DIVORCE AMERICAN STYLE
Score by Dave Grusin
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Story: Richard Harmon and his wife of 17 years Barbara decide to divorce in this romantic social comedy. Newfound friend Nelson schemes to marry them off for his own advantage.
An adroit blending of classical, jazz and contemporary sounds, the adventurous score to “Divorce American Style” is almost like a sampler or portfolio of the imaginative range Dave Grusin could offer as a film composer. His first theatrical motion picture, it certainly hinted at the eclecticism he would soon become noted for.
Creative logic dictated use of symphonic music as accompaniment for main titles. As these run, only the exterior of various homes is seen while couples therein bicker, with marriage counsellor Dr. Zenwin in tails `conducting' the quarrelling - at an ever-increasing tempo - from a podium above the neighborhood.
Dave Grusin has not merely used the lively symphonic piece as a mechanism for the prologue, but has employed it to emphasize other scenes which have a similar fever pitch of activity - notably when both Richard and Barbara attempt to clear their bank accounts, when children from various marriages are divided up amongst Sunday parents, and over closing credits when, after making up, Richard and Barbara appear to be reverting back to their spats all over again.
A further agreeably inventive application of classical music is displayed when, squabbles temporarily ceased, guests arrive at Richard and Barbara's home to baroque underscoring. As these scenes merge into actual party sequences, the same instruments seamlessly take on a fluid jazz tempo, and just as easily, without missing a beat, return to classical style over guests' departure. Set as an intermission between domestic disputes, this entire sequence is all a montage without dialogue, and the music manages to turn a visually expressive situation suggested by film makers into articulate social commentary.
The orchestration offers another exhibition of diversity, and nowhere more so than in the romantic music, which is plentiful in the film. The rich, contemporary sounds are executed by an array of instrumentation from string orchestra to piano combo and jazz organ to big band. A particularly tasty example of the latter plays against a lingerie fashion show as Richard shares his marital problems with friend Lionel who (with help of the models and the music) urges him to try infidelity .
Though lush in tone, the theme for Richard and his wife has a warmth, cosiness and ease to it, while the music played for Nancy and Richard has an alluring and more worldly quality. As things develop between them, the latter is also combined with a deliciously floaty bit of samba, reflecting Dave Grusin's special affinity for the bossa nova.
In the case of Richard and Barbara's champagne-induced reconciliation before the final breakup, their gentle and romantic theme plays through a scene which is basically laughter, thus revealing the underlying love and affection not stressed on the screen. Continuing while a fire breaks out in the kitchen, but ending when the flames go out, it resumes as the couple sit down to jelly doughnuts by candlelight. With intimacy accentuated by strings now, as Richard and Barbara speak of their fantasies, the underscoring provides the only real basis audiences have for knowing there is truly something worth saving in this marriage. Ending with a sting in the tail when Richard mentions the hooker, the audience is warned that the romantic interlude must be over. (It is the absence of music in the next scene where they are in bed which confirms that fact.)
After the separation this theme also appears at moments when incidents hit a tender spot, such as Richard's children telling him about Barbara's new boyfriend. It also plays as he takes his son home, only to see a party going on at his former house. His sense of loss is amplified by the theme playing sadly and reflectively. However, Richard's ever-present nature to make the best of a situation is evoked when the luscious samba acts as a link between the sentimental theme for his wife and the amorously playful one for Nancy.
Charming and sophisticated, this contemporary music is first used against the tone of conversation, as Nancy clinically speaks of her financial situation. A relatively short cue, the implication is an idea planted in Richard's mind. This theme is particularly effective, not in a scene with Richard, but after he has left, indicating Nancy's vulnerability and affection for him. When they become more involved, this piece also assumes new depth and becomes a real love theme by the use of some sensitive orchestration.
As with the above instance, where it is from his point of view that the relationship has become more serious, in almost all cases, the dramatic underscoring is an expression of Richard's emotions. This takes on its greatest character and depth following the court judgment when he is left with nothing. The music becomes very somber indeed, reflecting a sense of defeat and melancholy. Once again, there is a progression in the cue, from the sense of being shattered to a blues melody which is actually quite different in tone.
This melange of styles within a single cue is a keynote of the “Divorce American Style” score, and the effortless shift from one genre to another lends additional layers of feeling to the scenes where the technique is utilized.
An illustration of this occurs when Richard finds himself in a confusing and difficult situation in the irritable hooker's apartment, and music goes from a light bit of jazz into a sentimental modern sound, varying in mood and tempo a half dozen times in a few moments to express his discomfort, wishing to be affable, but to quickly get out of the place.
Being what might be described as a social comedy played straight, there is ample room for humor in the music. Dangerously so. In lesser hands, the score might have deteriorated into a comic one completely impairing the intention of its creators, relegating the picture to farce status.
A typical instance where the temptation to get carried away musically exists, is the scene where Richard and Barbara - constantly annoying one another - go through lengthy routines preparing for bed. Nonetheless, the ridiculousness of their actions is left free of music, speaking for itself, and thereby giving the action an extra edge - with only a jocular organ kick at the end denoting a last straw. The perfect cap to the evening's marital festivities.
Indeed, it is the jazz organ which acts as jester in “Divorce American Style,” in particular, effectively portraying Nancy's former husband, Nelson, whose sole purpose in life is to marry off his ex-wife.
This `lifestyle music' is complemented in the picture by numerous other treats - including a Tijuana Brass style piece in the fast food restaurant, some sensuous lounge music (plus piano interlude) when the three couples all meet, and a witty rumbling piece mixing strings and woodwinds as Nancy and Nelson scheme to find Barbara a new husband. No doubt, there was even more. Missing is the first film collaboration between Dave Grusin and Alan and Marilyn Bergman on a song which never made its way into the final cut.
Not only revealing an adeptness with a multiplicity of musical styles, “Divorce American Style” is a top-notch score on all counts, most especially for a novice. The faith producer Norman Lear and director Bud Yorkin showed, inviting their former colleague from “The Andy Williams Show” to score their star-studded picture, was unreservedly justified.
Dave Grusin says he remains eternally grateful to them for the break, and has also indicated a lasting satisfaction with his work on this film. Fortunately, there was even a soundtrack album covering a substantial part of the score.
His cinema career was launched with a great success, and the possibilities he'd been considering for years started to unfold. Despite this, to his mind, this was not yet what he envisioned as motion picture scoring. It wasn't until he worked on “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” the following year, that he felt he was finally doing what he “grew up thinking was serious film music.”
Stars: Dick Van Dyke, Jason Robards, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Simmons, Van Johnson, Shelley Berman, Martin Gabel, Lee Grant, Tom Bosley, Dick Gautier.
Director: Bud Yorkin
Producer: Norman Lear
Released: Columbia 1967