A Book Review by Jack Curtis Dubowsky.
Henry Mancini—the iconic composer of ‘Moon River,’ ‘Peter Gunn,’ ‘Baby Elephant Walk,’ ‘The Pink Panther,’ over 100 feature films, and winner of twenty Grammys and four academy awards—leaves a problematic musical legacy. As John Caps, author of this new book, puts it, “His personal sound was more than mere pop music while something less than pure jazz: a combination of pop melody and jazz inflections of the so-called West Coast Cool school.” (p.1-2)
Mancini’s catchy, light, jazz-flavored, semi-symphonic film scores coincide with a larger group of composers and business interests who pushed away from the heavier stylings of ‘Golden Age’ Hollywood film music. Annette Davison shows, in Alex North’s A Streetcar Named Desire: A Film Score Guide (2009), composers such as Alex North used jazz as dramatic underscore well before Mancini, as early as 1951. Mancini’s contemporaries, including Elmer Bernstein, John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, and Quincy Jones, also contributed to mid-century jazz pop film scores. But Mancini got the most popular recognition of the bunch, becoming a household name and releasing a chain of popular stereophonic LPs.
Caps’ book is an occasionally entertaining read that frustratingly falls short of being a fully-fleshed, authoritative text. While the author conducted interviews with Mancini and family members, the book is shy on context, slim in bibliography, missing citations and transcriptions, and seemingly unaware or disinterested in current academic discourse.
While the book has long narratological descriptions of films and verbose descriptions of their music, what’s lacking is biographical content about the man himself, his contemporaries, and his relationships. Additionally, his time at Juillard, his military service, and his post-war time in Nice, one of the “best periods” of his life (p.11), are rapidly glossed over. His problems with his son are left vague, and even that material is cited from Mancini’s autobiography, Did They Mention The Music? (2012), rather than the author’s interviews. Contrast this to the gut-wrenching stories of Quincy Jones’ strained relationship with his own son in Q: The Autobiography of Quincy Jones (2002), and the lack becomes apparent. Are Mancini’s personal highs and lows not an essential part of his story?
Admittedly, the book focuses on Mancini’s ‘reinvention’ of film music, but this is more an omission of other work (light music LPs for example) than any coherent argument. Mancini rode a jazz pop wave through the 50s and 60s, and created a distinctive, recognizable sound, but he hardly ‘reinvented’ film music on his own. Light music is so maligned that there is no mention of, say, Mancini’s remarkable Beatles suite on Encore! This type of omission only further underscores the problematic nature of Mancini’s work; we need to rediscover and reappraise his ‘easy listening’ material as well as his lost or rejected film scores of the 70s and 80s.
Another problem with the book is the imprecision in musical and technical descriptions which cause the reader to lose faith in Caps’ credibility. Caps writes, “The ‘Peter Gunn Theme’ opens with a steady-stomping ostinato in E minor for bass guitar that could be in any rock band.” (p.46) Except that it’s an electric guitar that has the signature riff. And if Caps can’t distinguish between bass guitar and electric guitar, well, it’s also noted in the score published in Mancini’s Sounds and Scores, which is not only in Caps’ own bibliography, but a text Caps discusses at length. Oh, and ‘Peter Gunn’ is also in F major.
Other descriptions are confusing and ambiguous, without citations or transcriptions in proper musical notation. “Here they begin to repeat a tricky alternating 7/4 and 5/4 (12/8) meter against a minor key fragment” (p. 67). So, you’re saying 5/4 is the same as 12/8? Or you’re saying 7/4 + 5/4 = 12/8? Transcription please. “The soundtrack climaxes in two high, piercing trumpet spurts, one of which is fed through a reverberation filter to sound like a cry of pain” (p. 38). Do you mean an echo chamber? Or can you please explain what a 1958-era ‘reverberation filter’ is? Much of the book will baffle attentive readers, both the novice and the educated alike.
The book frequently devolves into pages and pages of movie plots and flowery, if untrustworthy, descriptions of music. I get the idea; maybe the reader will be inspired to watch some of these films. Without citations or sources, Caps’ opinions on films and scores seem overly personal. He finds 10 a serious dissection of middle-aged angst but doesn’t hide his disdain for Mommie Dearest. He recounts anecdotes and spouts appraisals without making clear if they are from Mancini himself, other sources, or his own judgment. “There was a coalition of Broadway insiders always suspicious of any California poser, predicting – even hoping – he [Blake Edwards] would fail” (p. 226).
Caps is more an advocate for Mancini than an objective biographer. We feel the author‘s pain when a Mancini score is thrown out. And through the 1980s period, Caps makes repeated comparisons to the career of John Williams, without explaining whether this was an obsession of Mancini’s as well. “The intrepid John Williams still ruled with one prestigious assignment after another, prodded by but not dependent upon his associations with directors Spielberg and Lucas. Oscar nominations seemed to rain on him” (p. 205). If this was an actual rivalry, we are missing quotes from Mancini on it. While Williams and Mancini were contemporaries and colleagues, solid information on how their paths crossed and how they interacted is lacking.
I am curious how this slipped by on a university press. If this book had been written in collaboration with a knowledgeable musicologist or with greater consultation, it could have been an important scholarly work. As it is, it may do well on the popular market for those who’d like suggestions for which Mancini films to see. But the book, although thoroughly describing Mancini’s film scores, is far from being a definitive critical study. The door is still open for more work on Mancini, and on his contemporaries and colleagues as well.
Jack Curtis Dubowsky has scored six feature films. He writes about film, music, and popular culture. He has taught at NYU, Academy of Art University, and McNally Smith College of Music. He has a MM in Composition from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He is a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. His sheet music is distributed by JW Pepper, Sheetmusicplus, and Theodore Front.