I watched a film over the weekend called The Long Goodbye. It was a chance pick on a quiet Friday night; the fact that it was a Robert Altman film was the main reason I gave it a chance. It turned out to be an unexpectedly amazing flick. I can’t stop thinking about it and it was one of the best films I’ve seen for ages. It’s Altman’s take on film noir, transposing a genre typical of the fifties and plopping it into modern day California (circa 1973). He plays with the cliches of the genre twisting it a little because instead of offering the self-assured, morally incorruptible gumshoe that audiences expect, Altman turns Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe (played nicely by an unlikely Elliot Gould) into a lost and conflicted man.
When I saw John Williams’ name listed in the opening credits, I scoffed, wondering what a guy like that is doing scoring a film like this. Williams is Hollywood legend responsible for scoring E.T, Star Wars, Superman, Jaws….you get the idea. This film doesn’t even make it to his discography on Wikipedia, and I would assume it was one of his first scores. Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics.
What makes this an unusual soundtrack is the fact that it consists of only this one song, The Long Goodbye – a composition that is reinterpreted several times in different ways throughout the movie. It appears in the title as a jazz piece, performed by the Dave Grusin trio, sang by Jack Sheldon and later as a hippie chant, supermarket muzak, radio music and so on. This treatment of the title theme was Altman’s idea and supposed to reflect the mood and culture of the different kinds of people that Marlow encounters on his travels.
Another reason this soundtrack is unusual is because it occurs purely as diegetic film music. This is music that appears as part of the narrative or within the world of the character in the story. The music we hear in the film, is the music that Marlow hears, it’s not an underscore, or, in similar terms, non-diegetic. It creates a unique mood during the film and really adds to the appeal of the entire production. I love this soundtrack and I love this movie. Seek this one out.