Panels discuss new era for film, TV music

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The rise of film and television as places of musical discovery has been a boon for independent and major artists alike, panelists said Thursday during the Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music conference in Beverly Hills.

The two-day conference kicked off with events including a master class on choosing music for visual media and separate discussions of the films "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" and "Into the Wild."

Sean Penn spent a decade preparing the film adaptation of Jon Krakauer's 1996 book "Into the Wild." But it only took him a few hours to secure the services of Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder to write the soundtrack for the project.

The pair's creative partnership was the subject of a keynote address Thursday. Vedder and Penn were joined in conversation by Michael Brook, who wrote the "Wild" score.

"The script had been structured to have songs carry some of the narrative," Penn said. "We'd use a lot of Michael's stuff to temp to during the shoot. I just asked (Vedder) initially for a song, (and) rather quickly he started sending things down. The most important moment in the collaboration was just sitting at his place watching the movie together. He'd send these songs down, and they'd just work perfectly."

Brook likened the process of blending his music with Vedder's songs to "a kind of conversation" and said he was delighted "how much experimenting there was, which is what I always like best. Some of the music I wrote just reading the book. A lot of that we threw away, but some of it actually wound up in the film. At the beginning, you're not looking at the picture so much. You're just thinking, 'What is the atmosphere?' "

For Vedder, who previously turned down persistent requests from Penn to act in one of his films, writing for "Wild" was akin to finding "the perfect wave. Sean had found the perfect wave by the time he talked to me about it. It was just a pleasure to surf this perfect wave. All I had to do was get back on the boat and sing for my supper."

He added that working with Penn and the family of the story's main character, Christopher McCandless, at top of mind was a welcome creative challenge.

"In our group, or the way we're used to doing it, we have five guys and we're all kind of the boss," Vedder said. "This felt more like, these people I felt responsible to were the boss. I felt really comfortable in that position."

At the midday master class, there was a consensus that the decline in both boxoffice and recorded music sales has led to fewer throwaway soundtracks, greater access by the studios to music by major artists and bigger opportunities in film, TV and video games by smaller musical acts.

Although soundtracks, like the rest of recorded music, have seen their sales decline in recent years, they now claim a bigger market share, said Geoff Mayfield, Billboard's charts director and senior analyst.

"We're no longer in the era where you have record stores next door to the theaters in the malls of America," said Mitchell Leib, president of film music and soundtracks at Walt Disney Studios. Successful soundtracks — whether they be "Grey's Anatomy" compilations or "High School Musical," the top-selling album of 2006 — are featured prominently in a film or TV show and are integrated both story-wise and in the film's promotion, he said.

The panelists agreed that gone are the days when a big-name artist would disdain working on a film or when their label would insist on cramming in one of its songs that didn't fit or when a big act would simply throw songs together without regard for whether they actually helped tell a story.

"I'm working with artists and record producers who have never scored films before. It's an incredibly vital creative time now," said Lia Vollack, president of worldwide music at Sony Pictures.

John C. Reilly gives voice to 50 years' worth of popular music in Columbia's "Walk Hard," which opens Dec. 21. His tour de force performance as the Johnny Cash-like Dewey Cox was the subject of an afternoon panel with writer-producer Judd Apatow, director Jake Kasdan and the film's songwriting team.

"Before we'd even begun writing, Judd and I almost immediately said it should be John," Kasdan said. "It's a well-known secret that he's an amazing singer and the kind of actor who might play someone for their entire life in a biopic. It's a level of acting that you just wouldn't expect in this kind of movie."

On the Columbia soundtrack, due Dec. 4, Reilly sings all 15 songs, which were penned by such names as Marshall Crenshaw, Van Dyke Parks, Dan Bern and Mike Viola. Sony's Vollack said an expanded edition of the album with 15 additional tracks will be available on iTunes.a

Among the songs previewed during the panel was "Let's Duet," which Cox sings in the film with backing vocalist Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer). "As soon as we heard that phrase, "In my dreams you're blowing me … some kisses,' we knew we'd found our duet," Kasdan said.

Ayala Ben-Yehuda is a correspondent at Billboard; Jonathan Cohen is senior editor at Billboard.
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