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A James Ellroy Playlist: Set It To Music

May 22, 2021

Over the course of my series on James Ellroy and music, I have focused on the various musical genres, performers and composers that have inspired Ellroy and how he has worked these influences into his writing. This latest instalment is a bit different. I am going to explore how Ellroy’s fiction has inspired an eclectic range of music in film, theatre and symphonies. As I, and many readers of this website can attest to, engagement with Ellroy’s work encourages obsession and inspiration. So, I’m writing this as a tribute to the musicians who have produced great work by daring to enter the noir world of the Demon Dog.

Here’s to them.

The Victor

LA Confidential is the best of the four films that have been adapted from Ellroy’s novels, and a great film in general (although Ellroy’s opinion of it has cooled in recent years). The setting, story and characters of the film are accentuated by a beautiful score by Jerry Goldsmith. Goldsmith composed the score to Chinatown, so he knows the noir milieu of Los Angeles well. The highlight comes with the piece which concludes the film, ‘The Victor’. It commences with a lonely, elegiac trumpet which switches to fast-tempo action which plays as the credits roll. Exley is triumphant, having both killed Dudley Smith and played the system so adroitly that he is hailed to the press as a hero. Bud White’s severe injuries from the Victory Motel shootout have left him disabled and his police career is over, but in many ways he is the more fortunate of the two men. He has a woman, Lynn Bracken, who loves him and will care for him in a new home far away from the City of (Fallen) Angels. Exley just has his rank, gold medals and a helluva a lot of ghosts in his head. As Lynn says, ‘Some men get the world. Others get ex-hookers and a trip to Arizona.’ Which would you choose?

Jerry Goldsmith died in 2004. His reputation as one of the greatest composers in Hollywood history is unassailable. Ultimately, Goldsmith’s beautiful composition ‘The Victor’ reminds me of Ellroy himself. If you know anything about his remarkable life-story, then you’re likely to conclude he could also be the victor of the title.

The Lee Ellroy Show

SOIT are a Brussels based performance group who set about the ambitious task of staging Ellroy’s life through dance and theatre. The Lee Ellroy Show is loosely inspired by Ellroy’s memoir My Dark Places and the unsolved murder of Jean Ellroy. Directed by Hans Van der Broeck, and with Jacob Ingram-Dodd and Anuschka Von Oppen performing all of the roles, The Lee Ellroy Show is wild, surreal and has enough wonderful weirdness in it to surprise even the most dedicated Ellroy readers. Below is a clip from the show. You can watch the entire performance here.

Black Dahlia

If the murder of Jean Ellroy can be depicted through dance, then the unsolved murder of the Black Dahlia herself, Elizabeth Short, seems a ripe subject for musical interpretation. Mark Isham’s soundtrack to the film version isn’t bad at all, but a great soundtrack needs a great film and Brian De Palma’s adaptation doesn’t have any of the grandeur or epic scope that made LA Confidential such a wondrous melding of film and music.

Instead, I’d like to focus on Bob Belden’s jazz opera Black Dahlia which was released in 2001. Variously described as based on or inspired by Ellroy’s Dahlia novel, Belden described his take on the story:

“Essentially, my piece is about dying and how to get there,” Belden quips. “James Ellroy created a world around the Black Dahlia murder case but he really didn’t delve into her character, he delved into the Los Angeles that he grew up with and had in LA Confidential. And so for Ellroy, it was just a matter of taking that murder and creating a story around it. I was more interested in the character of Elizabeth Short, what she was thinking and feeling right up to the moment of her death.

I’m not sure I agree with Belden’s analysis of the novel. Bucky Bleichert’s first-person narration introduces the story with the line: ‘I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them.’ By learning about Elizabeth, he discovers more about himself, but he can never truly know her because she’s gone, and unlike the heroine in Laura, she is not coming back. Belden tries his best to understand Elizabeth Short and ‘to create music around what I imagined she was feeling and thinking.’ The result is a fantastic noir album, haunting and thrilling in equal measure. Sadly, Belden died of a heart attack aged only 58. He left behind an impressive body of work, of which Black Dahlia is definitely a highlight. Below is the title track. You can watch a performance of the entire work here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2021 12:03 pm

    Ellroy’s writing is so jazzy. I’m really enjoying your deep dive into the music!

    • May 22, 2021 12:38 pm

      Thanks Jill. I envisioned this as short series but it has spiralled into something much more expansive. And speaking of jazzy, congratulations on JAZZED. I can’t wait to read it!

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