A conversation with Henry Mancini by Mathias Büdinger
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.7/Nos.26/1988
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven
I have always been a great admirer of Henry Mancini’s music. His romanticism and his keen sense of musical humor are qualities rarely to be found in the world of film music. He is neither a strictly symphonic writer nor a lightweight tunesmith. Goldsmith fans and those who love full-blooded orchestral music are not likely to be that much affected by Mancini’s music, but he is one of the great melodic writers in today’s cinema.
I was lucky enough to meet “Hank” in London, where he stayed one week last November to conduct a concert at the Barbican Hall, with the newly formed ‘Royal Philharmonic Pops’. He also recorded their first album at the CTS Studio in Wembley. They recorded much of the music presented in the Concert. As Mancini pointed out, this marks the beginning of an association between himself and the orchestra, which will result in more concerts and albums.
The programme of the concert on the 25th of November, 1987, consisted of some old Mancini standards – he is almost obliged to do them: CHARADE, MOON RIVER, PETER GUNN, THE PINK PANTHER (with tenor sax soloist Tony Coe, who recently scored his first feature film in France, MAR’DU CHINE), but, oddly enough, not ‘Baby Elephant Walk’. There were also highly interesting new pieces written by Mr. Mancini, for instance the ‘Overture to a Pops Concert’ (commissioned by the Boston Pops to commemorate its 100th anniversary), a dignified opener and “crowd-pleaser”, and ‘Ohio Riverboat’, wherein Mancini musically recalls his childhood memories on a riverboat down the Ohio River. Apropos autobiography: the orchestra also performed the third movement of Mancini’s autobiographical suite ‘Beaver Valley ‘37’. It begins in a melancholy mood with deep clarinet solos and develops into a tarantella that carries you away. Mancini also conducted two themes from his recent film score THE GLASS MENAGERIE – very refined and intimate compositions displaying his best capabilities.
I was present during the two days of recording sessions at the CTS Studio. I got to know Henry Mancini as a very disciplined and concentrated man who doesn’t allow for much joking, except the one occasion where one musician accidentally stood on his music sheets, which must have fallen to the ground. Mancini put in, “This man is standing on my music, my life and blood.” Mancini remained calm and soft spoken, even when they recorded the 15th take of ‘Ohio Riverboat’. They recorded a suite from THE THORN BIRDS and THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE, music which makes one eager for more.
Henry, you now seem to score less movies than in the sixties or in the seventies.
No, I’ve always done at least three a year, and that’s what I am doing now. It just seems like it’s less. I did three in 1987 (A FINE MESS, THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE, THAT’S LIFE) and I have one coming out in 1988, SUNSET, a Blake Edwards picture.
But you seem to do a lot of concerts…
I do about 50 concerts a year, all over the world. I come here to the United Kingdom; I’ve been in Japan, Israel, Australia, New Zealand… all over.
You just mentioned Blake Edwards. I think it’s a kind of marriage between Blake and yourself.
I think this is our 25th picture together.
One of your last films was THE GLASS MENAGERIE directed by Paul Newman. There is also a sort of marriage between you two.
Yes, I’ve done the things that he was involved in as producer or director. SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION in 1971 was the first one. Then HARRY AND SON came along in 1983, and now THE GLASS MENAGERIE.
He loved your music and so he came to you?
Yes, he liked it very much. He has been very nice but he is not easy to work for. When I say he’s not easy, I mean that he is very demanding. (He is like that with the actors, too). But I enjoy that. The more they ask and tell me, the more I’m sure that’s what they want. So I welcome people who know how to express what they need.
Blake Edwards never tells you anything. You have a free hand…
Yes, but sometimes, if I try to go off a bit or if maybe the music isn’t needed there, he’ll say so. He doesn’t by any means say, “Okay, you do what you want,” but I have a great freedom with him. Sometimes we made adjustments here and there.
Two of his last films, BLIND DATE and A FINE MESS, were strange movies, musically speaking. He used many pop songs. What was the reason?
I don’t know. I guess the studios wanted to get contemporary sounds for the kids. I didn’t think that A FINE MESS worked at all in that way. I didn’t like it and I didn’t like what happened to the music: I did a whole score to that picture. In some places they used records because they wanted to get the beat in there. To me it didn’t make any sense, it was stupid.
What did you do with your score? Did you throw it away?
No, we did use some of it, but the rest that wasn’t used is no great loss.
Strangely enough, some of your best music was composed for movies that were not that successful at the box-office, for instance THE MOLLY MAGUIRFS and THE WHITE DAWN…
That happens to a lot of people. MOLLY MAGUIRES I liked very much. It just happened to come along at the wrong time. The studio was not really behind it. That was the problem. DARLING LILI was like that too. Paramount was just not interested in those pictures. The management was very unsteady.
With DARLING LILI you certainly enjoyed writing a kind of musical?
Oh yes, sure. That was with Johnny Mercer. That was great. There are some nice songs in the film.
But you have never written for Broadway?
No. We were going to do VICTOR VICTORIA but unfortunately Blake Edwards got sick. We almost had the whole score finished, Leslie Bricusse and me. Julie Andrews would not do it unless Blake directed. We still have the score…
You have done so many albums with various artists. I’ve always wondered why there was never any album with Julie Andrews (apart from the films you did together).
I have only done albums with three people, James Galway, Luciano Pavarotti and Johnny Mathis. I really haven’t done anything with anyone else. I don’t like to do it unless it’s very special, if it means something. But if it’s just to do an album with a singer – I don’t need that.
An unusual film in your filmography was LIFEFORCE, a science-fiction movie. You wrote a score Page Cook celebrated as “one of the best of the decade”, but again it’s a picture nobody will remember.
Well, fortunately the album is around. That’s the way the score was meant to be, because there was a big section near the beginning of the film, about 20 minutes long, where they were going into space and they find this great alien craft, and they go and find the vampires. That’s why I did the picture. The score was almost like a ballet. They finished shooting the movie showed it to the people in the United States. They said, “It’s too long”, so “Chuck! Chuck! Chuck!” (makes a cutting motion). I haven’t seen the film. I don’t want to see it. It’s not the same picture that I scored.
The last time you had been associated with science-fiction films was in the 50s when you were still at Universal.
Yes. IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, you know these.
One of the directors you have worked with is Howard Hawks.
He was a great gentleman, very soft spoken. I got along just fine with him. He was very receptive to anything that I wanted to do. He was going to cut out the scene in HATARI! where the elephants go down to the river. He said to me, “Hank, this scene doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t need to be in the picture.” I said, “Let me see what I can do for you,” and that’s when I wrote “Baby Elephant Walk”.
That’s what I like in your music, this humorous, ironic touch. I remember the scenes in MAN’S FAVORITE SPORT, your second picture with Hawks: Whenever Rock Hudson tries to catch a fish – and he does so with very unorthodox methods – you are playing a bluesy, ironic theme not unlike the ‘Baby Elephant Walk’, but slower. In HR. HOBBS TAIES A VACATION, James Stewart has to carry the heavy luggage of his “dear” family up the long stairs. Nobody helps him and he is very tired. Your music perfectly displays the sad irony of that scene. The scene itself is humorous, but with your music it becomes even funnier. It’s not just “mickeymousing”, it’s a kind of cool understatement.
That’s it. It’s the opposite of “mickeymousing”. That’s what happened with THE PINK PANTHER as well.
The cat and mouse theme in VICTOR VICTORIA…
The music doesn’t pay any attention to what’s going on the screen. It does not mimic, it just sits back.
Often I get the impression that the scenes are done around your music, because they fit so well. Stanley Donen was another director you worked with…
I did three pictures with Stanley: CHARADE, ARABESQUE, and TWO FOR THE ROAD. He was very musical. He was a choreographer and so he had a very good feeling for music. We got along very well.
Let’s come back to Blake Edwards. You did not score some of his films in the 70s, like THE WILD ROVERS or THE TAMARIND SEED. What was the reason?
It just happened that I didn’t do them, that’s all. If you don’t get a call, you don’t do it.
Do you think that your Italian background is responsible for your knack for lyrical themes, for melody, for “belcanto” so to speak?
Yes, absolutely, because I was brought up with all of that kind of music. My music has two sides: it has melody and humor.
You have a special way of ending your pieces, on albums as well as in films. You try to avoid cliché cadenzas for instance, and you try to do something unexpected at the end.
Sometimes it happens, sometimes it turns out well. But that’s what we try in film music. We try to do the unexpected, something that’s not cliché. Sometimes you can do it, sometimes you can’t.
One film score you wrote was thrown out: Hitchcock’s FRENZY, later scored by Ron Goodwin. Don’t you want to record it sometimes?
There is no reason. I don’t think I could do it because of the publishing rights, which I don’t own. I just have the tapes and the score.
But you are one of the few composers who owns the rights to their compositions.
Some, not all. Along the way I was able to get the complete rights or half-rights to many of the scores. But now, in the last 10 years or so, if you say, “I won’t do it, unless you give me the publishing rights,” they’ll say, “See you later”. That’s it. They’ll get someone else. They don’t give up anything they don’t have to any more. The studios all have their own publishing companies.
You once said, I don’t pretend to want to write the “Great American Symphony”. Could you explain that a bit?
I’m not a symphonic writer. I haven’t grown up wanting to do that or preparing myself to do it. It’s not something that I am equipped to do.
Living in Munich, I remember quite well one piece you wrote for THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN (1976): it I s called ‘Bierfest Polka’. That’s very hilarious to listen to.
That was in the ‘Oktoberfest’, wasn’t it?
Yes. Were you inspired by the original music “on location”?
Yes, of course. I’ve been to Munich and to the Oktoberfest. I recorded the VISIONS OF EIGHT music there in 1972, in the Bavaria Studio.
Wasn’t it a difficult job to deal with 8 directors on that documentary about the Olympic Games in Munich?
I didn’t deal with 8 directors. I dealt actually with the producer, Stan Margulies. But I did deal with John Schlesinger. He was the only one there when I went over to Paris to see the film.
One soundtrack album every fan would welcome is WAIT UNTIL DARK. Why wasn’t there any album? Wasn’t there enough music in the movie?
No, at that time I was under contract with RCA. We had some very big soundtrack albums that I would re-record. I never used to put out the original tracks because I didn’t think they were good enough, in those days, the 60s. No one was buying; in the 60s nobody cared about film music and soundtracks like they do now. So I just did the ‘Theme for Three’ from the picture. But it would have been a good album. There was enough music…
…and very dramatic. Also in CHARADE, there was some wonderful dramatic music in there. But on the record album you favored the danceable, whistleable tunes.
Well, the commercial ones. It’s not a score album. I have the original tapes to all these things, like CHARADE, TWO FOR THE ROAD, and ARABESQUE. We are going to see now if we can do just a dramatic music album from these films.
In the 60s you were very much inspired by Latin music, swing and Big Band sound. But then in the 70s you suddenly ceased doing such albums.
I was doing all kinds of different albums. I did about 4 Big Band albums, starting back with ‘The Blues and the Beat’ in 1959. I did three albums a year and I couldn’t do all Big Band albums. You have to spread them out.
THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE was your first animated film. Was it a difficult one to do?
No, it was just like doing a picture. But it was harder because every sound has to be created for the picture. There is no ambient sound. And the dialogue is put in afterwards. The action is much faster, things happen quicker. Therefore it was a little bit different writing that. It was not hard. You just had to adjust.
You have just recorded two themes from this film for your new album. Why wasn’t there a complete album?
I don’t know. Disney had an offer, but it would have been a very expensive LP. We had about 65 men in the orchestra and a lot of recording sessions. It was just too expensive for them to sell, I think.
Being nominated for the Academy Awards nearly every year – it is something one gets used to?
I think I have about 18 nominations. If it happens, it happens. That’s all. You can’t plan it and say, “This I’m going to do to get an Oscar”.
Don’t you think that it was almost redundant to do this old-fashioned drama in the 80s? It had already been adapted for the screen several times before.
This one is the most original and the most faithful to Tennessee Williams. That’s why Paul Newman did it. It’s a very modern story about the mother and the children.
Was it just my imagination, or did I see you among the party guests in BLIND DATE?
No, I was only in one movie, in GUNN (1967).
THE PARTY was another Blake Edwards film you did. Here you didn’t write any background score, nevertheless you tried to comment ironically on the action.
It was all source music. I had to keep the tempo changing. We had a slow number, then a faster one, then maybe a slow one, then much faster and so on. I had to make that device so that the party seems like it keeps going.
You prefer soloistic writing…
That gives music personality. THE GLASS MENAGERIE score is all kinds of solos. When I was doing PETER GUNN, that’s what made that show – these people were really great jazz players – let them go, let them do something…