Underbelly: articles

Music of the crimes

IT MUST have been tempting for composer Burkhard Dallwitz to draw on his extensive back catalogue when he was approached by the Underbelly producers to submit examples of his music.

"At that stage, they were looking at different composers," says the German migrant.

"I was one of three they talked to, and, having lived in Melbourne for the last 25 to 30 years, I was very familiar with the story. Instead of just putting the usual sampler together, I thought, 'this sounds like such a great project, I'll set aside half a day and come up with something'."

It turned out to be a smart move. That day, Dallwitz created the beginnings of It's a Jungle Out There, the Underbelly opening theme. "I wrote the bare bones of it in two hours," he says. "It went through various changes, but I could play it to you and you would recognise that."

Dallwitz says he was given no detailed brief but asked to come up with music with Italian influences, operatic in scale and "quite over the top".

When we visit the composer at his home studio in the south- eastern suburbs, where he is now working on the second 13-part series, Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, a television screen is playing a scene in which drug dealer Terry Clark (Matt Newton), creator of the Mr Asia Syndicate heroin import organisation, is mercilessly bashing a courier

The lanky musician sits at his keyboard and plays some of the music he created to accompany this unsettling, violent scene. He points out the sound of "throat singers" from Tuva, in the south of central Russia, which he sampled and other music including striking guitar-playing by Melbourne musician Dave Herzog.

Around him is memorabilia for productions for which Dallwitz won awards, including a 1999 Golden Globe for his score for The Truman Show, and APRA/AGSC Screen Music Awards for the TV series CrashBurn. and the first Underbelly.

The Underbelly soundtracks reflect the different eras in which each is set — the first in the mid-1990s to 2000s; the second, '70s to '80s. But Dallwitz says the music here is "tonally quite similar" and he was told that he should not seek to "reinvent the wheel" in the second series.

"Series one already had a lot of grungy guitars and Wurlitzer keyboard sounds, which were all sounds of the '70s anyway."

Sony Music will soon release the soundtrack CD for Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities in collaboration with Nine, Screentime and a South Melbourne music supervision company, Level Two Music, which drew on its extensive library to locate recorded tracks to complement Dallwitz's score.

Level Two seeks out music for advertising, short film and TV projects, such as SBS series Carla Cametti PD and the recent pay TV drama False Witness.

Level Two managing director Karl Richter says he regards music in film and television as the extra character.

Some of the music the company suggests is from the era depicted — for instance, NSW thrash-pop group Spiderbait's Four on the Floor was "a magnificent punch in the face" at the start of the first series, he says.

But Richter says he soon tired of the notion of keeping to a particular musical period "because that was very literal, very dogmatic, and I think that it really ties down storytelling".

His colleague Jess Moore helps select tracks and sort out the copyright; both work closely with producers, directors, editors and, on occasion, composers.

Moore cites specific tracks that helped define scenes in the first Underbelly series. Among them is English band I Monster's These are Our Children, used for when Jason Moran was shot dead in 2003.

"As soon as we played it, everyone just knew it was right," Moore says.

Another, We Don't Walk, by The Paper Scissors, had worked well with a scene of Roberta Williams walking through a car park after being abused by a carload of gangsters. "It's current and it's hip and got this swing, and it's got attitude to it," Moore says.

From the second series, she cites Going to the Casino, by Philadelphia Grand Jury, which was played during the Great Bookie Robbery, and Take My Love with You by American Eli "Paperboy" Reid, who recently toured Australia.

"I love that track," Moore says. "That was when Terry Clark was driving through the country (the NSW town of Griffith to meet Roy Billings' Robert Trimbole), early in the first episode of the new series. "It's the sound of an era. But the album was only released last year."

The soundtrack album to Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities will be released on March 21. The series screens Mondays at 8.30pm on Nine.

By Larry Schwartz
February 26, 2009
The Age