one of the greatest movie soundtracks ever, and the best jazz soundtracks for a
film, jazz legend and innovator Miles Davis’ score for French director Louis Malle’s
1958 first feature – the “perfect murder”
crime thriller “Elevator to the Gallows” – is not only extraordinary for the
music, but for something else as well.
totally improvised by Davis and his musicians. I can’t think of another film
score that was completely improvised for a film, and on top of that was so
perfect for it.
The story of
how it came about is fascinating. In the fall of 1957, Davis was in Paris for a major
club gig. As it happened, Malle’s assistant, who happened to attend one of the performances, was so struck by Davis’ music that the assistant went to Malle and suggested that Davis
do the score for the film, which was then in post-production.
Davis with the offer and he agreed, and got together with his band shorly
afterward to record the score. But in what was then an unheard of move, “Davis
only gave the musicians a few rudimentary harmonic sequences he had assembled
in his hotel room, and once the plot was explained, the band improvised without
any pre-composed theme, while edited loops of the musically relevant film
sequences were projected in the background.”
The end result
is simply a masterpiece. The perfect combination of film and music, creating a
sense of mood and place. Davis’ music acts as a sort of commentary about the characters
and the tragic, desperate situation that they find themselves caught up in. Jazz
critic Jean-Louis Ginibre later wrote in Jazz magazine that Davis had “raised himself to greater heights during the sessions, and became aware of the
tragic character of his music which, until then, had been only dimly
or not, the soundtrack, for many years, was not released in the U.S. – until the
Below is a
film clip of Davis in the studio recording the film’s score, while intensely watching
the film on the screen, followed by a brief interview with Malle. It’s in French
of course without translation, but one can get a pretty good idea of what he’s
saying – that he owes a lot to Davis for making a good film into a great one.
is the trailer for “Elevator to the Gallows,” with Davis’ music, as one can see
immediately how perfect it is for the film, evocatively setting the mood and tone.
It’s one of the greatest examples that I can think of to show how the right music can transform
any movie, raising it to a higher level.