SoundTreks | L.A. Confidential
When music historians – or perhaps just casual music fans – refer to the popular music of the 1950s (and this was before it was appropriate to refer to anything in culture as “pop”), they most frequently refer to the growing tide of kid-friendly rock ‘n’ roll that was just beginning to swell. Rockabilly took root (located way back in the corners of music) and by the mid-1950s, rock ‘n’ roll had made its way to a mass audience.
Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film L.A. Confidential takes place in 1953. It’s about adults doing adult things. It’s about toughness, not cool. 1953 was a time when rock was drifting around, but it was a minor blip in the culture’s consciousness, usually remaining with the children. In 1953, adults – especially the square, white, often corrupt cops of the movie, were listening to standards and to jazz. It wasn’t all malt shop sh’boom, bubblegum, and Elvis. See my review of the Hairspray soundtrack for that.
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So how fitting that Hanson’s movie should have a soundtrack record that focused on the music of the mature of 1953. The lounge, the jazz, the white man’s three-martini lunch soundtrack. This was what was on the radio. This was when popular music was represented by mellow vocals, smooth cool, and people with actual singing chops. The music used in L.A. Confidential is perfect, perhaps as perfect as the movie itself (which is, dear readers, an indelible crime classic). I would talk more about the movie, but we’d be here all day. Suffice to say, it’s one of my personal favorites.
SoundTreks will now happily look at the OST for L.A. Confidential, and try to surmise just how great it is.
Track 1. “Badge of Honor” – Jerry Goldsmith
This track – the one that kicks off the record – doesn’t, strictly speaking, appear in the film in its proper form. Badge of Honor was the film’s imaginary analogue to Dragnet, and Jerry Goldsmith’s opening piece is the TV show’s theme song. The producers of this soundtrack record clearly wanted this to serve as the theme to the whole record. It serves that function well, and evokes old crime shows perfectly. I would have perhaps appreciated, however, an artificially aged recording. Something that sounds like it was coming from the tinny speakers of a 1952 cathode ray tube.
L.A. Confidential had a separately-released score album. This track does not appear on it.
Track 2. “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” – Johnny Mercer
Johnny Mercer founded Capitol Records, by the way. Mercer wrote the lyrics, and the music was by Harold Arlen of The Wizard of Oz fame. “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” is, depending on how you look at it, either obnoxiously upbeat, or merely joyously affirmative. I hear it as the latter. Mercer’s folky vocals and silly lyrics are chipper and sincere.
I immediately find that this soundtrack will serve two simultaneous functions. On one level, it will be a dynamite collection of nostalgic hits from the 1940s and early ’50s, exploring the jazz and pop vocals of the time with a cheer and enthusiasm. But, when taken in the context of the film (and paired with the criminal notes of the first track), you’ll find that most of the songs are going to be used ironically, often juxtaposed with violence and corruption.
A fun game to play with this soundtrack. While listening to any track, picture someone getting murdered. That’s a bit dark, masculine of the tone of the movie.
Track 3. “The Christmas Blues” – Dean Martin
Another gentle hit used ironically. “The Christmas Blues” is especially dark in context, since – as we see early in the movie – a group of violent cops are taken to task by the city for savagely beating some imprisoned Mexicans on Christmas Eve. In the film, it’s called “Bloody Christmas.” Dean sings about the blues. A savage pummeling goes beyond “blue,” I’d say.
Track 4. “Look for the Silver Lining” – Chet Baker
My murder game doesn’t quite work with this track. Chet Baker’s gentle voice, paired with an even gentler jazz trio behind him is just too damn mellow and relaxing – perhaps – to work as irony. Unlike Mercer’s track above, this song does not work as camp or comedy. This is something you can just enjoy listening to with a snifter and a cigar. It’s too upbeat to punch above its weight in the jazz world, but it’s plenty good.
Track 5. “Makin’ Whoopie” – Gerry Mulligan Quartet
The cool thing about jazz is its ability to shape whatever it needs. Jazz can take a song like “Makin’ Whoopee,” which was essentially a novelty song from the 1920s, and turn it into mood music. I’ve heard jazz renditions of the Super Mario Bros. music, and it sounds great. The Gerry Mulligan Quartet took a silly song, and made it smoky and sexy. Its sophistication is perfect for the fabric of L.A. Confidential.
Also, remember when Michelle Pfeiffer sang this on the piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys?
Track 6. “Hit the Road to Dreamland” – Betty Hutton
The song is another upbeat standard about retiring for the night. It has a backing chorus, a xylophone, and a cartoony plinkiness that marks it as 100% uncool. I like how this record seems to be vacillating between hot jazz and mildly goofy pop hits.
In the context of the film, people are, as I suggested, being murdered to this song. The music serves as a dark commentary on the divide between consumable pop product, and the actual darkness of the world. We in the modern world often associate the past – and the 1950s in particular – with heightened purity and naïveté. We listen to the early ’50s, and we hear songs like this. In reality, there were still violent crimes, sexual expression, cussing, drinking, gambling, and all manner of vice and hate.
The soundtrack may serve as a deliberate counterbalance.
Track 7. “Oh! Look at Me Now” – Lee Wiley
Lee Wiley has a nice voice. She’s not as clear-voiced as Kay Starr, or as sultry as Julie London (one of my favorite female jazz vocalists), but I like the breathiness of her high notes.
Track 8. “The Lady is a Tramp” – Gerry Mulligan Quartet
Using the word “tramp” as a synonym for “slut” is a recent invention. There is no sluttiness involved in this song. It’s a jazz version anyway, so no lyrics.
“The Lady is a Tramp” originally appeared in the Rodgers & Hart musical Babes in Arms. The title evokes something sort of playfully naughty about the eponymous lady, although the lyrics (heard elsewhere) are actually about a middle-class woman who is considered a tramp by New York high society. It’s a playful, comedic song. L.A. Confidential does feature a main character who also works as a high-end prostitute (played by Oscar-winner Kim Basinger), but I would not call her a tramp by either definition. Another juxtaposed-opposites application?
Track 9. “Wheel of Fortune” – Kay Starr
“Wheel of Fortune” was a number one hit in 1952, making it the most contemporary song on the soundtrack. This is a song that plays over a montage of various high society character living it up at ritzy parties, as well as city official breaking ground on the very first Los Angeles freeway (those concrete veins would become the defining feature of the city in the coming decades). We also see Bud White (Russell Crowe) roughing up gangsters, and the police corruption machine in full swing. It’s sung by Kay Starr, a living legend (she’s 93) of jazz and country vocals, who has lead a long and awesome life. Look her up sometime. And buy a few of her records.
The song is about yearning and longing. It is not about fortune, nor is it about beating bad guys in motel rooms. More juxtaposition of concepts!
Track 10. “But Not for Me” – Jackie Gleason
Jackie Gleason is one of the most amazing people in show business, and thrived as a conductor of what he called “mood music,” but what we refer today as “lounge,” in the early 1960s. He produced, no lie, 58 records during his lifetime. Too few people follow his musical carer today, and I admit I only bought my first Jackie Gleason compilation the day before yesterday. Thanks, L.A. Confidential OST, for making sure we know.
Track 11. “How Important Can It Be?” – Joni James
“How Important Can It Be?” was published in 1955, making it the first and only proper anachronism on the soundtrack. I’ll forgive it. It sets the mood. Although Joni James seems, to me, to be girlier and less cosmopolitan than her contemporaries on this album. It’s the only track on the record that I can take or leave. I like the plaintive wailing of Kay Starr or Lee Wiley’s breathy high notes more than Joni James relatively bland singing.
Track 12. “Looking At You” – Lee Wiley
It’s amazing how much Cole Porter got around. Call me odd, but when it comes to a lot of old jazz vocal standards like this one, I prefer older, muffled recordings. I imagine that is just misplaced nostalgia on my part. The scratchy sound quality is more evocative and emotional to my ear.
It’s notable that Lee Wiley is, aside from Gerry Mulligan, the only artist to appear on this soundtrack twice. When making mix tapes back in the day, we had a no-artist-repetition rule of etiquette, which would only be broken if there was sufficient space in between the repeated tracks. Reusing a few artists doesn’t feel gauche here, however, as it feeds into the general mood of the record. Also, it sounds different enough, that it adds to texture, rather than taking away.
Track 13. “Powder Your Face with Sunshine” – Dean Martin
I feel like a moratorium needs to be placed on any Rat Pack members appearing on film soundtracks. Not that dislike any of them; indeed, Deano is my favorite. Furthermore, it’s a more obscure cut from his library, so it’s a little more palatable. I suppose if we’re using the brightest of popular songs to throw police corruption into greater relief, then a title like “Powder Your Face with Sunshine” is still appropriate. I’ll allow it.
Track 14. “L.A. Confidential” – Jerry Goldsmith
It’s easy to trace the connection between jazz and crime. Jazz and crime movies are so inextricably linked, that we rarely think to separate them, or can even think of a time when they were apart. Indeed, anyone making a modern noir is going to immediately an instinctively go for a jazzy sound, including smoky vocals or at least a sweaty, slutty saxophone solo. Jazz, recall, is “black” music, and the black community was, back in the 1940s, often associated with crime, drugs, etc. by the white community (an unfortunate tradition, as we’ve come to learn). It’s also a very sensual music, evoking sex and heat; it’s been said that the word “jazz” began as coital slang. Sex, drugs, and jazz. It’s a heady, moody, versatile, but often lascivious music.
Goldsmith’s score is brasher and more forthright than some of the jazz of the time, but it does punctuate the darkness running underneath the whole record.
Which is Better? The Soundtrack or the Movie?
The record is great. The movie is still better. The movie allows the ironic context of the songs to stand out. The record does have notes of that irony thanks to the first and last track acting as sort of crime-laced parentheses, but one could easily lay back to the soundtrack record and fully enjoy it on a mere mood level. Here’s what L.A. sounded like in the early 1950s. It’s a straightforward pre-jukebox rundown of hit jazz standards, and not a bad one at that.
The movie, however, is an insanely well put-together drama that has much more texture and mood. In the movie, the music works on several levels, sometimes even wisely conflicting with one another. Also, it should be mentioned, that the movie is a character piece, and Jerry Goldsmith’s score actually dictates the tone of each character more than any of the above selections. The central trio of characters – square Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), thug Bud White (Crowe), and dandy Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) are indelible creations who compliment one another beautifully. I don’t hear any of them them on this record.
Actually, I may hear a bit of Exley hiding in here; these might be records Ed Exley would own. Bud White would own rockabilly records. Vincennes would own more freestyle jazz, and maybe old wartime big band. I would love to see two more volumes of L.A. Confidential, both of them conceptual music collections of the characters.