AMERICAN GANGSTER – Marc Streitenfeld
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
One of the most critically acclaimed films of 2007, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster is an intense look at the life of 1970s New York drug dealer Frank Lucas, and the determined New Jersey detective who finally brought him to justice. Headlining the cast are heavyweight actors Denzel Washington, who gives Frank Lucas a unnerving sense of gentlemanly charisma crossed with ruthless violence, and Russell Crowe, whose performance as detective Richie Roberts is simultaneously vulnerable and obsessive, almost mirror-imaging Washington’s polite and refined criminal. With a supporting cast that also includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding Jr., Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante and Carla Gugino, and with the critics hailing it as one of the potential main players as the 2007 Oscars, it is perhaps surprising to see such a high profile film being scored by a relative unknown: Marc Streitenfeld.
Originally from Munich in Germany, Streitenfeld first emerged on the scene in the early 1990s as Hans Zimmer’s personal assistant, and went on to assist a number of Media Ventures in-house composers for the next few years, as a composer’s assistant and a ‘technical score advisor’. He was a music editor on The Prince of Egypt, Gladiator, Hannibal, The Last Samurai, and several other high profile films, and was Harry Gregson-Williams’s music supervisor on Kingdom of Heaven in 2005, before unexpectedly being given his first solo scoring gig by Ridley Scott on “A Good Year” in 2006. American Gangster is his second movie, and if the quality of the writing is anything to go by, he may well have a decent future ahead of him in Hollywood film music circles.
As befits the setting of the film, Streitenfeld’s score has a certain urban cool about it, sort of rooted in the 1970s, but sort of not; he seems to be taking his inspiration from Blaxploitation composers such as Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield, mixing it with the jazz textures people like Lalo Schifrin often favored during the time, and then filtering it through his own musical sensibility. It’s certainly not a score which will suit all tastes, but it certainly has its moments.
The opening cue, “Images’, introduces the central elements of the score: 80-piece orchestra, acoustic and electric guitars, various ‘electronic’ enhancements and pre-records (mostly performed by Streitenfeld himself), and a swaggering jazz/rock percussion section to create an interesting mood of almost subliminal urban decay. Some of the score has a pseudo-western vibe, especially the second track, “Frank Lucas”, with its lonely trumpet solo, reflecting both Denzel Washington’s character’s sense of menace, but also his palpable self-confidence and charisma. “On Fire” continues to the western stylistics with slide guitars entering the fray, while “Arrival” simply sizzles, adding a throbbing brass undercurrent to the already arrogant rhythms, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Elliot Goldenthal’s score for S.W.A.T.
Throughout the score there is an interesting wailing synth noise, part police siren, part wolf howl, which underpins everything. Sometimes it is played by electric guitars, sometimes by the keyboards, but it’s always there, ever present. I’m not sure what it signifies – the inevitability of the arrival of the law in Frank’s life, or perhaps the dog-eat-dog world that Frank inhabits – but it certainly gives the score an interesting and unusual aural texture. It’s very prominent in “Hundred Percent Pure”.
As the score reaches its climax the orchestra becomes more prominent; the tension rises in “Suspects”, Frank’s theme gets a thorough workout in the suspenseful “Caskets”, and the music enters the action arena for the one and only time in “Raid”, although even here the music is less about energy and thrills than it is about creating an intense mood of realism and fear. Interestingly, the finale, “Chinchilla Coat”, is quite downbeat, and sees Frank’s theme performed on a solo piano with a sense of calmness and resignation.
It’s all very good stuff, and suits the time and place of the film well. The commercial soundtrack album, on Def Jam Records, features just 2 of Streitenfeld’s score cues alongside period songs by Bobby Womack, John Lee Hooker, Anthony Hamilton and Hank Shocklee; this promo release of Streitenfeld’s score was released by his publicist, Costa Communications, and is well worth seeking out. It’s not a world-shattering work, or even one that will set film music fans tongues wagging that much. What it is, however, is a confident, mature work by a young composer who seems to have a strong future ahead of him.
- Images (2:13)
- Frank Lucas (2:42)
- Hundred Percent Pure (2:12)
- On Fire (1:56)
- Arrival (1:05)
- Suspects (1:56)
- Caskets (2:42)
- Raid (3;14)
- Morgue (1:27)
- Chinchilla Coat (2:40)
Running Time: 22 minutes 07 seconds
Music composed by Marc Streitenfeld. Orchestrations by Rick Giovinazzo. Recorded and mixed by Jamie Luker. Edited by Del Spiva. Score produced by Marc Streitenfeld and Hans Zimmer.