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John Adams lends his music to 'I Am Love,' starring Tilda Swinton

June 18, 2010 |  2:27 pm

Iamlove From its pianissimo opening sequence to the thundering crescendo of its final moments, "I Am Love" is a movie awash in the music of John Adams.

The celebrated American composer lent the filmmakers selections from some of his best-known pieces including "Harmonielehre," "The Death of Klinghoffer" and "Nixon in China." (Despite what early reports have stated, Adams did not compose any original music for the film.)

"I Am Love," which recently opened in New York and Los Angeles, tells the story of Emma (Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton), the Russian-born matriarch of a wealthy Milanese family. Emma's comfortable but sterile existence is turned upside-down when she meets and falls in love with the young friend of her son. Unapologetically old-fashioned in spirit, the Italian-language film is a lush and moody romantic epic, featuring deliriously operatic heights of melodrama.

Adams' music serves as a crucial emotional anchor for the movie, according to director Luca Guadagnino. "His music was so powerful and many scenes were written with it in mind. Some of the scenes were shot with the music," said Guadagnino in a recent phone interview from London.

"When I first worked on the script, I wasn’t acquainted with John Adams. Then in 2005, a friend brought to me a CD of Adams' 'Naive and Sentimental Music.' I came home and the second the music came out of the stereo, it was an emotion I will always remember.  There was something incredibly new but also familiar and then I became obsessed."

The director said he re-conceived the script for "I Am Love" with Adams' music in mind. He also turned his collaborators -- including Swinton, who serves as a producer -- into fans of the composer.

Speaking from his home in Northern California, Adams said that he first met Swinton at a performance of his opera "Doctor Atomic" at the English National Opera. He said they met backstage and that the actress recited to him poetry by John Donne that was used in the opera.

Adams eventually gave his blessing for the filmmakers to use his music. (Boosey & Hawkes manages the licensing of Adams' music to film and other screen projects.) The composer saw the film in a rough-cut version in London last year.

"It's strange to hear your own music used in a context you didn't create," said Adams. 

Adams "It's kind of disorienting at first and it takes some time to get used to it." He added that he was pleased with the film overall and that it made excellent use of his compositions.

Unlike his contemporaries Philip Glass and Osvaldo Golijov, Adams has never composed an original score for a motion picture. He said Francis Ford Coppola once asked him to write the score for "Megalopolis" -- a film that was eventually abandoned -- but the composer said he was unable to commit to the project.

"I Am Love" opens with shots of a snow-covered Milan set to the tip-toe chords of Adams' "The Chairman Dances," a piece that debuted in 1985 and that the composer incorporated into his opera "Nixon in China." Other Adams compositions used in the film are "Century Rolls," "Fearful Symmetries," "Light over Water," "Shaker Loops," "Lollapalooza" and the Desert Chorus from the opera "The Death of Klinghoffer."

The movie's emotionally convulsive conclusion features the pulse-pounding final movement of "Harmonielehre," a piece that Adams debuted in 1985. The scene, which features virtually no dialogue, is a master class of reaction-shot editing.

A brief side note: the movie's title, "I Am Love," is a reference to the 1896 opera "Andrea Chenier" by Umberto Giordano. In one scene, Swinton's character watches a sequence from Jonathan Demme's "Philadelphia" that features an aria from the opera.

"Demme is one of the greatest American directors alive," said  Guadagnino. "He’s a mentor even though I don’t know him. I hope if he sees this movie he won’t be angry with me."

-- David Ng

Photos: John Adams. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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