Chances are even if you don't know Harold Faltermeyer by name, his work is immediately familiar. In the 1980s, he not only composed the scores for Fletch, Beverly Hills Cop, and Top Gun, but he worked with musical luminaries like Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer, Barbara Streisand, Patti LaBelle and many more. "Axel F," probably his most famous piece of music, went to Number One on Billboard's Adult Contemporary Chart and Number Three on their Hot 100 Chart, and further cemented Eddie Murphy's status as a superstar when it was released in conjunction with Beverly Hills Cop in 1984.
Suffice it to say that Faltermeyer has been out of the news for a while, but this week he returns as composer of the score for Kevin Smith's Cop Out. A buddy cop adventure that the Clerks director hand-picked Faltermeyer to provide music for, the movie pays homage to the decade in which the film composer flourished, and provides a musical backdrop that suits its style and tone, and most importantly, stands out as a terrific and entertaining collection of themes.
Cinematical recently caught up with Faltermeyer via telephone to discuss his work on Cop Out. In addition to describing his collaboration with Smith, he talked about the task of updating his signature '80s sound, and reflected on the music and memories that made him famous.
Cinematical: How did you get involved with Cop Out, and what direction or mandate did Kevin Smith give you when he enlisted you to compose the score?
Harold Faltermeyer: In autumn I got a call from my agents telling me there is this movie that Kevin Smith is directing. So I said, well, what's it about? They said, well, it's a cop story. I said well, what do they want? Do they want an ancient Faltermeyer score, or do they want to have a hybrid kind of situation? So I looked up the project and I saw Kevin Smith talking about the process of getting me on board, and he said "I don't know if he's still doing music any more." He said, "either I get Faltermeyer to do the score or I'm going to buy a Casio and f*ck it up myself." So I talked to Kevin Smith, and he said "you have to go look at the movie, because you either love it or you hate it." I asked him what did he want, and he said, "I want to have the sound of the '80s." But the '80s are over. It's 2010. I certainly have developed into another kind of music already. So [he said], "you do what you want, and as long as I get like a flair of the '80s, I'm happy." So what I tried to achieve was to get all of the synthesizers we used back then, like we used old Moog synthesizers, which gave you the warmth and the attitude of this kind of music. Plus, the modern way of recording music, the modern samples, and I tried to make a hybrid sound of the '80s and out of today's music. This was the mission.
Cinematical: I definitely recognized flourished from your score for Fletch in the music. Did he ask for cues that specifically evoked your classic scores, or did he give you free reign to come up with whatever you wanted?
Faltermeyer: Kevin had a tempo track on this movie which was like 90 percent of all of the scores I ever did. So I was listening to those, and I asked him, "Kevin, do you want me to just copy what I did here? Because I can't do that." He said, "no, I want to have some slices and some sounds of what you did then and try to make it happen for today's world." The studio at that time was very nervous; they said, "well, what's it going to be, and '80s score or what?" They were asking me questions all day long, and they said, "don't make it too authentic, because then it's too old-fashioned. You have to bring it into a different level." So what I did was I brought in a couple of young programmers, like Sam Spiegel, the brother of Spike Jonze, and he helped me with some loops and some grooves to make it sound more contemporary and young. I used some instruments out of the past, but there are some new instruments which have a similar sound that we used for Fletch or Beverly Hills Cop. That combined with the style of writing which I'm doing, that was the result which comes out.
Cinematical: Can you talk about what's your general approach to composition? Are you writing with traditional leitmotifs in mind even though you're using these nontraditional instruments?
Faltermeyer: First of all, I'm a melody man. I'm writing melodies and I'm trying to structure the chords around and rhythms around it. But especially when you work with electronic instruments, the sound you are selecting, and of course today we have hundreds of thousands of sounds at our fingertips, when you call up sounds, you have an image of that sound, and this to me always leads to a kind of melody or kind of image or kind of rhythm. So that's how I start, and that's how I start to find my themes. On the other hand, if you have a romantic moment, like this movie has a couple of romantic moments which are done with guitars or an orchestra or something like an orchestra, when you write things like this, I'm always using a piano or a guitar rather than having something electronic. Because you want to create emotion and you want to go the traditional way of composing. So I play on a lot of different instruments and I can do a lot of different things; a couple of years ago I was writing a musical for Vienna which contained more or less classical pieces. Of course, I'm known more for the electronic things, but I can do a lot of different things.
Cinematical: Do you generally try to come up with a central theme and then build pieces around that, or do you find various pieces for the needs of different scenes and maybe a theme emerges?
Faltermeyer: Well, it's more like finding "the" theme – the leading theme and make variations on it. This is my theory on it, because I know the power of a very strong theme. This was proven with the success of the Beverly Hills Cop theme "Axel F," for example, which was used throughout the movie in different ways. For this movie, I tried to come up with a theme as well, which we played in different styles and different tempos throughout the movie, plus a couple of other things like you have your bad guys' theme, the theme for the two clumsy cops, which is more like a shuffle kind of funny thing, and you have the very intense Po'boy's theme, the bad guy's theme. We have one or two other cop themes which is for when they're walking on the street, but basically it's all about writing a couple of themes and making variations on them.
Cinematical: Was it surprising to you to be essentially retrofitting your sound onto new technology when you worked with folks like Spiegel? Or have you continued to pursue an interest in technology that allows you to do some of the same things in the '80s without all of the logistical demands?
Faltermeyer: The funny thing is that when you get into the studio like I did with Sam Spiegel, or get the youngsters in the studio, they don't know anymore how we did the sounds in the '80s or the '70s, when we had like modular synthesizers. When I had Sam come in for the first meeting, he said, "wow - I've never seen things like this before." I said, well, this is the real thing." But I have always been an electronic guy from my first year in the studio, and I always have used analog sequencers; we used digital sequencers, we used the microcomposers, and then of course Logic and Cubase. Now it's all ProTools, it's Cubase, it's Logic, but these are all tools. It hasn't changed. I mean, it's a lot faster now, but what you are doing is the same thing – you're making music. With this kind of sound, when you listen to a hit radio station in the States, you're going to find old sounds, but kids think this is something completely new. That's a beauty; even my kids say, "well, this is a new thing." I say, "that's from like 30 years ago, guys!"
But like my late grandfather said, when you're getting older, you've got to hang with the young guys, and once you're young you've got to hang with the older guys. It keeps communication between creative people in life, and I enjoy working with these young guys. We even took one of the score pieces and tried to make songs out of it, and it's so funny to see the different approaches of different songwriters working with the little pieces of score I wrote. That's so innovative and so great, and I'm so happy I can work with today's creative people. I can show them a little bit of what I did in the past, and I can learn a lot from them.
Cinematical: Why do you think it is that this '80s sound has enjoyed such a renaissance recently?
Faltermeyer: Well, in music we always undergo certain renaissances. This is a true thing in any form of art, I think. But what happened was the sound of the '80s, when we had huge success with electronic scores, everyone tried to copy it, and this was like the flavor of the day to use electronic music for scoring. Then of course you get everybody doing it, and these kinds of sounds get used, and get really out of fashion really quickly. So I think it was the right time, and then this way of scoring electronically with these synthesizers and sequencers came to an end. It made room for the traditional and classical scores, and the stuff that Hans Zimmer did, very epic using electronic but in a totally different way. But now I think it's time to come back with things like this, because it wasn't used [for a while], and now you can of course explore, due to the new technologies, new sounds you can hybrid with the old sounds, and you can do a new approach to the electronic score. I'm very excited to come back and to really work on scores with the technology we have and combine it with today's technology. I think the time is right for this.
Cinematical: What's next for you after this?
Faltermeyer: I'm going back to Los Angeles to have some meetings, and maybe I'll do another score or work on a video game, which I really love. The music for video games is something really great.
Cinematical: Do you know if there's any chance or there are plans for your older film score to be released on CD in complete versions anytime soon?
Faltermeyer: As a matter of fact there are plans. When I go back to Los Angeles I'm going to have some talks as well about that, and we are trying to release the scores in their entire form. There's a label in Los Angeles called La La Land Records and they always try to release the entire scores.
Cinematical: Of which movies?
Faltermeyer: Of Beverly Hills Cop or of Fletch, but not just the soundtracks, the entire score. So there are plans to do this, and I'm supporting that a lot. The studios in the past have not been so cooperative in releasing the scores, but I think there's a change happening right now, and I would be very glad if the scores would be released.
Cinematical: Do you have a score or piece of music that you are proudest of or you think was your most creatively fulfilling?
Faltermeyer: Well, maybe you're asking the wrong guy. Because as the composer, I'm never satisfied with something because I'm composing music, I finish it, and I have to deliver it, and sometimes I'm running out of time. I want to do it better, I want to do something else, I want to alter it, and there's no time for it. Things get out of your hands, so I don't know what piece of music is for me the most fulfilling. Certainly there's one approach you can take, which is you can say what's the most successful piece of music. There are a couple of themes which I think were very successful and are now standards in today's music, which I'm very proud of, and as a musician and a composer you always can be proud of an instrumental composition which made it all the way without using any lyrics. So this is of course something you can be proud of, and I'm proud of the success of "Axel F," and I have to say I'm very proud of the theme from Top Gun, the "Top Gun Anthem," because I got a chance to write music for a really epic U.S.A. kind of movie. Being a little guy from Germany, I was very proud of having the choice to do that movie. But besides that I love music and I hope I can do music as long as I live, and I'm always going to try to do the best I can.