The Soundtrack


By • Jul 1st, 2002 •

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“What were we to do with this nonsensical biblical goulash? My main problem was to write exactly the same themes and scenes as those in Ben-Hur– the Nativity, the Way of the Cross, Golgotha and the Resurrection; it was a tough job”
– Miklos Rozsa

A Double LifeKing of Kings (Rhino Movie Music R278348) is the third and final work of Miklos Rozsa’s great Christos scores which include Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis.

Of the three, critically speaking, it ranks third in that informal trilogy. But that said, Rozsa’s sense of imagination, creativity and musical genius sets King of Kings far and above any music today that is being written for what passes as film. This is a score of epic vision and sublime listening pleasure.

This new release of King of Kings, from the six-track stereo masters, with over 40 cues, many of them unreleased, is way over due– the film premiered more than 14,600 days ago. The music is legendary, brilliant and a testament to the mastery of Miklos Rozsa, arguably the greatest of the Hollywood maestros of the Golden Age of Filmusic.
Unlike Alex North who mined barbarously romantic abstractions from the ancient world or Alfred Newman who heard ancient Christiantity in terms of personal mysticism and revelation, Rozsa is akin to a medievalist or Renaissance artist working in the glory of symphonic illuminations. The structure and drama of King of Kings is broad, always colorful and complexly gilded in rich orchestral narrative.

Of all his New Testament epics, King of Kings features a simple elegance that reflects the poetry of, say, St. Luke’s gospel– or perhaps more practically, the composer’s art of untangling a literate script that strays into two parts, mixing political turmoil and epiphany, a sort of Jesus meets Hollywood’s decline of the Roman Empire.
In either sense, Rozsa’s approach works, musically and dramatically to make it a better– and more coherent– film. (Personally I tend to program out the secular themes and battle music into one listening experience and the religious compositions into another. In a way, it’s almost like having two separate scores. )
It’s interesting to contrast Rozsa’s great mastery of filmusic by comparing King of Kings with Ben-Hur, with the composer working in two very different ways for two very different, but thematically similar films set in the same historical era. In Ben-Hur, the music is multi-layered and complexly symbolic in its narrative. For instance, the deep cadence of the rowing drum during the galley sequence is paralleled in the beat of the way of the cross sequence, wedding the agony of Jesus to the gruesome memories of Judah as a galley slave as he watches the young Christ stagger toward his end under the weight of the cross. Or the end of the nativity with a shepherd’s long notes from a shofar fading away the Star of Bethlehem — which are answered by Rozsa’s own fanfares that cascade into the film’s magnificent main title in perfect heralding of the Trinity.
None of this sort of density exists in King of Kings. But that actually helps the film’s narrative and embraces the innocence and passion of the gospels. The Christ sections of the score glisten with religious awe and innocence. The Hosanna choruses that are the framework of King of Kings are exalting in its declaration of faith. The music for the nativity beautifully captures the age old story that has inspired millions of believers; the Sermon on the Mount is not only a spiritual inspiration, but one of the most cinematically composed cues in filmusic, a textbook of how a score can muster screen movement and imagination. It is one of Rozsa’s most glorious cinematic compositions, an orchestral summoning that literally flows to a dramatic crescendo that becomes a hush that underscores the Beatitudes; the finale of the film with the resurrection of Christ and the end title is one of the most beautiful works composed– for films or the concert hall.
The liner notes by producer George Feltenstein are breezy and informative, filled with photos from the film. The cover of the 2-CD set is exactly that of the old, boxed LP, a nostalgic testament to that treasured soundtrack release of a bygone time.
* Years ago, I went to see Budd Boetticher at his ranch in Ramona, California, a place where he bred top-dollar show horses and lived like the great director he was. I wanted to pitch a screenplay to him, “The Authentic Life & Times of Sam Bass.” He looked like an aging cattle baron and you knew where Randolph Scott got his attitude for those classic westerns he and Boetticher filmed in the 50s. I watched Budd as he rode a prized horse with the ease and natural affinity that marked those great films. We walked back from the corral to the tack room where the walls were lined with photos and mementos– a personally inscribed photo from John Ford and more. There were photos of Anthony Quinn, Lee Marvin, Gilbert Roland and all the rogues’ gallery that had given his films depth and texture, all men who had made movies– and enjoyed working and being with one another. There was a photo, too, of Jim Garner as Brett Maverick.

Budd nodded to Garner’s photo. “I remember when Jack Warner and I went over to where they were filming Sayonara. I saw Jim with Marlon and I nodded to Jack and said, “That man’s our Brett Maverick” You know, I always loved the character of Brett Maverick. Moralists and straight-laced people hated Maverick because everyone with a brain liked him; outlaws hated him for that same reason and the fact that he always won”
I grinned. “Brett Maverick was a role model for me..”
Boetticher laughed, “Kid, you coulda done worse”
(By the way, he liked my screenplay but had one of his own that he was shopping around; it never happened– for either of us.)

Sit down, let’s play filmusic poker; what titles, you ask? Jack’s or better to open, none better, that’s dealer’s choice.
The major face cards of classic filmusic are icons of genius that have pulled Hollywood’s train over the decades. Swashbuckler epics, musicals, melodramas, film noir, war movies, and the Hollywood Western. Each genre is a sort of face card in the huge deck of American identity, reflecting us in time, place, and most importantly, emotion, wild cards of the imagination that suspend reality and invite us to pretend that we are what we see on the Silver Screen.
Do you like your cards?
What I’ve said may well be points of interest and discussion, but while you’ve listened to all this, you haven’t been looking at your cards– or mine. It’s a gambler’s edge; I have dealt myself, straight up on the green felt table, two aces, back to back, and three cards face down.
One of the aces is The Searchers; the other, Red River, the most elusive filmusic high card in my deck. My friends, it’s an automatic jackpot for a filmusic card shark like me.
And who are those two tall, dark strangers there, those other two Mavericks? John Morgan and William Stromberg, who have kindly fronted table stakes. Why? Well, these two fellow gamblers have been to Moscow and back from re-recording, in its entirety, Dimitri Tiomkin’s tour de force Red River for release on the Marco Polo label. I’ll be writing the liner notes.
This new re-recording will be the first full recording of this groundbreaking score. And it will be the definitive version. The original music trax are gone, long ago dissolved into vinegary goo.
For me, this is a score of a lifetime. Morgan also tells me that a documentary crew was in Moscow with them to capture the whole recording session. More to come.
* A fundamental consideration: we are a literature-based society and culture. Cinema depends on literary narrative; narrative is emblematic of great filmusic, not the cold arithmetic concepts of classical music. This link between literature and the listening experience is the allure of great filmusic, which first engages the imagination with specifics and then, quite apart from the film, engages our unconscious with a semi-abstraction of dramatic orchestral narrative.
– Cahiers du Filmusic

Alfred Newman’s great music for Wilson is a textbook example of filmusic narrative as well as a paean to America, Americans and American ideals. The film was a personal project of Darryl F. Zanuck and if you want to know about Wilson, you better to talk to Zanuck himself. But it’s increasingly difficult to talk with the legendary mogul. For a number of reasons, I suppose.
But it helps if you have a reputation for good taste, a love of the cinema, and a general acknowledgement that you are the foremost critic of the Golden Age of Filmusic, that and long-distance charges, got me the promise of DZ by phone, in the event, of course, that the mogul was having a good day. At first the line seemed dead and then Zanuck’s secretary put me through.
“Is that yoouu, Mr. Zanuck?”
I tried some ice-breakers but got stone-silence. DZ is not a man for small talk. I came to the point.
– Alfred Newman’s great score for Wilson is slated for release by Screen Archives. A lot of people don’t know about that fine film so would you tell us about Wilson?
There was a long wait and then I shut up until DZ finished talking.
“An idea for a motion picture seldom arrives full blown; developing and bringing it to acceptable maturity is… filled with pain and frustration, clamor and insomnia. Wilson had such a birth. The war and my own experiences on the front played their full part in fashioning this film. Originally the idea came as a byproduct. For some time, I had been mulling a picture dealing with the life of Samuel Gompers, the great labor leader. But as I delved into the subject, I found myself more and more often confronted with the name of Woodrow Wilson; naturally I was familiar with Wilson’s achievements but this close perusal of the man’s record, his great vision and his courage convinced me that here indeed was a subject worthy of cinematic consideration. As the war (World War II) progressed, I saw how destructive war was of humanity and how innocent of its causes were those who had to do the fighting. Again and again as I saw our boys dying, the thought occurred: why had not something been done to prevent this futile sacrifice?”
He was silent; we both were overwhelmed by the dying and dead, and the many who would return home to work for a world peace. Then–
“The same thoughts were echoed in various forms by men wherever the fortune of war took me. In the foxholes in the commando boats and remote far off spots. These men seemed to feel that they had been let down somewhere along the line they felt that a better, saner world was possible. They had come to realize, many of them, that Wilson had foreseen this and tried to prevent it, but he had somehow been beaten.”
Zanuck first had proposed a documentary, to be financed by the U.S. government but was rejected. Then he wired Lamar Trotti and Wilson as a film began.
The legendary producer was placed on the armed services’ inactive list for a year and he went to work on this ambitious telling of Wilson and his ideal for a league of nations– and his hope for a world where peace and reason would triumph over tyranny and war.
Contemporary issues as films had never really been successful in Hollywood. At 20th Century Fox, The Grapes of Wrath had been a solid box office hit but The Ox-Bow Incident, a searing indictment of vigilantism and lynching had failed– even a Laurel and Hardy film had shown better receipts from audiences. Then there were the bitter memories of a U.S. Senate committee, dominated by isolationists who– before Pearl Harbor– had accused Hollywood of war mongering.
Moreover, there were the rants from pressure groups. When production of Wilson was announced, Zanuck was accused of politicing for Franklin D. Roosevelt on the one hand– and for promoting DZ’s good friend Wendall Wilkie on the other. Nothing deterred Zanuck from moving ahead. Some executives at Fox warned Zanuck that he was heading for trouble and advised against the film. Others supported him.
“I was determined to make Wilson, regardless of the headaches; it became obvious that we would underscore the dramatic and entertainment values inherent in the subject. To be truly successful and make a point, a picture must be a success at the box office. It must be seen.” he recalled.
The film was first set to lens in black and white. Zanuck changed his mind and filmed it in color, hoping to add box office appeal. That meant, however, that newsreel footage of events and people would be scrapped. Sets and location shootings were changed, and budget expenses rose.
“I can say that it was the greatest experiment of its kind in Hollywood. The presentation of a controversial subject on such a scale had never been undertaken, particularly in the face of such physical obstacles and attacks to which we were being subjected.”
Zanuck was gambling a lot on Wilson.
“At stake, we felt, was more than fate of just one picture, no matter how costly. The future of the motion picture industry as a force for good was in the balance.
Alexander Knox was to portray Wilson, a move by Zanuck to present the president in realistic terms, unfettered by star glamour. Veteran director Henry King would direct.
Singled out for real praise was screenwriter Lamar Trotti.
“A motion picture is never better than the screen play which is its essence and foundation. I know of few others who could have done it”
Wilson in a literal sense represents the ideas of many men which I have humbly appropriated. In another sense it is a tribute to these men– a tribute paid in the hope that it will contribute its measure towards a better world”
The production costs soared to some $4 million– an almost unheard of expense; its critical acclaim and the Oscars it earned– and then its failure at the box office– must have been bitter for Zanuck. I thought of all the Fox films to come after Wilson. Most of those releases concentrated on film as entertainment– and a question blurted out.
– Mr. Zanuck, after the box office disappointment of Wilson, did you shift your efforts more and more toward film as entertainment? I know that you once said after premiering Cinemascope that you wanted stories with width, not depth. Did you feel less inclined to produce a film that had, well, a message for audiences?
There was a long angry silence…
“If you want to send a message, call Western Union”
And then DZ hung up. He just hung up. My conversation with one of the great men who made the movies– and loved them– was over. I tried to call him back and apologize for my stupid impertinence. He was a better man– and moviemaker– than some people thought and I wanted to tell him that. And thank him for Wilson. But the line was dead.
So many of today’s movie audiences are unfamiliar with Wilson as a film. It’s a great film full of the ideals and drama.
With the release of Alfred Newman’s score for Wilson, the memory of Zanuck’s dedication to the project may will live again– and perhaps people who love filmusic may be drawn to the film itself for a first time viewing or second or third. Zanuck loved Newman and his music. And Newman’s score for Wilson is a masterpiece of Americana, expressive of what Zanuck intended for the film to say to audiences. To hear it is to live again– in music– a long ago time that eerily parallels our own– a time of tragedy, patriotism, war, ideals and, above all, optimism.
The score for Wilson has been produced by Craig Spaulding, mastered by Ray Faiola and released by Screen Archives. The 26-page booklet of liner notes is a testament to the film– and music– an incredible experience. A must-have for collectors
(Special thanks to the memory of Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox and Crown Publishers. And to Lamar Trotti, who wrote the screenplay to Wilson, and especially to John Gassner and Dudley Nichols, who edited Best Film Plays, 1943-44… from which this interview was culled.)
* “Several years ago, I met Yasuhiro Wada in Hollywood. It was a special gathering of collectors, producers and others who loved filmusic. I hadn’t met the mercurial– and knowledgeable– Japanese producer before but had enjoyed his superb filmusic releases from Japan. I was pleased that he knew me by my column. He had just produced Maurice Jarre’s excellent score to Red Sun. And he talked about future projects. Several were pending. He earnestly hoped to release Saintain’s Moby Dick but was pessimistic. “RCA owns the rights and they do not care about the score or filmusic; I think they will turn me down… and I want to do Kurosawa filmusic..” We talked about the scores for films by Akira Kurosawa. (In 1993 Hiro would later release a beautiful 2-CD set with long suites by the eminent Japanese composer Masaru Satoh from Yojimbo, Red Beard, High & Low, Hidden Fortress and other titles.) Seven Samurai was a special favorite for us both. We talked at length about the matchless, classic film– and the great music. Then as I ordered another scotch; Hiro looked around the room, filled with collectors and kindly bought me that drink.
“You know, Jack, we here are all samurai for filmusic…”
He was so right. Hiro Wada died several years ago, at much too early an age, always a true samurai for the music”

This new six CD set of music in Kurosawa films, Film Music of Akira Kurosawa, the Complete Edition (Toho Music) is an art house devotee’s dream come true. Direct from the music trax, this new, very limited expensive Toho set finally allows us access to two virtually lost maestros of filmusic, Masaru Sato and Fumio Hayasaka.
Boxed, beautifully done, the set features entire scores from The Seven Samurai and Ikiru by Hayasaka; The Bad Sleep Well, The Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, The Lower Depths, all by Masaru Satoh. The last compact disc is Listen Kurosawa, the old album of Seven Samurai that was released several decades ago, and before this CD, was a collector’s item.
The sound on all these scores is excellent in every way. And it should be– the set costs about $200. Bear in mind this music is not for everyone. But anyone familiar with Japanese culture, as well as those of us who have spent time in the Far East, will be truly enthusiastic about having this eclectic mix of scores, running from costume/period dramas to more contemporary themes.
The most memorable of the set are The Hidden Fortress (yes, the inspiration for Star Wars) and the music has that same melodramatic, epic sense. The Throne of Blood is like kabuki, rich in bleak, monochromatic tonalities.
But for me, The Seven Samurai is nothing less than a treasured possession. The main title, a rumbling neo-concerto of drums that pound out a monotonous danger, is wondrously primal, harkening back to an era, for us, that is time out of mind, as the Greeks once said. The jazz-like saxophone that jauntily contrasts and frames the samurai as innocent villagers seeking saviors exhibits strength and an undercurrent of coiled menace. But it’s a marvelous, recurring set of horn fanfares that guide us into the honor and way of the samurai that pleases most. And there’s so much more throughout. The end title is also here, those joyous voices of the villagers planting a new harvest, a bitter irony for the remaining warriors who gave their best for nothing more than the price of doing what was right. The final fanfare is a rousing, majestic summation of a great filmusic experience.

* A Six-Gun Extravaganza: Brigham Young University’s new release of Dodge City and The Oklahoma Kid (FMA-MS108) is a monument to Max Steiner and the Warner Brothers western. The informed, readable liner notes have grown to near-book length and the graphics are enough alone to make this an invaluable addition to the growing shelf of BYU scores. Dodge City is one of the great archetypical western scores. It’s almost as though you take a pencil and draw a line from any western score back to Steiner’s techniques and epic melodies for Dodge City. The long line of French horns that opens the score evokes the great plains and the rambling geography of that legendary cattle town. And Steiner’s musical portrait of a locomotive is an indelible example of great orchestral narrative. The Oklahoma Kid is a fluke of film that’s great fun and the score plays it straight. Cagney and Bogart as cowboys? It works, musically and as a film. These two scores are bedrocks of Hollywood’s great westerns; listening to these, again and again, is proof of Steiner’s enormous genius as one of the founding composers of the Golden Age of Hollywood filmusic.

“Before I met Fellini, I didn’t realize what acting was. He was always joking and lying”
— Anouk Aimee In a recent LA Times interview

Do we live our lives precariously balanced along some existential ledge that borders an absurd world of random events and whacked-out irony? Is there a reason for anything that happens in life? Or is life a limitless stream of consciousness, a sort of blissful, but puzzling futility?
If you love the cinema, Federico Fellini may well hold answers to these really big questions and more, answers that lie scattered all over the place throughout the brilliant films by this great auteur. Just begin with the simple proposition that nothing happens in a Fellini film except the glorious messiness of life– an uncanny, sometimes ambrosial whirl of images and sensations. Then sit mesmerized in the dark and live in a world so unique that it equals– and often rivals– that of any shelf of literature.

Then set aside that dreary three-act screenplay approach to film and living. For Fellini, it doesn’t exist. It’s witless, artificial and irrelevant. Second, drop all intellectual and aesthetic pretense; what you think is true, real and beautiful doesn’t matter. What matters is Fellini. Fight him and you’ll walk away disappointed. Let him play out his world for you– and you’ll be a part of it forever. And believe that his point of view is nothing less than true.
The key to a film like 8 1/2— and to the magical score by Nino Rota– is whimsy, with more than a few loose screws rattling around, both on the screen and in Rota’s orchestral narrative. Awesome is a word so overused now; with 8 1/2, its literal meaning richly applies again. There nothing cinematically– and orchestral– less than awesome working here in a story about a film director who has come, literally and symbolically to the end of his rope, where dangling bodes more genuine sensation and thrill than making movies– or doing anything else.

The music mirrors all that throughout. Rota’s work is a rope for 8 1/2, a giddy, comical, filmusic romp, deliberately snide in its “intellectual” misuse of trite classical music and viciously funny as in a Lotta Lenya-like warble that plays out in Guido’s first floor of women where those who have been around too long are sent to the attic, banished from his fantasies, daydreams and distracted reality.
The music is also about a sort of stream of consciousness that is buoyed by Rota’s freefall playfulness. Rota is as bold as Fellini and this great film, after the two worked together in the classic La Dolce Vita, La Strada, Il Bidone and others, marries one great artist with the other, and allows Fellini a true– and very personal– collaborator.
A new DVD release of 8 1/2 (Citerion EIG020) is a testament to this creative partnership. A second DVD in this sumptuous presentation features a documentary about Rota and offers an excellent overview of this European maestro of the soundstage.

Recommended listening: 8 1/2 (CAM CSE012); La Dolce Vita (CAMCSE009) and La Dolce Vita: The Symphonic Rota (Silva SSD1024). The latter compilation is an excellent catalogue and introduction to Rota’s works with Fellini.

* John Wayne Country, Pilgrim: Aside from being a perennial superstar John Wayne was also a savvy producer, tapping most often two composers with very different styles for his many films. His first collaborator was Dimitri Tiomkin. Then came Elmer Bernstein. Both had a reel affinity for the Duke and each composed some of the most memorable titles of their careers for Wayne. Like Tiomkin, Bernstein captured the rhythm and drama of Wayne’s persona. Both composers were deft in the use of musical idioms common to the Hollywood western. For Tiomkin, The Alamo certainly comes to mind; and for Bernstein, Big Jake, a new limited release from the ever stalwart Prometheus label (PCR512). The story of a kidnapping and rescue at the waning of the old West, Big Jake displays poignant themes of old age, a yearning for what might have been as well as what Sam Peckinpah once framed as a need to enter your own house justified. Elmer Bernstein responded with one of his best scores for John Wayne, heroic, epic– and even poetic. With Big Jake, Bernstein also began a subtle infusion of contemporary idiom into the Wayne persona, which finally crystallized in his last score for the Duke, The Shootist. Big Jake is robustly complex, and at times, edgy, different from those innocent, early westerns that Bernstein trademarked in his formative years. This Hollywood maestro never fails to please and has never lost his sense of drama and showmanship, nor has he lost his appreciation for the many of us who admire his works. Big Jake is an excellent production of a score long over due on the shelf of classic westerns. Kudos all `round for those involved.
* The Black Stallion/The Black Stallion Returns, composed by–respectively– Carmine Coppola and Georges Delerue (Prometheus PCD 151) A winning production of these romantic scores, both on one CD. In quality, the nod goes to Delerue but both scores are faithful toto this boyhood romance of a black stallion who knows no boundaries.
* The Last Castle composed & conducted by Jerry Goldsmith (Decca 440016193) continues the devolution of Jerry Goldsmith from first tier filmusic maestro to one of the great cultural factories of Hollywood. His genius is almost peerless; how he applies it is open to debate. Or is it lamentation? It’s as though he’s two composers, perfectly embodying Then and Now. Then was a long time ago and Now, is well, sadly, now. It’s a long time between the two and if ever there was a contrast in quality it’s in Goldsmith’s music which so perfectly mirrors the essence of what Hollywood has become. Back then, it was entertainment trying hard to be something more, now it’s nothing much and very proud of it. But Goldsmith is still very much somebody and his music some thing– and some thing never to be dismissed out of hand. The music is just not what it should be, especially to those of us who truly know his talent and know his music– and stand in awe of his genius. The Last Castle is the equivalent of the old kitschy paint by numbers kits. This is music by the numbing numbers, a quality that fulfils its blissful function as an underscore– very similar to what BVDs do for some of us– but the fanfares that once lingered on in Patton have become empty and meaningless here with the Last Castle. Yet, there is achievement with this score. Goldsmith and Hans Zimmer have converged and surely that sets some sort of standard for the art of filmusic. Well, doesn’t it? Yeah. Right.
* Spartacus-Lite: Some insiders are gossiping about Varese Sarabande setting aside release of the master tapes of Alex North’s masterpiece, Spartacus, in favor of rerecording a Reader’s Digest sort of version, conducted by Jerry Goldsmith. The rerecording will be in glorious digital sound and the mastering, if this CD continues the tradition of previous releases, will sound like slow-motion in an old warehouse. For those who don’t know the score to Spartacus and have never seen the film, this bids to be some sort of audiophile-ick, middlebrow experience, the same thrill that some find in buying a Rolex knockoff in downtown Tijuana. Also, some even say that Hawaii is on the way, not the old LP masters but, you know, something better and it will be longer, very long.
* What’s that noise? A sort of rip-tide is occurring in filmusic; it happened after Stars Wars when Williams and Goldsmith seemed to merge into one sort of musical style (Willgold or was it Will Smith?). The sound of filmusic was different from film to film but nearly the same. This music wrapped around any scene and was as utilitarian as a pan-and-scan of a widescreen release on TeeWee. It was the Iron Age of Filmusic as temp trax ruled and music that meant little and said less was cut and pasted to anything that ran through a movieola.
Now comes the Paleolithic Age of Filmusic where composers try hard to imitate James Horner and Horner tries hard, with variable success, to be, well, James Horner (unless you happen to be Hans Zither, er, Zimmer, who has a lock on Ridley Scott movies.)
That said, what I’ve done here is a collective review of scores that are collectively more or less the same thing.
Earning first place on the roster of new Hornies is Rachael Portman for Hart’s War (Decca4400168862), a rare opportunity for any composer: a WWI movie, a POW movie and, one that was naturally heroic. A exceptional opportunity for Portman, who is surely the darling of Hollywood these days for a number of reasons– promising talent– and a gender blessing to be a woman in a profession peopled by mean ol’men. What more could you ask? Better music, actually, music that was dramatic, engaging and sounded like Portman instead of James Horner. The problem these days is, no one really knows what Portman sounds like. Oh, yes, it’s pretty– unquestionably– but where’s the signature and personality, the sense of mastery of drama and action that a film like this demands? No, it doesn’t have to sound like Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent The Great Escape, or those tearing snare drums of Franz Waxman’s sparse Stalag 17. But it should have some sense of the artist behind the notes, up before the orchestra, holding the baton and working the down beats. It should have that. But it doesn’t. This filmusic is as anonymous as a perfectly wrought “Kilroy” graffiti on a supply car rolling through war-torn France on a late afternoon in December, 1944– a retread of emotion and geography patrolled by Saving Private Ryan and In Country. Here is a perfect example of a talented person in need of a individual voice and musical signature. Buckle down and get to work, Ms. Portman. If you need scores to listen to and hear what I’m talking about, a list is available.
Is John Williams in dire danger of becoming a filmusic windbag? A sort of C. Aubrey Smith of filmusic? Harry Potter proves that his tenure at the Boston Pops lives on. It whoops, it whooshes, it’s wistful and, yes, magical. And marketable. This is a classic example of a low-end Mercedes that runs on regular. Nice to drive but you wish had the big car.
* Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings by Howard Shore. This is better than Harry Potter, a rich full blooded score that has no sense of themes, no dramatic center where great music revolves around and draws you inside for a spirit-shaking dramatic experience. There’s a lot of great techniques flying around for the hell of it and producing the grand illusion of something big. Still, it’s pretty and pretty good for what it is. As an aside, it’s difficult for me to accept the fact that some story about Frogo or whoever he is and his friends pursued by evil wizards or whatever is a sort of El Cid for many of today’s young movie goers. What can I say?
* A Beautiful Mind composed and conducted by James Horner (Decca44016191-2)is a beautiful score that has a sense of personality and identity, despite some obvious relationship to, say, John Williams. If anything, Horner is a sort of musical chameleon who, when the omens are right, can serve up a pleasant, if not inspiring listen. And this is the case with A Beautiful Mind which beautifully serves a beautiful movie. In a way, it actually helps to support Ron Howard’s seamless technical mastery as a director. Surely Howard has done that often, particularly with Apollo 13. With A Beautiful Mind, his technical skills have been burnished to a real sense of humanity by a surprising– and welcome– show of heart. This film may well be the first great film by a director who may himself yet earn a mantle of greatness. It’s a process worth watching. Horner seems to be his musical ego and this may help the composer as well. Creative partnerships with director and composer have worked before.
* The Shipping News, composed & conducted by Christopher Young; An adult score that showcases Young’s vibrant talents as filmusic composer. This Golden Globe nominee for best score, is Celtic in flavor and one of the best of the year, particularly in terms of listen ability. Also, Young has been elected President of The Film Music Society, headquarter in Tinseltown. He succeeds Elmer Bernstein, who served in that post for the past five years.

* The World, the Flesh & the Devil composed and conducted by Miklos Rozsa (Tickertape tt3018) One of the best mastered of the Rozsa scores from the the 1950s that I have ever heard. The great maestro wasn’t sure what this oddball, sfi-sort-of-film was about– and neither were audiences. So he somewhat ignored it and composed a grand, noir-ish symphony that rattles the imagination and emotions with a roundhouse of memorable Rozsa-isms. Overlooked for decades, this brilliant score was a part of that prolific maelstrom that netted so many great scores– among them Ben-Hur as well as concert works. It was a time when Rozsa’s titanic energy seemed inexhaustible. A musical event, bristling with the sort of dramatic tension that marks Double Indemnity.
* Black Hawk Down composed by Hans Zimmer (Decca440017012) A compelling score inside this masterful document of war and death, it tends to play as a source music compendium outside the film. That’s not to say there’s nothing to listen to here. In many ways, it reminds me of Peter Gabriel’s score for The Last Temptation of Christ.
* Way Out West, a 2CD compilation from Silva Screen (FilmXO356) The titles read like a roster of great western scores. And they are. Some performances are better than others but the set merits affection, particularly for a short suite from George Dunning’s The Big Valley; Jerome Moross’s Jayhawkers; Bernstein’s The Shootist and Percy Faith’s The Virginian .
* Focus, composed and conducted by Mark Adler (composer promo). An affecting, wistful score that evokes the atmosphere of Arthur Miller’s fable about anti-Semitism.
* Fear Strikes Out (Soundtrack Library CD69); A Walk in the Spring Rain & Gypsy Moths (Quality Sound CD008) all composed & conducted by Elmer Bernstein. These are some of the most beautiful scores created by Elmer Bernstein. Fear Strikes Out, the story of a legendary baseball player’s bout with mental illness brims with Americana and drama. A Walk in the Spring Rain is a part of the same world that embraces To Kill a Mockingbird and Summer & Smoke. But in the end, for me, Gypsy Moths comes back again and again. This short, lonely– and at times swaggering work about skydivers and death is a perfect example of Bernstein’s enduring genius. Somewhere I still have my thumb-worn copy of James Drought’s short existential novel about three men running on empty, drifting through the heartland of America and finding love that dies, all within the framework of skydiving. John Frankenheimer was in rare form back then, coaxing brilliant performances from Burt Lancaster, Debra Kerr, Gene Hackman and a young, winning Scott Wilson. In the end though, it’s Bernstein’s music that I remember best– and always. The main title, with its solo trumpet, is a fluid, almost dreamlike evocation of driving endless highways going nowhere; the skydiving sequences are a mocking, circus-like heroism that ultimately billows emptiness as beautiful as the inside of a falling silk parachute; and the heartbreakingly sad love themes are some of the very best the maestro has ever written. Gypsy Moths is one of my favorite scores. These two CDs are extremely difficult to find.
* Benjamin Frankel- Music for the Movies: The Importance of Being Earnest, Wernas Andreas Albert conducting the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (CPO99809-2) This is a flawlessly performed compilation that features a filmusic classic– the entire 25-minute score to John Huston’s Night of the Iguana. The music is adult, subtle and always exact in eliciting emotion and intellect. In short, it’s the perfect companion to Alex North’s work for Huston’s Under the Volcano. Night of the Iguana alone is worth the price of this CD. Other titles are included and are extremely good, though suffering from the actual format of the CD, the dreaded compilation where less is not more and often you’re left wanting more than just brief suites. Still, this is a major addition to the shelf of fine filmusic, a CD to be listened to not once, but many times. A rare find and hopefully, a sign of more music by Frankel to come.
* Hammer: The Studio that Dripped Blood, various composers (Silva Screen FILMXCD357) Horror in the movies is a Victorian concept, Variations on the themes are constantly updated but the basic concepts of a fright fest are grounded in works by Stoker, Shelly and others who, if not inventing the genre, codified it. Embodying (!) all that were Hammer Films, where all the heroines were gorgeous, the Heroes literate and handsome and the music– extraordinary. This 2CD features Chris Young, Christopher Gunning, Carlo Martelli and others. And of course, the incomparable James Bernard, the great maestro of horror films. The result? A blockbuster set that never fails to please throughout. Highly recommended.
Purely personal prejudices: The continuing release of classic scores merits praise. But there’s a tendency to not do enough to make these scores sound the very best they can. In fact, some releases have sounded more like bootique CD recordings– which have been roundly condemned in some offending circles– instead of excellent releases from the master tapes.
Make no mistake about it: good intentions don’t cover up sloppy mastering. That bugaboo of filmusic, the distortions called “wow” by tech-heads, can often be remedied by some work in the lab. And if that’s too expensive, there are more than a few collectors, with high-powered computers and sophisticated music editing programs, who can fix the woes of “wow”.
But apparently producers who are mired in paranoia and egocentricity ignore that help. I’ve received a number of e-mail complaints about these releases. And customers are increasingly angry about having to buy a product– and then fix it before it sounds like it should. A word to the wise: well, you know should carry a little wisdom.
Until next time… A promise that next time will be sooner, rather than later.

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