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Mixing Music and Movies


His work is up for an Academy Award for the 17th time, but today, Gary LeMel seems more interested in Baltimore than in the prospect of winning a second gold statue.

"I haven't spent much time here," says the head of worldwide music for Warner Bros. films as he strides through Mount Vernon on a recent windy afternoon. "But I've worked with [director] Barry Levinson many times. I can see why he loves it here. What a sense of history."

You might say the same of LeMel, a 57-year-old who is to movie soundtracks what the Washington Monument is to the local scenery - a landmark still in the middle of the action.

Twenty-odd years ago, the man with the salt-and-pepper hair and West Coast tan staked his career on a simple notion - that pop songs and movies could do a lot for each other - and rode it to major achievement. In 1986, his department at Warner Bros. picked up a Best Score Oscar for 'Round Midnight. Tomorrow, it could win a Best Song award for "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," from A Mighty Wind.

Self-evident as the idea of mixing pop songs and movies sounds today, it was revolutionary at the time. LeMel used it to help remake the film and music industries.

On his first project, A Star Is Born (1976), he saw that a catchy single like "Evergreen," which he talked Barbra Streisand into recording, could energize a film, score radio play, drive a soundtrack and create a lucrative nexus of art and promotion.

Smashes like The Big Chill (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), The Bodyguard (1992) - which spawned the best-selling soundtrack of all time - and High Fidelity (2000) affirmed LeMel's status as "the godfather of the modern soundtrack," in the words of an industry magazine. He just finished wrapping Taking Lives, an Ethan Hawke vehicle, in London, and on his way back to California has stopped in Baltimore to chat up his new solo CD and talk movies.

In black T-shirt and tailored blazer, he looks every inch the Hollywood mogul, but the sights keep catching his eye.

"Dig that - jazz on Thursday nights," he says, reading the sign in front of Sascha's cafe on North Charles Street. "Looks like a great place. Let's go on in."

Asinger and multi-instrumentalist, LeMel started out wanting to be a pop star. When his first label, Vee-Jay, stumbled on the Beatles in 1964, it realigned its priorities. "If I were good enough, I could've hacked that competition," he says, laughing.

Composing for film didn't work - "all 'B' material, rotten stuff," he says - but he caught on as a talent rep and music producer. When a generation of directors raised on rock began making films and clamored for an updated sound, LeMel knew the right principals on both sides.

A string of top films at Columbia helped him draw a new blueprint for the modern soundtrack. "Evergreen" hit No. 1, triggering 6 million album sales. The Big Chill drew movie fans from the theater straight into record stores. He moved to Warner Bros. in 1986 and now oversees music - "score, soundtrack, songs" - for some 30 films a year.

There's no formula for blending image, music and talent, but the studio gets LeMel a script early so he can learn the story. He talks it through with the director, developing a feel for mood. He'll hire a composer he thinks will agree with his vision. Then he'll have a reading with the composer and director. "That sets the tone," he says. "We see if everybody's head is in the same place."

After that, his input varies. If a project is on the fast track, he might be intimately involved. Last week, working on Taking Lives, he found classical composer Phillip Glass surprisingly open to suggestion. He did less on "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow." "[Director] Chris Guest and [songwriter-actor] Mike McKean are geniuses," he says. "They wrote the music and performed it. I showed up at the set to listen. I love staying out of the way."

LeMel has a drill for teaching how music brings movie imagery to life. "I'll show footage of guys running on a beach," he says. "That says nothing. Then I drop the music in, and the mood becomes, 'Hey, these are important guys running on a beach. Something great is about to happen!' That's how you get a Chariots of Fire."

Music can also solve problems. Directors have limited time to shoot, so they often fail to get just what they want. "They think they're going to re-shoot a scene, but they never get a chance," he says. "They rely on music to heighten elements they didn't get - say, a sense of danger - by adding a musical 'sting.' That happens a lot."

Some directors are easier to work with than others. When LeMel started out, he found that few knew what they wanted musically. Taylor Hackford, his partner on Against All Odds (1984), and Joel Schumacher (Lost Boys, 1987), were exceptions: Their backgrounds in TV and music gave them a dual vocabulary. Now that songs and films are so firmly linked, more directors know the music they want and the artists they can pick from.

Barry Levinson, who picks most of his music, has "a wonderful instinct"; so do Martin Scorsese, who knew exactly what 78s he wanted for GoodFellas (1990), and Clint Eastwood, a steady client since Cadillac Ranch (1997).

The road to innovation was rocky. On A Star Is Born, Streisand, who was "more 'MOR' [middle-of-the-road] than she is now," resisted the move to rock, and "Evergreen" didn't fit Top 40 radio formats. LeMel hired outside people, a music-marketing company, to do promotion. When the single made No. 1, it was "worth millions" in publicity, and from then on, studios made songs an active part of marketing.

That was a double-edged sword. Marketing people came to meetings and "wanted songs for every movie. You had to tell them, 'Hey, not every movie lends itself to songs!' You can bury yourself that way."

Technology, too, has led to change. Through the mid-'80s, a composer "would play a one-note thing on the piano, a melody, and score around that. He'd say, 'Imagine this with 100 violins.' Directors couldn't. They'd hear your 100-piece orchestra play it for the first time and hate it. I saw that happen to the top guys, like [composer] Randy Newman." Electronics made it possible to create a "Polaroid" of the score, with electronic versions "of the strings, the horns, everything. When that happened, I was free to do other things."

But the dollar imperative endures. "Our job isn't always to forge art. The studio bosses have a mandate from the shareholders: Make money. You go with what you expect will be commercial. You make a lot of 'OK' movies. Once in a while, something you love is artistic and successful."

It's hard to say anything new in film music," says LeMel, but it happens. New talent can be thrilling. The opening sequence of The Italian Job (2003) "blew me away," he says. "I'd never heard of John Powell. Now we've worked with him on a couple of projects." The animated film The Triplets of Belleville, also a Best Song nominee, "has '20s-era stuff, scat, everything. It's fantastic. That's the kind of work where you say, 'that artist does this because it's in his soul.' You want to find that guy and kiss him."

But that's unusual today. In the early days, when "nobody knew the rules," every project felt revolutionary. "More and more," he says, "it's about money. It can cost a million bucks to get an oldie. We paid that for Rod Stewart's 'Tonight's The Night.' And it was cut from [a film that has not yet been released]."

"A couple of years ago, it hit me what was happening. We needed a certain rap song. We called the artist. He said, 'You can have it if you deliver a Rolls-Royce to my house by Friday so I can drive it up and see my folks on Sunday.' Well, it cost less than paying him, but that's when you had to say to yourself, 'Have we crossed the line?'"

Dan Fellman, longtime head of theatrical production at Warner Bros., says LeMel's diversity of passions keep him at the top. "Incredible work ethic," he says. "Kind man. And he's that rare combination of sharp executive and real entertainer."

As if to prove the point, LeMel drops a CD on the table. It's his new solo album, The Best of Times, his fifth pop-jazz collection. It's getting airplay on 70-plus jazz stations. "If it only makes No. 59 with a bullet," he says, "I'm happy. Music's what I do. You can't let go of your dreams, you know?"

This time of year, he doesn't. Take tomorrow night, when he'll attend the Oscars in Hollywood. "I'm supposed to pretend I don't care," says LeMel. "But if you can't get excited about this, you've gotten too jaded."

His prediction: "Scarlet Tide," the "incredibly haunting" piece Elvis Costello co-wrote for Cold Mountain, will take Best Song. "I hope we do win it, since it's prestige for the company, and it always means better sales," he says. "I'll feel the suspense. You never know what they'll vote for."

He rises to shake hands. A ride to Penn Station awaits. So does the Scooby-Doo II soundtrack, in Burbank, and then a certain evening at the Kodak Theatre near the Walk of Fame.

"Some things don't change," he says. "I'll put on a tie. I'll see some old friends. It's going to be an excellent time."

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