Petra Haden picks her favorite cinematic scores of all time
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In I Made You A Mixtape, we ask our favorite musicians, actors, writers, directors, or whatevers to strut their musical savvy: We pick a theme, they make us a mix.
The mixer: That Dog.’s Petra Haden is no stranger to the world of a cappella. Back in 2005, she released Petra Haden Sings: The Who Sell Out, her solo take on the British band’s classic album. And she released an a cappella cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” in 2007, two long years before the kids of Glee funked up their version. Her latest project is Petra Goes To The Movies, where Haden takes on 16 different movie scores, from Psycho to Superman. Given that she’s such a movie-music expert, The A.V. Club asked Haden to go even deeper into the world of film and run down the list of her all-time favorite scores, singable or not.
When I first saw the movie, I just loved how the story and the music fit it so perfectly. I wonder about how the composers were just meant to score these movies. Like Shawshank Redemption. The music sounds like—to me, it tells the story, too.
The A.V. Club: Can you appreciate these scores separate from the movie, or are they tied to the movie for you?
PH: It’s kind of both. For Shawshank Redemption, it’s the score with the movie at the same time. I wish I finished music school, because then I feel like I could talk more about the dissonant notes. There are all these terms I’m not familiar with, but the score almost reminds me of an ocean of sounds that build and build, and it makes the tension build along with the scene. In quiet scenes, too, there are subtleties in the music that are just perfect.
The Conversation (1974) by David Shire
PH: The Conversation was a movie I saw probably for the first time in the early 2000s. I immediately loved the piano and just how simple it is. There’s a blues feel to it. This lonely person cuts himself off from society and is a recluse, and sometimes I feel that way, so I relate to just having that piano throughout the movie. I feel like I relate a lot to that emotionally, just that feeling of being alone and kind of depressed.
AVC: How did you decide what songs and scores to put on the record?
PH: I had this long list, and I didn’t really think that much. At the last minute, I saw The Social Network, and I said, “Okay, I need to tack this one on, because the music is so outstanding, I have to sing it.” I walked out of the theater and called my producer and I said, “We need to do “Hand Covers Bruise” right away, so let me know when you’re available.”
A lot of them were just a given. Superman, yes. Psycho, yes. Cinema Paradiso. Those were ones I already had planned to be on the record. I started recording, actually, around 2005. [Laughs.] See, it’s the story of my life. It takes me forever to put a record out. I was either really busy with touring with other bands, or I had a period where I felt like I didn’t have it in me to work on it.
Really, I think it first came with the movies themselves, and not the music. Of course the music has a lot to do with it, but I just like certain actors in the movie and the stories. I’m thinking of Vertigo, which I wanted to sing for the album, but I didn’t. It ended up being Psycho, but I just love movies about voyeurism and the characters being secretive and trying to accomplish these tasks that are dangerous and scary, and The Conversation was that kind of thriller of movie I liked.
Vertigo (1958) by Bernard Herrmann
PH: Vertigo was a movie that was just easy to follow. Some movies aren’t easy to follow. Actually, like, Casablanca—we’ll get to that, but I feel like I need to know more about history to understand that movie. … When I watch movies, I love that tense feeling of these dramas. And the music fit it perfectly. It’s amazing to me—I can’t imagine anyone else scoring that movie but Bernard Herrmann. It makes so much sense.
Casablanca (1942) by Max Steiner
PH: I love the theme Max Steiner arranged around “As Time Goes By.” He adds his own thing to it that makes it more beautiful than it already is. I love big, orchestral, romantic-sounding music, and he just made that even more romantic-sounding to me. I just love old movies, too. Old film-noir movies. There’s something comforting about watching black-and-white movies, and hearing this kind of music just puts me in a fantasy world. It’s a really great escape for me.
Racing With The Moon (1984) by Dave Grusin
PH: I’m trying to remember the music. That movie is another really sad story, and the music is sad. There’s a positive feeling around the music too that is kind of lighthearted, but I feel like it worked perfectly with the story of the movie.
I just love all of the scores Dave Grusin did, like On Golden Pond. I remember when I sang the theme to Tootsie, I was reading about him and it popped up that he did the music to My Bodyguard. And I didn’t even know that. I was thinking, “Wow. No wonder all this music is similar, and it’s no coincidence that I have a few songs by Dave Grusin that I love.”
There’s a sadness in his music that I relate to. I don’t know if it’s because I’m just a sad person by nature; I don’t know what it is, but I connect to it. But along with that, there’s a positivity that I feel when I listen to it, even though it’s sad. It’s like a sad story that ends in a happy way.
King Kong (1976) by John Barry
PH: King Kong, there was a time when I couldn’t stop listening to it. I was just walking around listening to King Kong on my headphones. It reminds me a little bit of Bernard Herrmann, where there’s a darkness to it, but it turns into a romantic soundtrack. I like things that start depressing and dark and end up romantic, and that’s what I really loved about King Kong. And of course I always relate the music to the characters, like—Jeff Bridges? There was a point where if I ran into Jeff Bridges on the street, I would immediately think of John Barry. It’s funny how music does that.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) by John Williams
AVC: That movie has an incredibly iconic theme.
PH: I know, and that was another song I wanted on the album, but I had too many John Williams tracks. I had to do Superman because it’s my all-time favorite movie since I was a kid. I had posters of Superman, and people in high school would give me the Superman album, or a picture of Christopher Reeve. Anything related to Superman people would be reminded of me, like “Oh my God, I saw Margot Kidder in the store, and I thought of you.” When Christopher Reeve died, a ton of people called and were asking me if I was okay.
But again, John Williams. That score, I just relate it so much to Superman and to the actor Christopher Reeve. It’s bizarre, but there are cues in that movie that are just gorgeous to me, that almost make me feel the way the romantic parts of King Kong do. There’s a part in Superman the movie when Superman and Margot Kidder are flying over Manhattan, and there are parts of King Kong that could easily fit over that.
There are also certain cues that I wanted to sing for the album, but I just stuck to the main theme because everyone knows that, and it was easy for me to sing, because I’ve had it memorized since I was a kid. And it makes a difference when you love it so much. It just makes the whole process a lot easier.
AVC: Why is Superman your favorite movie?
PH: Oh my God. The way it was filmed, certain scenes are just really weird. You know the way Otis [Ned Beatty’s character] is kind of a dumbbell, and Gene Hackman makes fun of him? That’s a kind of slapstick in that movie that I really love. There’s humor that really got to me and really made me feel happy. The comedy part of it, I really loved. And the way the love story between Superman and Lois Lane goes, and the fact that she didn’t know Clark Kent was really Superman. That kind of thing, her trying to figure it out the whole movie. Or actually, she started to wonder at the end of Superman, like “Wait a minute! If Clark wasn’t here, then…?” And then she’s like, “Lois Lane, that’s the silliest idea you’ve ever had.” And his secret is revealed in Superman 2, but I liked that whole love story.
Christopher Reeve was my childhood crush. And the music made it even better. All the cues are just really special and beautiful, especially the flying sequence.
Rumble Fish (1983) by Stewart Copeland
PH: When my publicist sent me the interview request, she said, “Maybe you should do it with your favorite film soundtracks that you didn’t do for the record.” I was thinking about it, and I was like—what’s a different kind of one, maybe with kind of a pop feel? And Rumble Fish had that quality to it, except there are scenes where there are lots of trumpets and that weird darkness that I like.
Plus, I liked that it was black-and-white. And the only scene that was in color was when Matt Dillon’s character was just so angry that his brother died, and he was pounding on the car. It really jumps out at you that it turns into color for like five seconds, and the music behind that just gave me goosebumps.
Plus, Stewart Copeland. I was a big Police fan in high school, and the movie had that kind of vibe to it, too. There are all different kinds of sounds that he added to the music that are really weird, like “Where did he get that sound from?” That’s why I liked it, because it confused me, but it was also really poppy.