The Hidden Music Of Cassavetes’ “Faces”

andybeta | November 30, 2007 12:10 pm

Ed. note: It’s time for another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he listens to the music behind John Cassavetes’ 1968 “expression of horror at our society in general” Faces.

Trolling about eBay the other day, I sought in vain a VHS copy of American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes’s 1971 masterpiece Husbands, since it criminally has never been released on DVD (though you can sign the online petition for its release here). And while I still haven’t had any luck tracking down a copy, a YouTube search turned up a 4-part segment of The Dick Cavett Show with the movie’s main men, Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazzara:

Perhaps a trio of Harmony Korine, Courtney Love, and Crispin Glover could equal this level of late-night belligerence?

I wound up buying the LP soundtrack for Cassavetes’ 1968 film Faces. Originally released on Columbia Records, it bears a pullquote from Life: “A film that is truly and deeply an experience!” It’s a curious item, as I can scarcely recall hearing a soundtrack.

Re-watching the iconic film, I don’t hear a single strain of music until nearly 40 minutes in, but even then the lion’s share of its two hours is given to long interactions between sodden industry executives, unhappy housewives, call girls, and the like. Considering all the headaches and heartaches that Cassavetes had to grapple with his entire career–working outside the major studios, the film distribution system, even SAG and unions–there must have been a boondoggle of sorts behind the soundtrack to Faces. So from where did the long-player cull its sound?

Faces deals with, in the director’s words, an “attack on contemporary middle-class America, an expression of horror at our society in general, focusing on a married couple.” Film scholar Ray Carney, in his crucial Cassavetes on Cassavetes, notes that “the reason the film has so little outside music is that Cassavetes had intended to use the music of Jimmy Reid but got into an argument with him and had to rely on [actor Seymour] Cassel’s singing to fill in.” I presume Carney means bluesman Jimmy Reed, as there is an instance in the film when Cassel’s surfer lothario Chet throws Reed’s “Life is Funny” on the hi-fi as he shimmies and shakes, attempting to bed down a couple of martini-loosened MILFs.

Reed’s assured slink and growl is nowhere to be found on the LP, but it does contain a good number of swirling, vibraphone-heavy arrangements by in-house Columbia producer Teo Macero. Of course, none of this music appears in the film anywhere. The version of “I Dream of Jeanie” here is a swinging instrumental, but in the film, it is a tune sung between drunken businessmen as they fight over a call girl named Jeanie (played by the then-preggers Gena Rowlands), each character teasing out his own rendition of “I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair.”

The Julliard-educated Macero is rightfully renowned as the man behind Miles Davis’ impeccable recording run at Columbia, from landmarks like Kind of Blue to Bitches Brew to On the Corner, and he was responsible for bringing Miles, as well as jazz titans like pianist Thelonious Monk and bassist/ composer Charles Mingus, to the label. It seems entirely plausible that Macero might’ve even been familiar with Cassavetes’ work, in that while working on Mingus’ album for the label, Mingus Dynasty, they re-recorded a piece that Mingus had performed for the soundtrack to Cassavetes’ debut, Shadows. It sounds like Macero was simply doing his job here, slapping a few charts together in the studio, perhaps to create a product that might sell, considering how Faces became a sensation of sorts.

Cassavetes is rightfully deemed the father of independent cinema, but he’s an equally iconic figure in the music world, name-checked by the likes of Fugazi, Le Tigre, Sleater-Kinney, and Chicago jazzman Ken Vandermark. Cassavetes taught us that just like music, movies are made best in your own living room. Much like his characters and their moments, the music in a Cassavetes film is harrowingly intimate. Recall the arias sung at the dinner table in A Woman Under the Influence, or the soused renderings undertaken at the wake in Husbands. The real music of Faces is not on the soundtrack, but it’s clearly audible in the dirty limericks, the “Peter Piper” tongue-twister routines, the drunken dances, and the lusty serenades between men and women, delivered in the wee hours.