Films Come to Life with Stanley Clarke's Music

Stanley Clarke has more than 65 film scores to his credit, including Boyz 'n the Hood, Passenger 57, and Undercover Brother. Farai Chideya talks with legendary jazz bassist, composer, and film score composer about the role of music in the movies.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is News and Notes, I'm Farai Chideya.

As part of our month-long film series, today we're going to take a look at, or rather, take a listen to, the role of music in the movies. We're going to hear from two musical giants in the film score industry. First, Stanley Clarke. He's a legendary jazz bassist, orchestrator, conductor and film score writer. He's composed music for more than 65 movies including "The Transporter" and "Boys 'N the Hood."

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: In the 1970s, Stanley Clarke made a name for himself playing bass. But for the past 25 years, he's been turning his energy to film and television scoring. Clarke is now one of the most in-demand composers in Hollywood.

Mr. STANLEY CLARKE (Jazz Musician, Composer): Many of the films that I do are very different from one another, but there was a period where I did a lot of action pictures. I've done a lot of television, I've done a lot of - well, there's a lot of films that have a lot of African-Americans in it, I can say that. And you know, each film you have to really approach differently.

CHIDEYA: What was your favorite? I mean, you've done so many dozens of scores. But what was your favorite, either to work on or in terms of how it came out?

Mr. CLARKE: You mentioned "What's Love Got To Do With It." That film I really liked because, you know, it's a heck of a story, you know. And the music, I had it - it's a very thematic score. If you really listen to it and really pay close attention to the music, there's a theme that - I must lay this theme over the picture maybe 10 or 15 times during the course of the picture. And the cool thing about it is that, you know, I spent a lot of time just working on that one short theme.

(Soundbite of theme music to "What's Love Got To Do With It")

CHIDEYA: So when you look at how you broke into the business, being someone who was - you know, you are - but you were in a musician role, and then you were asked to compose. Is it hard for African-Americans to break into that part of the business?

Mr. CLARKE: Yes, it's always going to be hard. Because, you know, we as human beings, we thrive on familiarity. You know, we like to - it's kind of a bit of a sad commentary. Maybe it's getting better, I don't notice it so much because I'm just a jazz musician, I'm in my own world. But I think people tend to want to be with their own kind and all that. So I have to tell you a little story.

I remember one time - I'm not going to tell you what film it was that I did, it was a popular film, though - I walked into this room to meet these directors, and these guys thought I was a white guy before they saw me. And I walked in. (Laughing) And the look on their face, I mean it was just kind of - it was shocking, it was a shocking moment, you know, but it kind of brought a smile to my face because, you know, I take my job very serious. I was very prepared. And I was really more anxious to find out what their reaction was going to be after they spoke to me. I didn't really care of the fact that I walked in there and I had an afro and had these big shoes on, I was looking good. I didn't care so much about that.

But when I finished my meeting with them, they were impressed, and they hired me. And I must say that when I was doing a lot of this early film composing, I have to tell you that I did have the thought like that I was kind of laying a trail there, you know, because I think at that time, it was myself, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock. Really a handful of film composers that have done, you know, significant work in Hollywood. Now, there's quite a few, and I feel like I was part of that. Also, at that time, there was a resurgence in black cinema. You know, Spike Lee, then John Singleton came along. I did John's first three films. And so it was a very unique time for me.

And I - so it wasn't just me doing a film, getting paid and going home. You know, there was something else there that sort of inspired me. I felt like I was trailblazing. And that's what I did.

CHIDEYA: How do you actually do this? I mean, do you start coming up with themes based on a script, or do you watch a rough cut? And how do you create something on a very practical level?

Mr. CLARKE: You know, we get a script. And you can start thinking about music and you can even write music from a script. But I tend to like to watch the footage, then come up with the music. And from the point that you get the footage and then you start thinking about music, you go through something called a spotting session. Meaning you have a session with the director, and he'll spot places where you want music. That's why it's called a spotting session. And once you've finished that, from that point to getting a finished product with music is what I call - half of it is magic and the other part is skill, like catching the human emotion.

And I think that that's the part you can't teach, necessarily, to people. I think you have to have some sort of - I would like to find another word, but I can't find it. There has to be a bit of humanity in your - within your heart, you know. You have to have some understanding of people. I don't think a guy that really has no understanding about people, or has no interest in understanding people would make a good film composer.

Because in film, you know, you're dealing with all the dynamics of life. You know, one minute, you could be dealing with love. The next minute, somebody could be getting their head cut off. The next minute, someone could be afraid to get their head cut off. The next minute could be a guy who regrets cutting the guy's head off. I mean, there's all these subtle emotions and different dynamics that you have to deal with, and somehow, you know, it has to go in your heart. And then from your heart, it has to kind of come out in music.

CHIDEYA: There's a lot of musicians that are branching out and doing music for films. I think of the RZA. We were just talking about urban films. But he's a, you know, rap artist turned sometimes soundtrack composer. Do you see things moving in a particular artistic direction?

Mr. CLARKE: I think it's going to move in a lot of different directions. There's a lot of things happening. Number one, the directors now are younger. And they usually tend to want to have the music that they grew up with, or music that they're into at that moment, in their films. So for me, I'm kind of open. I think, you know, if you have some music in your soul, and you're able to produce it however you can, you know, there's a musician there. I do miss, you know, the old days, you know, when you do a film, you get hired and the guy says, write some music, and you write music. And you come back and you talk about that music, but not in relationship to a committee deciding based on something that some kids in Pasadena thoughy. You know, so anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Well, it sounds like a fascinating business.

Mr. CLARKE: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHIDEYA: Stanley Clarke, thanks for talking to us.

Mr. CLARKE: All right.

CHIDEYA: That's jazz musician and film score composer Stanley Clarke.

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