The Soundtrack

THE SOUNDTRACK: WINTER 2001

By • Jan 23rd, 2001 •

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So many sacrificed their tomorrows so that we could have today…
– Stephen Ambrose,
historian, in an interview about World War II

Larry Darrell is a man I have heard about since adolescence. He may well be dead now. Certainly those who took part in his inspring story are long gone. Somerset Maugham is dead, the literary legend who brought Larry’s story to life for so many readers in the classic novel, The Razor’s Edge. The concept of that novel Stephen Ambrose vividly summed up in that quote transformed Darrell’s life after World War I and formed the basis of The Razor’s Edge. In combat, a friend sacrificed his life so that Larry might live. And nothing was ever the same again. Not for Larry, nor for any of us who know the story.

Which brings us to Alfred Newman and a newly remastered stereo release from Tsunami records in Europe due later this month or in January and, both in sound and presentation, gives the first of Newman’s great post war classics the prominence it has warranted since the film’s 1946 premiere. Twentieth Century Fox had brought The Razor’s Edge to the screen with a stellar cast that included Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, Ann Baxter, Clifton Webb, John Payne and Herbert Marshall as Somerset Maugham himself. Over the decades, the studio-bound film has lost some of its impact. But not Newman’s great music. Indeed, The Razor’s Edge bids to be one of my top five favorites of all Alfred Newman’s works. The score demonstrates a glowing sense of drama and narrative, and a true subtly in it’s use of source music, which both comments on the dramatic melieu as the film develops, and evolves into a keen-edged commentary about what happens on the screen.

After a brief introduction by Herbert Marshall as Somerset Maugham, the score enters with a tumultuous wave of brass fanfare cresting with a counterpoint of timpani that ebbs into a current of emotional strings. The main title also features the film’s main theme which cannily frames Larry Darrell’s passionate search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless life.

First used by Newman for the Wyler/Goldwyn film These Three, the main title here is full blooded, passionate and marvelously defines that personal sense of spirit that is a hallmark of the composer’s religious scores.

The entire score throughout is evocative and engaging. The mountaintop revelations that climax Larry’s mystical quest are indelible and linger on; an unused waltz that marks Larry’s return from a monastery brims with opulance– and decadence; the death of Sophie is heartbreaking and the end title is spectacular. Which brings me to this point of information. Throughout the film, a version of the main title appears to be a love theme between Larry and his would-be love, Isabel. But instead of uniting these two, the theme virtually stands between them. Only at the very end does Newman reveal his sly intent. This gorgeous music is not for Larry and Isabel– but for Larry and the elusive God that he has sought for so many years. When it finally reaches its climax, Newman binds God and man, reconciling what was so long missing and now found– and how it will grow for years to come. It’s a moment of raregrandeur and personal release, virtually unparalleled in Newman’s other scores. The new CD also offers Newman’s alternative end titles, the aim the same, just a variation. Listen to each and then go back to the composition that was finally used, and you see a great composer selecting a particular end to make a powerful– and lasting statement. The Razor’s Edge is a score to treasure for years to come.

*Captain from Castille with The Snake Pit by Alfred Newman (TsunamiTCI0620/21). Captain from Castille takes up most of this imported 2-CD set and the sound is the best ever, including the 40-minute suite offered on the old Facet CD. This is a milestone score from Newman, the second of his late 1940s swashbucklers. If Prince of Foxes is his more thoughtful and operatic take on the genre, this one is certainly more melodramatic and theatrical, containing some of Newman’s most extraordinary filmusic ever, including “Conquest” a bone-shaking orchestral climax that frames the very essence of discovery and exploration in the New World. There is a brief section missing from the end of the score, but otherwise, the presentation is seamless and a thrilling listening experience. Except for one cue– the introductory piece for Catana, a cloying presentation which is a sort of cliché which audiences accepted then but really not now. It’s expression of what sounds like “Catana, little peasant girl” is one of the few pieces of Newman music that doesn’t work for me at all. The rest of the score is impeccable. The Snake Pit chronicles the treatment of a mental patient in a hospital. It was a brave film for its time and Olivia DeHavilland’s performance is one of her best. Newman composed some of the most chilling music ever for this vivid look at mental illness. The score is both sympathetic– and shocking in its impact. This rare collector’s set is a must for everyone who loves filmusic.

* Objective Burma by Franz Waxman reconstructed by John Morgan, conducted by William Stromberg. The greatest team in re-recording great classic filmusic again scores top marks in presenting this extraordinary statement of men in war. Meticulously reconstructed by John Morgan with Hollywood history by Rudy Behlmer, and notes by yours truly, this release demonstrates again the spectrum of Franz Waxman’s genius, thanks in no small part to William Stromberg’s conducting. (Has anyone noticed that Stromberg has emerged as the conductor of classic scores? He’s at the point of being as good as the late Charles Gerhardt and, after a sneak preview of an upcoming Herrmann release, I can say this: he is as good as Gerhardt. And that’s about as good as it gets.) Waxman’s orchestral narrative for Objective Burma is both abstract and rousing and from a period when his compositions were becoming increasingly complex. Setting aside the clichés of wartime marches and mickeymousing, Waxman plunges into a war where heroism is a matter of practical efforts to survive and get home. If there’re heroic brass and strings, it’s all within the context of grim– and often tragic– symphinic commentary. Some parts are chilling; others show war in a singular and uniquely Waxman awing style: the main title perfectly captures the impending airborne raiders; the parachute jump is a symphonic powerhouse. Brilliantly composed, brilliantly re-recorded.

* Africa composed and conducted by Alex North (Prometheus CD Club). An earthshaking release of Alex North’s profound, difficult take on where, eons ago, we all came from and the continent that we know least about. Let this score take hold and you will stand squarely in the center of a maelstrom of orchestral complexity that may well be unequaled anywhere for its audacity and timeless musical concepts. It’s as if North has shed his romantic past and, instead, opted for tonalities that provoke and pique the imagination. There are no narrative portraits here, only a sense of what Africa feels like. Coming off a bitter divorce, North immersed himself in this music and it would literally change the direction of his creativity and how he scored films from then on. The dissonance that began to emerge from Spartacus— and explored further with Cleopatra— here, in Africa, becomes paramount. It’s not an easy listen, but the rewards are stunningly rich and powerful. Africa also holds the genesis of other scores as well, influencing other great artists who compose for films. A close appreciation reveals the beginnings of ideas that can be heard in Planet of the Apes (North and Goldsmith were close friends); The Shoes of the Fisherman can be heard coming and Dragonslayer; And notably North’s wrenching, unsentimental score to John Huston’s Under the Volcano. Africa is a turning point for Alex North, as a man and as an artist. This recording is not to be missed. A lost masterpiece and a CD for all collectors, for all times.

* Amanda by Basil Poledouris (PromtheusPCR508) Check your six guns and the rifles at the door and you have this new score from arguably the most talented contemporary composer in Hollywood today. This is the third of an informal agrarian consideration from Poledouris. The fact that it has no sense of violence, only heart, is not to say that is bereft of intelligence. There is an articulate sense of place and posture here that pleases. No a small thing when you consider that most romantic scores today are thudding re-statements of a decent theme that’s ultimately played to death, usually ending in a wordless veil of female voices. Not so here. Amanda is rich in near-poetic Americana.

The stolen Christmas present from the Grinch Who Stole…

It was a dark and stormy night and the winds were up, shaking tree limbs against frosted panes. William Alwyn music was in the air when there was a knock, knock, knocking at my front house door. Before I could open it, behind me materialized a frightful visage. It was the Ghost of Studio Executives Past.

His face was sallow and lined, his lips puckered from chain smoking countless cigarettes that rattled his lungs and reduced his voice to a whiskey river. I failed to understand what he said but his arm raised, sticking a compact disc in my face. “Here, damn you,” he rasped. And as I took it, he dissolved like a fade out in a Roger Corman frightfest.
What was left was a cheaply packaged recording that I could hardly make out in the dim light. At the lamp, a cartoon face emerged and I saw: The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by James Horner, no label, no CD number. I turned it over. The complete score, 71mins:18 secs.

What?! The soundtrack on sale at Towers was mostly songs! This score was charming and fun! Had this pitiable Christmas ghost, in an act of desperate redemption of past sins given me this music as a token of all the scores he had fought to keep from the public?

Ynahhh, could be, Doc… Look for The Grinch Who Stole Christmas at mail order outlets everywhere.

* Joseph, King of Dreams score by Danny Pelfrey, songs by John Bucchinoi, Dreamworks. Admittedly my appreciation of musicals can best be pegged as nonexistent. With the exception of The Sound of Music and my favorite, Yankee Doodle Dandy, musicals– for me– are a dull road trip, marked by exciting detours to concession stands. The songs here are quite good and if I loved songs, I would like these. Thus said, I handed over this CD to my niece and nephew, Melanie and Michael Wark. Both were pithy and succinct. “I thought it was really a good CD. I really liked `The Wolf Chase.’ It was as good as The Lion King…” Michael noted. Melanie liked it too. “I liked the orchestra cues– very soft, peaceful and very Egyptian.” What more can I add?

* Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, composed and conducted by John Williams, 2 CDs Sony Classical S2K89460. After the initial CD release, now we have the 2CD release and if this filmusic follows the pattern of previous Star Wars release, there is surely more to come. After all, when you have people out there buying anything connected with this dribble, why do it right the first time and lose all that money? The music is quality but so widely imitated in one form or another these days it has a certain predictability. Williams sounds like Goldsmith, Goldsmith sounds like Williams and most everyone else writing for the genre today sounds like recycled Goldsmith/Williams. One praiseworthy element here is the concept of releasing full representation of a score. The more, the better. Despite this tirade, it earns a recommendation to buy.

* Police Story & Medical Story composed by Jerry Goldsmith (Prometheus CD Club) When the advent of Shaft and other Blaxploitation films, scoring of streetside America never was the same again. Whether this was good or bad depends on which side of the street you’re on. From my side, there are, well, woes. But that’s another story, not Police Story. Goldsmith adapted to the times back then and the times are well represented in this sturdy television score. If anything, it creaks now and then under the footfall of two decades. Still Goldsmith is in good form and for all of Jerry’s Kidz, this a welcomed addition to that growing shelf of Goldsmith scores.

*The Duelists composed and conducted by Howard Blake with Riddle of the Sands (promotional CD) a beautiful film and a beautiful score to boot. The music displays elegance, intelligence and a sense of action and place– rare in contemporary composing. The approach is classical, the effect is engaging. Blake is a talented composer and I see his name too infrequently on screen credits. Long sought after, The Duelists is a mini-classic. The accompanying score, Riddle of the Sands is a take on Napoleon/Victorian Egypt and excellent as well.

*The best contemporary score, practically unheard, is James Bernard’s The Vampire Hunter (The Bloodsuckers). This television score, expertly conducted by Nic Raine after Bernard fell ill, exudes real horror and romance. Most horror scores today can be traced back to Jerry Goldsmith’s The Omen cycle, some of the most original scare scores ever created. But before that– and for my money, the better– of all horror scores were created by James Bernard, the last of the great Victorian horror-meisters. No one composes music like James Bernard. His Nosferatu will convince you to lock every door and window in your house. And The Vampire Hunter is its equal. It also features a marvelous romantic rhapsody that outdoes Thomas Hardy in its sense of English landscape. My friend producer James Fitzpatrick works with the maestro– and I hope that he and Silva arrange to release this score soon for all of us to enjoy.

* New at `Bertha’s Pretty Good Filmusic Bootique’
For all of you who know, love and frequent this little store, located in a stripmall, near downtown Santa Monica, here’s what’s new in bootique CDs- filmusic that we never talk about but have to have. All are from Soundtrack Library, the `don’t ask, don’t tell’ label of choice for us pitiable collectors who have no other choice. Here’s what’s available– the sound is uniformly good to excellent and each, featuring music previously unavailable: Around the World in 80 Days, composed & conducted by Victor Young; The Gift of Love by Alfred Newman & Cyril Mockridge/April Love by Alfred Newman on one CD; from what sounds like LP masters, Drango by Elmer Bernstein, and Cast a Giant Shadow/Men in War by Elmer Bernstein.

* Just in: From the Terrace by Elmer Bernstein, (FSM Vol. 3, No. 8) After some irrelevant releases, this Elmer Bernstein classic moves Film Score Monthly’s soundtrack releases back onto track. From the Terrace comes from one of Bernstein’s richest periods, stylistically falling within the same boundaries as, say Summer & Smoke and A Walk in the Spring Rain. This is an “adult score” for the 20th Century Fox cinemazation of John O’Hara’s blockbuster novel of ambition and ideals. Urbane and darkly romantic, From the Terrace also is interesting to contrast with, say, The Age of Innocence, which seems curiously “stuffy” in its approach, when compared to the drama of From the Terrace, which I like much more. There’s a number of scores that fall within the reach of From the Terrace. The composer’s own View from Pompey’s Head and Some Came Running, as well as Jerry Goldsmith’s Studs Lonigan. This is a beautiful period from Bernstein’s long career, capped, I think, by his brief, but indelible score to The Gypsy Moths. This new release of From the Terrace is not to be missed.

* Ship of Fools by Ernest Gold Artemis (ART-F002). From the LP masters and excellent sound. This artful, darkly satiric score is perfect for Stanley Kramer’s 1960s film of misfits sailing for a fateful docking in Europe on the tide of fascism in Europe. It’s one of Gold’s best scores and this CD offers his music to a new generation. In these times, Ship of Fools has been over-looked, and underestimated. Not any more. Excellent in every way.

* Breaking News: George Feltenstein at Turner tells me that Rhino’s handmade releases of classic scores is very much on the way for early next year with releases of Some Came Running by Elmer Bernstein and King of Kings by Miklos Rozsa, both scores complete.
Also, more exciting news.

“… I think it’s best that folks know we’re trying our best to get going with these special albums, even if it seems like it takes too long! The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse release is particularly exciting, as they recorded tons of music, then heavily recut the film after preview, recording more (altered versions of original pieces) … to conform to the cuts. I’m using documentation to re-construct the original!,” George says.

Also, expect a release of Previn’s Bad Day at Black Rock, which will feature surviving cues from other classic Previn scores– Tension, Cause for Alarm and Scene of the Crime.

Andre Previn is one of Hollywood’s almost forgotten maestros. Had he opted to stay in Hollywood rather than to pursue his highly successful career in classical music, there’s no doubt that Andre Previn’s name would dominate contemporary Hollywood. And, as far as I’m concerned, significantly overshadow both Goldmith and Williams.
Best wishes for a great New Year!

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