Clint Eastwood in <em>Gran Torino</em>

Plenty has been said about our main man Clint Eastwood‘s remarkable late-career period in progress, and many have noted that he’s the first recipient of the SBIFF’s “Modern Master” award-tonight at the Arlington-who truly deserves the plaudit. Just in the past decade, Eastwood’s filmography has been a stunning ride, poised on that rare balancing point of art and accessibility. We’ve been in awe from Blood Work on, including Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers and-even stronger-Letters from Iwo Jima , and now this year’s pleasant period piece The Changeling and the awe-inspiring Gran Torino, all made after Clint’s “retirement age.”

But let’s not forget another of Clint (Play Misty for Me) Eastwood’s coups-his rapport with his musical muse. Long a passionate fan of jazz and music, Clint can be found roaming the grounds of the Monterey Jazz Festival each year (a five-minute commute from his pad). He’ll agree to various speaking ops at the festival and he even tickled the keys, gamely if somewhat sheepishly, alongside Oscar Peterson and Hank Jones in 2006. Eastwood plays piano modestly but earnestly, and has been penning beguiling, simple, and effective music for his films of late, often in cahoots with his son Kyle. A back-of-the-neck hair-raising moment arrives in Gran Torino as the car drives off during the end credits, when Clint’s gruff but loveable voice takes a crack at the hypnotic theme song, before Jamie Cullum takes over. (Gran Torino should have been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, but c’est la show biz vie).

Where film music is concerned, Hollywood is in the middle of a crisis-or stasis, more or less the same thing. Cliches abound, and too few directors are hip to the great importance of music in making a film work (P.T. Anderson and the Coen brothers being two notable exceptions). To cite one recent example, James Horner‘s blandly generic music for Frost/Nixon drags down an otherwise fine film. By contrast, Gary Yershon‘s luminous and chamber-esque score for Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky ennobles the host film and thankfully breaks with moldy film music tradition.

On the American scene, Gran Torino‘s score is the musical wonder of the year, a study in inspired simplicity, a series of variations on the 16-measure theme song with the gentle left jab of a chord change at the end. Eastwood, in other words, is on a roll and in a groove, cinematically and musically. Modern master, indeed.

OTHER FESTIVAL/MUSICAL NOTES: Unfortunately, there is no film composer panel discussion, as there once was. But music pops up in various small ways all through the fest. Virginia Galloway‘s documentary The Music Lesson (Thursday at 3:30 p.m. at Victoria Hall and Saturday at 4:45 p.m. at the Metro 4), tags along with Boston Youth Symphony musicians in cross-cultural interactions in Laikipia, Kenya. Going Home (Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Lobero) is George Dougherty‘s documentary on the making of Brian Wilson‘s latest album, That Lucky Old Sun (which Wilson played live at the Lobero last year). Wilson himself will be here to sign albums, new or old.

Also, for fans of country music legends, and plain ol’ all-American heroes, check out director Bestor Cram‘s Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (Saturday at 1:45 p.m. at Metro 4).

SHOW OF THE WEEK: Any time the Neville Brothers show up on the concert radar in Santa Barbara, it’s time to leave the house on a cultural mission. Tonight’s Campbell Hall show begs for our attendance for at least three reasons: it’s been years since the band played Santa Barbara, proper; their original home turf of New Orleans and her culture is on our minds more than ever, post-Katrina; and because they are a great American band, pure and simple. Aaron Neville still possesses treasured pipes, and the ability to impart muscular grace on anything he sings, and his brothers-Art, Cyril, and Charles-are getting up in years, but still get down into the groove on a moment’s notice.


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