Rolfe Kent is the distinguished composer behind a colorful array of influential films including Sideways, Up In The Air, Legally Blonde, Downsizing, Mean Girls, Wedding Crashers, Young Adult, Election, Thank You For Smoking, About Schmidt, Charlie St. Cloud, and Kate & Leopold. Known for his limitless capacity for artistic expression, Rolfe never fails to communicate a sense of wonderment and virtuosity in the music he creates. Most recently, Rolfe has breathed new life into the 1950’s for his opulent yet intimate score for Stan & Ollie, the touching story of iconic comedy duo, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Next up, he will be taking on Robert Budreau’s romantic period drama, The Man Who Saved Paris. In our fleeting exchange, Rolfe speaks on the value of experimentation and how he gravitates towards stories with heart and humanity.
Can you elaborate on the catalyst behind your career in film music? What would you say was the turning point on your path to becoming an acclaimed composer?
There have been a number of key points when I realized something important or got a break, but I believe the first film I scored for Alexander Payne, Citizen Ruth, was a major step to becoming an accepted member of the community of filmmakers. Having his encouragement and support so early on was creatively freeing and career starting.
Stan & Ollie follows the glorious yet tumultuous Anglo American partnership between Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, one of the most celebrated comedy duos during the genesis of mass media electronic entertainment and through the Golden age of Hollywood. The film revolves around their last variety hall tour in post-war Britain after the zenith of their success, but before they were recognized as timeless icons. What attracted you to this project? Do you have any personal connection to the journey of Laurel and Hardy?
I live on a hill overlooking the stairs where they shot The Music Box, and have always enjoyed living in their neighborhood. But what really attracted me to the film was the director, Jon Baird. He has a magnetic energy and is in love with storytelling, as am I.
Can you describe the nuances of your working dynamic with director, Jon S. Baird? How did you initially meet and what were the first ideas you explored together in establishing the tone of the film?
I can’t describe the nuances of our working relationship, but he’s a supportive, creative, and open-minded fellow. We first met just for a chat with no film to work on, and we just hit it off—he had so many interesting stories to tell. When the film came up, I was delighted that we would get to work together.
The tone of the film; Jon stressed it was all about the relationship, almost a love story in a way, and we talked about how to refer to the period, and how to still have a contemporary feel. That was the starting point, and from there it was up to me to experiment and discover a musical voice for the film-score.
Much of the charm and entertainment value of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy derives from their stark differences in character—Stan, a calculated, bright Englishman assuming the role of a fool, and Ollie, a boorish American with passions for gambling and womanizing. What were your strategies to highlight and contrast their distinct personalities within your musical treatment?
Apart from using clarinet and low bassoon as a sort of analogue for the two of them, the score didn’t need to contrast their personalities—the performances already did that. Instead, the score focuses on the energies between them: The fun and success and the tensions and sadness.
Because Stan & Ollie takes place in 1953, what considerations were made when assembling the palette of instruments you implemented in your score? To what degree was honoring the time period a concern?
Keeping the score broadly orchestral and having the melodies frequently articulated by the woodwind (as such voices were heavily used in era film music) was the main approach to having a sense of integration with the period. It was very much an intuitive approach which left room to have contemporary harmonies and rhythms without seeming out of place.
Did you conduct any research or refer to specific music of the past in preparation for scoring the silent movie sequences and choreographed numbers? What were the critical components in referencing tradition and creating an authentic sense of nostalgia?
Absolutely not. I felt it was important to write with freedom of expression and heart, rather than being choked by the past and the limitations of imagined authenticity. I depended upon my recollections and feelings about such movie sequences, and let that sense of resonance and warm memory guide me.
In some of the most touching, sentimental moments of the film, your score allows elements of modernity to shine through. Despite making use of orchestral instrumentation featuring dominant woodwinds, your score functions as something of a melodic embrace, never overpowering the social dynamics on the screen. How was this balance achieved and how do you know when to exercise restraint?
Experimentation is key, and Jon Baird was always guiding me too. You just have to see what happens and try ideas out, and then fine-tune them so they can carefully and subtly work with the film. It’s a painstaking business, but I love it when it works. It was magical seeing this score gradually come to life with this film.
In keeping with the theme of creative marriages, who have been your most profound and meaningful collaborators to date?
Alexander Payne, Mark Waters, Richard Shepard, Jason Reitman, Nicolas Bary, Burr Steers, and Jon Baird.
In your decorated career, you have composed music for a full spectrum of projects with lasting cultural significance including Sideways, Up In The Air, Thank You For Smoking, Mean Girls, and Legally Blonde. What is your greatest responsibility as a musical storyteller? What characteristics do you seek out in a narrative that offer the most guidance and inspiration?
It is all about supporting the story, so whenever in doubt, the question I ask myself is how does this help the story? You can have interesting music that works well with a scene but makes no sense in the flow of the narrative and actually makes the story suffer. So telling the story well is fundamental.
I think film music should be great music, so the second most important responsibility is to make sure it is good music because that elevates the movie and tells the story with style and panache. It doesn’t have to work well as music on its own, but it is much better if it can.
I look for inspiration in characters that I connect with and a story that takes me on a journey, and has some heart and humanity.
What can we expect from your musical treatment for Robert Budreau’s upcoming 1940’s romantic drama, The Man Who Saved Paris?
This film is so charming and intriguing, and I am writing some period songs for it, so it will be nice to be able to weave the featured music into the score. It is very Parisian, so it will have something of a French jazz feel.