Perfect Sound Forever

JOHN CASSAVETES

Faces soundtrack revisted
by Ben Dyment
(February 2018)


In the public's eye, there are two sides to John Cassavetes. Most would remember him as an actor, in films like Rosemary's Baby, The Dirty Dozen and assorted television work, always with that savage closed-lip grimace he called a smile. Others, however, would know him as the director of some of the more primal, honest, and fiercely independent films to come out of American Cinema in the New Hollywood era. HIs work explored life with the stripped-back honesty many audiences were always hoping for, showcasing angles of life that we take for granted and pass over with peripheral indifference. Of all his directorial efforts though, it was 1968's Faces that struck the biggest chord with audiences the first time around.

Taking place over the course of an evening in the troubled environment of a frustrated marriage, Faces did what few films were willing to do at the time, by not just shining a light on the stagnation and confusion affecting middle-aged people during the ‘60's upheaval, but allowing it to appear unblemished on the screen; ugly, awkward and at times even embarrassing to witness, but always powerful. What was reality for millions was still sacrosanct to the brass in Hollywood, a place that had only recently relaxed its policy on married couples being always shown in separate beds.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the relative dearth of extraneous music; except for a few poignant moments, the characters are given a greater freedom to fill the screen without the safety net of a constant soundtrack. All the more reason then, to wonder how Columbia Masterworks managed to release an official soundtrack album in light of the film's success...

According to Ray Carney's book Cassavetes On Cassavetes, John initially envisioned the film with a soundtrack by legendary Chicago bluesman Jimmy Reed, but the idea fell through after an argument between the pair, though Reed's song ‘Life Is Funny' remained in one scene. The incident mirrored the events of the previous decade, when Cassavetes had attempted to get Charles Mingus to score Shadows in 1957.

The Reed soundtrack could've been a very apt collaboration, alluding to the cultural divide of elder blues statesman and modern rock interpretations like the film revealed the struggles of the middle-aged characters to operate in a ‘60's landscape - modern rock is too outre for them to latch onto genuinely but the blues is at least grounded in a foundation old enough that anybody would understand.

Though he himself was never one to turn down an easy buck, it was Columbia who initially approached Cassavetes with the idea of a soundtrack, and he readily agreed:

"He was not about to let the fact that there was less than five minutes of music in the entire movie stand in his way. He and long-time musical collaborator Jack Ackerman went into a studio and created sixty minutes of music ‘inspired by the film', some of which Cassavetes – never lacking in confidence – personally performed by noodling on the piano [...] crediting some of the arrangements to an alter ego named ‘Jay Cee'," (Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes).

Aside from Ackerman, the other force behind the LP was legendary in-house producer Teo Macero, who was given the task of producing, arranging and conducting the songs, including those that were ‘inspired by' the film. Taken as a whole, the material ranges from the slavishly smooth adult jazz of "Faces" and "Love Is All You Really Want," to the trite bombast of "Deck The Halls" (which fails to match the drunken exuberance of the film rendition). "I Dream Of Jeannie" opens with a brass-heavy refrain before sliding into cocktail-mode, while "Love Has Conquered Man" could be a chic chase scene score right out of How To Steal A Million.

Three of the songs are repeated twice on the album, in vocal and orchestral forms, which heightens the cash-grab feeling, and most of them swing through abrupt mood shifts that suggest Macero was attempting to form some cohesion between Cassavetes' and Ackerman's musical sketches. From a certain angle, there's a bit of irony at play, in that while the film attempts to strip back the falsehoods of acceptable middle-class living, the soundtrack seems to want to stop and tape up the edges of the veneer, re-fashioning it into a much more safer and predictable outcome.

What saves the record from being just a curiosity piece, though, is Charlie Smalls' "Never Felt Like This Before." Smalls was an American pianist and composer best known for his work on The Wiz; at the time however, he was undeniably obscure, with only a few credits on some Mimi and Richard Farina albums and a one-off cameo on The Monkees where he tried to teach poor Davy why he didn't have real soul.

"Never Felt Like This Before" is barely in the movie, a mere phantasm lurking behind the kitchen door as Richard and Maria move about on the staircase and face each other in the closing scene, its introverted refrain reinforced by the lo-fi, bare bones production. Knowing Cassavetes, it's likely that the recording was simply a publisher's demo made without the intention of public release. It's a curious choice of song to close such a film, but it works - heightening the disquiet feeling in the room and pushing at the claustrophobic atmosphere between the two leads. On the album, both Smalls' original version and a Macero big-band take are included, though the latter is pretty innocuous in comparison.

Columbia's gambit didn't exactly pay off in sales, but it was enough to establish a working relationship with Cassavetes, leading to them distributing his next film Husbands, in 1970, which also inadvertently led to the start of his collaboration with Bo Harwood, the man behind the incidental music for all of his future films.

The Faces soundtrack was never repressed, or reissued on CD by Columbia, and more than a few of the copies floating around second-hand are promo versions, which suggests a pretty low-selling item. What it does do though, is to give a glimpse at the kind of mixed bag soundtracks of the era could often be, and offer a taste of what could have been, had someone less adventurous taken on the screenplay; in light of it all, let's be thankful things worked out the way they did.


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