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GOOD THIEF, THE: SOUNDTRACK

Review by Brad Green:
In every way but the most important Leonard Cohen is a lousy singer. No range, no volume, no technique. Just oodles of charisma. His whispery drawl seems to work its way through a stew of phlegm, cigarette smoke and essence of melancholy before eventually squeezing out between scarcely parted lips. It provides the perfect tones for an artist who is primarily a brooding poet. And it is also the perfect voice for this soundtrack.†

While I have not yet seen the film, reports have been glowing and no less than four correspondents (including my editor) have made a particular, similar observation. When Cohenís A Thousand Kisses Deep is heard, it sounds exactly like it might be Nick Nolte. The actor himself has the requisite gravel in his voice, and the character he plays the requisite temperament. Nolteís protagonist is the good thief of the title. The adjective refers both to his modus operandi and his heart, but the filmís beginning finds him at a point in his life when he is more or less washed up and succumbing to a surfeit of drugs, alcohol and general malcontent. Only the promise of a potential sting can get some verve back into him.

The narrative synopsis describes a heist movie, but the soundtrack evokes milieu and character over action. It comprises a score by Hollywoodís most mercurial composer, Elliot Goldenthal, interpolated with songs that range from Cohenís hypnotic poem to Bono covering the Frank Sinatra evergreen Thatís Life.

There is also a significant Gallic flavour to the soundtrack, supporting the filmís setting in the south of France. Most notably Serge Gainsbourgís Je tíaimeÖ moi non plus; a track he originally recorded with Brigitte Bardot, and later this version with his second wife Jane Birkin. The song has become notorious for being banned in Britain, where authorities determined that Birkinís heavy breathing hardly suggested she was lying back and thinking of England, or even Nice.

The French Riviera is in fact an especially apropos locale for a world-weary thief. From a practical point of view there are the opulent casinos to target, and from a more existential perspective the Gallic preoccupation with the variegated moods of life. Joie de vivre at one end, ennui at the other. Cíest la vie. But itís Bono who sings the English version of that sentiment here. Itís not the first time he has tackled a Sinatra tune, and each time he does it begs the question as to whether itís bravery or bombast. In his own very different way Bono is, like Cohen, a character singer. Sticklers for accuracy loathe him, and those who savour personality adore him. Where Cohen is all introspection and hushed gloom, Bono wears his passion in the roughly hewn melodrama of his tone and phrasing. Savvy enough to be aware of his limitations he doesnít try and croon the standards and the way he reinvents them is fascinating if not always successful. The U2 treatment of Cole Porterís Night And Day was a triumph; Bonoís duet with Frankie himself on Iíve Got You Under My Skin a travesty; and his recording here of Thatís Life works because the lyric and melody bend effectively to an over-the-top interpretation.†
Throughout the soundtrack the songs alternate with Goldenthalís score cues. This is a restrained and disciplined effort from a composer who in recent times has brought us everything from big band backings for Shakespeare, to the Mexican expressionism of Frida. Goldenthal concentrates this time on milieu. Although there are moments of dazzling saxophone and bittersweet, romantic piano, by and large it is a sparse and atmospheric score. Goldenthal trades in his eclectic, postmodern orchestrations to focus on texture, with a number of cues exploring electronica and digitally manipulated sound.†

Other artists featured with songs include Rachid Taha , Cheb Mami, Johnny Hallyday and Cheb Khaled. Tahaís track is a solid funk workout and Cheb Khaledís a colourful blend of Latin-influenced arrangements overlaid with a wailing vocal. The alternation of songs and score works to mitigate the longueurs of the latter, and add ballast to the lighter moments of the former. While the cumulative ambience of the soundtrack probably succeeds most completely in cinematic context, it also stands alone robustly as a meditation on the vicissitudes of life.†

Published October 2, 2003


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REVIEWS

TITLE: The Good Thief
ID: 44006 88842
Universal Island Records
SCORE: Elliot Goldenthal
ARTISTS: Cheb Khaled; Leonard Cohen; Rachid Taha; Cheb Mami & K-Mel; Johnny Hallyday; Intense; Serge Gainsbourg with Jane Birkin; Bono
TRACKS: 16







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