Friday, March 22, 2013

Dr. Strangelove: Music from the Films of Stanley Kubrick - A Very Strange Entry

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.

Hidden Treasure

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 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!

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