The Soundtrack

THE SOUNDTRACK: SPRING 2001

By • Apr 1st, 2001 •

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In Jerry’s Deli, just outside Hollywood, a place known for it’s healthy menu and Rueben sandwiches, served with copious amounts of french fries, composer John Morgan talked to me about new projects he and conductor William Stromberg planned for their highly praised series of re-recordings for Marco Polo. In the can were performances of The Roots of Heaven and more. And he talked about his own film scores.
Between requests for more thousand island dressing and then cheesecake, I asked John Morgan, “Where does the music come from?”

Not missing a beat, he shrugged,”From the same place you get your words…”

Somewhere between that state of mind paralleled between Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, there exist the invisible walls of a legendary soundstage, a place where conductors and musicians once performed the greatest scores never heard, a place in time where downbeats and fanfares from legendary scores linger on, hidden and surviving in studio vaults despite the butchery of studio suits and cutting room panics.

The stories about these scores can be apocryphal– or all too real. Or both, tales of scrapped or truncated scores, the music that films are made of, tossed aside in a flurry of bad sneak previews. For this case in point, it’s both apocryphal and real. And there’s the third act of the tragedy that ends several years later as a major composer exits the soundstages for good, an artist who, had he stayed in Hollywood, would have– no doubt– dominated the music heard in theaters today when the lights go out and the projectors flicker on.

* For decades The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse has captured the imaginations of filmusic collectors and admirers alike. The old Metro Goldwyn Mayer soundtrack recording, poorly mastered and containing only a fraction of what composer Andre Previn created for this failed epic of Europe and World War II has long been out of print. The film itself should have been one of director Vincent Minnelli’s masterpieces. All the components were there. The classic novel by Ibanez had made MGM millions in its silent release and given the world Rudolph Valentino. In the wake of the success of another remake, Ben-Hur, the studio had high hopes of more box-office boffo. It didn’t happen. Perhaps the failing was due in large part to casting. Minnelli had wanted international superstar Alain Delon for the lead role. Studio suits balked and Glenn Ford was signed. What was essentially a tragedy of a younger generation decimated by world war was transformed into a glossy melodrama featuring an ensemble of middle aged Hollywood stars.

Yet what was there was impressive. The visuals were often stunning, the performances, better than expected. But there were cinematic speedbumps, notably the embarrassment of an all too literal presentation of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, riding across the screen for what seemed like an eternity– instead of a revelation– with colored smoke everywhere and bombs booming. And then there was Glenn Ford, who looked– and acted– as if he were in the wrong movie, which he was.

The opportunity for greatness was missed– except by composer Andre Previn. His score for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is great in the greatest sense of the word. What Previn wrote and what we were able to experience in the film– which was recut and rescored before its release was grand. But it was as if we had stepped out to a geographic precipice and all we were sensing was a poorly cropped vision that excluded mountains, rivers and forests. The cut score is a broken piece of the life of the film. To hear all of what Andre Previn intended for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is to experience one of the foremost scores of a lifetime. It lives, it breathes, it has scope, drama and passion. It’s an unquestioned masterpiece, the sort of score that a composer writes his heart out for, demanding everything he knows, and the end result is, very frankly, the very best in vision and personal signature– in short it’s a true work of art.
And since the film’s flop at the box office, the music has been there, locked away in the MGM vaults for nearly 40 years, unheard, unnoticed and forgotten by most. Most, yes. But Andre Previn remembers The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; I do, as you remember too. And someone else remembered– George Feltenstein, producer for Turner/Rhino..
And he’s selected The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as the first release of Turner/Rhino’s Handmade motion picture scores.

“I have no firm dates on things yet, but Four Horsemen… is finished and approved. Liner notes are finished and approved. Cover art has been completed, we are just waiting for stills for the booklet… Given these factors, and Handmade’s fast turnaround time, I would think a March release is likely,” says Mr. Feltenstein.

“… The film was horribly butchered prior to release, which meant that Andre Previn had to come in and re-record most of the music, which in full, actually ran over the length of a single CD. By removing some.. `source cues’ we were able to make, what I think, and what people will find to be, a revelatory album. I spent weeks plowing through the production files to understand how the film itself went so awry. The film was in production for over two years, endless retakes..” he adds.

The shooting for The Four Horsemen… began in Europe, then moved to Culver City to trim costs, which by that time was virtually futile.

“The film as released was a mess, but what a score! And now, we’ll hear music that most of us never knew existed!” adds Mr. Feltenstein.

It’s ironic that Previn’s tenure in Hollywood, which includes earning four Oscars, is not mentioned in his professional biography. Certainly it’s a part of how he approaches his concert hall performances. When I saw him conducting the La Jolla Chamber Orchestra some while back, I was struck by how his style captured an incredible range of drama and energy, usually unheard in classical works. Often conductors lack that ear and personal verve that Previn so easily displayed that evening. The orchestra loved him and with a pair of binoculars, I observed more than once, smiles between the performers and the conductor. This sort of thing happens often within the arena of the soundstage. The performance is caught up in the moment, and it makes for a one-of-a kind synergism. Previn may have left the soundtstage but that special excitement and dynamism, so much of the filmusic experience, clearly had not left him.

Recently, Previn spoke with Feltenstein by phone about The Four Horsemen…

“We were on the phone more than an hour… he told me that there are four film scores of which he is most proud… Elmer Gantry, Inside Daisy Clover, Bad Day at Black Rock, but most significantly, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was his favorite. I was ecstatic– I sent him a copy of our work in progress and I hope he’ll be pleased with what we’ve done!” Feltenstein says.

Another disc of Previn scores is also underway featuring Bad Day at Black Rock, as well as Cause for Alarm, Tension and Scene of the Crime. Feltenstein says that this release is due in April. The next release will be Raintree County, he adds.
* Some final thoughts about the score…

Surely, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is among the top 20 great scores of Hollywood. Throughout, there are Rozsa-esque references and, if my ear is true, I can also hear the influence of Hugo Friedhofer– not directly per se, but in intent and style, much along the lines of Friedhofer’s The Young Lions or In Love and War. But this isn’t a matter of homage or one composer copying another. It’s simply artistic influence. And certainly there are worse influences than Rozsa and Freidhofer. One cue is literally a concerto for snare drums. This martial savagery is a microcosm of militarism and fascism. It concludes with horns, sadly fading into the despair of war.

There is an entire universe of music here, a world, a way of life, a reel passion that’s missing in scores today. I have no doubt that had Andre Previn stayed in Hollywood, we’d all be richer in filmusic– and the art itself would not be stagnated as it is today. Candidly, Previn would have been greater than Goldsmith and Williams. Quite frankly, he is now anyway, and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is proof absolute of it.

* The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by Max Steiner, conducted by William Stromberg (Marco Polo) Some critics hated it, accusing Steiner of being overbearing, intrusive and out of step with John Huston’s masterpiece. In reality, the great maestro of Hollywood had created a score equal to the film. This stunning new re-recording, the latest in a powerful series of classic filmusic, demonstrates Max Steiner’s uncanny ability to illustrate action and emotion, deftly capturing the essence of the film, as well as the lingering nuances of B. Travern’s memorable novel. Reconstructed by John Morgan who has the ability to map Steiner’s genius as no one else can,Stromberg’s baton rouses up Steiner’s expansive, theatrical approach to filmusic, rattling the memories of Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston, and of director John Huston himself. Over the years, stars, film and music have become so intertwined as to be one cultural experience. Away from the film, Steiner’s magnificent score goes farther by strengthening those images, then abstracting them and becoming an unforgettable listening experience. Truly a great score, a splendid orchestral performance.

* All the Pretty Horses music by Marty Stuart, Kristin Wilkinson and Larry Paxton (Sony Classical). This earnest score tends to charm and disarm. It’s not as good as that very best of redneck rhapsodies, Jerry Fielding’s seldom heard Junior Bonner, but in its own way, All the Pretty Horses manages to saddle up genuine emotion and listenability. Somewhat akin to Morricone without that maestro’s edge, the score evokes a lengthy grand ol’ opry with narrative line, sans the nasal whine of lonely campfires. If I may unholster a Peckinpah-ism, it ain’t like it used to be, but it’ll do.

* Chocolat by Rachel Portman. The golden girl of filmusic weaves lovely melodies and offers a characteristic mix of sweetness and confection, much along the same formula as Cider House Rules. It’s likable, somewhat engaging, and then like a sugar overload, you doze and lose interest. A talented composer, Ms. Portman cloys with exciting beginnings and then stays there. It’s a safe approach, but inevitably, unsatisfying, like an adolescent crush. Chocolat lacks that creative response to Cocteau’s primal challenge: Amaze me. If she took chances, if she allowed her creativity to step over the line of prettiness and excavate that labyrinth of emotions that the cinema so richly offers an audience, Rachael Portman might be an excellent composer– or much more. She’s earned the chance to do just that, and we want the opportunity to hear her succeed. Next time, perhaps.

*Hannibal Han Zimmer is the new darling of a Hollywood where any music can become hackground music for a film. And his score proves it in spades. Cinematically, it covers up silences; away from the film, it does much the same thing. If the music were applied to any film other than a tale, the score would work equally well. Which is to say that its virtue is minimal, functional and as far from filmusic artistry as an Office Depot pack of office pens is to a Mont Blanc fountain pen. That holds through, well, throughout this exercise in gore and blood. Ridley Scott, a visual virtuoso of a director continues to be an out-of-control ego in search of a screenplay. The best actor of my generation, Sir Anthony Hopkins garners a big bank deposit, plays it safe and his Hannibal becomes a foppish, menacing Truman Capote on meth and steroids. Somehow, that fabled market of males between the ages of 12 and 24 sees a perverse appeal here. My, we’ve come such a long way, haven’t we baby?

* The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad composed & conducted by Bernard Herrmann (Soundtrack Library CD62) From the label that Hollywood loves to hate comes the definitive issue of this fabulous score by Bernard Herrmann. Nothing new in assessment or criticism would add to– or detract from– this towering masterpiece of fantasy, romance and adventure. This new CD– prominently available from Bertha’s Pretty Good Filmusic Bootique and other mail order services– is the last word, at least in this point in time, for Sinbad. There are mono selections but the sound here is spectacular and renders moot any previous release. This is my CD of choice for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. A warning: buy it now or whine about it later.

*The Best of Star Trek, Vol. II various composers (GNC Crescendo 8061), music from the popular television series. Since Star Trek: The Next Generation, the franchise has become the video metaphor for fast food. It tastes so good at first and then, there’s later. Owing more to Star Wars than Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry, Voyager and Deep Spaced-Out Nine cater to “teen minds in outer space” who canonize big ray guns and the heavy make up of aliens who, in aggregate, comprise some sort of New Age hoo-doo. The music for all these series has remained remarkably good. And this new CD showcases some excellent episodes and surely will please all those who thrive under the benevolence of the Federation and religiously attend those colorful conventions. Live long and prosper.

* Robocop, music composed by Norman Orenstein (GNP Crescendo GNPD 8070) More boob-tube hoopla from the popular syndicated series about the horribly wounded man who becomes a cop machine and patrols the urbanscape, righting wrongs and crumpling bad guys. Actually, it’s a kidz version of Death Wish and the cut-above score romanticizes the carnage and makes for a somewhat cathartic– and I suppose– satisfying exercise in retribution for those of us who wish the worst for those who break the law and generally make life miserable for everyone. Is this some sort of Roy Rogers derivative for modern teens and kids? Perhaps. But for the life of me, I’d rather camp with Roy and Dale at the end of trail and join in singing Happy Trails. But what do I know? Enjoyable for it’s own sake, despite my prejudices, which I freely admit.

* The Lucona Affair, composed and conducted by John Scott (JOS Records JSCD). Intelligent, dramatic and powerful music– even the source cues are rousing– by one of filmusic’s great gentlemen, released on Maestro Scott’s own label. The brooding tension of the score is a showcase for Scott’s talents and the entire CD is a grand listening experience. Few composers can use French horns like Scott. And the graphics for the notes and tray card is by my old friend, Bob Fredricks.

* Just in….

*Beneath the 12-Mile Reef composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann (FSM….) One of the great glories of the Golden Age of Motion Picture Music, the second of Bernard Herrmann’s great seascapes and brother to The Ghost & Mrs. Muir. This handsome release of the entire score is a testament to the archiving of Hollywood’s musical heritage, and an example why it’s so important to get this music onto CD and out to the public. The main title is slightly distorted but thereafter the transfer is uniformly excellent. Excellent in every way.

* The Italian Job composed & conducted by Quincy Jones (MCD60074) From one of the best and goofiest movies of the late-60s comes a pleaser of a goofy score. From the Matt Monroe song “On Days Like This” for the main title to the surreal “Self Preservation Society” this filmusic is like one big guffaw on a roll with more than a few brain cells synapsing here to propel the musical buffoonery. Get in a Miada, put the top down and slip this in the CD player. And after a trip to the beach, stop off for pizza and copious vino primo. Hey, is this life or what?…

* Tess/ The Tenant composed & conducted by Phillip Sarde. Beautiful filmusic by France’s premier composer for the cinema, these two titles here for films by Roman Polanksi, the bad boy genius whose sins of the flesh pale in comparison to the general atmosphere of (im)morality that passes for normalcy on the WB Channel. (Can you imagine Polanski producing Buffy the Vampire Slayer? He’d love to– and teens today would love him for it.) Tess is so rich and elegant in narrative, and in beauty– there’s that word again, beauty. So perfect a word for this exquisite score. The Tenant is outright creepy, certainly a first-cousin to Rosemary’s Baby, that’s not an indulgence in cacophony. It has a distinct sense of movement and shadow, a foreboding and sense of suspense that never teeters into the cheaply exploitive like so many genre scores.

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