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Review by Brad Green:
Why is it that among all masterpieces the Mona Lisa is by far and away the most famous? The extent to which its renown exceeds the other great paintings of the world is hard to attribute simply to the general brilliance of Leonardo’s brush. None of his other works come close to the celebrity of La Gioconda. But there is something unique about this portrait, and it is of course her smile. Enigma and ambiguity engage us above all else. The mystery behind Mona Lisa’s lips stands ultimately for the mystery of all women, and the mystery of all women for the puzzle of life itself. 

In music too the best songs pay heed to ambiguity. Of course there are plenty of pop hits with simple melodies, few chords and obvious resolutions -- because such songs are undemanding and catchy. They get inside the public brain for a week and are then forgotten forever. Most of the evergreens, on the other hand, play on more subtle emotions. If the average chart-topper is the equivalent of a big toothy grin, the classics of yesteryear featured here present an entirely more sophisticated expression.

The film is a campus drama set in the early fifties, and instead of relying on period recordings for the soundtrack a bevy of the best of the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era have been given a state-of-the-art update by Trevor Horn, the Leonardo of pop music production. Horn began his career as a member of the Buggles where he collaborated with Hans Zimmer, but he soon found it more comfortable in the production seat and has gone on to work in this capacity with an enormously diverse range of artists. Hits have constantly tumbled out under his supervision, many with the rare distinction of being as famed for their production values as their melodic hooks including, to name but a few, Yes’s Owner Of A Lonely Heart, Grace Jones’s Slave To The Rhythm and Seal’s Crazy and Kiss From A Rose. 

Here Horn oversees a big swing orchestra and some star warblers as they pay homage to vintage gems. These are faithful recordings, and the emphasis is on new polish not new direction. The first reason for its success is that the singers are well matched to the songs. Seal is a dead ringer for Nat King Cole as he croons his way through Mona Lisa; Celine Dion subdues her histrionic tendencies for a tasteful rendition of Bewitched; Chris Isaak’s raw sexuality is perfect for Besame Mucho and Tori Amos, the only artist to feature twice -- perhaps because she has a cameo in the film itself --brings a quirky theatricality to You Belong To Me and Murder He Says, a witty ditty from an old MGM musical. With Horn at the helm the sonic fidelity is necessarily superb, and he has notably sought a dry crisp style in order to avoid any risk of washing out the basic values of the tunes with reverb and overproduction. If there is a criticism it would be that that a few of the vocal performances sound a trifle stiff. These songs are written in a manner that invites interpretation, and some of the artists seem more concerned with technique than delivering the message of the lyric. 

There is also one original tune, and that honour goes to one of the songwriting stalwarts of the modern era, Elton John. His voice sounds better than ever, but he has got to a stage where, while he wouldn’t have it in him to write a bad song if you offered him a grand piano load of diamond tiaras, he’s finding it hard not to sound self-referential. Thirty five years on from Your Song you can hardly blame him, and if The Heart Of Every Girl didn’t come across quite so much as a pastiche of an archetypal Elton piano riff with an archetypal Elton chorus you’d simply have to praise it for its sheer class. One element that does prevent it sounding too stale is that it’s always good to hear Elton, the master of the half-time ballad, swing.

Two vintage novelty numbers, Istanbul (Not Constantinople) and the up-tempo doo-wop of Sh-Boom are credited to The Trevor Horn Orchestra. These recordings pay full credit to the old values of slick arrangements and harmonies that added style to even the most gimmicky tunes, whereas today an electronic beat seems to suffice. 

The album closes with one cue from Rachel Portman’s score, and the only song not produced by Horn. The citation from the score seems characteristically delicate but with a more subdued lyricism than Portman’s most captivating work, probably in accordance with the demands of the film. The final song, Smile, has a lyric which, among some very cleverly worded songs on this album, is notable only for its saccharine: “Smile when your heart is aching/Smile even though it’s breaking.” Yet Barbra Streisand makes this track speak more than any of the clinically cool performances that precede it. Human sentiments are full of contradictions, and we describe them with oxymorons like tragicomedy and bittersweet; we cry when we’re happy and sing songs about smiling when we’re sad. The words here may be weak but the chords are richly structured, and the message takes on far more subtle shape as Streisand’s phrases curl into that same realm of ambiguity as La Gioconda’s lips. 

Published April 22, 2004

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TITLE: Mona Lisa Smile
ARTISTS: Seal; Tori Amos; Celine Dion; Elton John; Macy Gray; Chris Isaak; Mandy Moore; Alsion Krauss; Trevor Horn Orchestra; Kelly Rowland; Lisa Stansfield; Barbra Streisand 

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