Score by Dave Grusin
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Story: An ambitious young lawyer joins a prestigious Memphis law firm, but gets in over his head when he discovers that it has a sinister dark side, threatening his career, his marriage and even his life.
While filming “The Firm” on location in Memphis, director Sydney Pollack became especially intrigued with the indigenous blues one associates with the city's famed Beale Street. This interest provided the initial impetus for an unconventional idea.
Most people were baffled as to how it would work when he first proposed his concept that scoring of this legal thriller should take the form of blues based piano alone. But Dave Grusin found the suggestion fascinating and enticing. He was more than game to give it a try. "That appealed to me more than just doing another dramatic score," he comments. “When I started looking at what the film needed musically, it became a huge challenge, because it was very dramatic, with romance, tension, chases - all the elements you find in a dramatic picture.”
He had his doubts, however, over the viability of the idea. Despite the director's enthusiasm, he believed the piano would wind up being augmented by orchestra, and wanted to leave track space open on the tape for additional instrumentation which he thought might be required in the end to provide extra power to the music.
Speaking with pride of the final effort, the director states that it "makes such a major contribution to that film! It was one of the most unusual scores you could possibly do - entirely done with the piano. It's all piano. As far as I know that's never been done." Sydney Pollack adds appreciatively, "that was very controversial until he did it!"
Indeed, Dave Grusin found that writing for himself alone, rather than a substantial ensemble as on previous scores, enhanced the artistic process. The resulting jazz-oriented score stands out not only as one of his most innovative, but also one of his most successful, netting him Grammy and Academy Award nominations as well. Being a solo affair, it is a unique treat for fans of Dave Grusin the musician.
Scenes over opening credits concisely portray a young law graduate for whom the world is his oyster, and the main title is a driving bit of R&B that conveys Mitch's forward acceleration to a tee. "it sets a tone from the moment the picture starts," asserts the director emphatically. The lively melody, with all its confidence, still offers just a hint that Mitch may be stepping too fast and could be in for trouble. The rhythmic bass part itself creates not just movement, but even a little bit of menace. "It was mainly a tempo feel that I thought would open the movie in the right way," Dave Grusin declares. "It doesn't take a lot of the viewer's attention, but it has a kind of groove.”
In addition to the lilting and sweet love theme for Mitch and Abbey, there is a second romantic piece which darkly portrays the couple when their marriage is endangered by the firm. Played in a minor key, "The Death of Love and Trust" is pure blues in the night, soulful and conveying all the pain of marriage on the rocks. Nevertheless warm-hearted, it is one of the most haunting and listenable pieces in the Grusin repertoire.
With this kind of moody music predominating, the score reaches a state of bottled essence in the theme associated with the melancholy and quiet desperation of imprisoned Ray - a blues progression which Dave Grusin reveals, started out as generic music to represent the southern locale. Director Pollack found it so evocative, that he suggested using it in the various scenes featuring the character whose role, though limited, stands out as a result of the theme etching the existence of a man with a past who seems laid back, but has a brooding quality about him. Regret with a smile.
The feeling of improvisation throughout the film lends a great sense of spontaneity wherever it occurs, be it fashioning a pulsing danger motif, barroom piano tune or uniquely accented chase music.
In this connection, the special keyboard effects were all done on a Yamaha grand piano which Dave Grusin put through some singular paces. "We sampled some stuff, like sounds that we made in the interior of the piano." He gives the example of a particularly effective reverberation created "if you put the pedal down and rap on the sound board, where the strings are." All kinds of intriguing percussion was generated. "We did a number of those things and actually edited them and used them. Every sound in the score was made on that piano, even though some of the sounds were things like hitting it with a tympani mallet.”
It was the kind of creative fun the composer thrives on. “All of a sudden this poor little piano was asked to do an enormous job," he remembers. Once the concept started rolling, there was no end to invention used to produce effects and melodic sounds. But the effort had its own private satisfactions. “Probably nobody will care when they see this movie, but that was our little internal game of keeping our integrity, performing purely on piano,“ he asserts.
The actual development of the score offers a notable story on its own. "One of the attractive things about this project was the chance to improvise," Dave Grusin says. He started out by playing to picture, a variety of lines for some Memphis scenes in the rough cut of the film, and submitted a recording of the samples to Sydney Pollack, just to give him a taste of the ideas the composer was thinking about.
The director was so enthused by the perfect match of music to scene that he decided to use many of these sample improvisations exactly as submitted.
Less work for Dave Grusin? Quite the opposite, as it turned out. When it came time to record the actual cues for the music track, the challenge he faced was somewhat perturbing. "I had to re-create what I had originally done as improvisation,” he recalls, “and it was sort of like sitting and taking dictation from someone else's music. I had to listen to my own music and write it down so I could re-create it for the soundtrack."
Complementing the solo piano, there are some additional vocals slotted in at various points in the film, as well as Caribbean material to accompany the scenes in the Cayman Islands. These items plus the tour de force keyboard performance are available on the original soundtrack recording. Like the book and its film adaptation, a best seller.
Music Editor: Ted Whitfield
Music Consultant: Joel Sill
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Gene Hackman, Hal Holbrook, Wilford Brimley, Ed Harris, Holly Hunter, David Strathairn, Gary Busey
Director: Sydney Pollack
Producers: Scott Rudin, John Davis & Sydney Pollack
Released: Paramount 1993
Piano Consultant: David Labell
Recording by: Don Murray