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  • Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-Existing Music in Film
  • Kendra Preston Leonard
Changing Tunes: The Use of Pre-Existing Music in Film. By Phil Powrie and Robynn Stilwell. (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series.) Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006. [226 p. ISBN 0-7546-5137-1. $89.95.] Illustrations, music examples, filmography, bibliography, index.

In this collection of essays, editors Phil Powrie and Robynn Stilwell, both well-known for their own work in music and film, seek to illuminate the use of and responses to the inclusion of pre-existing compositions in a variety of film genres and historical periods. For the most part, the scholarship represented in this book is indicative of the newness of the field itself: some essays are paragons of clarity and reasoned analysis; others are trying to find an ideological home amid a wealth of information and a sea of possible approaches; and a few could have benefited from more space for explanation or more time for incubation before publication.

The true value of the collection lies in three outstanding articles by Kristi A. Brown, Jeongwon Joe, and Phil Powrie. Joe, in "Reconsidering Amadeus: Mozart as Film Music," offers a powerfully reasoned and well-articulated response to the myriad of musicologists (and others) who took offence at the much-edited and re-coded Mozart works used for the score of Amadeus. In her article, Joe reiterates the fact that the film is not, in fact, a true biopic of the composer, but rather what playwright Peter Shaffer emphasized, a "fantasia on events in Mozart's life." What makes the soundtrack for the film work so well, Joe argues, is that it offers a non-specialist public a greater understanding of both the actions and events taking place on the screen, creating what she terms the "third meeting" (borrowing from Roland Barthes). Her response to fact-based criticisms of the film from a primarily pro-high-culture is that such criteria have no reasonable place in evaluating film soundtracks, especially those for films expressly not presented as factual; in doing so, critics ignore the essential use of the music, that which contributes to the whole.

Kristi A. Brown's work "The Troll Among Us" revisits the old chestnut that is "From the Hall of the Mountain King," from Grieg's Peer Gynt suite and establishes for a vast majority of audiences a new view of the work and its underlying meaning when used in recent film. Written with an easy, casual style appropriate for scholars in a wide array of disciplines, "The Troll Among Us" positions the rumbling dance as both a clue as to the heinous identity of the bad guy (demonstrated in M and Needful Things) and as a accompaniment to petty villainy (Rat Race). Drawing on traditional Scandinavian uses of the troll in folk literature and the appropriation of the troll as an ambiguous creature "between the human and the monstrous," Brown traces the lineage of the troll in contemporary society from its folk beginnings to its indirect association with Jews and then the SS. The troll is shown in M to be both the murderer and the crowd howling for his "extinguishment." In Needful Things, the character initially portrayed as the troll—the demonic Leland Gaunt—cleverly masterminds a [End Page 627] scheme by which nearly the entire populace of the town is taken over by its trollish nature. While Brown is correct in her assessment of the score as "heavy-handed," it is effective nonetheless quite simply because of the instant recognition of the "Mountain King" tune and the sinister darkness it has come to represent throughout popular culture. Subtelty is not needed or even wanted at this juncture: this is a horror movie made from a Stephen King novel, pure and simple, and the use of known motives both visual and musical affords the film exactly what it needs to reach its target audience.

In her conclusions, Brown points to other recent pop-culture appropriations of themes and motives from Peer Gynt, both textually and musically. This seems a rich field for further exploration and publication, and Brown's flair and analytical skills position her perfectly as...


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