Composer. Nationality: American. Born: Bernard Nitzsche in Chicago, Illinois, 1937. Education: Attended Howard City Elementary and High School, Michigan, 1943–55; studied at West Lake College of Music, 1956–57. Family: Married to the singer Buffy St. Marie. Career: Worked as musical copyist for Specialty Records; 1962—worked as arranger for Phil Spector; worked on Rolling Stones first American tour and on nine of their albums; arranged and produced Neil Young's first solo album and joined Neil Young's backing band Crazy Horse; 1972—composition "St. Giles Cripplegate" recorded with London Symphony Orchestra, conductor David Measham; composer of numerous film scores since 1970. Awards: Academy Award for "Up Where We Belong," from An Officer and a Gentleman, 1982.
Films as Composer:
Village of the Giants (Gordon)
Performance (Cammell and Roeg)
Greaser's Palace (Downey)
The Exorcist (Friedkin) (additional music)
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (Forman)
Blue Collar (Schrader)
When You Comin' Back, Red Rider? (Katselas); Heart Beat (Byrum); Hardcore (The Hardcore Life) (Schrader)
Cutter's Way (Cutter and Bone) (Passer)
An Officer and a Gentleman (Hackford); Personal Best (Towne); Cannery Row (Ward)
Without a Trace (Jaffe); Breathless (McBride)
Windy City (Bernstein); The Razor's Edge (Byrum); Starman (Carpenter)
The Jewel of the Nile (Teague)
The Stripper (Gary); 9½ Weeks (Lyne); Stand by Me (R. Reiner); The Whoopee Boys (Byrum); Streets of Gold (Roth)
The Seventh Sign (Schultz)
Next of Kin (Irvin)
Revenge (T. Scott); The Last of the Finest (Blue Heat) (Mackenzie); The Hot Spot (Hopper); Mermaids (Benjamin)
The Indian Runner (S. Penn)
Blue Sky (Richardson—produced in 1990)
Crossing Guard (S. Penn)
On NITZSCHE: articles—
Screen International, 20 June 1981.
Film Dope (London), December 1991.
* * *
Before Jack Nitzsche started on a career as one of Hollywood's more inventive and individual composers for film, he was already a veteran of the Los Angeles rock scene, cutting his teeth as an arranger for Phil Spector and having worked with a wide range of performers, from Doris Day and Frankie Laine to The Rolling Stones and Neil Young. Though some of his most characteristic scores for such films as Performance, Blue Collar, and The Hot Spot reflect this background in rock and roll and rhythm and blues, his work also draws on classical music, jazz, and the European avant-garde.
Nitzsche has been involved in films since the sixties. He was the musical director on The TAMI Show (1964), a concert film that included performances by the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys, and he provided music for Village of the Giants, a low-budget teenage sci-fi spoof. His career as a film composer, however, effectively began in 1970 when he was called in to do the music for Performance, Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's mesmerizing game of shifting identities, played out between a burnt-out rock star (Mick Jagger) and a sadistic East End gangster (James Fox). Jagger and Keith Richard were originally scheduled to do the music, but tensions surrounding the filming had caused a temporary rift in their writing partnership. Nitzsche assembled an eclectic group of musicians, including Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Merry Clayton, Buffy St. Marie, and Stevie Winwood. The resulting score, with its echoes of Robert Johnson and Ligeti, is, by turns, sinister and exhilarating. Ghostly synthesizers, Cooder's stinging bottleneck guitar and Clayton's chanted vocals provide an eerie complement to the film's hallucinatory picture of London at the end of the sixties.
Nitzsche soon demonstrated another facet of his musical sophistication. In 1972 he recorded "St. Giles Cripplegate" an accomplished neoclassical piece performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Measham. Though the album was not a commercial success, Nitzsche described it as a useful calling card: "It helped me tell people that I could write for a 110 piece orchestra in a classical kind of way." Milos Forman heard the record and was impressed enough to commission Nitzsche to write the music for One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, the film based on Ken Kesey's antiauthoritarian fable set in a microcosmic mental institution. The score proved highly successful, yielding a best-selling album and an Academy Award nomination. The music is elegiac (the film's main theme), and occasionally ironic (the waltz that accompanies the ritual of medication for the hospital's inmates). Nitzsche also employed unconventional instrumentation—musical saw and crystal glass—to add a haunting dimension to the score.
Although he has been involved in a number of high-profile mainstream films—including An Officer and a Gentleman, its featured ballad, "Up Where We Belong," earning an Oscar for best song, and Jewel of the Nile—some of Nitzsche's most memorable work has been for less commercial, more personal films. Notable among these is the sound track for Paul Schrader's debut as director, Blue Collar. This hard-edged thriller, set among the unions on the automobile assembly lines of Detroit, is given a driving industrial rhythm-and-blues score, featuring Cooder. The film's remarkable credit sequence has a hypnotic sledgehammer beat and growled vocals from Captain Beefheart pounding over gritty stop-motion images from the factory floor. In John Byrum's Heart Beat, a soft-centered account of a triangular relationship between Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Carolyn Cassady, the music moves fluently between a plangent main theme, pastiche Eisenhower-era pop songs, and a memorable jazz sequence orchestrated by Shorty Rogers and featuring luminaries of the west coast jazz scene, including Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, and Shelly Manne. In Ivan Passer's post-Vietnam film noir, Cutter and Bone, Nitzsche develops the "glass harmonica" sound featured in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest to create a sparse, haunted theme. For Dennis Hopper's sultry thriller The Hot Spot he uses the inspired pairing of John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis to provide a tense blues-drenched score, Hooker vocalizing wordlessly over Davis's shimmering trumpet.
Despite working in an industry that encourages self-promotion, Jack Nitzsche has kept a low public profile. In a rare 1981 interview for Screen International, when discussing the difficulty he had experienced working with a particular director, he offered this downbeat assessment of his work "I don't think I could ever be like Henry Mancini or Lalo Schifrin. I can't just sit back and give them what they want." Schrader, in discussing Nitzsche's work on Blue Collar and Hard Core, offered an oblique reflection of Nitzsche's influence on film music since the seventies: "I've tried to find a music that has a life of its own, which meant going into a music that wasn't yet in the vernacular of films. For the first two I used Jack Nitzsche who had just come out of rock and roll, working with Phil Spector and the Rolling Stones, but by the time [American] Gigolo came along that sound was already in the mainstream."