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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

MUSINGS OF A MEANDERING MIND: JULY (article first published : 2008-08-4)

Often, while watching a film, I’m so caught up in the soundtrack (usually trying to put a name to the voice!) that occasionally I’ll miss a piece of the dialogue – and this was the case recently with the delightful Miss Potter, the fascinating story of the life of author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter, Beautifully portrayed by the multi-talented Renée Zellweger, and the appealing song was When You Taught Me How to Dance where, after the first few bars, I recognised the Mellifluously Melancholy Miss Melua, all of whose albums reside in my collection, with my favourite being the first track (Mary Pickford) on her last release, Pictures. (By the way, Katie Melua is due to perform live in Durban this coming September!)

No sooner had the credits rolled than I was on The Net to find out whether this meant Katie Melua had a new album out. Sadly, not so, but I did get to read some interesting background about all the delightful music in this marvellous movie. It seems that Australian composer, Nigel Westlake (responsible for the film’s musical score), was approached by director Chris Noonan, with whom he’d worked on Babe - you know, the famous piggy film - who also engaged Oscar-winning vet, Rachel Portman, as co-composer (and this talented woman’s three contributions are wonderful, autumn-shaded-like suggestions which reflect the interior struggle within Beatrix’s complex character). Nigel relates how, for his numerous contributions to the score, he listened to a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan, thereby gaining inspiration for a Fantasy theme, a Love theme, a Lakes theme and the Death of Norman theme.

Now, this is where serendipity comes into play… Just a few nights later I was watching ole Parky (Michael Parkinson) and who should one of his guests be but none other than Ewan McGregor, this time talking about his latest Shakespearean theatrical role - and it was he who’d played aforementioned "Norman. On the same show another guest was comedian and author Paul Merton, who’s recently written a book about the legendary Charlie Chaplin. Yet more serendipity… A blind friend had recently loaned me a delightful double-album CD featuring the musical scores of all those wonderful films Chaplin worked on during his lengthy career. (By the way, during the conversation Paul confessed that, whenever anyone asked whether he preferred the comedian Buster Keeton or Chaplin, it was like having to choose between oxygen and water!)

But back to Miss Potter… It was Norman, the shy publisher, who saw her uniqueness and her promise, and was ultimately responsible for her success, falling in love with her into the bargain, and I could not imagine two finer actors chosen to portray this period piece to such perfection. (An aside… I have in my musical collection a very fine single written and performed by ex-South African, Miriam Stockley, titled A Perfect Day, which was an integral part of the musical accompaniment to the highly acclaimed BBC series of Beatrix Potter stories.)

The Katie Melua song on the soundtrack of the film comes in the form of a pretty melody that emanates from a music box (given to Beatrix by her father for her ninth birthday) which she presents to Norman as a Christmas gift, when she takes him upstairs to her room to look at her many delightful animal pictures adorning the walls. He recognises the tune and, at Beatrix’s insistence, begins to sing along and they waltz for a short while. Then, just as he’s about to propose to her, Beatrix’s over-protective mother intrudes!

Anyhow, it appears that Katie Melua’s manager (Mike Batt – a splendid musician!) was approached to cleverly turn the lyrics around so as to become the voice of Beatrix reminiscing on her affections for her first love (the said Norman) – and Katie indeed did a fine job of imbuing the piece with a very special blend of her own unique charm, whimsy and romance. It’s an absolute delight – and I do hope it will be included on Katie’s next album!

But earlier I mentioned Mary Pickford on Katie’s album titled Pictures, where the lyrics are a clever comment not only on how the movie production house of United Artists came into being (which included the brilliant Charlie Chaplin) but also on the touchingly lamentable story of the love affair between legendary actors Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

Charlie Spencer Chaplin was born (in 1998) into a musical background, his father a versatile vocalist and actor, and his mother an attractive actress and also a singer, who performed under the stage name of Lily Harley. It seems Charlie Chaplin made his stage debut as a result of his mother embarrassingly losing her voice during a performance - and five-year-old Charlie being shoved from the wings into the spotlight without any rehearsal! However, later in life he turned professional by joining a group known as The Eight Lancashire Lads and rapidly made his mark as an outstanding tap dancer! At the age of 21, he went to the United States as a featured player with the Fred Karno Repertoire Company and his popularity was such that, when he returned in 1912, he was offered a motion picture contract with the Keystone Film Company, at the conclusion of which, in 1915, he joined the Essanay Company, and by the following year was in such demand that he was signed up by the Mutual Film Corporation to make twelve two-reel comedies!

He went on to gain independence in 1917 and began the construction of his own studios, releasing a number of films under a distribution deal with First National Exhibitor’s Circuit. Then, in 1919, he joined forces with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D W Griffith, with each of the artists retaining complete control over his or her respective productions under the title of United Artists. (Katie’s lyrics outline briefly, in repetitive refrain, how Mary used to eat roses, thought that they’d make her a beautiful lady, one supposes, and goes on to tell of the moustachioed Douglas Fairbanks (he was so handsome, musta had much cash, too – but work became his ransom!, and then how they were later joined by Dave Griffiths, a hard-working former stage-hand, and (then these artists became United) - a really brilliant play on words!

Well, Chaplin was certainly to become a unique film-maker. When he was finally in a position to do so, he was able to control every single element of the process with the exception of the music – but, when the synchronisation of recorded sound with film became possible, he embraced it wholeheartedly, and thus added the title of music composer to his other skills! During the era of silent movies it was the practice to commission professional arrangers to come up with accompaniments for major feature films – generally compiled from published music and performed live by whatever means the individual cinema could afford. (Another aside at this point… My own father related to me as a child once how, while a pupil at Potchefstroom Boys’ High, his skills as a pianist were discovered, and he earned a little pin money seated before the keyboards in the pit of the town’s bioscope on a Saturday morning, as he tickled the ivories to the accompaniment of the major horse-races of the week being shown on the news-reel! And, if I’m not mistaken, it was Rossini’s lively Overture to Zampa that he played.)

Chaplin’s music-hall upbringing truly informed his film-making, and he’s quoted as having said that simple little tunes gave me the image for comedy. He tried to compose romantic, elegant music to frame his comedies, wanting an additional (emotional) dimension, but musical arrangers rarely understood that, wanting the music to be funny. He would then have to explain that he wanted no competition, preferring the music to be a counterpoint and, after adding the musical score to one or two pictures, he began to look at a conductor’s score with a more professional eye, thus recognising when a composition might be over-orchestrated, never wanting the music to be more than the voice of the camera.

Well, the numerous and vast successes achieved by this remarkable musician, actor, director and comedian are legendary but to me his most enduring musical legacy is the composition of a song which has to date been performed by an enormous diversity of recording artists, and highly appropriate indeed for a man who was able to make the whole world laugh is the title: SMILE! - Bev Pulé (July 31, 2008).




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