Mixing Music and Movies

Gary LeMel is credited with helping Hollywood change its tune when he introduced pop music to movies.

February 28, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

His work is up for an Academy Award for the 17th time, but today, Gary LeMel seems more interested in Baltimore than in the prospect of winning a second gold statue.

"I haven't spent much time here," says the head of worldwide music for Warner Bros. films as he strides through Mount Vernon on a recent windy afternoon. "But I've worked with [director] Barry Levinson many times. I can see why he loves it here. What a sense of history."

You might say the same of LeMel, a 57-year-old who is to movie soundtracks what the Washington Monument is to the local scenery - a landmark still in the middle of the action.

Twenty-odd years ago, the man with the salt-and-pepper hair and West Coast tan staked his career on a simple notion - that pop songs and movies could do a lot for each other - and rode it to major achievement. In 1986, his department at Warner Bros. picked up a Best Score Oscar for 'Round Midnight. Tomorrow, it could win a Best Song award for "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," from A Mighty Wind.

Self-evident as the idea of mixing pop songs and movies sounds today, it was revolutionary at the time. LeMel used it to help remake the film and music industries.

On his first project, A Star Is Born (1976), he saw that a catchy single like "Evergreen," which he talked Barbra Streisand into recording, could energize a film, score radio play, drive a soundtrack and create a lucrative nexus of art and promotion.

Smashes like The Big Chill (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), The Bodyguard (1992) - which spawned the best-selling soundtrack of all time - and High Fidelity (2000) affirmed LeMel's status as "the godfather of the modern soundtrack," in the words of an industry magazine. He just finished wrapping Taking Lives, an Ethan Hawke vehicle, in London, and on his way back to California has stopped in Baltimore to chat up his new solo CD and talk movies.

In black T-shirt and tailored blazer, he looks every inch the Hollywood mogul, but the sights keep catching his eye.

"Dig that - jazz on Thursday nights," he says, reading the sign in front of Sascha's cafe on North Charles Street. "Looks like a great place. Let's go on in."

Asinger and multi-instrumentalist, LeMel started out wanting to be a pop star. When his first label, Vee-Jay, stumbled on the Beatles in 1964, it realigned its priorities. "If I were good enough, I could've hacked that competition," he says, laughing.

Composing for film didn't work - "all `B' material, rotten stuff," he says - but he caught on as a talent rep and music producer. When a generation of directors raised on rock began making films and clamored for an updated sound, LeMel knew the right principals on both sides.

A string of top films at Columbia helped him draw a new blueprint for the modern soundtrack. "Evergreen" hit No. 1, triggering 6 million album sales. The Big Chill drew movie fans from the theater straight into record stores. He moved to Warner Bros. in 1986 and now oversees music - "score, soundtrack, songs" - for some 30 films a year.

There's no formula for blending image, music and talent, but the studio gets LeMel a script early so he can learn the story. He talks it through with the director, developing a feel for mood. He'll hire a composer he thinks will agree with his vision. Then he'll have a reading with the composer and director. "That sets the tone," he says. "We see if everybody's head is in the same place."

After that, his input varies. If a project is on the fast track, he might be intimately involved. Last week, working on Taking Lives, he found classical composer Phillip Glass surprisingly open to suggestion. He did less on "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow." "[Director] Chris Guest and [songwriter-actor] Mike McKean are geniuses," he says. "They wrote the music and performed it. I showed up at the set to listen. I love staying out of the way."

LeMel has a drill for teaching how music brings movie imagery to life. "I'll show footage of guys running on a beach," he says. "That says nothing. Then I drop the music in, and the mood becomes, `Hey, these are important guys running on a beach. Something great is about to happen!' That's how you get a Chariots of Fire."

Music can also solve problems. Directors have limited time to shoot, so they often fail to get just what they want. "They think they're going to re-shoot a scene, but they never get a chance," he says. "They rely on music to heighten elements they didn't get - say, a sense of danger - by adding a musical `sting.' That happens a lot."

Some directors are easier to work with than others. When LeMel started out, he found that few knew what they wanted musically. Taylor Hackford, his partner on Against All Odds (1984), and Joel Schumacher (Lost Boys, 1987), were exceptions: Their backgrounds in TV and music gave them a dual vocabulary. Now that songs and films are so firmly linked, more directors know the music they want and the artists they can pick from.

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