration performed by tight players somewhat removed from the hipster grit reality offered by the movie.

This is the work of Elmer Bernstein a man who later became famed for scoring The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape in addition to such lightweight favourites at National Lampoon’s Animal House, Airplane!, Spies Like Us and Ghostbusters.  This was his fourth film score and it saw him gaining an Academy Award nomination.  And for it was steering Shorty Rogers and His Giants with Shelly Manne as they powered their way through proceedings.

The Man With The Golden Arm is a popular movie with heroin taking percussionists.  In it Frank Sinatra plays a drummer named Frankie Machine.  He is a jazz drummer in the Beat era and yet, he is relatively square.  Freshly released from prison his visits his crippled and crippling wife Zosh who is in a wheelchair from where she stifles his aspirations.  More encouraging however is old flame Molly who wrestling against heroin becomes the heroine.  And as tracks take up the title/name of both these characters the movements are appropriate.

The record begins with “Clark Street” and the pulsing opening to proceedings.  It arrives with swagger before changing pace and tact in grubby fashion being somewhat representative of the dizzying existence serving as a prologue and lo-fi overture to what lay ahead.  After dropping low it eventually ends high.

As per the movie the next stop on his travels is “Zosh” which proves a solemn offering arriving with a degree of peace and suggestion of love.  The drifting emotions feel lost at sea.

In contrast now back in the swing of things “Frankie Machine” arrives with a huge presence and opening gestures akin to the arrival of “Blue Train” by John Coltrane.  Then comes “The Fix” with more high spirits in the mix and another track that reminds of the bombastic energy playfully attached to themes to shows such as Police Squad and Dragnet.  As I say, its relatively square.

With this you can always rely on a woman to cool things as “Molly” drips in and glistens offering a remorseful and reflective signature.  Its liking from a distance.  And this is a method later repeated on the sedate “Sunday Morning” that sounds rather like Lalo Schifrin initially before resuming loud and alarming gestures.

And it is these traits that rev the album living in the tracks “Breakup” and “Audition”, the latter of which has an almost salsa flow and “Sing Sing Sing” big band swing.  Then arrives the darkness of “The Cure” and it’s near Bernard Herrmann scoring “Taxi Driver” gestures.  You do not need the screen images to know what is occurring here.  However gradually it calms down just as “The Finale” plays out the remainder of the movie and the album complete with a giant final blow.

In portraying a grubby, druggy world full of hostility, desperation and anger, Bernstein was able to paint a lot of beauty and wonder.  This is jazz on an orchestral scale, cleaner than those being represented by it but no less magnificent all the same.  This was when music was nothing but art.

Thesaurus moment: clean.

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