The Soundtrack


By • Jun 23rd, 2001 •

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Escaping to warmer weather along the western coast of Mexico, the last thing on my mind was Cleopatra– the film, the score, or the siren herself. A steady diet of elegant buffets and pernod over ice can do that. But in the ship’s mahogany-walled library I found a sobering volume about the undersea excavation of Cleopatra’s capital in the Mediterranean waters off Alexandria, one of the great cities of the pre-Christian era.

By the time the cruise ship docked in Puerto Vallarta, I had finished the book. And after lunch, I walked up a hilly, cobblestone street to the house owned by that other Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor, the house where she and Richard Burton first lived during the filming of The Night of the Iguana, a private place where they would come back to again and again during their tempestuous relationship. Inside, after having a drink at the very bar where Richard Burton had enjoyed so many bouts– with friends such as Peter O’Toole– I couldn’t help but think about the epic film, the classic score, and the times when Taylor and Burton dominated newspapers and television reports in ways that few others have. It was like standing in the middle of a cultural relic, a museum of indiscretions and the personally audacious. In short, rare, shameless, larger-than-life times. The house itself, a lovely Mexican casita with several floors, was still beautiful, overlooking a lush, green hillside that opened up onto the valley of that picture-book city and then out to a shoreline vista. On a table was a Look magazine cover photograph by Roddy McDowell with the Burtons flanking the French doors that opened to the veranda of the master bedroom. They were a beautiful couple.

But look closely and you could see the years that had passed. Floor tiles were cracked here and there. The rest of the house across the street– connected by an arched footbridge, the Bridge of Love, built by Burton so that he and Liz could go from one side to the other without being bothered by paparazzi– was rooms that opened out onto a courtyard and private pool area. The rustic furniture throughout was much the same as Elizabeth had left things. Even private family photos in frames. When the legendary actress sold the house in the early 1990s, she sold everything in it. Perhaps even the details of furnishings were painful to her after Burton’s death, like that marvelous bronze bust of a youthful Burton as Alexander the Great, a treasured belonging that he had lugged to Mexico when he had first moved into the house. Across the bridge was a swimming pool– which now needed cosmetic repairs– where an inebriated Peter O’Toole had hopped off a balcony and missed a bellyflop, breaking his leg. And where the Irish actor had smuggled a bottle of vodka to Burton’s cook, got her drunk, and rescued the Welshman– who was locked up, taking the cure– and sneaked him down the street for a night at a favorite watering hole. Funny? Yes, but the escapade had infuriated Taylor.

Extraordinary times, indeed.

Walking through the rambling house, which is now a tourist spot and bed & breakfast, I became absorbed with Cleopatra. With the Burtons. With Alex North and the score never fully heard apart from the movie. It had been nearly 40 years… I had grown to maturity and into gray hair waiting for that score. Forty damned years waiting for music from a movie.

Song of a Siren…

It was a grand, daring labor of filmusic artistry– and it worked magnificently. Risking tried and true Hollywood traditions of romance and spectacle, a great composer– known for innovation– wrought a Homeric vision into what has to be the boldest original take on epic, long ago lives and ancient culture. Alex North’s Cleopatra may well be the greatest masterpiece of the art of filmusic, and surely it’s an enduring triumph of symphonic narrative, for films or any other musical form. Throughout, this two-hour score bristles with the vast heroic, abstractions that bind us to so many classics, even works such as The Illiad and The Odyssey. Like those works, North’s style and music are virtually universal. The music of Cleopatra simply exists on its own, standing apart like some wonder of a lost cinematic world, a remarkable pyramid in movieland’s make-believe panorama.

This colossal score is so unique in every way. In Cleopatra, overt lyricism is minimized and rhythms are primal, marked by memorable episodes scored with heavy percussion and dissonance. Cleopatra is even more remarkable for its extraordinary sensitivity and intimacy. The result is a sort of ancient memory, an artist’s grandest illusion, so distinct in its dramatic impact and yet elusive in a sort of transparent, formless expression of emotion and epic tragedy. That’s not to say that the score is some dreary academic, atonal, “modernism” thesis of antique fragments cleverly sewn together for dreary classrooms. As a mature dramatist, North knew better. Even the thought would have bored him– and us. What the composer did was to distill hours of a 24 frames-per-second, 70 MM world depicting an arena thousands of years dead– which, in reality, was cinematic fantasy– and then bring it new life in music that we could relate to in contemporary terms. Truly a departure from the European romantic traditions, Cleopatra continued what North came to most prominently with The Misfits, then certainly crystallized with Spartacus. (Cleopatra is in the best tradition of North’s long line of work. His other scores were always unique and North-ian but Cleopatra is a benchmark.)

It should also be stressed that both these “Roman” epics are unique in a Hollywood sort of way: Spartacus and Cleopatra are secular. No epiphanies, no Sermons on the Mount, no usual settings that audiences have come to expect. Both films were consummate for North’s artistic temperament. Free from centuries of religious music traditions, North explored new musical realms. That’s not to say that the composer was short in an ability to create religious scores as evidenced by The Agony & the Ecstasy, The Word, The Shoes of the Fisherman— and the virtually unheard Passover Plot, the only symphonic work composed by North for the Life of Christ.

With Cleopatra, North also reached back to other scores, seamlessly referencing fanfares and more from Spartacus; a cue for Willy Loman shows up from Death of a Salesman. And on Disc 2, Anthony’s Camp, Cue 16, there’s even a fanfare reference to Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, probably a sort of personal joke between the two composers. No one enjoyed a good laugh more than North. After all, what’s a few toots of the same horn between old friends?

During this axial period, even smaller scale scores such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf would provide North with distinct opportunities to flex his intellectual and creative powers. That one-of-a-kind meditation of love and neurosis, wrapped in a subtle orchestral brutality, seems to be another bridge for what would occur next in North’s long career. And what happened would lift filmusic from one groove and then place it in another. In 1967– for ABC News– North emerged with what amounted to an entirely new direction for filmusic itself with Africa, even though, seemingly for the sake of work, he would return over the next years to more traditional studio scores. But his intellect and heart would remain in the transcendent realms first truly exemplified by Cleopatra— and his artistic temper would yield incredibly memorable scores such as Dragonslayer, the ill-fated 2001 and the bone-chilling Under the Volcano. As a result of the period central to Cleopatra, Alex North and the art form of filmusic would never be the same again and his influence can be heard throughout the scores of so many composers working on the soundstages today.

Another interesting observation about the score: the first part, the Caesar & Cleopatra section, is decidedly cooler and more primitive than the second half of the score, the Anthony & Cleopatra section. During the second half, North adds melody and even a sort of jazzy touch to the music. It connects with the contemporary ear, and also links Anthony & Cleopatra’s love with our own consciousness and emotional enagagement. Nevertheless, North shuns sentimentality with an undercurrent of tension, even a trace of barbarism.

With Cleopatra, surely Alex North became more than a first-tier composer of Hollywood’s Golden Age of Filmusic; Alex North became an uncommon composer of markedly original and personal classical music that could be taken as secondarily music for the cinema. Films served as an excuse for great music and one complimented the other. It would be music that truly could stand on its own, outside the proscenium of the silver screen’s glitzy culture, and demand careful, attentive listening. In a good humored way, Alex North would certainly deny that if he were alive today. After all, he was just composing background music for the movies and making a living in the heady world of Hollywood. That disarming sense of humility and good nature would be a typical Alex North-ism. But Alex North knew what he was creating. And so do we. That’s why his scores endure. Listening to Cleopatra, it is apparent that a particular mind and universe of creativity was at work, producing more than wallpaper for a movie. Simply and inarguably, Cleopatra is great music, the work of a great composer– and great artist.

* Background narrative: The provenance of Cleopatra‘s score is a classic display of frustration and desperation for those of us who share a peculiar preoccupation with music from the movies. The old LP/open reel tape release of the score, concurrent with the opening of the film was woefully abbreviated, the equivalent of watching a 40-minute release of the film. What was intended as a “representation” of the score was a travesty of a sampler that teetered into musical incoherence. Its limited format offered a hint of grandeur and greatness but delivered a frustrating listening experience. From then on, the game was afoot for collectors. Bits and pieces of the score made their way onto tapes throughout the community. The source? Most say Alex North himself who had, so the stories go, a complete tape of his music. Personal conflicts in his life, continue the stories, resulted in those tapes being lost. Forever. Every moment of the score, however poorly recorded, became rare treasures. The original trax remained locked up in the vaults at 20th Century Fox, music as fabled as that lost five-hour cut of the film that had accompanied JLM to Paris for a special viewing by Darryl Zanuck who had one reaction to the film– Cut it…

The film was cut, the box office wasn’t the bonanza that JLM and everyone else hoped for. And Alex North’s music settled into oblivion. For decades and decades.

Until now, almost 40 years later.

Cleopatra is here with a new, most welcomed 2-CD set, produced by Nick Redman and very reasonably priced from Varese Sarabande, one of the oldest soundtrack labels in Hollywood. Robert Townson, who co-produced this ground-breaking release was also responsible for the excellent re-recording 2001, the rejected score for that cult classic film. (I would hope that Mr. Townson, who in addition to being a prolific producer is also a filmusic collector, would pressure Universal studios to release North’s Spartacus!) The sound of Cleopatra is nothing less than spectacular. And I see from the liner notes that Lukas Kendall, publisher of Film Score Monthly and producer of a series of classic releases from the Fox vaults, worked the score’s restoration. The entire project is a labor of love, a job well-done, a tribute to Alex North’s genius and an unqualified joy for all who love filmusic. A special nod as well to Michael McDonald for music assembly and remix.

Also, the release of this new 2CD set (VS3020662242), has a secondary result. Now, all those old tapes and CDs of Cleopatra that have been collected over the decades can be boxed up, sealed and sent to the closet, where they belonged to begin with. The reel Cleopatra is arrived, with fanfares, accolades, and repeated trips to the CD player where the music can be appreciated in the ways that few other classic scores are enjoyed– in its entirety and with vivid movie theater sound. For the most part, the entire score is here on this new release. For the record, a couple of cues are missing– some palace music and one other– but not to worry. Despite my reputation as a compleatest, I cannot summon enough concern to pick over the loss of two cues.

(It’s a regret that the great Hollywood maestros– North, Alfred Newman, Miklos Rozsa, Max Steiner and others– never lived to see their classic scores presented in full. From Gone With The Wind to The Song of Bernadette, Ben-Hur and now Cleopatra— for the first time, we can experience the symphonic beauty of great music from the cinema.)

Alex North’s marvelous score to CLEOPATRA is simply one of the finest musical compositions ever written for the silver screen. His advanced harmonic, rhythmic and melodic writing is superb, while at the same time, enveloping the audience in the drama of the story and providing the dramatic underpinning of this underrated movie. To have this score – complete – and from the original stereo tracks is a dream come true!

– John Morgan Composer

* Half-notes:

* Flyers & Fire on the Mountain composed & conducted by Basil Poledouris (Prometheus PCR510) This new recording of two Basil Poledouris scores is a welcome addition to his shelf of titles, and a new entry in the limited releases from Prometheus. Always engaging and with an ear for drama, Poledouris’s music exhibits high quality and broad, colorful orchestral drama and intimacy. The first, Fire on the Mountain is composed in a minor, more contemplative key, akin to his classic Lonesome Dove or Quigley Down Under. Flyers is an exhibit of martial flair and symphonic depiction of, well, flight that ranks with many fine other scores, including The Blue Max. Recommended.

* Dune by Graeme Revelle (GNP Crescendo GNPD8071). Science fiction is admittedly not my thing (with the exception of The Thing…from another world by Dimitri Tiomkin) but this music for the television mini-series of the Frank Herbert classic is so much better than the old Queen soundtrack for that David Lynch thing. One of my friends, exiting the theater after seeing that droning version, quipped, “Dune is dumb.” And it was. But the music here is more winning and the result better listening, even as I am forced to relive life with those repulsive sand worms and other sci-fi hijinks that are brought to the mind’s eye… Hrrummphh. *

* Hey Jack, how about them Oscars???? Well, fans, if you were as excited about the Oscars as Sir Anthony Hopkins and I were, raise your hands (I didn’t know who would keel over first– Sir Tony, ol’ Dino or me… for a moment Ernie Lehman worried me too…). And I was even less excited when it came to the wretched list of music that was nominated for best score. Except for Ennio Morricone’s Malena. This sly, sexy score is Morricone at his Italian best. And it’s the sort of filmusica al fredo that Fellini surely would have loved. It’s not his greatest score but Malena is curves ahead of anything else, especially the dreadful Gladiator and that faux Far Eastern Leaping Lizards, Grouchy Umpires. Or whatever the hell it is… Hey, Tony, nimme a `nother Chianti and hol’ the fava beans… *

* Parting shots: Recently a yout’ful filmusic producer told me that he hated the way I wrote because I did not “educate” enough about filmusic and its history.

That was nice. The critic is ever open to criticism. But I have no real interest in educating anyone in a classroom sense. At the risk of showing my elitism, my writing assumes at least some degree of education in readers. While a number of “reviewers” delight in embracing a sort of Mr. Chips persona, it’s not for me. That’s not to say that there isn’t a market for their book report mentality. After all, the history of Hollywood is an ever-evolving cottage industry of gossip chronicles and chatty commentary, culled mostly from old pressbooks and studio press releases. Frankly, I have no interest in filling a bag of factoids or increasing someone’s chances for final Jeopardy.

I assume we all can start from a common knowledge and love of the cinema to a more ephemeral world where the art of filmusic bids us further and further from the pigeon-holing of academics and musical mechanics, to a place focusing on creators and creations, where filmusic is free to evoke, provoke and astound us in ways that are unimagined in classroom atmospheres or the snoozes of textbook narratives.

When I write about filmusic, set aside the Cliff Notes, the Entertainment Tonight blather and heady jargon of sharps and flats. Join me and go somewhere else, where filmusic can engage the inner workings of what we are, a place bound only by our constrained, sometimes all too literal selves.

Besides, my friends, someone has to rant and rave.

* Hush-hush & Strictly on the QT: Expect more music from a major biblical epic that will be the absolute, final word on this great classic score, an unprecedented, very limited 3-CD set!

Coming next: A new Morgan/Stromberg recording of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s The Roots of Heaven, and an excellent 2-CD set of scores by the renowned Jerome Moross.

And a new contest where you can win a personally signed filmusic CD from– yours truly.

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