Gramophone guest blog

How I wrote the music for 'Stan & Ollie'

Rolfe KentWed 9th January 2019

Composer Rolfe Kent reveals the creative process behind the score for the new film biopic of Laurel and Hardy

By the time we finished scoring, recording and mixing the music to the film Stan & Ollie I hoped to have captured something of the spirit of the past while being emotionally resonant in a way that felt very much in the present. That was my intention anyway, and this is how I went about it.

In a way, I was dealing with three time periods: the 1930s which is when the film opens, the mid-1950s which is where much of the film takes place, and the present, which is where our audience comes from. The question is, what approach to the score would connect all these time periods in a meaningful way? Jon S Baird (the director) and I chatted about various approaches, from the full 'Chariots of Fire' approach that ignores period completely, to the silent movie era approach wherein the score would sound entirely period. I must say that last approach turns me off- it just makes everything seem too distant to me. I rather loathe a lot of old 1930s and '40s film music, sorry, I just do - not all of it of course, but a lot, because of the ham-fisted way it overdoes everything. The first idea had some appeal - to do something interesting and modern, perhaps using unusual instruments. But Jon really wanted a connection to the period, or at least the legacy of Laurel and Hardy, while I wanted to compose something that helped the audience connect with these characters in a contemporary way. 

I started with the main title - I wrote two ideas, one more staccato and edgy, one swung and with a lyrical melody, and Jon went for the more lyrical, so that became the main theme for Stan & Ollie. It has some modern touches, use of rhythmic hammered dulcimer and percussion, but it doesn’t feel modern; it feels exuberant to mirror the feeling of Laurel and Hardy in their heyday, at the top of their game, and I even wove in a hint towards their theme, a tiny xylophone rhythm (which won me points with the director).

From then on I was on a roll. The film had a natural storytelling rhythm and momentum, so the music just needed to keep up and support that. Adding bursts of energy to nudge things along, such as at the transition from the 1930s to the 1950s, or becoming pensive and considered, a bit dark even, when dealing with the flashback memories of Stan to when the dream fell apart. I loved the use of the bassoon in Jean de Florette, and found a similar way of employing it here. Woodwind is foremost in my mind when I think of recordings from the 1930s so I used the woods a lot in this score to reinforce that sense of place, and the juxtaposition of high clarinet with low bassoon also echos the thin Laurel and the rotund Hardy in a fun way.

There’s not a lot comedic scoring in the film, but there is some, and stylistically I went with the fun use of staccato rhythms, and interrupting rhythms, that works well with that kind of slapstick humour.

The score is really about energy, filling out the grandeur of their ambitions, the tensions in the relationship, the building momentum of their tour of the British Isles. I enjoyed the 'studio safari' cue near the start of the film as I was giving it swirling life and energy, using the orchestra to show how grand and large their success was. Then later there is their fast-paced tour around the country, and that has a big orchestral sound in a very different way - Jon had used something he referred to as 'circus music' in the 'temp' so I tried out some circus style approaches, and he hated them. Circus music wasn’t working. In exasperation I decided to listen to the 'temp music', which is something I almost never do, and what I heard was quite different to my idea of circus music, more like a Cossack dance to my ears, with a fiery manic energy, so I quickly stopped listening, tried to forget what I’d heard but remember how it felt, and use that. What resulted had that energy, that bite and chaos as momentum builds and builds, and that delivers us with breathlessness into a peak moment in the film.

The very last music cue in the film was also the last one I composed. In the end titles there is a melancholy moment that switches to footage of the original Laurel and Hardy dancing, and I wrote something to sync up perfectly with them. But Jon wanted more, something exuberant, and finally my music editor, Nick, suggested a track from earlier in the film, and so I used that as the basis and completed the whole ending sequence in one day, in time to record it with the orchestra the very next day.

In the end it is the players, and the mixer, that really makes the score sing and have dimension and heart, and it was a rare treat to get to compose something melodic and thematic, and then record it with an excellent orchestra.

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