Henry Mancini: A Shot in the Dark

Yes, indeed. It was in the 1960s that humanity arguably witnessed the pinnacle of creative film scoring:

Ennio Morricone’s seminal work for Sergio Leone on A Fist Full of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly; Serge Gainsbourg’s Anna and the sitar driven, psychadelic-funk sounds from La Pacha (which inspired, in-part, the late ’90s sound of the Austin Powers trilogy); and of course, folkies Simon & Garfunkel‘s accompaniment to The Graduate and the super-popping Beatles compositions for their filmsA Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, and Yellow Submarine.

Yet despite the stiff competition, one artist, Henry Mancini, managed to consistently rise above the fray. While Morricone’s work is sublime, Mancini’s soundtracks scored hits – and filled everyday living rooms with big-note easy-to-play piano fakebooks. Works such as The Pink Panther, Moon River (from Breakfast At Tiffany’s), Baby Elephant Walk (from the film Hatari), Peter Gunn Theme (aka “Spyhunter”), and more flowed from his restless pen.

Mancini’s scores generally fall into one of two genres, sappy romance and slapstick action (heretofore including comedic spy flicks), which often, and unfortunately, renders them fodder for late night Public TV fundraising drives. Not because they are bad, they are extraordinary, but rather because they hail from an era your mother fondly remembers.

One thing I particularly enjoy about many of the 1960s soundtracks is that they were released on LPs as complete symphonic works – containing full songs wrapped in preludes, overtures and variations – not unlike a classical experimentation by Liszt or Bach – and often create themes (composed to illicit specific emotional reactions) utilizing strands of musical variation culled from elsewhere in the film.

Uniquely, these themes live on, long beyond the life of the film, and bereft of their visual accompaniments & associative meanings they beg to be redefined.

Observe one particularly striking example: The Italian film, Svezia: Inferno e Paradiso (Sweden: Heaven and Hell), was released in 1968 and related nine differing aspects of deviant nordic sexuality (from lesbian nightclubs, swinging couples, and teenage experimentation, to drugs and suicide). The soundtrack was scored by a young Italian named Piero Umiliani and included a melody he had written specifically to compliment a steamy sauna scene known as Mah Nà Mah Nà.

Yeah, that Mahna Mahna.

While Umiliani ultimately graduated to scoring soft-core porn films, Mahna Mahna became every child’s favorite after being featured on both Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show and NET/PBS’ Sesame Street.

Thus, Mancini is remembered not so much for creating aural landscapes as pop-chart worthy theme songs. Hits that launched cinematic dynasties where there were none, not only paving, but gilding the road for John Williams’ string of ’70s & ’80s blockbusters.

It’s true that Mancini’s complete soundtracks are not as remarkable nor humbling as those of Morricone, yet his compilations indicate a level of breadth and skillfulness now recognized as chiefly important in popularizing movies that without him would have long been forgotten by civil society.  It is for this reason above all others that Mancini is still one of the greats.

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