ALEX NORTH, FILM COMPOSER by Sanya Shoilevska Henderson. McFarland and Co.-www.mcfarlandpub.com, 800.253.2187; photos, musical examples; 264 pp, $48.50.
Reviewed by Michael McDonagh
Film music is a funny thing. Most people don't notice it unless it's screaming at them in a car chase where syncopated percussion and synths ratchet up the action so you couldn't ignore it if you tried. The music gets heard alright, but the scene would probably have worked without music. So the question has to be-can the composer contribute something, meaning both musically and personally, to the film? And if so, can he or she give it layers, nuance, force? The great Alex North did all these things consistently, and with consummate grace, for 40 years. It was almost that long ago, 39 to be precise, that I first became aware of North's work for film. The picture was Carol Reed's THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY, and North's music gave it a weight and depth it wouldn't have had by itself. His main title was as solid as the Carrara quarries it backed, the subsequent battle sinfonia thrilling, the plainchant-based music for the Sistine and Michelangelo's agonies almost unbearably poignant. But when you're dealing with an artist of North's caliber you expect him to deliver the goods. And he does.
Henderson's book is the first ever devoted to North's music, and she has clearly listened hard. Her scholarship is well nigh impeccable. And this bio, which she started the year after she came to America-1995, she's Macedonian-sets this famous unknown squarely in his time. Famous unknown? Well, yes, because when I was planning my first foray onto the airwaves I'd ask everyone I knew if they'd ever heard of North. The answers were usually puzzled nos. And so Tony Gualtieri and I called our debut show together on KUSF-FM, Who Is Alex North? Which is strange because he wrote music for some of the best American pictures produced between 1951 and the year of his death, 1991. These included many classics. The first, of course, being Kazan's film of Tennessee Williams' breakthrough play, A STEERTCAR NAMED DESIRE, and the second, Laslo Benedek's version of Arthur Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN, which re-used and amplified North's score for Kazan's premiere Broadway production.
But how did he end up scoring pictures in Hollywood? Well, Henderson shows exactly how. Kazan, who'd worked with North for years, invited him out. And his jazz-steeped score for STREETCAR thrilled the film composing community. "Thank God, Alex, that you've come out," Hugo Friedhofer told him, "cause now we can perhaps do some of the things we've been wanting to do for a very long time." Although North's STREETCAR score has always been seen as an about face in film music history, Henderson finds that the composer never saw it that way. "I started in New York scoring many documentaries, I'd done a lot of ballet and theatre, plus was in the Army for four years… so I never came to Hollywood to be a 'groundbreaker.' I only did what I became accustomed to doing all those years."
North's beginnings were humble, and Henderson sketches them in admirable detail. He was born in 1910 in a town outside Philadelphia, called Chester. His parents were Russian Jews who'd emigrated from Odessa. North's father, Jesse, was a blacksmith, and his mother, Baila, ran a grocery store. She raised Isadore Soifer-his name till he changed it in the 30's-and his three brothers following her husband's untimely death. And though the circles the composer moved in later were quite rarefied, North never forgot his roots. "I'm grateful for growing up in a working class neighborhood," he remembered, "(because) it has helped me to translate music to human feelings."
North certainly understood these-and it was never restricted to class-and communicated them fully. And I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that he conveyed the widest range of human emotion of any film composer. North's early sound memories must have affected him deeply. He heard Ethel Waters sing with bands at the Chester St. Pier-and she would later star in Fred Zinnemann's 1952 THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING-which North also scored-and he also encountered the Coon Sanders and Paul Whiteman band in Atlantic City, as well as the Philadelphia Orchestra, at the Academy of Music, and naturally these two "opposing" kinds of music found their way into his. Though Henderson doesn't go into it, North's feeling for outsiders like Waters-black in a white world-surely coincided with his outsider status as a Jew in a non-Jewish world, and must have originated at this time. And it's this sense of not connecting in "correct" social terms that gives North's music its special poignancy, as in STREETCAR, and Martin Ritt's THE LONG, HOT SUMMER (1958). Be that as it may, North's schooling was thorough and elaborate. His studies in piano with George Boyle, in Chester, at Curtis (1928-29), and at Juilliard (1929-32) were fruitful, though his stage fright jinxed hopes he may have had of becoming a solo pianist. Personal/professional relationships left their mark too.
Henderson is especially good at describing the effect Anna Sokolow (1910-2000) had on them both. This artist, who danced with the Martha Graham company from 1929-1937, also began to perform her own work at this time. Sokolow's dances sprang from her feelings for social injustice. Henderson finds that "Anna deeply admired Alex's talent, and believed in it. 'He was born with it,' she said. But he really didn't know it till we started working. Then he realized it.'" They collaborated on many dances, including Slaughter of the Innocents (1937), which composer Elie Siegmeister called "one of the most moving American scores in recent years, even when listened to apart from the dance." North continued to be Sokolow's music director when she and her company toured Mexico in 1939. Prior to that the two had been to Russia, where North studied at the Moscow Conservatory, and wrote that the Soviets were "struggling to make themselves a better society."
North's social awareness was unusually keen, and Henderson ascribes this to the influence of his older brother, Joseph, who co-founded and co-edited New York's leftist literary mag, New Masses. But North's feeling came from deeper personal sources-his heightened empathy, though compassion is a better word-for all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances. Although Henderson does mention this profound quality in the context of North's famous remark that he always did better work when he could empathize with the characters he wrote music for, she doesn't show how he did this throughout his work, which would be a book in itself. North's feeling for-though intellectual he always wrote from the heart-is one of the hallmarks of his art, and a testament to his uniquely sensitive genius. Anyone who could feel with characters as seemingly unrelated as Willy Loman in SALESMAN (1949, 1951, 1985), the child murderess Rhoda in Mervyn LeRoy's THE BAD SEED (1956), and George and Martha tearing at each other in Mike Nichol's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), had something very special, and North had this quality in spades.
Henderson explores North's compositional voice in the second half of her book. She provides musical analyses of five very different scores-STREETCAR, Kubrick's SPARTACUS (1960), and Huston's THE MISFITS (1961), UNDER THE VOLCANO (1984), and PRIZZI's HONOR (1988). Her choices are apt, and the huge stylistic and expressive range of North's work. She defines the importance of Williams' play to a tee, and gets inside North's deeply psychological music. But she provides a bit too much plot description, and her discussion of each and every cue has the curious effect of diluting her insights, which are sometimes profound. She places SPARTACUS firmly in film music history, clarifying its complex structure as fully as space allows. This is one of the most thrilling and heartbreaking scores ever written, and Henderson does it proud. She probes North's compositional ingenuity in THE MISFITS with great insight. But her descriptions of some of its cues are puzzling. "Help" does indeed start as a kind of slow boogie woogie, but the string tune she quotes in her musical example doesn't come in till after two minutes. VOLCANO gets a cogent and very knowing reading-it's one of North's most elusive scores-and Henderson shows exactly how North transformed his bel canto and versimo sources in PRIZZI'S HONOR.
But how could that surprise? North's music was always about transformation, and though he was a protean composer who seemed to hide behind or in the characters he wrote for, he somehow always managed to come out sounding like himself-completely straightforward, yet entirely elusive, like music itself. "He was music, he was only a musician," Arthur Miller told Henderson. "It was all that really truly interested him all the time." And being a man of tremendous sensitivity, he mined the gift he was given in scores for 60 pictures and many sadly unknown and unplayed concert works, and came out with gold. The late great American composer Earle Brown once asked me how North "got so sophisticated, aware, and prescient." I'm not sure I came up with an answer. But Henderson's wonderful book goes a long way towards providing one.
If you would like to purchase Alex North, Film Composer by Sanya Shoilevska Henderson online, your resources include www.amazon.com, www.powells.com and www.mcfarlandpub.com.