Film Music in Brazil

A Report by Andrew Douglas © 1987
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson

paulo moura

Paulo Moura, a saxophone player and musician who has scored Brazilian films such as LIRA, PARCEIROS DI AVENTURA and a tv series, PLANTAO DE POLICIA.

Of South American countries, Brazil is probably the most visible cinematically, with a large and prolific film industry. Likewise, its efforts in film music are also noteworthy and predominant among South American film making countries. A recent issue of the Brazilian magazine Film Cultura (Vol. 14 #37, Jan/March 1981) discussed the state of the art of film music in Brazil, including interviews with most all of its major participants. The material in that publication forms the basis for this introductory report on film music in Brazil. My thanks to Elenice de Castro and Eliana de Oliveira Queiroz of the Cinemateca Brasileira for supplying that article for CinemaScore, and to Sabrina Davila for translating it into English for me.

Like films in Europe and America, the cinema of Brazil was never silent, even in the days of so-called silent films. Even films without synchronized soundtracks were accompanied by a pianist or, in the more elegant theatres, by a small orchestra; the musicians often providing not only musical accompaniment for the film’s dramatic moments, but sound effects as well. In Brazil there was a third facet to early film music: singers who would hide themselves behind the screen and sing Italian arias in sync with images projected on the screen.

Remo Usai, a veteran of more than 85 film scores since composing the music for Alberto Pieralisi’s PEGA LADRAO in 1958, studied film music in Los Angeles and thereby gained an awareness of the differences and similarities between being a composer in Brazil and in Los Angeles. “The Brazilian reality is excessively cruel for the musician when he attempts to be recognized as a dedicated artist,” said Usai, “A musician is like a pig, appreciated only after death.”

Composer J. Lins began scoring films in 1970. He was a professor at the Institute Villalobos where he worked with experimental music. Director Luiz Carlos Lacerda wanted experimental music for his film, MAOS VAZIAS, and looked up Lins. Discovering film music as a vehicle of expression in sound, Lins has composed for Brazilian cinema ever since.

“Through the history of our cinema, we see two tendencies very clearly,” said Lins. “On one side, the music as an element of the marketing of the film; on the other side, the realists who won’t sacrifice the sound track of their films for the benefit of a recording star. It is good not to forget that the record industry in Brazil is the third largest in the world, much larger, consequently, than the film industry.”

Paulo Moura, a saxophone player and musician who has scored Brazilian films such as LIRA, PARCEIROS DI AVENTURA and a tv series, PLANTAO DE POLICIA, sees film music in a very nationalistic manner. “It is a reality of life for a Brazilian musician that the musician has serious problems,” Moura said. “The film director, on one side, and the musician, on the other, are both searching (as are other artists) for one language that would make the Brazilian nation more integrated and more united. It is the music in the film that suffers pressure from the other countries of the world.”

John Neschling on Brazilian Film Music

John Neschling

Composer John Neschling has been a frequent contributor to Brazilian film music for several years, and is most recently noted for composing the score for Hector Babenco’s acclaimed KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN. He also maintains a close awareness of developments in film music in other countries, and counts among his favorite film composers the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Lalo Schifrin, Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone and Quincy Jones, though he has little appreciation for the film music of Hollywood’s golden age.

“The situation of music in Brazilian cinema is the same as the situation of the arts in Brazil,” Neschling said in an interview with Film Cultura magazine. “We are in an era of awakening professionalism, and many things are happening imperceptibly. Music still has one specific problem in Brazilian cinema, and that is that, of all the elements that make up a film, the last to be discovered by filmmakers was music. Only now are they becoming aware of the importance of music as an element of style.

Film music in Brazil began with musicians like Lyrio Panicali and other talented artists, though their contribution to films were highly imitative of the usual Hollywood fare of the 40’s – “serviceable enough but lacking any degree of creativeness for the sound of Brazilian cinema,” according to Neschling. During the era of Glauber and the New Cinema in Brazil, music was either of secondary interest or was commercialized in the use of popular songwriters who were hired to write specific pop themes for the films. It wasn’t until the mid 1970’s that Brazilian directors took on a conscious awareness of film music as an important element of cinematic effectiveness, an interest Neschling attributes to an equal rekindling of interest in European film music. “We have an imported culture,” he said, “and because of that we are always behind.”

Brazil also shares a common practice with North American and European film production in that music remains usually the last and frequently underbudgeted element of a film. Filmmakers generally procure a composer only when the film is in the final phase of production and most of the budget has already been spent, and therefore composers are limited to smaller-sized orchestras as determined by budgetary restrictions. “In scoring GAIJIN, I had to be content with five musicians,” said Neschling. “I believe that the miracle of the Brazilians is to be able to make music for the cinema with the means that we have. In PIXOTE, I was able to get the use of a recording studio but, even so, I had scheduling difficulties and I had to record all the music in five hours and afterwards mix it in only three hours.”

Kiss Of The Spider WomanMuch music for Brazilian films is drawn from traditional and contemporary pop music, as it is in other South American countries, and many of the musicians and composers writing for films have come out of, or are still linked to, popular music. “In Brazil there doesn’t exist a school of music for the cinema,” said Neschling, “there exists a succession of persons who learned through practice, including me. Edu Lobo took a course in music for the cinema in the U.S., but other than him, I don’t know anyone else who did. The majority of the composers, besides not having attended a school of music for the cinema, have never had a school of composition. They are all musicians that came out of popular music. It would be difficult for you to find a scholarly musician making music for the cinema.

“There have been a few films with music written by Marlos Nobre, Edino Krieger or Guerra Peixe, but the majority of Brazilian films are done by Caetano, Francis Hime, Edu Lobo or Egberto Gismonti. What happens, therefore, is that these composers are unable to free themselves from their personal mark (or trademark). When you go to make the music for a period film, say of 1850, the director doesn’t want music from the 20th Century. Therefore, you need a person who has artfulness and can write a musical piece from the 19th Century. If you want a piece of music that will speak of the future, you have to talk about electronic music and you need an adequate composer. In that sense, there are very few composers who do that.”

In addition to most of Brazil’s film composers being self-taught, there is no school of cinema in Brazil and so most of the filmmakers as well have learned their trade by being self-taught. “Therefore, they themselves don’t have a clear notion of what is music for the cinema,” said Neschling.

Many of these composers rely heavily on popular or traditional songs as part of a film’s musical base. Films such as XICA DA SILVA, DONA FLOR, VAI TRABALHAR VAGABUNDO and others utilize song scores wholly with little connection between the music and their stories. Neschling has also used songs in his scores, but he is very conscious of the difference between songs and incidental scoring. “You can sentimentally overenhance a scene if you use lachrymose music,” he said, “and you can ruin a romantic scene by using grim, unsentimental music. If you use music that is very dry and realistic, you can throw some cold water on the emotions of the audience. When I work in cinema, I try to work with the narrative in order to get a blend. In CORTICO I did two things. I made ‘Rita Baiana’ the theme song of the film, but independently of that I made the soundtrack.”

Like most American and European composers, Neschling prefers to become involved in a film as early as possible so that the score can be as closely related to all aspects of the film as possible. He scored OS CONDENADOS purely from reading the script. Other films, such as LUCIO FLAVIO, GAIJIN, PIXOTE and BONITA MAS ORDINARIA, allowed Neschling to participate when the editing began, working closely with the editor, sound technician and sound mixer. “My musical work is very introverted,” Neschling said. “I take a long time to conceive of an idea. I conceive first theoretically. I make a thousand notes while I watch the movie, I write a theme that comes to mind, something very personal.”

Neschling later modifies the theme by playing it against the film, improving it with tentative orchestration ideas. “In the case of LUCIO FLAVIO, I wanted to use a sax for the title character. I spoke to [director] Babenco and he adored the idea. I wrote the theme, which I considered to be perfect. He liked it but said that it didn’t suit the film.

“Once he called me over and played me a Gato Barbieri record that had the climate of despair that he wanted. I listened. Gato’s music didn’t relate to the film, but the title of one of the songs, ‘Milongo Triste,’ brought up the possibility of using a sad mood. Babenco adored that theme. I said that I would have Paulo Moura play sax and improvise with me. I could have presented a musical piece and said ‘do what you want with it,’ and everything would have been much easier. I did that once with CORTICO and it was a tragedy. When I turned that tape in to the director, he was already getting short on time. Afterwards they had a second cut and they cut out the scene with the music. I became very disgusted and that was the last time that I worked this way. As incredible as it seems, it was the film where they gave me more technical possibilities – I had a string orchestra, a choral group, Zeze Mota – but less artistic possibilities.”

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