Alex North's A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE:
A Film Score Guide
by Annette Davison
Scarecrow Press, Inc.,
Softcover, 2009. 248 pages.
The current volume is the 8 th release in a series of “film score guides” published by Scarecrow Press. Looking back, it is the fourth one this reviewer has had a chance to see and it is likely to be one of the finest in the series. Here is a score that has some significant musical and historical importance to warrant such a monograph as this. Davison’s text allows an ease of readability by both the academic and more casual fan of the score that will make it a worthy read for fans of Alex North’s music. The books in this series tend to be arranged almost like small dissertations with elongated chapters that contain fairly focused discussion. Such is the case with Davison’s text which is supported by some 40 pages of endnotes. The nature of the arrangement means you might be flipping back and forth a lot, but there is good information to be gleaned in the endnotes as well. An extensive bibliography will be of great help for those interested in further research on North or other film studies. The bibliographic data from this series alone might even be worth compiling some day as a reference guide for film research!
The opening chapter is a fascinating overview of Alex North’s life and musical involvement. Because Davison intends to follow through with discussions of North’s style in the score she has chosen, she takes time to discuss much of North’s early compositional career in dance theater and even for documentary films. The discussion of his concert pieces, coming in the 1930s, illustrates a composer who like so many other American composers was trying to meld jazz with classical styles. The result is perhaps worth hearing and exploring in these works, but it sets the stage for a deeper understanding of North’s compositional output. One can understand clearly that by the time North came to write his music for STREETCAR, these stylistic traits were a melded part of his music, here given a chance to be voiced quite specifically in a film score.
The second chapter is one worth reading for those interested in film music studies. Here Davison explores specific aspects of North’s style that she has identified in STREETCAR by their uses and impact in some of North’s later well-known film music. The analysis here allows the reader to gain an appreciation for the composer’s music as a whole and the examples (from scores for VIVA ZAPATA!, THE BAD SEED, SPARTACUS, and CLEOPATRA) are all well-chosen. In some respects it is like an extended journal article with good musical examples that illustrate points that will be analysed as they appear in STREETCAR.
Having explored some of the musical aspects of the composer, Davison next turns to a discussion of the text, history, and context of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. The conversation is of interest especially due to the fluid changes to the published versions of Williams’ play that exist, as well as the resulting cuts and changes that were made to Kazan’s film from decency censors at the time. Since the appearance of a “director’s cut” which restored a key scene in the film to its original form, Davison necessarily must provide some background for the reader unaware of this aspect of the film and play.
The fourth chapter looks closely at the “soundscape” of STREETCAR beginning with the use of music as it appears in Williams’ conception of the drama. There is discussion of source music that is used in the film as well as how the score was edited and tracked into the film. North’s musical approach and critical reception to the resulting product help bring this shorter chapter to a close.
The final chapter makes up around a third of the book and is an extended analysis of the music in the film. In clear and uncluttered language, Davison discusses music for each of the primary characters in STREETCAR. She manages this by a closely patterned analysis that follows the film’s (and play’s) narrative rather closely. Themes are provided as musical examples that further support the analysis. By identifying core musical groupings and elements of the score, the reader is able to follow the connections made through North’s musical materials. Davison is not interested in exploring which musical phrase or idea was created, but she does a fine job of guiding the possible meanings behind why a particular theme or musical style was employed by North. Plenty of musical examples help illustrate the point. The result is a hybrid blend of musicological, theoretical, and film analysis that makes for a deeper appreciation of the music and film.
There have been plenty of things to quibble about in some of the other works in this series, but this is an essential book for those looking to appreciate one of the great film scores of the 1950s. Ultimately, one becomes gradually more excited to hear the score on its own and to revisit and view this important film in American cinema history.
--Steven A. Kennedy, 14 April 2009
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