5 days ago
Friday, December 20, 2013
Merry Christmas, everybody. My gift to myself this year is to free myself from the alphabetical format that I imposed at the outset of this blog, because frankly, It's been holding me back from talking about some of the scores I'd really love to dive into.
So, with that, I give you John Barry's Medieval-ish masterpiece, The Lion in Winter. It's a cracking good and seriously atypical score from the composer best known for the swinging sounds of James Bond or the lyrical grace of Out of Africa. It's especially relevant at the moment, as it of course stars the late, great Peter O'Toole, along with Katharine Hepburn and a young supporting cast chock full of future superstars.
Bad Cheer for Christmas
The Lion in Winter is relevant, too, for its holiday season setting. I've mentioned before that my wife and I have a taste for "alternative" film offerings around Christmastime. Sure, we love White Christmas and It's a Wonderful Life and all that, but it's even more fun to approach the holiday season from a slightly different angle, and The Lion in Winter definitely gives us the opportunity to do that.
Based on the stage play by James Goldman, The Lion in Winter takes an anachronistically arch look at the family of King Henry II of England in the 12th century C.E. With its broadsword-sharp dialogue (rapiers hadn't been invented yet) and diabolical dysfunction, it plays as though Edward Albee were suddenly dropped into the Middle Ages - Who's Afraid of Thomas Becket, perhaps?
Part of the deliberate anachronism of the story is its conflation of contemporary Christmas traditions with the Medieval story - the story takes place during King Henry's "Christmas court" at Chinon, deep in the heart of France. (The rulers of England at the time, of course, were Norman French who spent a good deal of their time in their home country. In fact, King Richard the Lion-hearted - Henry's son, brilliantly played by young Anthony Hopkins in this film - is said to have despised England and vastly preferred living in France, when he wasn't leading Crusades. So much for his legendary status as an English monarch.) There's a Christmas tree, characters wrap gifts for each other, etc.
Carols of Cruelty
Why is all this relevant to the score? Well, John Barry gets into the spirit by wrapping his Medieval-inspired score around some new-old Christmas carols that he wrote himself, but sound suitably ancient to have been sung by characters in this cold world where even kings have to wash their faces with freezing water in the morning. Barry himself, in the soundtrack album's original liner notes, mentions the influence of Gregorian chant and Medieval religious texts on the evolution of the score, but listening closely, one realizes that the organizing theme might just be the merry Christmas music that the characters themselves sing.
Two of the carols themselves are put into the mouth of Alais, the most innocent and optimistic character in the play -- Henry's adopted ward and lover -- within the film itself. (Hey, I mentioned this was a seriously dysfunctional family.) They're included on the album, a little disappointingly, performed by a full chorus. "The Christmas Wine" (Track 5) has English lyrics but a French sensibility, hinting naughtily at the joys that Alais finds in Christmas with Henry:
The Christmas wine is in the pot,
The Christmas coals are red.
I spend my day the lover's way,
Unwrapping all my gifts in bed.
It's sweetly sexy, just like Alais herself, but like everything else in the film, rubs salt in a particular wound of the main characters: Henry II and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, generously released from prison in the Tower of London to join the Christmas court. They fight tooth and nail, both personally and politically, but have a depth of bizarre love and understanding of one another that drives all the conflict of the story. Henry's choice of Alais as his consort in her absence is especially galling to Eleanor, who raised the girl practically as her own daughter. So, even this little ditty has claws, which Alais digs subtly but keenly into Eleanor by singing it in her presence in the film's most intimate scene between the two women.
Allons Gai Gai Gai
Another carol somewhat unexpectedly forms a lot of the dramatic propulsion of Barry's score. "Allons Gai Gai Gai" (Track 3) is a very simple little tune in French, roughly translated to, "Let's go, joyfully." Again, Alais sings it near the beginning of the film, tossing it off absent-mindedly in a moment of relative peace and bliss, but its tune haunts the rest of the score. Quite frankly, I just noticed this connection while listening to the album last night, and it hit like a lightning bolt. Of course Barry would use a corruption of the melody of a simple little song to underscore the perverse power struggles inside this corrupt royal family.
The melody, in fact, opens the entire film, in modified form as a strident fanfare in the main title sequence (Track 1). There are lyrics to this piece as well, but they're as far away from "Let's go, joyfully" as it's possible to get. An ominous organ propels a menacing chorus singing a Latin text about "dies irae" - the day of wrath when God will judge everyone at the end of the world. (The very same text was also set to music by British composer Benjamin Britten just a few years before this score was written.) Meanwhile, the credit sequence shows us close-ups of sinister gargoyles and angels in a dark Gothic cathedral, hammering home a dark and fatalistic tone that hangs over this twisted tale, which is designated as a "comedy" by its author.
Of course, it is darkly funny that a lighthearted folk melody should come to accompany an apocalyptic chorus, which I think is the entire point behind Barry's thematic tapestry. The same theme emerges in different forms and tones throughout the film, most notably in "God Damn You" (Track 6), underscoring Henry's heartbreak at his apparent betrayal by all three of his living sons, each of whom is jockeying for political gain at the expense of the others in his own way. The melody is taken up by cellos in a melancholy mood as Henry wanders the castle, stunned and despondent. Wordless male voices hint at his roiling anger as the camera suddenly leaps into the air to show a God's eye view of Henry - looking down in judgment and wrath.
By the end of the film, however, the "Allons Gai Gai Gai" melody has assumed a more hopeful tone, as the events of the Christmas court draw to a close ("We're Jungle Creatures," Track 12) and Henry bids his wife a strangely fond farewell - strange because he's sending her back to prison, all the while shouting his love for Eleanor. "I should have been a great fool not to love you," Eleanor says in reply. The music stirs and we get a triumphant send-off worthy of the greatest adventure epic, ecstatic chorus and all. This is another bit of sardonic humor, but not without plenty of genuine warmth and affection for these broken characters. After all the back-biting, scheming, manipulation, and outright assaults of everyone on everyone else, we're right back where we started, with two remarkable people on a journey who love each other in spite of - and perhaps because of - their bitter feuding.
And everything else . . .
There's so much more to say about a score like this. At the time of its composition, Barry was by far best known for his jazzy, hip scores for the James Bond series, so this seemed like a serious left turn, but in fact Barry describes it as a "labor of love." Indeed, there are hints of the lyrical beauty and stylistic signatures of much of his later work deep within the score to The Lion in Winter - Eleanor's elegant arrival in a royal barge (Chinon/Eleanor's Arrival, Track 2), as shimmering and resplendent as the Queen herself on her floating throne. Even the chorus can't restrain its enthusiasm, singing in Latin, "Eleanore, Reginae Anglorum, Salus et vita." -- "To Eleanor, Queen of the English, health and life." It's ironic again in its beauty and grace, accompanying what amounts to a royal prisoner transfer - but you can hear in it many of the hallmarks of Barry's later romantic scores. Broad chords, languorous melody, accompanied by high-flying solo trumpet, English horn, and other embellishments - even a church bell. There are echoes of this in dreamy works like Out of Africa or Dances with Wolves.
Darker traces of Medieval life creep around the dark and dusty corners of the castle constantly. Among the Medieval texts from which Barry borrowed was a single phrase, "Media vita in morte sumus" - "In the midst of life we are in death." Barry deploys this toward the tense ending of the drama, when it seems for a moment that all three of Henry's sons may rise up against their father (Track 11). This one phrase brings home the theme of divine judgment, but also the nasty, brutish, and short nature of Medieval life (Henry, at age 50, says, "I'm the oldest man I know"), and the constant threat of assassination faced by kings in a brutal age. Being a king in the 12th century meant essentially being a warlord or gangster, powerful only so long as you couldn't be bested by someone with a bigger or better army. It brings the entire film hurtling to a point of seemingly apocalyptic crisis, before the tension subsides.
If you've never seen The Lion in Winter before, do yourself a favor and check it out. You needn't know anything about history to enjoy it; the whole story is self-contained and marvelous. Despite its darkness and soul-baring conflict, it's often howlingly funny -- and of course, it's propelled by an unusually beautiful and intelligent score. It's a good check against whatever family drama you might be facing at the holidays. No matter how hard it gets, you're probably not going to end up at the business end of a dagger over who gets to inherit Grandma's china. And you'll have an endless source of wonderfully vicious quotes to pull if it does get nasty. As Henry says, "What shall we hang? The holly, or each other?"
Thursday, October 31, 2013
I'm writing this time about Bram Stoker's Dracula, because it can be plausibly said to start with "B" and it's one of my very favorite scores of all time in any genre. It is an unquestionable success that arose from a film with quite a few questionable elements. I've actually been familiar with the score for much longer than I've been familiar with the film, which probably accounts for some of my great affection for it.
I first became familiar with this wonderfully varied and passionate music through another classic monster, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I my sophomore year of high school, we produced a stage version of Frankenstein that featured some of the most impressive technical work you could ever witness on a high school stage, or anywhere else for that matter. We had a platform for the Creature that rose into the air, glowing laboratory equipment, a very loud array of dramatic sound effects, and a wild variety of music, including the ever popular "O Fortuna" chorus from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. (I've actually written about this production before, when I dealt with Alexander Nevsky. Clearly, it carved a pretty important place into my memory.) Our director complemented this with some music from Wojciech Kilar's Dracula score, which was just a couple of years old at the time.
It turned out to be a perfect accompaniment to the searing drama and bombast of the likes of Carl Orff, but also a nice lyrical counterpoint for some of the quieter and more romantic scenes of Frankenstein. (As it happens, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein got its own epic film treatment the same year we performed our Frankenstein. It was a similarly weird mixture of overwrought bluster and fascinating treatment of the original literature, with a similarly excellent score that outshone its source material. More on that another time.) I asked to borrow the CD from the director when we were finished with the show, copied it to a cassette on my handy CD jukebox, and listened to it quite a lot thereafter.
Finally, the film
It took me a long time to get to Francis Ford Coppola's bizarre fever-dream of a film after that, and in the meantime, I actually read Bram Stoker's original novel and formed my own images in my mind, accompanied by Kilar's music. By the time I got to the actual film Bram Stoker's Dracula, Kilar's score and the character of the Romanian count had formed a tight bond in my mind.
As such, I was bound to be disappointed by Coppola's version, and I was, at first. The novel evokes such an expansive and evocative setting that Coppola's deliberate artifice and soundstage-bound settings seemed limited to me - then there were the several examples of tortured miscasting among the actors, none more embarrassing than Keanu Reeves' Jonathan Harker. Reeves is so wooden that the other actors could have driven him straight through Dracula's heart and ended the story a lot earlier, and his feeble attempt at an English accent makes Kevin Costner's Robin Hood sound like a masterpiece of vocal artistry. But the music held my attention and held the whole film together with a solid and satisfying emotional arc. It prompted me to come back and revisit the film later, and I've since come to regard it much more highly, even though I still believe it has very deep flaws.
Love Never Dies
The lyrical heart of Wojciech Kilar's score is rooted in a love theme for Dracula and Mina, who in this version may very well be a reincarnation of the medieval warlord Vlad Dracul's beloved wife Elizabeta. This yearning minor-key theme is repeated and varied throughout the film, changing instrumentation frequently to evoke a range of feelings from haunted dread to passionate eroticism to spiritual salvation. This theme emerges first from quiet strings into a haunting, lonely solo soprano in "Mina's Photo" (Track 3), but quickly passes back to violins to begin to hint at the yearning in the undead prince's cold heart. Later, a different solo instrument, the flute, picks up the melody in "Love Remembered" (Track 7), with a gentler, Debussy-like accompaniment of strings and harp underscoring the growing attraction of Mina to Dracula and the excitement of gentler passions in the monster's heart.
The theme reaches its lushest and most tragic realization in "Mina/Dracula" (Track 11), in which the melody is taken up by low strings that simultaneously produce great warmth, but whose rumbling and scratching hints at the doomed nature of Mina and Dracula's love, even as the English horn and flute reclaim the melody with increasing desperation and a romantic piano enters and builds to a crescendo in the high strings. The dexterity and smoothness with which Kilar builds a romantic passage out of essentially one repeated melody is breathtaking, and the moment at which a French horn enters (around 3:42) to express a variation of the theme sounds like a cry of pain and longing, before the melody transmutes once again into chords which suggest deep spiritual and religious faith - an important point to emphasize in a story about a man whose centuries-long curse is the direct result of renouncing God because of his wife.
By the time this love theme reaches the end of the story, in "Love Eternal" (Track 13), its mood is mournful rather than romantic, shared among peaceful strings and an angelic choir which sings this not-so-sweet prince to his rest - the dream is lost even as Dracula's evil is dispelled.
Tellingly, the main theme for Bram Stoker's Dracula, which symbolizes the vampire himself, is based on the same chord progression as the Dracula/Mina love theme, revealing musically the very heart of the production - love transforming a man into a monster, and eventually, back again through death and transfiguration.
The score to Bram Stoker's Dracula also features some more traditional thrills. The opposing force to Dracula's evil is represented simply by a brash ostinato for the "Vampire Hunters" (Track 2), a relentlessly driving charge that underscores (literally!) the coalition of Dr. Van Helsing and the young men who hunt down the evil monster and eventually do him in. This appears in various guises and instrumentation throughout, but always the very same strident rhythm. I wonder if it doesn't also highlight the fact that the trio of young suitors to Lucy who become the vampire hunters are all a bit "one-note" anyway, more types than actual characters - the priggish nobleman, the tough Texan with the big knife, the sensitive doctor - but I'm not sure if this is intentional or just a side effect of being paired with the acting in the movie, which with the exception of Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins (and a delicious Tom Waits cameo), is mostly just embarrassing.
There's some good old fashioned terror, too, and Kilar uses creative layering of clashing musical elements to create jarring effects in several tracks. The combination of live playing and studio mixing is especially effective in "The Storm" (Track 6), when a pretty melody on bells and piano is played in several overlapping tempos to create a disorienting and hallucinatory effect, before trombones break in to present the approaching menace of the doomed ship carrying Dracula in a dreadful storm. Additional layers of a soaring ghostly female voice, the barking and snarling brass, determined low piano, and the occasional return of a queasy version of the previous pretty melody create a pit of mounting dread. The crowning terror comes from a chanting male choir who sings, "SANGRIS VITA EST" - the blood is the life - over and over, culminating in a full choir statement of the swelling melody and dissolving into moans and screams, as though the entire orchestra and choir itself were on board the ship as it ran aground. (I recently acquired a CD of a re-recording of parts of the Dracula score along with some other Kilar pieces, and the choir on this number ends up singing far too politely to create the terror-stricken sound that the composer clearly intended. Sometimes you just have to throw away the score and get wacky.)
Wojciech Kilar is pretty well-known in his native Poland as both a classical and film composer, and has worked with some of the most notable names in Polish and international cinema, including fellow Pole Roman Polanski. He's never become quite as popular here, sadly, and despite having won numerous awards, hasn't ever won an Oscar. I wonder if that's simply because too few people in AMPAS can figure out how to pronounce his name. He's composed other wonderful scores, including The Portrait of a Lady, The Ninth Gate, Death and the Maiden, and The Pianist, and I'm very happy that I've been able to collect some of these as well as his classical works. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's newest music director, Krzysztof Urbanski, a fellow Pole, delighted me in one of his first concerts in town by playing a concert suite of some of Kilar's music. I hope to hear more of it. Meanwhile, if you're looking for some great mood music for your Halloween hauntings, you could do much worse than Bram Stoker's Dracula.
Friday, March 22, 2013
Hello again. It's been a few weeks.
At this point you probably expect that any time I say I'm going to be back very soon, I'll be absent for a while. That's the trouble with having a job working for a very small company - I never quite know when I'm just going to be swamped for a while.
Also, I was having a little bit of trouble just wrapping my head around how I was going to approach launching into the Battlestar Galactica score albums of Bear McCreary. Sometimes writing about scores I love is the most challenging task of all, because I either have to scratch my head to come up with something that won't just sound like Chris Farley's fawning celebrity interviewer from Saturday Night Live, or I have so very much to say about the subject that I fear starting it, because I know that I will then need to unleash a torrent of words that may take me quite some time to finish. The McCreary Battlestar scores definitely fall into the latter category.
Revisiting the Master
So, I'm shifting gears completely and talking about a completely different album, an anthology of music from Stanley Kubrick films. It's called Dr. Strangelove: Music from the Films of Stanley Kubrick. When I'm low on inspiration, I find it's a good idea to revisit the artists who inspire me, and nobody inspires me quite like Kubrick.
The title of this album is a bit misleading, since it has very little actual music from Dr. Strangelove, and that's an odd movie to choose for a showcase of Kubrick film music anyway, since Strangelove is the least interesting of Kubrick's films from a musical perspective. Maybe Silva Screen records, which produced this album, just had access to a nice cheap stock photo of a B-52 or something. Anyway, I didn't know quite where to put it - D for Dr. Strangelove? K for Kubrick? Neither seems quite right. So I'm putting it here. It's my blog, dang it.
Anyway, this album is a pretty interesting collection of re-recorded music from Kubrick's entire filmography up to the spring of 1999, performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, which has carved a niche for itself as the preeminent ensemble for film music projects. Hey, somebody's got to do it, and they're pretty darn good at it. It's remarkably comprehensive - in fact, the only film not represented from Kubrick's filmography is Eyes Wide Shut (which was released later in 1999).
A Grab-Bag Anthology
As with most anthologies, the result is a mixed bag of selections. Kubrick was famous for having extremely wide-ranging musical tastes, and a knack for selecting interesting and unusual music for his films. As such, there's a pretty wide variety of music on this album, from Johann Strauss's "Blue Danube" waltz (Track 17 - from 2001: A Space Odyssey, of course) to "Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen (Track 7 - used in Full Metal Jacket).
There was a period of time during which Kubrick was very interested in electronic music, from the likes of pioneers like Wendy Carlos and others, and it is in those selections that this album underperforms. Each of the electronic selections, from Carlos' synthesizer version of Beethoven's Ode to Joy (Track 3 - from A Clockwork Orange) to her theme from The Shining (Track 14) is performed apparently by a single artist with a synthesizer, and the result is uninspired and anemic. The electronic music from Full Metal Jacket, by Abigail Mead, wasn't even very interesting in the film in the first place. I usually skip right over those.
It is in the full orchestra performances that this collection truly hits its stride. The City of Prague Philharmonic delivers a suitably speaker-rattling rendition of Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra (Track 1), which is German for Also Known as the Theme from 2001. Alex North's bold, modern, rhythmically complex theme from Spartacus (Track 2) is given grand treatment, and selections from Barry Lyndon (Tracks 4 and 5) probably pack the strongest emotional punch -- appropriate, as Barry Lyndon is arguably Kubrick's most nakedly emotional film. (Yes, a film with a blackly satirical edge counts as nakedly emotional for Kubrick. :-))
Deep Fried Film Music
The greatest treasure this disc has to offer, though, is a suite of compositions by composer Gerald Fried, who worked on no fewer than five films with Kubrick when they were both in their early careers. Fried is a rough contemporary of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith (actually, Mr. Fried is about four years older than Williams), and like them, he worked quite frequently in television in the 1950s and '60s. He even worked on some of the same shows as Williams, including Lost in Space and Gilligan's Island. Later on, he collaborated with Quincy Jones on the score to Roots. Among geeks everywhere, though, Gerald Fried's best-known work is undoubtedly the fight scene music he wrote for the 1967 Star Trek episode "Amok Time" (which was then used over and over again in future Trek episodes). You'll recognize it instantly, I guarantee . . .
Before even that, though, Fried scored the first four feature films of Stanley Kubrick. He was a high school classmate of Kubrick's from the Bronx, and at least for a while it seemed that they had a good enough relationship that Kubrick trusted him as a collaborator. After 1961's Lolita, scored by pop producer Nelson Riddle (main theme on Track 16), Kubrick never went back to Fried. I don't really know why, and not much has ever been said or written about their relationship, to the best of my knowledge. Maybe Kubrick just graduated into more lavish productions, or perhaps his musical conversion into the later-career experimenter had already begun. One way or the other, though, they went their separate ways, Kubrick to legendary status as one of the greatest directors of all time, Fried to a respectable, arguably under-appreciated, but never quite A-list career as a working composer.
The wonderful thing about this recording is that we get to hear fully orchestrated, high-quality recordings of Fried's scores to these films, none of which to my knowledge has ever had a full score release. Fried personally supervised the recording of this six-track suite (Tracks 8-13), and it is a revelation.
In the liner notes of this CD, Fried himself speaks of his preoccupation with themes of power in his early work, and it shows in the often raucous, bold, modern music on display here. Lots of brass, syncopated rhythms, and unusual orchestration put Fried's music squarely in the millieu of mid-20th century composers (territory that Alex North also occupied quite boldly). Given the martial and crime-related themes of Kubrick's early work, Fried had plenty of opportunity to experiment with his fantasies of power, and to give them a stylish, melodramatic edge.
A case in point is the piece rather awkwardly titled "Murder 'Mongst the Mannequins" (Track 9) from the climactic sequence of Kubrick's second feature, the gritty pot-boiler thriller Killer's Kiss. An array of percussion, strings and woodwinds passes a minor-key melody around the orchestra in an uneasy passacaglia before graduating into a strident full-on march as the action intensifies into a full-on fight. (I won't give away what's actually happening in the film here. You should watch it. You'll thank me.)
In the same vein, the main theme from The Killing (Track 8) charges from the gate with a simple, wild, and propulsive brass theme that quickly dissolves into mysterious chords as the film's complex heist plot unfolds. (Here's another film you really should watch. Its two-fisted pulpiness, jarring camera work, and its creative fragmentation of timelines were way, way ahead of Quentin Tarantino - in fact, QT cites it as one of his greatest inspirations.)
The Really Early Days
Two pieces from Kubrick's all-but-forgotten first feature, Fear and Desire (Tracks 10 & 11), really show off both Fried's gutsy and melodramatic side, and his flair for modernistic, sometimes atonal atmospheric work. It's especially fascinating that music from Fear and Desire appears here, since the film itself was long suppressed by Kubrick's own request. The film itself is in many ways a typical experimental student film - which is to say, ambitious but not very good, filmed when Kubrick was still finding his cinematic style and busily emulating others (like Eisenstein). Kubrick's desire to hide it from the public once he grew more famous is understandable, but it's great that we now have it in a high-definition form, if for no other reason than its importance to film history.
But the musical treasures don't even stop there, because Fried also scored Kubrick's very first film, the documentary Day of the Fight, which was a film version of his photo essay "Prizefighter" for Look magazine. The "March of the Gloved Gladiators" cue is a straightforward and testosterone-fueled march, appropriate to its pugilistic subject.
Kubrick . . . and Beyond the Infinite
If you go to the Amazon.com listing for this (now out-of-print) CD, you'll find a lot of reviewers grousing about the fact that the music here is all re-recorded, but the disc is pretty clearly marked with that information, and it's relatively easy to discover that with a once-over of the Amazon page. Caveat emptor, people. But this disc is a rare gold mine for a film score nut like me, since half of the music on it exists in no other form but the unreleased original recordings for Kubrick's earliest films. What a treat!
Monday, January 28, 2013
Let's do a bit of time traveling. Jump forward a quarter of a century from our last entry, and everything has changed - but we're still talking about Battlestar Galactica. Ronald D. Moore's re-imagined rendition of the disco era space opera hit the Sci-Fi Channel in 2003, as a miniseries that would serve as a pilot for an extended regular series that lasted much longer and was much more successful - in every way - than its 1978 ancestor (and its similarly short-lived spinoff, Galactica 1980).
Ron Moore, among his other accomplishments, is a veteran writer of several Star Trek TV incarnations, starting with Star Trek: the Next Generation, and of the best of the big screen adventures with the TNG cast, Star Trek: First Contact. In that context, Moore was able to experiment with what works and what doesn't in sci-fi television with the most successful sci-fi TV franchise of all time. Much of what hit the screen in the 2000s version of Battlestar Galactica seems to be informed at least as much by that experience as by the concept and story of the original Galactica. In some ways, Galactica is the anti-Trek. There are no humanoid aliens with funny foreheads - in fact, there aren't really any aliens at all, in the usual science fiction sense. Space travel is neither comfortable nor convenient, prominent characters die, nobody gets along especially well, and actions in one episode have major consequences that carry through for the rest of the series - even when that sometimes leads to extreme or absurd situations.
The Galactica miniseries of 2003 was a bold opening gambit for such risk-taking storytelling. As a stand-alone story, it's pretty grim, telling the tale of the destruction of the Twelve Colonies of Kobol, home of the entire human race, and all life in the Universe as far as anybody's aware in this world. One inescapable association of this story in 2003, of course, is with the coordinated terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, still pretty fresh in the minds of Americans less than two years later, and certainly on the minds of Moore and the creators of this series. The longer regular series of Battlestar Galactica would go on to become a major exploration of many sensitive and relevant political topics of post-9/11 America, a product of and reflection on its time, in ways that the creators of the original '70s Galactica could never possibly have envisaged.
The Beta version
Of course, as with most pilots, the Galactica miniseries wasn't fully realized right out of the box. There were incomplete or unresolved concepts, story hooks that never quite panned out, and some components that were just later altered or scrapped - some for the better, as in the case of the glowing red spines of the humanoid Cylons in the miniseries, which rather thoroughly defeated the purpose of disguising themselves as human in the first place. One of the incomplete elements, as it would later turn out, was the music.
Just as the plot, characterization, visual style, and long-form storytelling of the 2000s Galactica were a reaction against the more episodic mode of shows like Star Trek, so was the tone of Galactica's music a reaction against the rousing, adventurous, classically inspired musical style of the original Battlestar Galactica and all sorts of sci-fi space adventures since. As lush, Romantic, and classically Western as the original Galactica score was, so would the new Galactica's miniseries music, by Richard Gibbs, become spare, primitive, and internationally flavored,. "Minimalist" is a word that was kicked around a lot to describe the music of the miniseries, though it's not strictly or truly minimalist music, just sparsely orchestrated and thematically simple.
A Mystic Knight
A veteran of the band Oingo Boingo, Richard Gibbs went on to television and film scoring, just like his bandmate Danny Elfman, but without as much prominent success and arguably without quite the same distinctive musical voice. (As it turns out, pretty much every member of Oingo Boingo ended up in the TV/film music business at one point or another, and later seasons of Galactica would showcase their talents.)
To be fair, though, it is a bit difficult to tell exactly what musical gifts or invention Gibbs brings to the table, based only on his score for the Galactica miniseries. Since he was apparently under orders to present a stripped-down, purely functional score for this effort, he had arguably little opportunity to spread his wings as a musician. The fact that I feel compelled to talk about the show more than the music itself - presumably why I'm writing this blog in the first place - is probably a hint as to how I feel about it in comparison to what came later in both the TV series and its music.
Seeds of inspiration
That's not to say that there aren't plenty of worthy musical ideas in this score album - it's just that many of them are very subtly expressed. Some were indeed carried over to the regular series, like the very first sound one hears on this soundtrack - a high-pitched, single note rhythmic motif accompanied by a two-note descending long chord (as heard in Track 1, "Are You Alive?/BSG Main Title," but showcased most completely in "The Sense of Six" (Track 22)). It begins here as a musical signal for the arrival of the sexy, mysterious Cylon Number Six, and it would indeed continue throughout all four seasons of the show, in situations of increasing psychological complexity to accompany several of the many incarnations of Six (including one which may or may not be an angel or a manifestation of madness).
There are also several outstanding moments in the quieter parts of the story, such as a gentle romantic theme called "To Kiss or Not to Kiss (Track 4)." While the melody and themes of this piece are never revisited in the main series' music, the lovely harmonic singing of what I believe to be Sanskrit phrases (I can't find my liner notes right now) presages many such sung passages that would become an integral part of the musical identity of the main series. In fact, "To Kiss or Not to Kiss" may just be the single "five-star" moment in a score that's otherwise quite competent, but unremarkable.
The Shape of Things to Come
Of course, the most important part of this score, and the key to its future evolution of the music of Galactica, is its co-creator, a young composer named Bear McCreary. McCreary was brought on board to assist Gibbs in creating this score on a very short TV schedule, and later got the opportunity to take over the primary scoring duties when Galactica was picked up as a regular series on the Sci-Fi channel.
Did I mention his youth? Bear McCreary is actually my age - and I still consider that pretty young, dammit. As I type this, he's just a few weeks shy of his 34th birthday. If we had gone to school together, he would have been in my class. He grew up in the same pop culture environment I did, with many of the same influences coming at exactly the same time in his life as they did in mine. As such, I feel a kinship and a direct connection with McCreary that I don't with nearly any other composer. Just like me, he loves the sci-fi and fantasy movies of the '70s and '80s, and idolizes composers who defined that era, including John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, and others. (He's even told the story of sneaking a tape recorder in to a screening of Back to the Future when he was about 8 years old with the sole purpose of recording the music.)
Some of that direct connection also comes from McCreary's own extensive engagement with the public through his blog and through social media. So I can say that I actually have directly interacted with him - only by virtue of the fact that he's answered one or two of the comments I've made on his blog, but that's more interaction than I've ever had with any other film or TV composer.
McCreary's nascent musical voice is evident in traces here - he was just 24 when he worked on this pilot, after all. It's most clearly heard in action cues, which usually feature a bare (no pun intended) minimum of orchestration but a whole lot of active percussion from Japanese Taiko drums - the kind popularized by the fantastic Kodo ensemble. There are a few hints of the vocal style he would later employ to great effect that can be heard here as well, thought it is a little difficult to say to what was the result of his input vs. Richard Gibbs here. Those drums would become the foundation of an ever-expanding musical palette that Bear would bring to the table for Galactica and for a growing list of other TV and film projects in the ensuing decade.
Saving some for later
I could continue geeking out about Bear McCreary, but I have four seasons' worth of scores for the regular series of Galactica to write about, so I'll spread out my praise and my thoughts a little bit, so as not to overwhelm now. I can't wait to get to it, so expect Season 1 soon!
Thursday, January 17, 2013
And now we're back, in a new year. I've been spending some quality time with a few new outstanding Christmas gifts, including the box set of Indiana Jones scores, a new release of the Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack that came with the gorgeous 50th-anniversary Blu-Ray set that I received, and the complete edition of Jerry Goldsmith's outstanding score for the not-so outstanding 1994 film The Shadow.
But we'll get to all of those in due time. Meanwhile, we'll revisit some classic sci-fi TV cheese, the 1978 series Battlestar Galactica. This show hit the airwaves on ABC within weeks of my own birthday in that auspicious year, so it's been in the world more or less as long as I have. I like to think, however, that I've aged a little better.
It's not that Galactica is bad - okay, actually, it is bad. The concept is pretty fascinating - the scattered remnants of an entire race on the run in what's left of their space fleet after an army of malevolent robots destroys their home. It's kind of a spacegoing wagon train with none other than Bonanza's Lorne Greene in command, tossed in with some weird religious overtones from the Book of Mormon and plenty of influence from the monster hit of the day, Star Wars. As with many of the products that studios cranked out to cash in on Star Wars hysteria in the late '70s and early '80s, Galactica shared some of the trappings of that pop culture behemoth - including production design input from Star Wars' own conceptual designer, Ralph McQuarrie - but little of its heart and soul.
Obviously the idea had legs, because it was much more successfully and compellingly converted into the Sci-Fi channel (now, ridiculously, "SyFy") TV series of the same name in the 2000s. More on that in future entries. But the short-lived original (just one season and a TV miniseries revival in 1980) was a much messier creature, with most of its plot delivered with a heaping helping of hokum and some ill-advised disco era flourishes to boot.
Everybody Loves Space Opera
One thing the series got right, though - very right - was its music. John Williams' Star Wars score re-introduced a grand orchestral style to Hollywood in a big way, so producers wanted more of that, too. This opened the door for some truly rousing space adventure scores in the following years, from cinema veterans like Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek: The Motion Picture), John Barry (The Black Hole), and even Maurice Jarre (Enemy Mine), not to mention some talented new upstarts like James Horner (Battle Beyond the Stars, Krull, Star Trek II). In the TV world, Stu Phillips was ready to rise to the occasion of a grand space opera in the old Wagnerian tradition.
Never an A-lister for big screen scores, Stu Phillips was* nonetheless a hardworking and versatile composer for television. He supplied music for conventional fare like Quincy M.E. as well as yet another TV space show, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century . . . and my personal favorite, the indelible (and oft-sampled) pulsating theme from Knight Rider.
Battlestar Galactica, though, may constitute Phillips' most sophisticated scoring work overall. The sweeping, upbeat main theme is endlessly anthologized in collections of science fiction scores, but that may actually be the least interesting aspect of the show's scoring. The collection of cues on the 25th anniversary release of the show's score album reveals a versatile and intelligent application of the John Williams-like, classically inspired Hollywood style.
Symphony of a Star World
The Galactica score does supply plenty of cues that are reminiscent of John Williams' orchestral style, not only in the mighty full-orchestra flourishes like the driving string rhythms of "Fighter Launch" (Track 4), but also in its employment of character motifs, and also in its quieter moments. For example, in "Exploration" (Track 2), a contemplative passage for French horns, strings, and celesta (?) comes very close to a Williams-like use of harmony and orchestration, passing the brief melody back and forth between brass and strings.
I initially bought the Galactica score album with that general quality in mind - watching the show, I got an impression that the score was a pretty passable rendition of that Star Wars style; unremarkable, but with enough nostalgia value to be worth owning. Further listening, though, has revealed that there's much more going on here. Stu Phillips is a man who really knows his way around an orchestra, and has plenty of musical invention up his sleeve, drawing from a broad spectrum of influences.
Stu Phillips in the 20th Century!
Many of those influences have more contemporary roots than the 19th-century Romantic style that defined the Star Wars scores. Phillips clearly has some 20th century musical ideas in mind, embedded firmly within the overall structure of the score. Take, for example, the primary theme of and off-kilter orchestration of "Destruction of Peace" (Track 3) - I believe this is, in fact, the theme for the murderous cybernetic Cylons, and indeed, parts of it return in "The Cylon Trap" (Track 9). It's revealed fully in two jaunty, march-like passages in "Destruction of Peace," which shares both its propulsive urgency and unresolved melodic structure with some of Dmitri Shostakovich's more tumultuous symphonic works, which described cataclysmic events in Russian history. Some similarly Shostakovich-like runs can be heard near the beginning of "Dash to the Elevator" (Track 15).
Likewise, I hear possible echoes of Respighi in the brooding track "Suffering" (Track 12); and the brutal, syncopated rhythms of action cues like "End of the Atlantia" (Track 8) and "Escape from the Ovion Mines" (Track 14) call to mind not only Stravinsky, but also fellow film composer Alex North's percussive action style (like Spartacus, not to mention pieces of his unused 2001 score).
Shifting gears, Phillips also provides some beautiful, exotic sounds for the show's romantic or contemplative interludes. The all-too-brief "Cassiopia and Starbuck" (Track 7) a gentle love theme, passes the musical baton between woodwinds, strings, and electronic elements with smooth grace and occasional sparkling flourishes. Likewise, "Adama's Theme" (Track 5) establishes an elegant, haunting musical identity for the embattled Commander with a prominently placed oboe. "The Cylone Base Ship" (Track 6) gets just plain weird, with creepy whistling electronic tones setting an eerie mood for the villains' lair.
A Product of its Time
Of course, Battlestar Galactica was a product of the 1970s, and its connections to the pop culture of the time show through pretty clearly when viewed today, like the Shaun Cassidy haircuts of the hunky male leads - and also on this album, with a couple of truly dreadful disco cues - one a source cue called "The Casino on Carillon (It's Love, Love, Love)" (Track 13) and a regrettable disco arrangement of the main theme, much like Meco's famous (but only slightly less annoying) disco version of the Star Wars theme. The less said about either of those the better. I deliberately skip them every time.
Thanks to the balooning interest in film score collecting, especially among people around my age, there is now an expanded multi-disc set of Phillips' scores to the entire Galactica series. I'm still waffling on whether that investment would be worth it. The quality of this score tempts me, but a fella can only buy so many soundtracks. Besides, we must move on soon to the more recent incarnation of Galactica and its intriguing score . . . Next time.
*It's worth mentioning that Mr. Phillips is still very much alive, but I believe he's retired, or at least not actively scoring for TV or film anymore.
Thursday, December 20, 2012
There's a hilarious moment in David Mamet's film State and Main, when Alec Baldwin crashes a car in which he's driving with an underage girl he's hoping to seduce. After the crash, he staggers out, approaches a pair of eyewitnesses, and deadpans, "So that happened."
That's approximately how I feel about watching the movie Batman Forever. Warner Brothers, apparently wondering how they'd managed to let anything as gleefully transgressive as Batman Returns into theatres, turned over the reins to the franchise to the flamboyant Joel Schumacher in the late '90s, and Batman became silly all over again. Robin comes into the picture, the production design gets slathered with tacky bright colors and neon lighting, Jim Carrey does his rubber-face schtick, and Val Kilmer rather glumly stumbles through the whole endeavor without much of a clue what he's doing. It's a wreck, though compared to its successor in the series, Batman and Robin, it's a bloody masterpiece. There's not much you can say after it's over besides . . . "So that happened."
Meanwhile, Elliot Goldenthal stepped in to replace Danny Elfman and gave the film's score probably more panache and creativity than the film really deserved. Goldenthal, throughout the score to Batman Forever, maintains much of Danny Elfman's Gothic and carnival-like sensibilities, and tosses in an extra dimension of slightly warped film noir to the mix, with frantically wailing trumpets, swinging rhythms, and sultry saxophones.
Of course, Goldenthal can't help tossing in some more of his avant-garde tendencies as well. He's an immensely intelligent and well-educated composer, and if there's one fault that many of his scores share, it's a tendency to be a bit too clever.
For instance, in the off-kilter mini-suite of themes called "Nygma Variations" (Track 6), Goldenthal crams in references not only to his predecessor's carnival style -- a near-perfect rendition of an Elfman-like passage at about the one-minute mark -- but also to some wacky dissonant jazz, and passages reminiscent of John Corigliano, Stravinsky (direct quotes of The Rite of Spring starting around 4:45), Philip Glass, and Bernard Herrmann. There's plenty of mixed-up instrumentation, too - everything from traditional instruments to a Hammond organ, synthesizers, and if I'm not very much mistaken, both a theremin and and Ondes Martenot. And that's all in the space of six minutes! He repeats this trick in "Mr. E's Dance Card" (Track 13), a wild dance which lurches between a louche bossa nova, an unhinged polka, a delicate waltz, and a tango. Other passages in the score seem to owe at least a spiritual debt to Jerry Goldsmith and the Gustavs Holst and Mahler.
A mesmerizing mess
As for Batman's primary musical identity, Goldenthal goes with something that's structurally and melodically similar, but far more complex, than Elfman's main theme. Whereas Elfman's Bat-motif has just six notes, Goldenthal's "Fledermausmarsch" seems to have at least twice as many, combined with a jauntier rhythm and a wide variety of flourishes from every part of the orchestra. As messy as Schumacher's film is, Goldenthal seems to have been let loose to indulge similarly messy impulses, letting his musical imagination run wild over a blacklight-washed canvas of campy, pseudo-Gothic comic book adventure.
Ultimately, the Batman Forever score seems thoroughly stuffed with musical ideas, perhaps more than any single film score can bear. Of course, when one is trying to compete with Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey chewing garish scenery for two hours, one might feel the need to throw as much at the screen as possible, just to get a note in edgewise. It's fun, in a disjointed and frenetic sort of way. That's about all I have to say about it - except that it's better by far, in terms of sheer musical quality, than anything Hans Zimmer turned in for the Christopher Nolan Batman franchise.
Speaking of my old pal Hans, I saw a trailer for the new Zack Snyder Superman movie Man of Steel last weekend. It looked far more impressive than I expected it to be, but then I saw the credit flash by: "Music by Hans Zimmer." My stomach sank. If the music for the trailer is any indication, he's not reaching too deeply into his bag of tricks, either. If Zimmer wasn't right to follow Danny Elfman's lead for the Batman character, he's not worthy to hold John Williams' baton for the Superman character. As a film composer, John Williams is like a sommelier, carefully matching a wine to the meal in ways that will enhance its flavor in a perfect balance, but will knock your socks off by itself, too. Zimmer, by comparison, merely shows up with a case of Bud Light every time. He's thoroughly incapable of coming up with anything as stirring and iconic (or as instantly recognizable) as Williams' Superman theme, and the film will be poorer for it, I think. I hope I'm wrong.
Anyway, enough about superheroes. We're going to space next time. Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.
Friday, November 30, 2012
Now that the holiday season is upon us, it seems fitting to talk (finally) about Batman Returns. It may not be the weirdest or most frightening entry in the alternative holiday genre, but it definitely qualifies as a fun alternative to the standard offerings of Rudolph, Frosty, Ralphie, and George Bailey that you see all over the place this time of year, and it's definitely the weirdest, messiest, Tim Burton-iest title in the Bat's filmography. Heartwarming family fare this ain't.
In fact, you might consider this part of a trilogy of films produced by Tim Burton that deal with Christmas from an outsider's perspective. The others are quite a bit more sweet-natured and heartwarming - those being, of course, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. (Yes, I know Henry Selick actually directed Nightmare.) Burton may as well be a denizen of Nightmare's Halloweentown, since his aesthetic is all ghoulish whimsy and "normal" people really aren't his cup of tea - as demonstrated in his chipper yet biting satire of suburbia in Scissorhands.
Sandwiched in the middle of those bizarre confections is the grim and grisly Batman Returns, which is really terribly nasty in its parody of America's holiday traditions (and thus, of course, unexpectedly wonderful). Rather than ask the question of how this twisted concoction made it to the summer blockbuster season in the first place, we'll just focus on the terrific accompaniment from Danny Elfman.
'Tis the Season for Infanticide
Danny Elfman is on board with the bent anti-Christmas mission from the very beginning, providing a delightfully, dementedly cheerful accompaniment for the opening sequence of the blueblood Cobblepots dumping their deformed penguin baby into the river. A lovely wordless chorus of children cheerfully la-las its way through the off-kilter "Birth of the Penguin, Part 1," (Track 1) rather like a more charming chorus did in Elfman's own Edward Scissorhands the previous year, not to mention John Williams' more conventional employment of children's voices in a mainstream Christmas movie like Home Alone the same year. But of course, neither of those was accompanying an attempted child murder in the middle of a grotesquely landscaped expressionistic zoo.
Of course, the fun and games don't last for too long, and Elfman shifts gears as we watch the Penguin's bassinet float, Moses-like, down the sewer tunnels and he kicks the main Batman theme into high gear ("Birth of the Penguin, Part 2" - Track 2), more expansive and contemplative than we've heard it before - a pipe organ kicks in to back up the grandeur of the theme and the children's voices take on a more ghostly tone as we pause to reflect on how the Penguin's own deprived (and depraved) childhood mirrors the life of our orphaned protagonist, Batman.
The Penguin, the Cat, and the Circus
Once again, Danny Elfman layers the music of the Batman with psychological complexities befitting the outsized neuroses of the main characters of the film. The Penguin gets a stately, though slightly unstable march befitting his girth, his aristocratic heritage, and his grotesque theatricality. Catwoman, Michelle Pfeiffer's deliciously rebellious creation, gets a bag full of mewling strings in a rather obvious, but still effective reflection of both her newly adopted feline identity and the mental problems that may have arisen from a nasty knock in the head. Each of these themes has its place to shine in the soundtrack: The Penguin's march is stated with full weight and solemnity (not without a bit of mockery, though) in "The Cemetery (Track 5)," and a tragic reprise in "The Finale (Track 15)," while Selina Kyle's alter ego has a chance to emerge in full force with the two-part "Selina Transforms" (Tracks 3-4).
Conveniently, these two themes intertwine quite nicely throughout the film as the Cat and the Penguin's paths and plots cross. The real thematic glue of the whole score, however, is the carnival music that surrounds the Penguin's team of henchmen, the Circus Gang. The Elfman/Burton aesthetic has always had an element of the circus about it, even when the subject doesn't directly relate to circuses. Just as carnivals and circuses always seem to be hiding an undercurrent of a bizarre counterculture, Elfman's scores hide psychic darkness under layers of bustling, bouncy frivolity, starting as early as his scores to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. In Batman Returns, he pulls out all the stops* with contributions from a calliope, hurdy-gurdy, and other typically festive carnival instruments to accompany the mayhem of the truly disturbing Circus Gang.
Gleeful Murder and Crypto-Fascism
The tracks "Batman vs. the Circus (Track 7)" and "Wild Ride (Track 9)" push the carnival sound to the forefront of the action, and even Batman himself seems to get lost in the insanity of the mood it creates. Batman is a more misanthropic, disturbed, and violent character in Batman Returns than the already-dark Batman. During his fight with the Circus Gang, he even dispatches an evil clown with a bundle of dynamite in the trousers and a swift kick straight into the sewer - with a sickeningly cheerful grin on his face, to boot.
I was among one of the many people who thought this infamous scene went a bit too far with the Batman character, since his widely-known chief rule is never to kill. Some people argue that there's no conclusive proof that Batman himself did the killing, but that seems to me a little like Tom Cruise's hit man in Collateral insisting that he didn't kill his victim, the bullets and the fall out a window killed him. It's splitting hairs at best. The best explanation I can find is that it's all part of a larger satirical agenda to the film, though. The Gotham City of Batman Returns is a menacing, crypto-Fascist caricature of a system gone horribly wrong (thanks in part to Bo Welch's fabulously forbidding production design), a corrupt society that may not be worth saving. The fact that the police force of the city willingly partners with a non-accountable and apparently homicidal vigilante is a big clue that maybe what's wrong with Gotham isn't really the threat of super-villainy perpetrated by freaks in giant duck-mobiles. (That's to say nothing, of course, of the machinations of Christopher Walken's Max Schreck, the true arch-villain of the piece, who's a respected captain of industry.)
But, back to the score. Batman's own music gets twisted in multiple directions as well, cast in its typically heroic mode for many of the hero's more urgent pursuits in his various Bat-vehicles. However, there's more of a sense of menace about Batman's music this time around, too. Chorus and organ accompany the Bat's appearances on many occasions, sounding particularly manic in the final reprise of the main theme as the credits roll ("End Credits," Track 16). The question of whether Batman is a real hero or just a psycho with body armor seems to be answered unequivocally by both Burton and Elfman as the latter. Batman is a psychological bane for Bruce Wayne in Batman Returns. Bruce seems like a nice guy who genuinely wants to do some good in his out-of-costume scenes. Batman, his obsessive alter ego, actively gets in the way of Bruce Wayne's life here, and Elfman's music comments delightfully on that aspect in the track "Sore Spots" (Track 8). Romantic music is continually interrupted here by the themes for Batman and Catwoman respectively, as Bruce and Selina Kyle's fumbling attempts at foreplay wander over each other's wounds from their costumed combat.
To put a bow on this whole soundtrack, let's go back to the holiday parody theme. Even as the film's opening turned a happy family Christmas into a horrifying crime, later scenes continue to subvert happy holiday traditions. Actual sleigh bells come into the orchestration in "The Rise and Fall from Grace" (Track 11) as Batman is framed for the murder of the Ice Princess, who gets shoved off a building to light Gotham's grand Christmas tree, releasing a swarm of bats as her corpse flips the switch. The holiday fun continues with "The Children's Hour" (Track 12), one of the more frightening reversals of Christmas cheer ever put on film - instead of a jolly fat man bringing gifts to children on Christmas eve, we get an army of rocket-armed penguins and a terrifying train traversing the city to kidnap children (driven by the wonderfully weird Vincent Schiavelli, I might add), on the orders of a deranged, obese maniac. Ho-ho-ho! The track actually opens with the Penguin's theme rendered in music-box-like chimes as the kidnapping train makes its rounds, before blending into more overtly sinister music and fanfares heralding the coming of Batman and leading to "The Final Confrontation" (Tracks 13-14, repeating a track name that Elfman loves to use for nearly every score for a film that features such an ending confrontation).
Thank goodness that Warner Bros. saw fit to give Tim Burton free enough rein on Batman Returns to make it into the warped winter wonderland it is, and set Danny Elfman loose with a budget and creative license to whip up the vastly expanded and thematically deepened palette of its score. They would come to regret their decision, despite the film's box office success, and threw Burton over for Joel Schumacher's day-glo Bat-travesties of the late '90s. These days, an anomaly like Batman Returns probably wouldn't happen, as closely and vigilantly as entertainment companies guard franchises like Batman. Christopher Nolan's brilliant Batman trilogy is another small miracle considering this fact, but something as odd and idiosyncratic as a Burton Batman would probably be focus-grouped into a bland and boring mess by today's marketing-obsessed studio culture.
Meanwhile, we'll always have the lovely little Christmas gift of Batman Returns to warm our wretched little hearts. And God bless us, every one.
*Actually, you could say that Elfman somewhat more literally pulls out all the stops with much more liberal use of the pipe organ in Batman Returns than in its predecessor.