Home > Reviews > THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS – Dave Grusin

THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS – Dave Grusin

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Fabulous Baker Boys is a musical comedy-drama, written and directed by Steve Kloves. It stars real-life brothers Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges as Jack Baker and Frank Baker, jazz musicians who are struggling to find success. Frank is a happy family man, whereas Jack is single and lonely, his personal life little more than a series of one night stands. Things change when Suzie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer), a former escort and aspiring singer, comes into their lives; in addition to having a surprisingly terrific singing voice, she also increases their commercial potential, and soon the duo becomes a trio. However, as it always does, trouble rears its ugly head when Jack and Suzie start having romantic feelings for each other, a relationship which has the potential to drive the brothers apart. The film was a massive commercial and critical success at the time, and received four Academy Award nominations, but is now mostly remembered for the scene in which Pfeiffer performs an impossibly sexy rendition of Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn’s “Makin’ Whoopee” while draped across Bridges’s grand piano.

One of the Oscar nominations the film received was for Dave Grusin’s original score. The Academy had a decade-long love-affair with Dave Grusin in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s; he received nods for Heaven Can Wait in 1978, The Champ in 1979, and On Golden Pond in 1981, and won the whole thing in 1988 for The Milagro Beanfield War, beating off competition from things like The Accidental Tourist and Rain Man, and ahead of (in my opinion) significantly better scores like Beetlejuice, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, The Land Before Time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Willow, among many others. Now, don’t get me wrong – Dave Grusin is a great composer, one of the best jazz men ever to write music for film. But one of the things he had a tendency to do is write great music that isn’t especially great film music, and The Fabulous Baker Boys is one of these. Let me explain what I mean.

When listening to the score for The Fabulous Baker Boys, it is absolutely clear that this is top-notch jazz. It’s skillfully arranged and artfully performed, with beautifully textured instrumental combinations and memorable themes. But in the context of the film, the music doesn’t really act as score as much as it does source music; it provides atmosphere and a certain 1940s-style sultriness that matches the attitude of Michelle Pfeiffer’s character and the sound of the jazz standards that the Baker Boys perform, but it never really goes beyond that surface level application. It doesn’t actually comment on the film at all, and doesn’t provide any depth to the characters or their actions. It’s nothing but mood music. In fact, this didn’t need to be original music at all; you would have the same effect if you simply licensed an existing album of ‘Great Jazz Instrumentals’ and needle-dropped some of them into the finished movie.

Again, let me re-iterate: from a pure listening perspective, the score for The Fabulous Baker Boys is superb. Most of the score is performed by a sextet of jazz musicians comprising Sal Marquez on trumpet, Ernie Watts on saxophone, Lee Ritenour on guitar, Brian Bromberg on bass, and Harvey Mason on drums, plus Grusin himself on keyboards and piano. Each of the six original Grusin cues are standalone pieces, with virtually no recurring thematic content shared between them, but they all have significant musical merit. “Jack’s Theme” is the main title, a languid, bluesy piece intended to evoke the sound of the late-night jazz clubs that are Jack’s world, and which features a series of improvisational saxophone runs. “Welcome to the Road” is a funky, lively, positive piece of 1980s soft rock that plays under a montage sequence of Suzie and the Boys driving to various gigs, and which uses prominent guitars and a soprano sax to lead the melody. “Suzie and Jack” is the love theme for the two main characters, and is mostly a duet for a tenor sax (representing Suzie) and a trumpet (representing Jack), accompanied by Grusin’s sultry keyboards; it has a slightly hesitant, slightly suspicious sound, as if the two lead characters know that they shouldn’t be going down the romantic path they are on, but find themselves unable to resist anyway.

“Shop Till You Bop” is another montage, this time underscoring a scene where Suzie is frantically trying to purchase a number of new outfits for a particular stage performance; the music is fast, bouncy, and has a more classic-sounding 1940s feel featuring an especially notable double bass solo underneath the jumpy, frolicking combination piano and brass lines. “Soft on Me” is a slower variation on the Suzie and Jack love theme, still romantic, but with a slightly melancholy edge, wherein the saxophone and trumpet solos appear to have a touch of rueful resignation, signifying a change in their relationship. “The Moment of Truth” is a sentimental, thoughtful piece showcasing Ritenour’s relaxed guitar stylings and Grusin’s tender piano dexterity.

Michelle Pfeiffer performs vocals on two tracks, the aforementioned “Makin’ Whoopee,” and Rodgers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” which is heard in the film’s final scene and into the end titles. Pfeiffer had never sung professionally before this film, and was incredibly nervous about doing so, but her vocals are smoky and seductive and effortlessly enticing; no wonder she picked up a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her troubles. There are also a couple of cuts of classic jazz, including Duke Ellington performing “Do Nothing till You Hear from Me,” and Benny Goodman performing “Moonglow.”

However, as I mentioned, this music doesn’t really function as an actual film score. With the exception of the sax-trumpet love theme for Suzie and Jack, there is no recurring thematic content, meaning that the score has no internal architecture, and offers nothing beyond surface-level sheen. I don’t want to sound dismissive, but it really is just a series of standalone jazz instrumentals that happen to play at the same time as the film; they never actually feel like an integral part of the film’s emotional impact, and never feel as though they are specific to this film. The theme for Jack heard in the opening title has no melodic relationship to the love theme, even though the same character is involved. The tenor sax melody representing Suzie in the love theme is not referenced in her shopping montage, and so on and so on. It just feels like a missed opportunity for Grusin to actually tell a story with his music, as opposed to just writing standalone pieces. You could have put any pieces of classic jazz against the film and come away feeling the exact same thing.

So, the bottom line is this: The Fabulous Baker Boys is a truly outstanding jazz album, with tremendously authentic arrangements and performances from some of that world’s most legendary and respected performers. Anyone who loves classic jazz, and doesn’t mind hearing it blended with some more contemporary 1980s jazz-rock, will thoroughly enjoy it. As an actual dramatic film score, however, it’s basically a failure of concept and design, again proving that the Academy’s obsession with Dave Grusin was less to do with how well he actually scored the film, and more to do with how much the voting members liked jazz.

Buy the Fabulous Baker Boys soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title – Jack’s Theme (6:40)
  • Welcome to the Road (5:33)
  • Makin’ Whoopee (written by Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn, performed by Michelle Pfeiffer) (3:09)
  • Suzie and Jack (5:00)
  • Shop Till You Bop (4:35)
  • Soft on Me (2:30)
  • Do Nothing till You Hear from Me (written by Duke Ellington and Bob Russell, performed by the Duke Ellington Orchestra) (3:26)
  • The Moment of Truth (3:55)
  • Moonglow (written by Irving Mills and Eddie DeLange, performed by the Benny Goodman Quartet) (3:25)
  • Lullaby of Birdland (written by George Shearing and George David Weiss, performed by the Earl Palmer Trio) (2:32)
  • My Funny Valentine (written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, performed by Michelle Pfeiffer) (3:02)

Running Time: 43 minutes 50 seconds

GRP Records GRD-2002 (1989)

Music composed and conducted by Dave Grusin. Orchestrations by Dave Grusin. Featured musical soloists Dave Grusin, Ernie Watts, Sal Marquez, Lee Ritenour, Brian Bromberg and Harvey Mason. Recorded and mixed by Don Murray. Edited by Else Blangsted. Album produced by Dave Grusin and Joel Sill.

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