Kubrick: By Means of Music

By Tony Palmer


This is the text of a speech film director, Tony Palmer, gave at a concert celebrating Kubrick's life and films through his music. The concert was organised by the Kubrick family and held at the Barbican in London, April 16, 2000.

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is Tony Palmer, and I have the pleasure - actually, the privilege - to guide you through this evening.

Stanley Kubrick only made 13 films - I say 'only', but as a body of work they represent a towering achievement which no film maker, even if he or she doesn't like to admit it, ever quite escapes. Indeed, their long shadow profoundly influences all of us who struggle to make our own little films - because of Kubrick's absolute technical mastery, his intensely moral stance, his passion, and above all his vision - totally original and totally inspirational. He makes us try harder, because he makes us believe that nothing is impossible.

One aspect of his genius, and the aspect which concerns us this evening, was and is his love of music. I sometimes think that the history of the cinema is divided into two eras, Before Kubrick, and After Kubrick. Before Kubrick, most film producers thought that music in films was essentially decorative - it wound up the emotions, or provided an excuse for song and dance, often very wonderful, but not exactly an absolutely essential ingredient to the 'complete' film.

Now think about the '2001' music you've just heard. It's odd, isn't it? I even called it the '2001' music. To hell with Richard Strauss or Also Sprach Zarathustra. So powerful are the images that Kubrick created with this music, so perfect is the marriage of music and image, that it is now impossible to hear that music without thinking of '2001'. And I've lost count of the number of times this music has appeared in ads or TV trailers with images vaguely similar to those of '2001'. But why? That music had existed for almost 70 years before Kubrick stamped it indelibly upon the collective consciousness of a worldwide audience. That is a measure of the man's genius.

And who else would have dreamed that, as the spaceship in '2001' effortlessly dances across the heavens, it would be accompanied by one of the most graceful dances ever written.

Once Stanley Kubrick started using (let's call it) 'classical' music in his films, there was really no turning back. Everyone started using 'classical' music, and I don't just mean in films about classical composers. Two of the most heavily Oscar nominated films last year, for instance, had 'classical' music at their heart. I was startled to realise during the blockbuster The Insider, starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, that the emotional climax of the film was being underpinned by huge sections of 'The Litany' by Arvo Pärt, the great contemporary Estonian composer, and not exactly on everyone's 'hit list'. And Spike Jonze (also nominated for an Oscar as Best Director) begins his film Being John Malkovich with 5 minutes of Bartok! I hope both films are paying the Kubrick Estate a serious royalty for his inspiration!

But Kubrick's knowledge and love of music extended way beyond 'classical' music. His knowledge and love of popular music was breathtaking, which is, as I remember, how our paths first crossed. I was making a television series called All You Need is Love, being the history of American popular music, and he was making 'The Shining. I quickly realised that above all else Kubrick understood the power of popular music to evoke memories and feelings in the general imagination way beyond the actual melodies or words of an individual song.

Dr Strangelove, for instance, ends with the world going up in a fireball of atomic explosions, accompanied by Vera Lynn singing "We'll meet again. don't know where, don't know when..." Yes, it's ironic; yes, it brings a smile at the end of an otherwise deeply pessimistic (although hilarious) voyage through our rotten little world. Think of Full Metal Jacket, another meditation on the barbarity of war. It ends with the Rolling Stones screaming out Paint it Black - "I look inside myself and see my heart is black".

And think of Eyes Wide Shut. 'Popular' songs are embedded in the soundtrack; apart from all the memories that these songs evoke, the words of these songs are constantly used to enrich the text that the actors are speaking. When I fall in Love, performed by Victor Sylvester; I Got It Bad by Duke Ellington; Strangers in the Night by Eddie Snyder. Indeed, Eyes Wide Shut, which I am certain will soon be ranked among the masterpieces of cinema once all the hype has been forgotten, is a perfect illustration of Kubrick's understanding of and use of music. Shostakovich's waltz and Ligeti sound side by side with the waltzes of Victor Sylvester and Duke Ellington, as well as music specially written by Jocelyn Pook, one of the more interesting of contemporary English composers.

Take the Shostakovich waltz, for instance. This for me is a very good example of the infinite care with which Stanley Kubrick chose the music for his films. Eyes Wide Shut - well, who can say what it is about; human frailty, sexual jealousy, the power of dreams, terror of the unknown - in ourselves, in our souls, not really knowing what horrors we are capable of, the forgiveness of love? I prefer to say that, above all else, as a work of art it holds up a huge mirror and forces us to confront ourselves and the mess we make of our lives. Just so the Shostakovich waltz, actually from the Second Suite for Dance Band, written in late 1938 as a direct response to the 'New Economic Policy' issued in the summer of that year by that jolly Georgian, Josef Stalin, on the 'role of music' in contemporary society. Aha, but, as always with Shostakovich, that was not the whole story.

At the same time as he was writing the waltz, many of his closest friends were being murdered by the jolly Georgian, including the director Meyerhold and his wife, the actress Zinaida Raikh, whose eyes were repeatedly stabbed until she bled to death. Remember the title of the film? Eyes Wide Shut! In 1938, it is now reckoned that in Moscow alone, 1,000 people per day were being executed. And we now know from Shostakovich's letters that he viewed the 'waltz' as a 'dance of death', the sound of a rotten society whirling itself to its destruction. And guess what? At the time he was writing the 'Dance Suite', he was also discussing with Meyerhold a work to be called 'Masquerade', a ballet with masks. And the central scene in Eyes Wide Shut is just that, a ballet with masks. And at the same time, Shostakovich was orchestrating an opera called Vienna Blood by none other than the Viennese Waltz King himself, Johann Strauss; and where does the original story which inspired Eyes Wide Shut take place? Well, Vienna, of course.

Best of all, how ironic that Shostakovich's waltz begins with precisely the same chord progression, but in reverse, of one of the most famous of all waltzes, The Blue Danube, and guess who had used that waltz before? Well, Stanley Kubrick, of course.

No-one, in the entire history of cinema, ever used music so precisely, and with so many underlying meanings. This next piece is from A Clockwork Orange. I'll leave you to work out its multiplicity of meanings in the context of Kubrick's film. Answers on a postcard please. The successful re-release of A Clockwork Orange recently brought back, for me, many extraordinary memories. I was lucky enough to be at what I think was the first ever screening in the summer of 1971 at the Warner Cinema in Leicester Square, at midnight! I can still remember the shock I felt, and indeed it is a shocking film. But part of the shock is again in its use of music. Beethoven? In a film about, well, among other things, violence? Rossini? Cuddly Rossini? Purcell? Elgar!? Not to mention the beloved Gene Kelly and Singin' in the Rain. Come on!! This is OUTRAGEOUS. And SHOCKING!

And that was the point. To make us think again about what this music means and meant to the composers who wrote it. Just think of the Beethoven 9th Symphony. Kubrick says, in the film: this is Alex, the hero talking as he contemplates the latest bit of 'ultra-violence': "Oh bliss...bliss and heaven. Like a bird of rarest spun heaven metal, or like silvery wine flowing in a space ship". Space ship? '2001'? Metal? 'Full Metal', perhaps? And Beethoven? "Freude schöner Götterfunken ...alle Menschen werdern Bruder". "Joy - spark of divinity - all men shall be brothers". Too close for comfort, I'd say.

For me, nothing in the music of the film is accidental, or incidental. And think about this: the film begins with an arrangement of Purcell's Funeral March for Queen Mary, whom Purcell loved very greatly and admired. It is music for the passing of someone which is truly loved, and it was no surprise when it was played at his own funeral later the same year. The passing of an age; the passing of an ideal.

The film The Shining begins with that marvellous swooping camera shot up a vast valley as we slowly but surely pick out Jack Nicholson in his car heading up the valley towards the Overview Hotel and his eventual destruction. Everyone remembers the shot, but what do you hear on the soundtrack? 'Dies irae, dies illa' - day of anger; day of reckoning. And in A Clockwork Orange, Kubrick begins the film with Purcell's Funeral March. But between the third and fourth stanza in the film, there it is again: 'Dies Irae'. As it is in Full Metal Jacke. This is music with a message.

I suspect it irritated the American Academy - and Mr Kubrick - that you couldn't actually award an Oscar for Best Music Score for a Kubrick film, because Purcell or Strauss or Rossini weren't around to make the acceptance speech thanking their mother. Oddly, the one film that did win the Oscar for Best Music Score went to the American composer Leonard Rosenman for his arrangement of George Frederick Handel in the film Barry Lyndon. I'll bet it offended all the purists, hey, but what the hell? Handel, who played for Frederick the Great, one of whose wars is a cornerstone of the film; Handel, who loved the grand gesture - remember the 40 oboes in the Royal Fireworks Music? Rosenman, and Stanley Kubrick, got it absolutely right.

It's not for me to describe Stanley Kubrick the man. But the one thing I am certain of, is that he was not the Kubrick of repute - you know, the mad monk of St Albans, the bearded recluse living behind barbed wire and electrified fences, who only spoke to others at night, on the telephone, altogether a bit rum really. All that was garbage. He was gregarious, funny, a truly loving family man, who cared nothing whatsoever for the trappings of success or fame or show-biz or the right 'image' or the demands of Hollywood, but who at the same time was incredibly well informed, and of course particularly about music. I'm told that before he finally decided to include a piece in a film, he would play it literally hundreds of times. After all, his knowledge of Ligeti, Shostakovich, Bartok, Handel, Sibelius, Elgar and Rossini doesn't sound to me like that of a man cut off from the world, rather of someone who was endlessly curious about the world and its culture.

And I think that's the main point I would like to leave you with about Kubrick as a film maker, as an artist. I don't think in the end he was terribly interested in stories as such, although he was a wonderful storyteller. Nor do I think he was ever interested in the commercial aspect of film making, although it did matter to him very much that his films were seen as widely as possible, and he took an immense interest in their commercial success. No; in the end, what gripped his imagination was us, we human beings, our aspirations, our disappointments, our longings, our fears, us as fallible, tragic, muddled human beings.

All his films, as I said, hold up a gigantic mirror and compel us to confront with an unflinching gaze us, as we are. That is his greatness as an artist; that is why, in the end, we admire him. That's why, in the end, he is irreplaceable. And, of course, he knew about our fears, and he knew about the terror and horror that all of us experience, and all of us must find a way to overcome, if we are to survive.

There are two last footnotes I should like to add. He lived for almost half his life in England. Odd, isn't it, that a Middle-European Jew from the Bronx should have settled in England. Well, maybe not so odd, but eventually he always thought of England as home, and for this, all of us who also love England should be eternally grateful. In A Clockwork Orange he used two of Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance marches. He used them ironically, again to tell us something about ourselves and about the country which, as I've said, he adopted. But he also used them, I believe, especially No.4, to tell us something of himself and of what he cared about - honour, trust, truth, and love. Love of place, and love of people. Thank you Stanley for what you gave us.

At the end of Stanley Kubrick's film Paths of Glory - and there's an ironic title if ever there was one - after the four soldiers falsely convicted of cowardice have been shot: "they died a wonderful death", says their commanding officer: there is a devastating moment when the two opposing sides, the Germans and the French, are gathered together in a bar, and it looks like a brawl is about to break out. The situation is saved when a young girl is persuaded to sing an old German folk song and restore calm.

 "There once was a faithful soldier

whose love for his maiden was endless.

So when they told him his sweetheart was dying,

his world and his life lost all meaning".

 In the film, the young girl was played by, and the song sung by, Susanne Christian. Susanne Christian became Mrs Kubrick, who is with us tonight, and to sing the song first sung for Stanley Kubrick over 40 years ago, is their daughter, Anya.


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