The Music of Charlie Chaplin is rich in detail: the relentless effort Chaplin put into learning instruments, the musical influences in his work, samples of sheet music. The way Lochner fleshes out the behind-the-scenes drama of Chaplin’s scores, his workaholism, and deficiencies (where they existed) can be riveting. Chaplin taught himself how to play the violin and cello as a young man—but he couldn’t read a note. In an early draft for his 1952 film Limelight, one line epitomized the director’s personal struggle on this front. It read, “It takes time to play a violin if you want to be good at it; eight hours a day for five years.”
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Eight hours a day for five years may also be the cumulative amount of time Chaplin spent communicating his unique musical vision to his musicians, a torturous exercise in creative collaboration. A few artists quoted in the book describe Chaplin sounding out his notes (“la-la-ing” or humming) or thematic ideas (e.g., “Wagnerian”) for each second of every scene, repeatedly changing the musician’s interpretation until it was exactly right, note for note. The often harried professionals would record these sounds in musical notation and take care of all the practical elements of producing: arranging, conducting, playing, recording, and so on. Yet Lochner doesn’t contend sufficiently with how such stories (some of which reveal an artist’s ugly sadism) are normalized as a result of society’s positive perceptions of artists’ work and persona. He neither glorifies nor criticizes Chaplin, instead defaulting to the role of historian, allowing the reader to decide.
According to Lochner’s text, Charlie Chaplin Jr. remarked that watching his father compose was like getting a “free performance,” but he admitted that the music associates “suffered pure torture.” This certainly proved to be true on the set of Modern Times (1936). Orchestrator Edward Powell nearly lost his eyesight from concentrating so hard on writing the music. The young, ambitious David Raksin, hired by Powell to help orchestrate and arrange the music with Chaplin, toiled 20-hour days, lost 25 pounds, and was often so exhausted that he’d sleep in the studio. After working similarly long days, the conductor Alfred Newman broke under the pressure, threw his baton across the stage, and yelled at his boss when Chaplin, having taken a break from the studio while the others plugged away, derisively said, “I’m tired of this stalling.” Newman refused to come back. The book’s narration underscores how one artist’s punctilious tendencies manifested through self-imposed exacting demands, and it considers the sometimes deleterious effect they had on others.
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While admiration for Chaplin’s work is evident in Lochner’s detail of the filmmaker’s musical decisions, the writer is uninterested in hagiography and sheds considerable light on Chaplin’s ruthless business acumen. Chaplin often requested that his musicians sign a contract wherein he was deemed the sole composer. (The exact wording was that the music “was entirely written, composed and/or arranged by Charles Chaplin, and you agree not to make or issue, or authorize the making or issuance of, any statement or claim in contraction thereof.”) Artists legally signed away their authorship regardless of how involved they were in the composition or arrangement, or if they eventually received credit elsewhere. For example, the re-release of The Gold Rush credits Chaplin for its “original compositions” and the musician Max Terr as “musical director,” but it’s Terr’s name, not Chaplin’s, on the nomination ballot for Best Film Score at the 15th Academy Awards in 1943.