High Art was writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s debut feature after a number of smaller shorts and TV projects. A protege of Miloš Forman, Cholodenko created a film that was a steamy dramatic look into the world of high art photography and the complex relationship between two lensers played by 80s icon Ally Sheedy and up-and-comer Radha Mitchell. Given a rather limited art house release upon completion in 1998, High Art received good notices on the film festival circuit and a number of smaller awards but was rewarded with only an indie-sized gross. It tends to be remembered today as a stepping stone in Cholodenko’s increasingly successful career as a director, which later led to 2010’s Best Picture nominee The Kids Are All Right.
Though Cholodenko’s partner, musician Wendy Melvoin of “Wendy & Lisa,” has had a successful career in scoring TV shows like Heroes and Nurse Jackie, the director’s first two films were scored by members of the indie rock group Shudder to Think. Shudder to Think had been in existence, with a varied lineup of performers, since 1986 and had seen some success both on the charts and on tour. The group’s first film score had come the year before High Art, for Jesse Peretz’s 1997 version of First Love, Last Rites, but that project had been mostly songs while Cholodenko would request substantial amounts of instrumental scoring for her project. As such, High Art wound up being virtually the first instrumental film scoring experience for the primary contributors, vocalist Craig Wedren and guitarist Nathan Larson, though the film and album also include several songs.
High Art‘s instrumental score, running about 25 minutes, begins with the lovely and ethereal “Opening” which offsets the sound of a glass harmonica with sepulchral wordless female voices. It’s very tonal and moving in the style of Brian Eno’s warmer material or Eric Whitacre’s more experimental music. Darker strands of the same sound, with more tortured and distorted vocals appear in “She Gives Tone,” and a relatively brief reprise in “End Frame,” with more muted glass harmonica chords without much in the way of vocals in “Photographic Ecstasy,” “Neoteny,” and “Last Lines.” While the style is ambient, at its best with the heavenly vocals mixed in this material is quite compelling, with “Opening” by far the strongest cue on the album.
One drawback that vocal groups often encounter with composing instrumental scores is the tendency to compose them just as they might the backing instrumentals for a song–without the strong central melody that their sung lyrics often add. Too often, this leaves these scores feeling like mixed-down multi-instrument song tracks rather than a cohesive score. Sadly, Shudder to Think does fall prey to this on a number of tracks. Music like “Dominoes,” or “Mom’s Mercedes” have that exact feel, laying down smooth grooves and languid instrumental guitar lines but ultimately seeming like vocal songs with the innards scooped out without the fascinating texture that the better tracks have. A smattering of Shudder to Think vocals and tracks by groups like Reservoir and the JeepJazz Project, some instrumental, some not, round out the rather generous 45-minute soundtrack from Velvel.
As such, High Art is essentially a curiosity, capturing a pair of composers that would go on to better things at the very beginning of their film scoring careers. The potpourri of styles and the essential weakness of many of the poppier tracks winds up detracting from the best ambient vocal material, and the disc never really hangs together as a stand-alone listen. As is often the case, fans of the band will likely be disappointed–especially given the song-driven guest-artist nature of their prior First Love, Last Rites. Still, despite the film’s relative obscurity, copies of the disc are cheap and readily available if listeners are curious.
Interestingly, High Art became a jumping-off point for full-fledged scoring careers for Craig Wedren and Nathan Larson after Shudder to Think dissolved that same year. Wedren eventually amassed an impressive list of film and TV credits, including School of Rock and Reno 911, while Larson carved out a surprising niche for himself in scoring critically acclaimed but controversial film projects, including Boys Don’t Cry, and The Woodsman. Both would work with Cholodenko again; Wedren scored her sophomore feature Laurel Canyon, while both men together wrote a score for The Kids Are All Right that was ultimately replaced by one by Carter Burwell (the director’s third feature, Cavedweller, was scored by Wendy Melvoin herself).