The only Oscar I ever held belonged to Elliot Goldenthal, who won for his diverse, Mexican-tinged score for partner Julie Taymor’s Frida. The New York couple (together since 1984) are equally serious about opera, film and musical theater, which all demand very different skill sets.
The composer on a studio movie plays a delicate role, not intruding too much on the proceedings–coming in late in the production during maximum duress–while reading the whims of the director. Taymor trusts her partner, who has delivered some of his best work on such films as Titus; she lets him fly. Goldenthal did great work on Across the Universe, for example, one of several collaborators on the massive project of reinterpreting 13 songs in the Beatles songbook. (I still listen to that Grammy-nominated soundtrack.) He cleared the air around the songs by using unexpected instrumentation, like glass harmonicas. “But you allow the ghost to be heard,” he said. And with new star Jim Sturges, “you never got the sense there was a gap between acting and singing.”
Goldenthal’s now finalizing the score for Taymor’s demi-musical The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as Prospera and Ben Whishaw as a singing Ariel. The movie uses Shakespeare’s own songs. “It’s a challenge to find something mysterious and not arcane, and not Elizabethan sounding,” he says. “It has to sound like something you’ve never heard or can categorize. I have to compose around the Shakespeare meter.” Miramax is juggling 2009 vs. 2010 release decisions.
Goldenthal happily scored five Neil Jordan movies in seven years, including the Oscar-nominated Michael Collins, and delivered two over-the-top Batman scores for Joel Schumacher. But it took guts (or a forgiving space of 13 years since Heat) to reteam with director Michael Mann, who is not easy. And Public Enemies was a tough assignment: a thoughtful movie set in both folksy Depression-era rural areas and sophisticated jazz-age Chicago that needed all the support and liveliness that Goldenthal could provide. He worked with archival songs by Billie Holiday (“she’s hardboiled, not namby pamby or sentimental”) as well as Diana Krall and large orchestras, and enjoyed playing with Mann’s long silent stretches and montages.”You build musical themes brick by brick, mortar by mortar,” Goldenthal says, “in a structural building-like way.”
Working with clear good guys and bad guys on Batman movies is easier than Mann’s fuzzy moral dualities. But Batman was more fun to do the first time, Goldenthal admits. After that it got a little tedious. “I prefer other challenges, when you’re not exactly sure what the expectation of the character is,” he says. “With Heat and Public Enemies, Michael was drawn to the notion that there are no heroes or villains in the movie. There are gradations of good and bad in the characters. You’re not rooting for any of them.”
Mann also allows for experimentation. “He’s intensely fascinated about music,” says Goldenthal. “There are a lot of positives in that. But as the process goes along, the later it gets, the more he he wants to change things. All the discoveries you made earlier, you’re not sure whether they will finally be on the screen. He’s clear at every moment, but that doesn’t mean his feelings won’t shift day to day. That’s the job. Maybe I’ll work with him again 13 years from now.”
The composer also talked to Time.
Meanwhile Taymor is working with songwriters Bono and Edge on the Broadway musical version of Marvel’s Spider-Man. She talks about her progress here: