Film Score Friday #5: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965)

Charlie Brown and Linus van Pelt muse on the meaning of Christmas.

The list of things that one might readily associate with the timeless charm of the animated specials based on Charles Schulz’s phenomenally successful Peanuts cartoon strip is plentiful: the trademark scream; the “kick the football” running gag; the gibbering voices of Snoopy and Woodstock, ably provided by long-time series director Bill Melendez; or perhaps the naturalistic delivery of the real children who voiced their main characters. For others, however, it might be the invariably tasteful yet effortlessly swinging jazz soundtracks contributed by pianist Vince Guaraldi, collections of lovingly crafted miniatures with a sprightly liveliness that makes them as infinitely enjoyable to listen to in their own right as when accompanying the adventures of Charlie Brown and friends. Indeed, Chris Barton writes in a Los Angeles Times article from 2013 of how these scores acted as a first exposure to jazz for generations of young children, and furthermore made life-long converts out of many, including Guaraldi’s later biographer Derrick Bang. Yet far from being gradually introduced, this was a core component of the series from its very inception, and especially so in the inaugural A Charlie Brown Christmas.

The ball (football, perhaps?) began rolling for these specials in 1963, when producer Lee Mendelson chose Schulz and Peanuts to be the subject of a new documentary, with the chosen title of A Boy Named Charlie Brown. As well as conducting interviews with Schulz about his creations and his working process, Mendelsohn also commissioned animated segments that brought the previously static Peanuts gang to life, assembling a team whose combined efforts would come to define the look, style and enduring appeal of the series that followed, including Melendez as animation director, and Guaraldi, whose iconic composition “Linus and Lucy” cannot now help but suggest anything else.

Although the programme never made it to the airwaves, it was enough to attract the attention of an executive at Coca Cola, who approached Mendelson to produce a Peanuts Christmas special. Mendelson duly approached Schulz, who worked up a scenario. As well as re-enlisting Melendez to supervise the animation side of the operation, both decided that Guaraldi’s music, having played such a successful part in A Boy Named Charlie Brown, should be just as integral to the new project, with Schulz setting his sights on its then unusual fusion of traditional music and jazz right from the very start. This theme continued on the soundtrack album of the same name released to coincide with the special’s transmission in December 1965, featuring new arrangements by Guaraldi of other Christmas carols including “The Little Drummer Boy” (as “My Little Drum”) and “What Child Is This?” alongside re-recorded versions of the songs featured in the film with different sidemen.

In contrast to the magical “winter wonderland” atmosphere and unfettered jollity present in other Christmas-themed media, and especially noticeable for a children’s film (although one need only look to films such as White ChristmasIt’s a Wonderful Life, or indeed to the annual tradition of the Coca Cola advert to see that this is not limited to this level of programming), the opening to A Charlie Brown Christmas is rather muted and even somewhat downbeat. While the viewer is indeed presented with the charming scene of falling snow, a frozen pond and a blanketed landscape, the colour palette is relatively pale and washed out, emphasising the skeletal trees around the water’s edge and suggesting wintry cold rather than festive warmth.

This is reflected musically in Guaraldi’s score as well. Instead of the whoosh of blizzards and snowstorms evoked by the swirling strings and woodwinds at the opening of the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer released the previous year, we are instead greeted with the comparatively subdued “Christmas Time is Here”, a languid waltz whose soft brush accompaniment is a similarly suitable representation of the softly falling snow and the fragility of the surrounding landscape (the timbre of the fast and high-register pizzicato in the instrumental version recorded on the soundtrack album similarly suggests the sound of wind billowing through bare branches). As the film progresses, the recurrence of this tune, in both vocalised and instrumental forms, comes to be associated with Charlie Brown’s unseasonal melancholy – something no doubt reinforced in recent years by its take-up as a similarly minded running gag on Arrested Development.

For one, it underscores moments that reinforce his sense of being bypassed by the “happiness and cheer” promised in the song’s lyrics, as he outlines first to Linus and then to Lucy, and that furthermore communicate this to the viewer. Both of these conversations, for example, book-end a sudden change in the music, as the gossamer-light “Skating”, a far faster waltz with echoes of Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans, enters while the other children catch snowflakes and throw snowballs around. This obvious musical contrast, reinforced as “Christmas Time” re-enters for his “doctor’s appointment” with Lucy, throws his sense of depression into even sharper relief, as he glumly wanders away from the enjoyment going on around him. This psychological isolation is made physical and explicit in the few seconds leading up to the show’s title card, as Snoopy, having previously brought all the children together in a spontaneous and joyful display of line-skating, immediately latches on to him, the depressive misfit, and expels him from the pond, distancing his negative influence from the group’s (and, one suspects, his own) enjoyment.

In other ways, however, it also leads the viewer, far from merely sympathising with Charlie Brown, towards aligning themselves with his perspective. Its re-entry, for example, when he writes out the extensive Christmas list dictated by his younger sister Sally reveals the way in which the very observance of Christmas seems to have changed around him as if to compound and reinforce his feelings of spiritual emptiness, something both he and the viewer observe in other characters’ behaviour as well. Additionally, the message sung by its angelic children’s chorus at the film’s opening comes across as somewhat threadbare in light of its rather banal lyrics (contributed by Mendelson and, with all due fairness, scribbled down ‘in about fifteen minutes on the back of an envelope’), full of generic imagery and seemingly paying mere lip service to what the spirit of Christmas truly means. Furthermore, however, the non-diegetic nature of the music soundtrack – the characters can’t hear it, but the audience can – means that this reserved solely for the viewer, projecting onto them the evident Weltschmerz that Charlie Brown projects onto his own world and that provides an adequate substitute in the in-film universe for the prevailing mood of Guaraldi’s composition.

This sense of having lost sight of “what Christmas is all about” continues later in the film, for example as the Beethoven-worshipping Schroeder attempts to approximate the desired sound and feel for “Jingle Bells” envisioned by Lucy. Having offered first a lyrical piano and then a gospelly Hammond organ version that seem to suggest far more of a festive mood, the final rendition he irritably bashes out, with the pointedly tinny and out-of-tune timbre of a thumb piano, is ultimately the one that satisfies Lucy’s evidently empty conception. It is when Charlie Brown leaves to seek out a suitable Christmas tree for use in the children’s school play, however, that this conflict between old and new values begins to reach some sort of resolution. Tasked by Lucy and the others with obtaining a “big, shiny aluminum tree”, opting for the glitz and spectacle of a modern substitute over the understated beauty of a real one (Walter Benjamin would have been proud), the music heard as he and Linus set out into the snow is a traditional-sounding solo piano arrangement of the carol “O Tannenbaum” (a.k.a. “O Christmas Tree”), albeit with some flashes of jazz harmonisation.

As they arrive at a sales lot populated by ostentatious but audibly hollow metallic trees, however, the tempo and style of this music changes appropriately into full-on jazz, moving from 3/4 into regular 4/4 time. While this certainly connotes something of the commercialisation of Christmas that causes Charlie Brown such consternation, it is not to bring this to the viewer’s attention in any moralistic sense. Instead, it suggests that the more modernised version of Christmas as celebrated by the other children is perhaps not as incompatible with his more purist outlook as it may first appear. Indeed, as Guaraldi himself will surely have been aware, the AABA form of “O Tannenbaum” lends itself very naturally to interpretation and performance as a jazz standard (or a pop standard, for that matter). Yet far from merely acknowledging this stylistic overlap, Guaraldi creates a composition that not only combines, but synthesises the two distinct styles into a form in which both are equally recognisable and equally convincing. (One might look for comparison to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Nutcracker Suite, which does not rearrange so much as recompose Tchaikovsky’s ballet as if were the composer himself writing for big band.)

In many senses, both the character of Guaraldi’s music and its usage in the film underlines its overall message that “the real meaning of Christmas” is ultimately dependent on the individual, and that no single interpretation is necessarily incorrect. The other children’s more materialistic viewpoint, for example, is as much a product of the consumerist society into which they have been born as anything else; Sally, for example, justifies her excessive present demands simply with, “All I want is what’s coming to me!”, a sentiment that might resonate with age groups far beyond the special’s intended audience. As much as the viewer might be prompted, both narratively and musically, to root for Charlie Brown’s refusal to “let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas” (it is supposedly A Charlie Brown Christmas, after all – albeit one ironically enabled by Coca Cola…), the role of Guaraldi’s score within the context of the film also demonstrates the futility of trying to foist his interpretation on the other children. In his attempts to stamp order on the rehearsals for the school Christmas play, for example (“We’re going to do this play,” he tells the others, “and we’re going to do it right”), he fails to assert his authority not only over his actors, who continually break out into the spontaneous dancing seen in the first school scene rather than following the proscribed Nativity scenario, but also over the soundtrack, whose conspicuously modern hard bop sound, established in this same scene with “Christmas is Coming”, stubbornly continues with further reiterations of “Linus and Lucy”.

Similarly, it is not only Charlie Brown who gains some kind of spiritual strength from Linus’s pivotal recitation of verses from the King James Bible, but also Linus himself, who, having been continually castigated through the whole film by Lucy for his (over-)reliance on his security blanket, is able, at least for the duration, to let go of it, seemingly caught in a kind of mild rapture. For many modern-day, more secular audiences, this might well smack of the strong Christian overtones that have been successively read into the series (and into the original strip, for that matter) but only go some way towards summarising Schulz’s true spiritual beliefs. The same argument could be made of the closing chorus of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, with traditional, time-honoured and, furthermore, Christian music (and performance methods) apparently winning the day over of its more modish competitors.

Ultimately, however, the theme of the day is reconciliation, something that Guaraldi’s soundtrack again reflects and reinforces towards the end of the film. Although the children reject and ridicule both the “completely hopeless” Charlie Brown and the tiny sapling he has brought back to be their tree (something in turn bolstered by the re-entry of “Christmas Time is Here” after a good ten minutes of screentime), the music heard as he carries the tree back out into the snow, filled with renewed hope after Linus’s monologue, is a return to the 3/4 feel and calm timbre of the original “O Tannenbaum”, accompanied this time by a slow and soft jazz accompaniment. Furthermore, however, the other children, seemingly drawn to his new sense of purpose, follow him on his journey and help decorate the scrawny-looking sapling to make a Christmas tree that is worthy of the name on both his and their terms.

A Charlie Brown Christmas would prove to be the start of Guaraldi’s long association with the Peanuts franchise, which covered sixteen further short and feature-length films and was only cut short by his untimely death in 1976, aged 47. Although “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is indeed the music that ends the film, his expert realisation and execution of Schulz’s brainwave to mix traditional carols with jazz helps bring its themes of tolerance, inclusivity and mutual compatibility to full fruition. Ironically enough, however, as Mendelson remembers, this approach, highly unorthodox for its time, was one of the factors that drew a high amount of scepticism from the CBS executives to whom the special was pitched, such that, were it not for the fortuity of the rave reviews it received afterwards, it might never have been aired again. Happily, though, not only was it the starting-off point for a series of much-loved and fondly remembered cartoons, but also a special achievement in its own right, and furthermore one in which the music of a jazz pianist and composer named Vince Guaraldi played an indelible part.

“Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!”

Film Score Friday #2: “Ghost in the Shell” (1995)


Motoko Kusanagi contemplates life and meaning in Ghost in the Shell.

In a world where the human body has been augmented and all but replaced by technology, does the possession of a soul serve as the criterion by which one is judged to be human? And if so, what constitutes a soul? These are the primary questions posed in the near-future society of Mamoru Oshii’s groundbreaking 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell, an adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s highly successful manga of the same name, in which the barriers between man and machine have blurred to the point of becoming indistinguishable. When not fitted with robotic or cybernetic implants, many humans now live as cyberbrains (the “ghosts” of the title) inside specially created cyborg bodies (“shells”) and hooked up to a vast interconnected global network of information exchange.

With these new prospects come new dangers, as skilled hackers and cybercriminals find fertile online ground to exploit, and necessary new means of police protection, in the form of Public Security Section 9, led by series protagonist Major Motoko Kusanagi. One of the most successful and influential anime productions of all time, with its lasting impression seen most visibly in the story and visual design of the Wachowskis’ Matrix series (whose ‘digital rain’ effects it directly inspired), and beautifully animated, it went on to spawn not only a film sequel, subtitled Innocence, but two separate TV reboots, namely the Kenji Kamayama-directed Stand Alone Complex and the more recent Arise. A live-action remake, the subject of fevered discussion in recent months over its controversial casting of Scarlett Johannsen as Kusanagi, is due for release next year.

Both Shirow’s manga and Oshii’s film can be read as attempts to understand, navigate and, in some respects, anticipate the brave new world heralded in real life by the dawning of the internet age only a few years prior, of which the fictional world depicted in Ghost in the Shell can be seen as a logical extension of the increasing interconnectedness between both human societies and human bodies. (It was, for example, the first anime film released simultaneously in Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom.) While the manga clearly outlines that its setting, the purpose-built New Port City, is in Japan, this is less explicit in the film, presenting the sprawling megalopolis (never mind metropolis) as a teeming, heaving melting pot of both regional and international influences. The visual influence of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is evident in the mixture of English, Japanese and Chinese script in the myriad neon signs that dominate the cityscape, as is the look and architecture of real-life cities such as Hong Kong, from which Oshii drew extensively in his conception of the city. It is not only different cultures, however, that live side-by-side, but both rich and poor and old and new, with tumbledown shanty huts providing both a stark contrast to the progress and technological miracles seen elsewhere in the city and a vivid reminder of those that they leave behind, as true of real-life, modern-day metropoles from Manhattan to Mumbai as of fictional, futuristic ones.

Ghost in the Shell‘s futuristic city setting.

This sense of temporal and cultural synthesis is mirrored in numerous ways by Kenji Kawai’s minimalist but fantastically effective soundtrack, which offers an eclectic mix of traditional and modern instrumentation and itself evinces a panoply of influences not only from East and West, but from film-scoring and pop music conventions as well (Kawai enjoyed some moderate success as a rock musician before transitioning into composing). The liberal use of synthesisers, particularly synthesised strings, not only aptly matches the film’s futuristic setting, but also draws comparisons with (and bears the influence of) other forward-looking film composers whose style is similarly predominantly defined by synthesised sounds. One might think of John Carpenter’s early electronic scores for his own films, Wendy Carlos’ work for Stanley Kubrick or, perhaps most fittingly of all, Vangelis’ immediately distinctive soundtrack to Blade Runner.

At the same time, however, while acoustic instruments feature frequently alongside electronic ones, it is somewhat telling that those that do are often the most identifiably Japanese; alongside three singers, the few fellow musicians credited on Kawai’s soundtrack are percussionists, playing a set-up of traditional taiko drums, bells and gongs. The atmospheric “Nightstalker”, for instance, combines synthesised strings with the distinctive tone of the Japanese koto, creating a ruminative quality that would not be out of place in a neo-noir film. Indeed, coupled with the film’s pan-Asian stylisation, the concurrent sounds of the expansive free-time strings and koto’s rubato phrasing draws more than a passing comparison with Blade Runner‘s famous “Love Theme”.

Rather than merely referencing this at certain points, however, Kawai sets this tone from the very start with what is essentially the film’s opening title, “Making of a Cyborg”, accompanying a sequence in which Kusanagi (or at least her cyborg “shell”) is, as the title suggests, “made”, in the sense of being literally assembled (see below). The first of three similar “Chants” interspersed throughout the soundtrack, Kawai describes in the accompanying featurette Production Report included on the film’s DVD release how the composition of this piece comprises a mixture of different musical traditions, with Japanese vocalists singing words in the ancient Yamato dialect to notes taken from Japanese scales and harmonised using techniques borrowed from Bulgarian folk music. The added presence of traditional Japanese bells and drums, providing unobtrusive and solemn background accompaniment, lends this number a further air of mystery, its evocation of ancient customs in strong juxtaposition to the futuristic images seen on screen.

The combination, however, of singing styles and percussive sounds heavily redolent of Buddhist religious music with words from a wedding incantation intended to banish evil spirits also takes on a strongly devotional aspect that is significant for the context of the film in more ways than one. Seen in the sense of the obvious implication that technology has become a new dominant religion to which the majority of the world’s population now subscribes in some way, it comes to resemble something of a purification ritual that keeps the “temple” of technology clean, safe and unsullied. Consequently, in a society where biological reproduction has been rendered almost obsolete through the widespread manufacture of cyborg bodies, the otherwise sterile isolation chamber in which Kusanagi’s “shell” is created comes essentially to represent a “womb of the future”, complete with amniotic fluid of sorts that protects and supports the shell as it develops. Particularly given the presence of entities such as the film’s antagonist the “Puppet Master” that are capable of hacking into, controlling, and thus violating cybernetic bodies, “Making of a Cyborg” also gives the impression of a prayer for the wellbeing of the “unborn child” Kusanagi and others like her whose shells are made in this way.

As if to emphasise and even uphold this ritualistic relationship with technology, similar motifs and combinations of sonorous metallic and membranophonic sounds form the basis for a large portion of the score that follows. “Ghosthack”, for example, is accompanied by ominous low synth tones, gongs and scraped cymbal effects more commonly heard in suspense or horror films. “Access” and “Ghostdive”, meanwhile, almost variations on the same theme, both revolve around the tintinnabulous sounds of tuned gongs and tubular bells, occasionally interspersed with digital or digitally treated percussion. The “Puppet Master”‘s main theme is almost a slowed-down version of this same idea, with the transfigured sense of pace and the microtonal differences in tuning between the various gongs drawing as much of a comparison with Aphex Twin’s early ambient work as traditional Japanese music.

The chant first heard in “Making of a Cyborg” also recurs on two further occasions, each with slightly varied instrumentation. Furthermore, the final chant plays over the closing credits, book-ending the film along with the first, and offers the first real semblance of a full orchestration, adding not only extra instrumental voices but extra instrumental textures, with a string melody and accompanimental dulcimer quaver figurations now clearly discernible amongst the held string chords and sparse percussion from before. This is doubly significant coming shortly after the film’s climax, in which Kusanagi agrees to the Puppet Master’s request to merge souls with her, creating a being that is neither one nor the other, but a combination of both in a symbolic act of reproduction. (As if to make this analogy inescapable for the viewer, Kusanagi’s new “shell”, her old one having been destroyed in the aftermath of the battle, is a smaller one bearing strong resemblance both to a doll and to a child.) Furthermore, the musical transformation and the “fleshing out” of the instrumentation heard, coupled with the subtitle “Reincarnation”, mirror the sense that, in her new persona, Kusanagi, and indeed the Puppet Master, are now somehow more complete through their act of union, having seemingly found answers to at least some of their initial questions.

Kusanagi and the Puppet Master’s union is presaged through the use of perspective.

While the film and manga certainly offer glimpses at the possibilities for human evolution through the continuous process of mechanisation, and furthermore hint at their inevitability, there is little disguising the sense of ambivalence that comes with it, particularly the implication that even the emotional connections we make with the world around us and the experiences that arguably form the concept of a soul can be digitally replicated, leading to the gradual erosion and erasure of the qualities that we take for granted as being innately human. It is telling, for example, that the climactic battle and “meeting of minds” between Kusanagi and the Puppet Master takes place in a museum, and furthermore one showing signs of its obvious age and decrepitude. As further emphasised by the prominent wall mural of an evolutionary chain leading up through various species of fish to “hominis” at the top, the suggestion is abundantly clear that humankind, having previously been at the apex of this process, is fated instead to be merely another stage in it that will (and, it is implied, must) be bypassed by the advent of modern technology and reduced to an artefact, a forgotten and abandoned relic.

Kawai’s instrumentation here, in the appropriately titled “Floating Museum” (drawing immediate associations with Debussy’s piano piece “The Sunken Cathedral”), illustrates this implication in a way that is both beautiful and unnerving. Perhaps the most overtly modern selection on the soundtrack, its sound defined primarily by electronic effects and soft synthesiser lines that steadily build in mood and intensity, the chanting vocals heard at the film’s opening in “Making of a Cyborg” are heard again, but this time in sampled, synthesised form, creating the eery impression not so much of echoes as of vestiges of the original human source. In many senses, however, this hybridisation of organic and synthetic sounds, as well as being the defining feature of Kawai’s soundtrack, also defines its overall effect within the film. Although its electronic elements are very much prominent, they are in roughly equal proportion to their acoustic counterparts, which linger and persist despite all best efforts, very much musical “ghosts” – not just of the spirit, but of the past – within the soundtrack’s digital “shell”. Indeed, by limiting his acoustic ensemble to such primal instruments as percussion and the human voice, and furthermore by demonstrating how these can be manipulated and even substituted with digital versions, it is almost as if Kawai challenges the viewer to consider what the caveats are that come with the kind of modernisation presented in Ghost in the Shell, and furthermore whether we are happy or prepared to accept them.

Kusanagi dives into the film’s interconnected world by means of camouflage.