Henry Mancini’s Film Soundtracks

I love Henry Mancini’s film scores. I could listen to them all day long, and I often do when writing. There’s something about his music that makes the listener feel cool. When the orchestra swings on those hip melody lines of his or his ruminating strings sigh, the music leaves the movies and becomes the soundtrack of your life. Mancini could do that with a pen and score paper.

Mancini’s music also reminds me of an age when the world changed. I was 6 when I saw my first color film in 1963—It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Mancini didn’t score the music, but the film was a pretty big deal and hooked me on the concept of going into a dark place and having my mind controlled for two hours by directors, actors and orchestra arrangers. Around this time, a greater number of films were being made for kids, and The Great Race, which Mancini did score in 1966, was one of them. [Photo above of Henry Mancini in his home studio by David Hiller]

For people today who grew up with computers and flat-screen TVs, it’s hard to understand what the world was like for children back in the early 1960s. TV was in black-and-white and so were most films, including the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Color was reserved for magazines and baseball cards, and the first taste of living color came while watching a weekend matinee at a local movie theater. [Above, Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis in The Great Race]

Whenever I hear Mancini’s scores, they remind me of those days, when color film made everything more personal and realistic. Actors no longer seemed like people moving around in an old black-and-white photograph but the way people looked outside on the street. The movie screen wasn’t about our parents’ world but performed as a one-way window that let you see the real world, as it was supposed to look. [Above, Peter Sellers and Capucine in a still from The Pink Panther]

As I write for The Wall Street Journal (online here, in the paper next week), Mancini was starkly different from most film composer-arrangers who preceded him. Many of them had been trained in the European, black-and-white tradition, and their scores labored under the weight of Old World pomposity and density. Mancini, by contrast, had been seasoned by the efficiency of big bands, the thin mood of Easy Listening music and the hipness of jazz. As I write today, Mancini’s scores “expressed a new American modernism that embraced simplicity, sleekness and space. Mancini’s music was streamlined for sensuality, with many of his soundtracks becoming more memorable than the film’s actors and plots.”

Last week, Sony released Henry Mancini: The Classic Soundtrack Collection—an 18-album set on 9 CDs that features remastered classics as well as albums that haven’t been in print for some time. The set is terrific if you love Mancini, though some of his ’70s material is a bit heavy on screwball numbers and daffy incidental music rather than his signature slinky, jazzier themes.

Among the unexpected joys in the box are High Time (1960), Experiment in Terror (1962), Gunn (1967), The Party (1968) and Me, Natalie (1969). The classics are Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Charade (1963), The Pink Panther (1963) and Two for the Road (1967). The balance features plenty of bright moments but they are a tad heavy on the novelty numbers that seemed beneath Mancini’s gifts.

All in all, the box is a trip back to a period in time when Mancini’s music illustrated the larger-than-life characters on the screen—even the wacky ones.

JazzWax tracks: You’ll find the Henry Mancini: The Classic Soundtrack Collection boxed set (Sony) here.

JazzWax clips: Here are a few Mancini gems from the box that you may not have heard or haven’t heard in some time:

Here’s So Neat from High Time (1960)…

Here’s Fluter’s Ball from Experiment in Terror (1962)…

Here’s A Groovy Mood from Me, Natalie (1969)…

Written by Marc Myers, copyright © by JazzWax (Marc Myers LLC www.jazzwax.com)