Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Does Walter Murch ever watch The Wire?

(Originally published on Metroactive's Movie & Television Arts blog.)

One particular element of The Wire--my favorite show--that I love as much as the writing, the acting and music supervisor Blake Leyh's choices of diegetic music is the textured sound design. It's an often unheralded element that's as integral to the show as the novelistic writing (authors like Richard Price and George Pelecanos are part of the writing staff) and the continuity callbacks (the recovering addict at the Narcotics Anonymous meeting who spoke about turning tricks for a fix during the teaser of this week's episode is the same wealthy white lady who was briefly seen buying drugs in Hamsterdam two seasons ago and then showed up again as a hooker at a convenience store/stash house in season 4--and in another nifty bit of Wire trivia, she's played by Price's actress daughter, Genevieve Hudson-Price).

The Wire's attention to detail also involves the selection of background noises (police sirens, dog barks, stereos blaring DJs from "92Q," an actual Baltimore hip-hop/R&B radio station). I hate to use the "it's like you are there" cliché, but those five words best sum up how the series captures the sounds of city life. Walter Murch's groundbreaking sound design for Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation clearly influenced The Wire's sound department, especially during season 1, when the show was at its most Conversation-esque (the first year focused on the Baltimore Major Crimes Unit's surveillance of the Barksdale crime family).

To borrow the tagline from the show's season 1 promos, "listen carefully" to the background chatter during the scenes on West Balto's corners. A clever running joke on the show is the ripped-from-the-headlines names the Bodymore pushers (a.k.a. "hoppers") give to the drugs they sell. During season 3--when the Hamsterdam storyline served as a critique of Bush's war on terror--the hoppers in Hamsterdam could be heard hollering, "I gotcha WMDs!" (Other examples of background hopper lines from the season 3 corner scenes: "Pandemic!" and "I got them red-tops! Red-tops!" "Red-tops" is lingo for cocaine vials--anyone who's got Ghostface Killah's "Kilo" in their iPod knows that--while "WMDs" means heroin. I don't know what "pandemic" refers to.) In the season 5 premiere that aired two weeks ago, the WMDs have been replaced by "greenhouse gas."

The sound designers went crazy during this pivotal sequence from season 3:

The Wire has already spawned two soundtrack CDs. Too bad there won't be a Wire sound effects CD. I'd buy that too in a heartbeat.

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