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GROUNDED IN MUSIC: MANHUNTER and the Michael Mann soundtrack

GROUNDED IN MUSIC: MANHUNTER and the Michael Mann soundtrack

By Aaron Aradillas
Press Play Contributor

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of two Press Play pieces commemorating the 25th anniversary of Manhunter, which was released August 15, 1986. To view a video essay about the film by Aaron Aradillas and Matt Zoller Seitz, click here.

Most filmmakers who use source music in their movies do so as a way of enhancing a scene — think Martin Scorsese’s use of Donovan’s “Atlantis” in GoodFellas. Or they use music as an ironic counterpoint to the action — think Quentin Tarantino’s use of “Stuck In the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs (or practically any use of music in a Tarantino movie). Michael Mann is different. He uses source music (and sometimes original scores) as a way to set a mood for a given scene. (He also doesn’t believe in irony.) Where directors will turn up the volume at a crucial moment in a scene, Mann likes to start the music long before anything has happened. He doesn’t use it to ratchet up the tension. Rather, Mann is interested in using music as a way to set the emotional landscape from scene to scene. Think of the way he has the Brian Eno track “Force Marker” start long before the actual bank robbery begins in Heat.

Or, the Otis Taylor electrified banjo number “Ten Million Slaves” that’s used throughout Public Enemies. (The banjo picking is meant to recall Bonnie and Clyde, except this time the music isn’t meant as comedy.) Or, in what remains one of the great opening sequences in film history, the medley of Sam Cooke songs as a way to encapsulate the Black Power movement of the 1960s in Ali.

But Mann’s greatest use of original and pre-existing music remains the soundtrack to the serial-killer masterpiece Manhunter.

Adapting Thomas Harris’ first (and best) novel to feature Hannibal Lector (inexplicably spelled “Lektor” in this film) Manhunter was a different kind of horror movie. Released in a decade filled with slasher pictures hoping to cash in on the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th, Mann’s film was an intellectual freak-out that used forensic detail to dissect a mass murderer’s heart of darkness; a generation of horror fans that had cheered and laughed while dumb teenagers were slaughtered by masked stalkers was forced to consider what it meant to have sympathy for the devil. Upping the ante of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which played a nasty black-comic joke by putting you in the shower with doomed Marion Crane, Manhunter placed you inside the mind of a madman from frame one. Also like Psycho, Manhunter used its score to set the tone every scene — only Mann used synth-pop majesty and prog-rock doom instead of a shrieking string section.

Mann’s debut feature, Thief (1981) was a modern-day noir with a Tangerine Dream score that was used in a more traditional, ratchet-up-the-tension way.

(Interestingly, an extended cat-and-mouse stalking sequence at the end of Thief used silence as its score, then brought in a thunderous rock piece — “Confrontation,”” a “Comfortably Numb” sound-alike by Craig Safan — when the scene erupted into violence.)

Following Thief, Mann served as executive producer on Miami Vice and forever changed the way pop music was used on television. The show’s use of both Jan Hammer’s score and popular rock songs laid the groundwork for Manhunter. Here is “In The Air Tonight” as featured on Miami Vice.

The synth-rock temperament of the music creates a constant unease that connects FBI profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) to The Tooth Fairy, Francis Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan), a lunar cycle-obsessed murderer of families. Graham’s gift (curse) is his ability to identify with the psychological torment of serial killers. His ability to at times operate without filters led to his suffering mental breakdown while hunting and capturing Lektor. As Graham tentatively reconnects with his wife and son, the hunt for The Tooth Fairy calls to him. It is the annihilation of the family unit (a crime that we gather Graham nearly committed himself) that must be stopped. The recurring instrumentation, lyrics and songs psychically connect the profiler and the murderer.

The film opens with a sinister synth wall of sound as we see nighttime POV angles. At first, we can’t quite make out what they are. Suddenly we realize we are seeing a home invasion in progress. The scene climaxes (along with the music) with a woman being awakened from sleep and realizing that someone is standing at the entrance of her bedroom. This track, entitled “Leeds House,” is reprised after Graham has accepted the case and visited the Leeds’ residence at the precise time when the murders occurred.

The same POV shots and musical cue are used as Graham enters the mind of The Tooth Fairy. Interestingly, the track is reprised a third time during a parking garage stalk-and-snatch sequence. It’s the only time the movie breaks from using music as a mood setter and uses it as almost a telltale theme for the killer. Performed by the outfit known as The Reds, “Leed’s House” (along with other original compositions “Lector’s Cell” and “Jogger’s Stakeout”), uses a combination of synthesizers, drums, and crunchy guitars not just to create dread, but to connect the two lead characters sonically. When the movie switches perspectives halfway through and follows Dollarhyde through a doomed romance with a blind woman, we are not taken out of the story. The musical cues by The Reds allow for an almost seamless transition.

The major contribution from pre-existing music is provided by Shriekback. Their songs are exclusively the killer’s theme music. “Evaporation,” with its echoed vocals and stuttering drum loops, is played as Graham investigates an older crime scene. As he retraces the events, the music suggests he is receding deeper into the killer’s thought process.

The other Shriekback tracks, “Coelocanth” and “The Big Hush,” are used during the extended romance sequence as Dollarhyde (Tom Noonan) finds temporary reprieve from his twisted nature by going out with the caring Reba (Joan Allen). The flute-heavy “Coelocanth” suggests something otherworldly and erotic. (The flute instrumentation might be seen as a nod to the Eastern origins of the source material: Harris’ novel was titled Red Dragon, a reference to both William Blake and a caricature found on a Mah-Jongg game piece.) Deployed during a startling tender love scene, “The Big Hush” is a full blown trance-out.

Along with The Reds, Michel Rubini also contributes original music to the movie. His slow-build-to-a-cathartic-crescendo track “Graham’s Theme” is broken into two pieces.

The first half is used when Graham finds himself sitting alone in an airport lounge, looking at his reflection, trying to will himself to catch his prey. The scene is a callback to an image of Graham back at the Leeds’ family home as Graham looks at himself in a bathroom mirror, and the Leeds’ answering machine clicks on. At that moment, The Reds’ “Leed’s House” can be heard. “Graham’s Theme” seems to take off from that earlier cue. The second half of the track is heard as Graham pieces together the process by which Dollarhyde selects his victims. While staring at twin TV sets showing transferred home movies of both families, Graham realizes the killer must have seen these same films. As Graham becomes convinced of this fact, he walks over to a window and seems to stare at his own reflection. The track climaxes with a massive wave of guitars and drums. Graham, having almost destroyed himself by identifying with the ugliest killer he’s ever encountered, reclaims his identity—and sanity.

The final movement of the movie is signaled by the opening horn-like notes of The Prime Movers’ “Strong As I Am.” Written as a personal confrontation with parental abuse, this slow-burn industrial rock number is brilliantly re-contextualized by Mann to indicate Dollarhyde’s final break from reality as he misinterprets an innocent gesture as an act of betrayal.

The movie’s most famous use of music is, of course, Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” The ugliest rock song in music history is used as the theme music for the ugliest serial killer in film history. Having kidnapped Reba from her home, Dollarhyde plays the song as he prepares to complete his transformation into the Red Dragon. His preparation is cross-cut with Graham and the FBI coordinating with local law enforcement agencies to take him down. As the song goes through its numerous instrument solos, the action builds and builds. (There is a sly continuity joke as events that are unfolding over the span of several hours are condensed into a few minutes of screen time. The 17-plus minute song seems to play in its entirety, as if everything was happening in real time.) A specially edited version of the song was prepared for this sequence, allowing Mann to match on-screen action with the music. When Graham is wandering outside Dollarhyde’s isolated home, sensing someone is in danger, the extended organ solo accompanies him. There is real poetry in the way Mann extends the tension of the sequence, creating anxiety in the viewer as Graham breaks from his paralyzing fear and leaps into action. Once he crashes through Dollarhyde’s window, the song’s famous drum solo, with its pounding drum rolls and fills, kicks in and the movie takes off into a whole other dimension. This showdown-at-dawn shoot-out is one of the all-time great pure action set-pieces, aided in no small part by its musical accompaniment.

Alas, the Manhunter soundtrack stumbles with its closing credit song. “Heartbeat,” performed by Genesis’ Mike Rutherford’s side project Red 7, is a decent song but feels truly of the moment. (It doesn’t help that the song reminds you of Don Johnson’s same-name hit single from 1986.) No matter. The Manhunter soundtrack is a one-of-a-kind synth-pop journey into one’s dreams. Once you’ve listened to it, it is impossible to get it out of your head.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

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