The streets of Los Angeles are littered with people whose dreams have been shattered by bad luck or timing. Stan Ridgway, who was born and still lives in the City of Angels, hasn't faced that kind of disappointment because he's been living his dream for the past 20 years.
Certainly best known for his quirky, atmospheric art-rock--fronting Wall of Voodoo ("Mexican Radio," "Call of the West") and more recently as a solo artist--the veteran singer-songwriter is now immersed in another of his passions, composing musical scores for films.
Over the past few years, Ridgway has written the full score for five independent features, including director Tom Musca's "Melting Pot," a political satire starring Cliff Robertson and Paul Rodriguez that airs later this month on Showtime; the forthcoming "Error in Judgment," a murder mystery with Joe Mantegna; and "Speedway Junkie," an action-romance thriller starring Daryl Hannah and Jesse Bradford.
It's hardly surprising that Ridgway, who performs with his three-piece band Friday night at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, is a film buff. He brings a cinematic feel and storyteller's eye to his music, frequently creating offbeat characters and settings that tap into the darker, more complex crevices of the human condition. His musical masterpiece, the film-noirish "The Big Heat" (IRS, 1985) is equal parts Raymond Chandler, Rod Serling and Hank Williams.
Still, the transition to the big screen wasn't so simple.
"The real challenging thing about scoring films is that, unlike writing songs for an album, it's not about me," he said recently from his home in Venice. "It's a rather arcane craft, and I don't think a lot of people today know what a score really is. It's certainly not the pop or rock soundtrack that's often marketed as 'The Music Inspired by the Motion Picture of 'Fill-in-the-Blank'. . . "
"I see it as the adhesive that holds the film together. You need to dramatically underscore the action or scene and move it forward. But I think to do a good job requires a subtle, almost invisible touch. It's very cloying to be manipulative. By the end of the day, you shouldn't really know the score is there--unless you take it away."
At the same time, Ridgway, 43, is looking to put his stamp on each film.
"I think the best at doing this are people like John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Danny Elfman. . . . They've all developed a distinctive style that directors and moviegoers recognize," he said. "And look at what Thomas Newman added to both 'The Shawshank Redemption' and 'American Beauty.' "
"My approach is you have to be a musical chameleon of sorts with a good understanding of story, drama and continuity. I ask myself, 'What is the movie really about? Is it about murder or really a story of betrayal? Or maybe it's really about romance with murder in it.' There can be be lots of layers, and sometimes you have to give a director what the film needs, not necessarily what he wants. I've found that most directors with a healthy self-confidence are open to input and discussion."
Ridgway adds that what he has learned while writing scores has added depth to his songwriting for albums. That attention to detail--or as he puts it, "My ability to visualize a character or unfolding scene in my mind"--is evident in his new release, "Anatomy" (New West Records).
For instance, there's the feel of a less-complicated era in "Mama Had a Stove," where a rusted paddle boat churns up the Mississippi River. Or how about the ambiguous feelings of "Mickey the Priest," where too much confession and communion can escalate into a state of commotion? And what's a Ridgway album without a little shame and guilt ("Susie Before Sunrise"), and blood-boiling jealousy and revenge ("Valerie Is Sleeping")?
What draws him to the Big Dumb Towns that are filled with the Wild Bill Donovans and Pink Parakeets of this crazy world?
"They're interesting," he said matter-of-factly. "I'm attracted to drama, paradox and the general absurdity and irony of life. There's that certain ambiguity about feelings that people have, and how things in life can be so random and unfair. Some things make sense, others don't. Why is that? I'm intrigued."
Despite his emphasis on life's downtrodden, often desperate misfits, Ridgway insists he's offering more than a one-act play.
"Particularly in L.A., I feel like I've been typecast, just like Warren Oates," he said. "People tend to stop at first base and say my songs are all about murder and crime. But much of what I'm saying is metaphorical and speaks to issues and feelings that are complex, maybe even contradictory. There's foreboding and danger, but there's also hope, forgiveness and redemption. Good and evil are not so black and white--it's a mixed bag, my friend."