Most people know Steve Martin for his comedic roles in classic and not-so-classic comedies, but fewer know that he has also amassed a reputation as a skilled writer. While one might expect and actor and comedian to only write screenplays, Martin has written plays, essays, screenplays, and novels since the 1990s; these include pieces for the New Yorker and the screenplay for the thriller Traitor. In 2000, Martin wrote his first novel: Shopgirl, the tale of a lonely and isolated twentysomething named Mirabelle who is torn between an affair with an older businessman and a liaison with an affable slacker. The novel attracted favorable notices, and Martin was able to shepherd it into a film in 2006, writing the screenplay from his novel and starring. Shopgirl the film was received as favorably as Shopgirl the novel, and remains well-regarded if a bit obscure years later.
In his role as producer, Steve Martin retained director Anand Tucker to make Shopgirl; for the film’s score, Tucker turned to his usual collaborator Barrington Pheloung with whom he’d worked on his previous two films, 1996’s Saint-Ex and 1998’s Hilary and Jackie. The Australian composer had worked steadily in television and film over the course of his career, and is probably best known to score fans for his title theme and background music to the long-running British TV series Inspector Morse.
True to his roots in classical music, Pheloung devises a score that is part stately minuet and part Thomas Newman quirk with a hint of Philip Glass or Michael Nyman minimalism, reflecting the film’s dramatic portions as well as its quirkier material. The main thematic material is debuted in “Meeting Mirabelle,” with a full-orchestral classical sound playing a layered string theme that’s full of delicate beauty. The progressions of that theme are woven throughout the remainder of the score, often on piano or mallet percussion with the overall effect being magical, slightly otherworldly, and sad. The theme gets an extended outing in the final track, the six-minute “Main Titles,” which mixes the minuet, the quirky “La Ronde” material, and the album’s strongest brass (it being predominantly strings, mallets, and piano elsewhere).
The quirkier parts of the score are less original; Pheloung’s use of mallet rhythms makes it clear that Newman’s seminal American Beauty was on the temp track. Nevertheless, tracks like the four-part “La Ronde” have a definite energy to them, and they are suffused with enough of the score’s overall personality that they avoid falling into the a simple temp rehash territory that so many scores inspired by Beauty have. The rambling piano rhythms and minuet feel are always there to tie the various pieces together into a cohesive package.
When Pheloung turns to full-on tragedy for the film’s scenes of sadness and loss, he leans heavily on undulating piano figures and high strings to move the score’s sound and theme into heartache. “A Broken Trust” uses a solo violin over a solo piano playing fragments of the main theme to devastating effect, “Mirabelle’s Story” inverts the title minuet into something painfully sad, but Pheloung saves his heaviest emotional punch for “Breaking Up.” For the scenes of Martin’s character being spurned by the woman he has grown to love, the composer sets loose his full string section and pianos in a morose, interrupted melody that’s the high point of the album.
Shopgirl won’t wow listeners with its creativity or in-your-face personality; instead, it is a masterclass in using existing musical pieces in an effective way, with Pheloung’s musical personality deftly bringing together comedy, tragedy, and tragicomedy for an effective, low-key, and moving musical experience. Director Tucker would re-team with Pheloung for his next few projects, And When Did You Last See Your Father? and Red Riding:1983 but Shopgirl could wind up being the pair’s biggest hit together and Pheloung’s most high-profile film score of his career thus far (Tucker’s 2010 modest hit, Leap Year, was scored by Randy Edelman). Accordingly, Filter Records put out an album with Pheloung’s full score around the time of Shopgirl‘s release; the album was not widely distributed and has become rather uncommon in the years since, but is not extremely difficult to obtain albeit at a premium price. Shopgirl is definitely worth seeking out if you can find it, though, and it may leave listeners hungry for more from Pheloung’s sparse discography.