Home > Reviews > FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN – Mac Quayle


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Building on the success of their hit TV anthology series American Horror Story, TV network FX and writer/director/producer Ryan Murphy have expanded into different areas with two additional shows. The first, American Crime Story, began in 2016 with The People vs. O. J. Simpson, an in-depth look at the celebrity murder trial which gripped the United States in the mid 1990s. The second, Feud, is intended to take a closer look at numerous different true-life inter-personal rivalries, and began by exposing the decades-long grudge between Hollywood actresses Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, which came to a head during the filming of the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962. The 8-episode series, which starred Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon in the title roles and debuted in March 2017, reveled both in its Old Hollywood sheen and in the fading glamour of the two former starlets, while unearthing juicy details on a number of studio power players, ranging from Warner Brothers exec Jack Warner to director Robert Aldrich, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. The show was an enormous success, and went on to pick up 19 Emmy Award nominations.

In addition to Ryan Murphy, one of the other threads linking the three FX shows together is the music of Virginia-born composer Mac Quayle, who began writing for American Horror Story in 2014, and has quickly become one of the most in-demand composers working in American television. In addition to the Murphy shows, Quayle has also scored Scream Queens and the cult hit Mr. Robot, the latter of which won him an Emmy in 2016. However, for me, Bette and Joan is the pinnacle of his career to date. Unlike his other scores, which have tended to be electronic-based and somewhat ambient, his score for Bette and Joan is a vivid celebration of classic Hollywood, a wonderful combination of toe-tapping, finger-snapping jazz, and numerous wonderful homages to the great composers of the era, most notably Bernard Herrmann. It’s a wonderful new sound for him, rich and decadent, and it shows an increasingly versatile side to his musical personality which is very impressive indeed.

The main theme, as heard in “Feud: Bette and Joan – Main Titles,” is a beauty, a darkly romantic piece for sonorous clarinets and vibrato-heavy strings which plays over a vintage Saul Bass-style animated title sequence, and drips with that classic Hitchcockian combination of seduction and menace. It doesn’t reference a specific Herrmann score, but it is certainly touched by his influence; you can imagine this music being heard over the opening titles of a Psycho or a Vertigo without much of a stretch. The theme cleverly appears in several cues thereafter, and is intelligently arranged – the mambo-inflected “I Want to Act” has all the hope and optimism of a potential career on the rise, while its rendition in “Bette Becomes Baby Jane” is chilling, underscoring Sarandon’s transformation into the icon of hagsploitation like it was a mythical monster given life.

However, to his credit, Quayle doesn’t play the theme to death, and instead allows his score to become much more varied and interesting. A great deal of the score is rooted in the vintage sound of classic Hollywood, that wonderfully melodramatic, emotionally forceful style so beloved of the studios during the 1950s and 60s. Numerous cues stand out, notably the warmly nostalgic “Documentary” with its elegantly slurred strings, jazz trio, and magical harp glissandi; and the bold “Finale Fanfare,” a sweeping piece for brass.

To illustrate the increasingly fraught, verbally vicious, and occasionally violent relationship that Crawford and Davis shared, Quayle frequently dips his toes into more sinister territory. “Baby Jane Book” features chilly-beautiful woodwinds. “The Contracts” could be a piece from a horror movie, with insistently churning, agitated strings. “No Offers” is rhythmically restless, capturing the tension and nervous energy bottled up inside an actress with no part to play. Perhaps the best piece of purely dramatic scoring is “This Awful Silence,” a simple piece for strings and harp that digs deeply under the veneer of glamour and reveals the uncertainties and frailties that dogged both Bette and Joan throughout their lives.

Elsewhere, Quayle’s music embraces a heavy dose of authentic period jazz, as well as lounge music arrangements, Latin beats, and more. Several of the jazz pieces are anchored by the sensational trumpet performances of soloist Chris Tedesco, while others are given life by light, elegant piano performances. Cues like the busy and forthright “Shopping the Movie,” the softly intimate “Bob & Bette,” the saxophone-heavy “Cocktail Party,” and the Cole Porter-esque “A Day at the Beach” are impressive and could easily have been something someone like Henry Mancini, or Les Baxter, wrote during their heyday. “Oscar Day” captures the hustle and bustle and razzmatazz of Hollywood’s most important night, while “Selling Cousin Charlotte” has a cool, bold 1960s lounge vibe.

Anyone who has experienced Quayle’s menacing work on previous seasons of American Horror Story, or the ambient electronica of Mr. Robot, will be surprised at just how lush and thematic Bette and Joan is, and how period-perfect it sounds. The Herrmann references are excellent and appropriate, the jazz is lively and vivacious, and although I don’t know enough about Frank De Vol’s actual score for the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, as I haven’t seen or heard it for years, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of Quayle’s darker orchestral textures were inspired by it too: if so, bravo. The next Feud series, scheduled for 2018, is supposed to concentrate on Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and I for one can’t wait to hear this exciting composer’s take on regal British musical tropes.

Buy the Feud: Bette and Joan soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Feud: Bette and Joan – Main Titles (1:11)
  • Documentary (2:42)
  • Finale Fanfare (0:35)
  • I Want to Act (1:37)
  • Baby Jane Book (0:31)
  • Shopping the Movie (1:16)
  • The Contracts (1:05)
  • Bette Becomes Baby Jane (1:38)
  • No Bad Angles (0:46)
  • Promiscuity (0:56)
  • Bob & Bette (0:48)
  • Cocktail Party (1:14)
  • Feud: Bette and Joan – End Credits (2:10)
  • A Day at the Beach (4:30)
  • Close the Door (0:57)
  • This Awful Silence (3:09)
  • No Offers (4:00)
  • Oscar Day (3:02)
  • Selling Cousin Charlotte (3:04)
  • One Take Wonder (0:50)
  • The Brows Are Mine (2:10)
  • The Best Mother (0:59)
  • Feud: Bette and Joan – Epilogue (2:04)

Running Time: 41 minutes 24 seconds

20th Centuty Fox TV Records (2017)

Music composed by Mac Quayle. Orchestrations by Garrett Gonzalez. Recorded and mixed by John Rodd. Edited by David Klotz. Album produced by Mac Quayle.

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