The Soundtrack


By • Jul 23rd, 2000 •

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Now that it’s a new millennium, we’ll be concentrating on the here and now, and on the future. And that includes music from the movies. What’s past is, well, past! Let’s live in the future!

–A big-shot Hollywood studio executive

Isn’t that enough to frost your CD player?

What’s the future of filmusic from the Golden Age of Hollywood? Will these great symphonic works by the great composers who invented filmusic be released for all of us to enjoy?

For the last few months, I have been asking that question and the answers are always framed in a tentative future tense. The answer is maybe. Regrettably, the same restrictions and nightmarish legal tangles that have kept classic scores from being released are, for the most part, still rigidly in place. The musician’s union with their hateful upfront demands for exorbitant re-use payments are still a major stumbling block, with these payments eating up, in advance of release and sales, a huge chunk of an independent producer’s budget. One producer told me that he had a budget of $12,000 for the release of a classic score. A third of that was in re-use fees to musicians who have been dead for many years. Another producer, who had mastered a major (and I do mean major) romantic score by Bernard Herrmann said that unions had demanded some $60,000 in re-use fees advances.

I was stunned.

Then I had extremely good news from George Feltenstein, the mercurial and always personable first-string producer at Turner. George and the executive team at Rhino — and in particular Julie D’Angelo — have been setting up a new sales system exclusively via the Net to offer classic MGM scores. The legal tangles are obvious. The musicians’ union I imagine is as obstinately demanding as ever. But there is cause for hope with this project, a part of Rhino’s ‘Handmade’ productions– and celebration.

“I’ve had meetings with my Rhino comrades, and we are moving forward on the ├ĚHandmade” front finally! Some Came Running (that masterpiece of the aftermath of World War II by Elmer Bernstein) is definite by year’s end, and Raintree County will follow, perhaps also this year (yes, it will be complete and have extras too!). King of Kings will be released to traditional retail distribution early next year. This has been formally approved! It’s a start!” says Feltenstein.

DVDs may offer a new avenue for release of scores. A number of titles with isolated music trax are under consideration, including Ben-Hur.

“This may give us the opportunity to expand Ben-Hur to three CDs, and include everything we have, rather than just what has been released to date” he adds.

Lukas Kendall and his Film Score Monthly label are continuing to release scores, but, apparently, it makes more economic sense to fall back on peripheral titles such as Omega Man and Guide for the Married Man than to release classic scores from the 20th Fox library. If this is the case, then I hardly begrudge Mr. Kendall, or anyone for that matter, economic success. But to sit classic scores in the backseat is hardly what so many of us hoped for. Also, I want to be upfront in stressing that I am not in anyway shortchanging Mr. Kendall’s efforts. He was the first to pry open a door in releasing scores and to convince the unions to take a second look at their re-use scales. Mr. Kendall also has promised two new Alfred Newman titles in the near future.

Two other labels are releasing classic scores, both in Europe. Producer Ford A. Thaxton and Luc Van de Ven’s Prometheus label in Belgium are releasing several great scores — Bite the Bullet by Alex North among them– and promises to do more. Thaxton and Van de Ven are savvy producers and longtime players in filmusic production and I know that some truly stunning releases are in the works.

Another label is Tickertape, a small, maverick company in Luxembourg, that is releasing studio quality CDs of mostly Miklos Rozsa scores from the late 40’s and throughout the 1950s, arguably the richest period of Rozsa’s career. From this small label have come stunning releases of Lust for Life, Madame Bovary, The King’s Thief, Kaper’s Home from the Hill, North’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow and Plymouth Adventure. More are planned I’m told, though I am unaware of the specifics.

(While Tickertape may well be a source of joy for members of the cognoscenti and collectors of classic scores, the label is a continuing irritation at MGM and Turner. The releases are `unauthorized’ and yet, when asked about this, a spokesperson at Tickertape says that the CDs are quite legal in Europe where copyright laws are different than in the United States. I am no lawyer, let alone a go-between for disagreeing parties– nor do I care to be– so I pass this along for your own consideration.)

Saving the Tiger from extinction…

A number of cultural memories are linked forever to the sneak attack December 7, 1941 at America’s naval base at Pearl Harbor– the sinking of battlewagons– among them the U.S.S. Arizona– and the tragic aftermath that brought America close to defeat. Also, the words, ‘Tora, Tora Tora’ and the message that the attack was imminent sent by Tokyo to their embassy in Washington DC: “The East wind is rising.”

At his very best, Jerry Goldsmith is not only a master craftsman of the art of filmusic but certainly one of the its premier artists (the other being Elmer Bernstein) who were part of the end of the Golden Age of Filmusic. Goldsmith has always had the uncanny ability to not only create a filmusic narrative that has drama and excitement, he can also abstract the symphonic elements of the art form into an incredibly inventive orchestral experience.

Tora Tora Tora (Film Score Monthly Vol. 3, No. 4) is just that. The film itself, an outright dud masquerading as a docudrama, gave Goldsmith the opportunity to downplay his instinctive romantic statements into a powerful quasi-historical piece that not only comments on screen action but summons up historical eloquence.

The dissonance that begins the main title is one of the most bravura statements ever conceived for a main title. What seems like a commentary on aircraft and Japanese naval power is in actuality a comment on the film’s title. Goldsmith here in a blaring, chilling opening mesmerizes with a boneshaking abstraction of a tiger’s roar, a wry commentary on Tora, Tora, Tora. But he doesn’t stop there. The orchestra screams a response in a sort of frenzied terror and in recall of the magnificence of The Sand Pebbles‘ main title, Goldsmith creates a darker, somber tone as he settles into a wispy, dark statement that’s like the movement of an unstoppable oriental breeze, signaling the rise of the ‘East Wind’ of Imperial Japan. The menace and power crescendos as French horns echo that earlier roar of a tiger, this time transformed into a full martial statement of the Japanese empire. Goldsmith has an astoundingly dense statement of purpose here and no one — no one — is writing music like this today for films.

This entire score is so much more complex and powerful than Goldsmith’s earlier Patton, a rather predictable, straightforward and romantic portrait of that flamboyant commander. With Tora, Tora Tora, Goldsmith returns to what created The Sand Pebbles for inspiration. But this is no Sand Pebbles. The darker elements here combine for a listening experience that is as every bit as artful and powerful as that granddaddy of war scores, Franz Waxman’s Objective Burma. In this respect, Goldsmith’s other `oriental’ scores are far more accessible and romantic. Although The Challenge is a close cousin to the temper of Tora Tora Tora.

Tora, Tora, Tora is a majestic display of filmusic artistry at its very best and this is a remarkable release from FSM. (Note: my comments here apply only to this primary performance, and not all to the dreary re-recording.)

They’re heeeeeere!!!!

*The Patriot, composed & conducted by John Williams (Hollywood HR62258-2) This is a prime opportunity for Williams. My favorites of his prolific career are The Reivers and the elegant Liberty Fanfare, one of the most evocatively spectacular musings on America and freedom. Neither one is present in this new score. It’s not that the score isn’t listenable, it’s quite beautiful; Williams has always been a pleaser. This simply isn’t a great score by a long shot from a longrifle. The score lacks theatricality, drama, showmanship and it fails to fulfill Cocteau’s basic law of creativity: Amaze me! I’m not amazed. In fact, the score cribs shamelessly from one other composition. In a moment when men and youths in a small humble congregation mull the sacrifices demanded by liberty and stand up for the right to be free, Williams music does them a disservice. As the theme swells and the soon-to-be volunteers rise in solemnity, my wife leaned over and gleefully whispered, ‘Heeeeere come the dinosaaaaauuuuurs….’ Maestro Williams needs a vacation. And he needs a voice at his shoulder to intone, ‘Try harder.’

A consummate Goldsmith score…

It’s been so long since I unequivocally loved a score by Jerry Goldsmith that it’s easy to forget that once he could write like few other filmusic composers. A limited Soundtrack Library pressing of Islands in the Stream is an aching reminder of Goldsmith’s greatness.

This is the one of the best scores ever written for a film, and certainly from a Hemingway source, earning a place in a three-way tie between Hugo Friedhofer’s awesome The Sun Also Rises and Bernard Herrmann’s legendary The Snows of Kilimanjaro. In human terms, it may well rise above both those scores. Seldom had the Nobel prize winning author written so candidly about himself, his wives, and sons than in Islands in the Stream. The novel’s flaws were easily glossed over by the vivid self portrait that Hemingway painted of himself as, ironically, a painter, Thomas Hudson, who lived in a great house on the coast of Bimini. Jerry Goldsmith took what was filmed from the novel (with an oddball climax that Hemingway would have abhorred) and created music that literally opened into Hemingway’s heart. With a nod to Benjamin Briton’s seascapes, the opening main title is a brilliant ebb and flow that finally crystallizes into what Hemingway was as a man and artist. The music is what filmusic nowadays seldom is– a living performance of flawless orchestral narration that’s as immediate and alive as the source it illuminates. In short, a classic that truly endures, much as Hemingway’s novels live on from generation to generation. This is filmusic of such towering quality as to dwarf anything written by anyone for the cinema in the last decade. It may well be Jerry Goldsmith’s greatest score.

(My friend Douglass Fake previously released the score as an excellent re-recording, conducted by the composer, in the late 70s. It was beautifully done. But the overly menacing chord in the main title always unnerved me. It wasn’t as prominent in the film. Now this new release offers the entire score, over 53-minutes, and the main title is as romantic and soaring as it was in the film.)

The new Soundstage recording features a cover from the movie’s one-sheet poster and excellent sound.

Note: the two previously mentioned Hemingway filmscores– The Sun Also Rises and The Snows of Kilimanjaro are unreleased from 20th Century Fox.

Quarter notes:

* Madame Bovary composed by Miklos Rozsa. (Tsunami TCI 0619) One of the greatest scores ever composed by very probably the greatest of the composers of the Golden Age of Motion Picture Music. Not so much a score as a symphonic consideration of that giant, Flaubert, and his genius. From the growling emergence of the main title through the end title, Rozsa creates an orchestral tapestry of Flaubert’s genius. The result is nothing short of breathtaking. The maestro was obviously engaged here and his inspiration was James Mason’s Flaubert. Look at Mason’s face and manner and that?’s the cue for this music. It’s also a perfect example of the literacy of artists like Rozsa brought to filmusic. How many composers today have read Madame Bovary? Not many, I’d guess. This is a score you could live with– and music to treasure. The sound is studio quality and a monument to Rozsa’s power and passion as a composer. To hear it is to experience a life away from the film– and that is mark of an enduring filmusic classic.* Guns for San Sebastian & Dark of the Sun (CHA 0134; The Dirty Dozen & Dirty Dingus MaGee (CHA0132); The Last Run & Wild Rovers (CHA0135); Logan’s Run & Coma (CHA0136) Re-releases of old soundtrack albums that are beautifully mastered. The sound is marvelous and the music is sublime, particularly Wild Rovers and Guns for San Sebastian.

* Bullitt by Lalo Schifrin (Aleph 016) This classic Peter Yates film reinvented the detective genre in the 1960s and the score broke ground in jazz and counterpoint. This new recording is excellent in every respect, complete with new music– and the main title from the film. A stunner.

* The Fox by Lalo Schifrin (Aleph 017) a dazzlingly moody score that truly captures the soul of D.H. Lawrence. The sound is fabulous and the impact of the score memorable. Excellent.

* Born on the Fourth of July ,composed & conducted by John Williams (July Records (JCD890407) The most beautiful elegy of the painful 1960s written so far, when many of us were, to quote Ron Kovacs, presidents of our Sunday school classes and graduates of Captain Kangaroo. John Williams wrote one of his most beautiful scores ever for this rare film. Was there ever life so innocent and optimistic as this music? Yes,it was. And to listen to this music is to go back, when our hearts were lighter and our hair was darker.
* Fearless Forecasting: The next five years will see a marked decline in the popularity of someone who has become the most overrated filmusic composer of the last decade: Bernard Herrmann. Brilliant, volatile and ever engaging, we’ve been Herrmann-ed to the point where mindless adoration has reached levels of some sort of political correctness. Listen to Journey to the Center of the Earth. Can you honestly say that it’s as magnificent as some would have you believe? Or the sanctimonious droning of Citizen Kane, the most critically overblown score in the history of film. The next darling of the mobs? Franz Waxman. (I welcome it…) And the beginning of all this? The new Morgan Stromberg recording of Objective Burma

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