If you regularly brave the dust and despair, trawling through op shop record crates you’d be more than familiar with a smiling man bearing an optimistic comb over. If you move beyond the grinning facade you’ll find unremarkable muzak versions of popular film themes. The man is Henry Mancini and the LP you’re holding both secured his success and constrained his development.
His own music is iconic, tunes like Baby Elephant Walk, Peter Gun, The Pink Panther Theme, and Moon River. Short of Ennio Morricone’s theme to The Good the Bad and The Ugly, or John Williams’ Jaws or Star Wars, Henry Mancini is responsible for many of the best known sounds in the history of film music. His ability to combine a light orchestral score, with a compelling melody and a cool West Coast jazz feel – often with a pop vocal, had him pegged in the 1960’s as an easy and popular choice for filmmakers and the public. To some extent his popularity as one of the first superstars of film music has retrospectively worked against him, with history remembering his lighter more commercial fare, not helped by the numerous aforementioned op shops littered with his cheesy orchestral muzak.
Yet in recent years artists like John Zorn via his Naked City project (Covering A Shot in the Dark) and Mike Patton via Fantomas (Covering Charade) or even Patton’s score for a Perfect Place which owes a huge debt to Mancini, have demonstrated the composer’s legacy upon this generation’s more forward thinking composers.
Mancini enjoyed success early suggests John Caps in his biography, Henry Mancini: Reinventing Film Music (University of Illinois Press/Footprint), landing at Universal Studios in 1952 as part of a factory of composers. Yet in 6 short years he would be scoring Orson Welles incredible though mercilessly butchered Mexican noir Touch of Evil, and The Glen Miller Story, which is ironic as after the war Miller ignored him when forming his band, yet for this score Mancini won his first Academy award.
Mancini’s breakthrough came through Blake Edwards’ TV show Peter Gunn, beginning a relationship that would continue until his death. In fact it was Mancini’s subsequent scores in the early 60’s, such as Pink Panther and it’s sequel A Shot in the Dark with bright sophisticated jazz scores and a cheeky swinging feel that cemented his reputation. At this time new HiFi record players exploded in lounge rooms across the US, and the public wanting uber cool sophisticated styles, in short they wanted Mancini. His film scores, often with at least a couple of light poppy vocal numbers became huge sellers, bringing further attention to the film.
Desperate to move beyond being ‘that sophisticated jazz guy,’ into more narrative based scoring, and utilise the styles he’d learnt at Universal, Caps uncovers a brief ‘experimental period in the 70’s, when Mancini and Blake Edwards fell out for a decade. Phillip Kaufman’s White Dawn, a Scandinavian thriller called The Night Visitor and Vittorio De Sica’s Sunflower all offered opportunities to play with ethnic styles, darker themes and, avant garde dissonance. Yet ultimately when serious directors requested his services, like De Sica or Hitchcock, who hired him for Frenzy, he was inevitably walking into a battleground between directors and producers. He may have wanted to challenge and stretch himself, yet financial pressures had the money men (and often the director desperate for a hit) wanting something, safe, melodic and Mancini. As a result his Frenzy score was rejected by Hitchcock as too Bernard Herrman.
It’s always the pop stars lament to be taken seriously, yet Caps demonstrates that Mancini had the talent to do so much more, never really grasping the opportunity, and by the early 80’s when former protégé’s like John Williams was helming big symphonic score like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark it was all too late.
Whilst broadly detailing Mancini’s family life, Caps focuses squarely in his scores, analysing and discussing them in detail with a rare candour, offering a portrait of a man for whom the music flowed easily, yet to some extent became a prisoner of his own success.