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It is perhaps best to treat John Caps’ claim that Henry Mancini was ‘the first publicly successful and personally recognisable film composer in history’ with a pinch of salt. He was, however, that hitherto unknown phenomenon: a composer who managed to transcend the confines of the television and cinema soundtrack to position himself at the centre of a wider musical transition from the constrained orthodoxies of the post-war Big Band era to the ‘impatient eclecticism’ of the Baby Boomer generation.

While I don’t altogether agree with that description of the post-war generation, there is certainly no faulting Caps’ obvious conviction about the importance of Mancini, or his manifest enthusiasm for his music. Except to note that it occasionally risks running away with itself. Even so, this first full-length analysis of a key figure in film in the middle of the last century arrives just over a decade after the composer’s autobiography, Did they Mention the Music?, and addresses a glaring gap in the critical history of the soundtrack. Mancini’s musical signature was surely one of the most adaptive of all his cinematic peers, moving from the dynamic, jazz-noir theme for the late-fifties’ tv crime drama Peter Gunn, through the dreamy nostalgia of ‘Moon River’ from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to the slinky, liquid wit of The Pink Panther, and on, in later decades, to incorporating influences as diverse as sugary New Age folk and thumping electro-funk.

Caps’ assertion that Mancini stood alone as a film composer of ‘self-renewing’ variety and vitality (one who also managed to comfortably take his place in wider pop culture) is well argued by simultaneous analysis of his private life and his public profile, and of his soundtracks and extra-curricular commercial activities. He writes particularly well about the music, sympathetically placing its inventive responsiveness to the creative needs of others in the film-making process, and mapping out the development of Mancini’s magpie-like acquisitiveness.

So, an important book, and, in many ways, a crucial one, too, it’s chief value resting in Caps’ articulate championing of one of the most singular compositional talents to emerge from Hollywood’s film factory.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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