Book Reviews

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: MY LIFE IN MUSIC

By • Jan 30th, 2009 •

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Surprisingly, given the prolific amount of music Lalo Schifrin has written for film and television (see my feature in the Soundtrack section of Films in Review), very little of his autobiography touches on that aspect of his life. In fact he doesn’t touch on it in any detail until Part Five and chapter twenty-one of the book. But those insights he does provide are pearls of great price. He describes the Routines and Processes he employs when scoring; sixties TV assignments and the exhausting practice of writing for episodic television; the story behind his rejected score for THE EXORCIST and his dramatically changing feelings toward its director William Friedkin. We are also given what Lalo charmingly calls vignettes of encounters with Orson Welles whilst working on VOYAGE OF THE DAMNED; a dinner conversation about jazz with Marlon Brando; a conversation with Henry Mancini where Mancini revealed that the studio execs, after hearing his score for BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S told director Blake Edwards that the movie was o.k., but the ‘frigging’ song had to be cut out. The song of course was Moon River. Lalo also describes his working on THE CINCINNATI KID where the director and producer had different ideas as where the film was going, so to play safe Lalo wrote, for the first and last time, two scores for the same movie. We also hear amusing anecdotes relating to his work on ONCE A THIEF and THE LIQUIDATOR and finally his own reminiscences of a meal with film music connoisseur John Asher, composers Miklos Rozsa and Bronislau Kaper. The venue was Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite restaurant Chason’s, and the assembled guests each told their own stories about ‘The Old Hollywood’.

So, only two chapters out of 34 actually relate to his film work. This of course is neither a complaint on my part nor an oversight on his. This proportion clearly represents the relative importance that the different areas of music that Lalo’s skills encompass have had in his life, maybe not at any particular time, but certainly retrospectively, which is what autobiographies tend to be – a retrospective.

The early part of the book deals with his upbringing in a troubled Buenos Aires under the tyrannical Perons where he learned to stay out of politics (he remains apolitical to this day, preferring to remain an objective social scientist rather than an emotional activist); his early fascination with jazz which he listened to on illegally imported American records; his eventual discharge from the army (either through luck or divine intervention) and his acceptance into the Paris National Music Conservatory. We then experience his life in the Paris of the early 1950s and his continuing interest and experience in jazz alongside his classical tuition at the Conservatory, a combination of styles that would remain with him. After a brief return to South America Lalo began a jazz career with trumpet maestro Dizzy Gillespie that would last five years and a friendship that endured until Dizzy’s death in 1993. Lalo says his time with Gillespie was ‘one of the happiest periods of my life in terms of music’.

In the early sixties Lalo moved from New York to Hollywood and began film and TV scoring career that continues to this day. This is but a scant summation of those early years, but the essence of this book is Lalo’s passion for combining those two disciplines – classical and jazz, what he calls Jazz Meets the Symphony, and a combination so prevalent in many of his film and TV scores. We hear about his working with Stan Getz, Jimmy Smith, Sarah Vaughan, Quincy Jones; anecdotes about Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Groucho Marx, Barbara Streisand and many more. We also hear about his involvement in the world of opera, in particular working with the ‘Three Tenors’, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, his numerous classical music commissions and much information on the albums that have resulted from Lalo’s ‘Mission Impossible’ – of bringing together two musical styles – Jazz Meets the Symphony.

And, from his frank and candid comments on his observations, we also learn a lot about Lalo the boy, the youth and the man.

An enjoyable aspect of this book is its layout. It is presented in such a way that it’s not necessary to read it from beginning to end, though eventually you will, and you can dip into any particular section in any particular order. I for one went straight to the Writing for Film section when my copy arrived, but there are so many cross-references thrown in here and there you soon start to explore the whole volume over and over.

An unusual but appropriate inclusion to the book is a CD of Lalo’s music, again the lion’s share of the disc, like the book, devoted to his jazz and symphonic work with only two scores from the screen, Mission: Impossible of course and ‘Shifting Gears’ from BULLITT.

Highly recommended, and I particularly liked his notes on critics…

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