Monthly Archives: June 2010

Soundtrack Collection: Backdraft to Bandolero!


Backdraft (Hans Zimmer, 1991): I’m pretty sure that Backdraft was the first film in which I really noticed a Hans Zimmer score enough to purchase the soundtrack album.  Of course, Zimmer has become one of the most successful working composers in subsequent years, but his distinctive style was something of a fresh discovery back in 1991.

The score features Zimmer’s usual mix of orchestra and synthesizer, with a rock beat behind the main theme.  While this musical sound is now pretty ubiquitous, largely because of Zimmer and his protégées, it felt very new when this film first came out and I remember being very excited to get the soundtrack album.  While it isn’t nearly as distinctive today, the score still holds up as one of the best examples of this style of scoring. 

While there are some action-oriented portions to the score, especially during the cue “Burn It All”, the majority reflects more of a dramatic intensity.  Strings and synths dominate, with a pretty ever present percussion backing.  Occasional choral elements come into play as well, particularly during some of the more action-oriented sections.

The soundtrack CD opens and closes with the Bruce Hornsby songs “Set Me In Motion” and “The Show Goes On”.  Hornsby has a very recognizable style to his songs and both of these are easily recognizable as his.  Generally, I think they fit reasonably well with this score.


Bad Boys (Mark Mancina, 1995): This film was the first pairing of director Michael Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer and was essentially the first instance of the heavily rock-influenced instrumentals that film score enthusiasts often refer to simply as the “Bruckheimer sound”.  There is a lot of room for debate as to whether or not that should be considered a positive milestone.  The scores to Bruckheimer’s films from 1995 onward are most widely associated with Hans Zimmer and his influence is evident.  While Zimmer didn’t score the film, Mancina was employed by his company (at the time known as Media Ventures) and another Mancina protégé, Nick Glennie-Smith, also contributed to the score. 

Mancina was likely hired to score the film largely on the strength of his generally acclaimed score to Speed the year before and the similarities are obvious, particularly in the main theme.  The score is generally driven by synthesizer, keyboards, and electric guitar, with orchestral components generally given a backseat.  Acoustic guitar is occasionally used to score the film’s rare quieter moments, as in the cue “You’re Going to Leave Me Alone?”  The score also has some appealing reggae influences, first given significant play during the cue “JoJo, What You Know?”, and revisited periodically afterward.  Even the score’s main theme has a reggae influenced melody, which becomes more evident as the score continues on.  Fairly intense wordless vocals are also used periodically.

The soundtrack album released with the film was primarily a song album and only included one 4 minute score cue featuring an arrangement of Mancina’s main theme.   In 2007, La-La Land Records released a limited edition 70-minute CD of the complete score.  This edition is still available at their site and is currently priced at just $9.98.  It is very much worth getting at that price.

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Soundtrack Collection: Back to the Future trilogy

Back to the Future Part II Back to the Future (score) Back to the Future Part III

The success of Back to the Future in 1985 came as something of a surprise.  The film had been a pretty troubled production, particularly since the lead actor had to be replaced a few weeks into shooting.  As the movie neared its release date, the low expectations started to be replaced by extremely positive reviews.  Once it opened, positive word of mouth propelled it to become the year’s top grossing film and it remains a true enduring classic from that era.

Several careers were boosted dramatically by the film.  Robert Zemeckis instantly became an A-list director and Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd both were transitioned from TV stars to movie stars.  The film also firmly established Steven Spielberg’s credibility and marketability as a producer on films he didn’t direct.  The film also became an important franchise for Universal, eventually spawning two sequels, an animated TV series, an attraction at the Universal Studios theme parks, and various merchandise tie-ins.

Alan Silvestri’s career as a film composer also received a major  boost from the film’s success.  He had previously had success as a composer for TV (particularly scoring many episodes of CHiPs) and had collaborated with Zemeckis for the first time on the previous year’s hit Romancing the Stone, but Back to the Future was the first time he really achieved widespread attention and acclaim. 

Even though the soundtrack album only had a small portion of his score (the whole score wouldn’t come out until nearly 25 years later), the main theme quickly became extremely recognizable and the sequels both received score-only soundtracks.  After Back to the Future, Silvestri has continued to work regularly on major film projects right up to the present, including every subsequent film that Robert Zemeckis has directed.

My collection includes the original song soundtrack that was released in 1985, the complete score collection released in 2009, both of the sequel soundtracks, and a Varese Sarabande re-recording of music from all three films.  After the break, I will discuss each of the albums in some detail.

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Soundtrack Collection: Atlantis to Bachelor in Paradise

Atlantis: The Lost Continent

Atlantis: The Lost Continent (Russell Garcia, 1961): Film Score Monthly released this CD of Russell Garcia’s score to George Pal’s science fiction film, which was one of his lesser-known efforts.  The score is paired on the CD with Miklós Rózsa’s score to Pal’s The Power.

The 45 minute, monaural score is melodic and romantic, but with some fairly intense action music as well.  Some of the softer moments are characterized by solo horns and Occasional Mediterranean ethnic elements come into play as well.  Garcia uses the harp quite a bit as well, sometimes to introduce a bit of a mysterious sound, as in the cue entitled “Lost/Hallucinations”, or sometimes for a more romantic sound as in “Harps”.  The score also contains its share of fanfares, even including a track simply titled “Fanfares”.  I particularly like the big, brassy fanfare-like theme that is introduced with the simply-titled cue “Atlantis”.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (James Newton Howard, 2001): This film was a bit of a departure for Disney’s animation team.  It was a widescreen, action adventure film that was closer in spirit to Indiana Jones than to Disney’s usual animated fairy tales.  James Newton Howard came on board to provide a high energy action score for the film.  Heard out of context, I doubt most people would pick this out as a Disney animation score.

The album opens with a pretty generic pop song entitled “Where the Dream Takes You”, which was co-written by Newton-Howard and Diane Warren and performed by Mya.  It isn’t anything overly special, but at least they allowed the film’s score composer write the music for the song, which is incorporated in the score as essentially the film’s love theme.

The film’s main theme is a big, brassy fanfare with wordless choral backing. It is a very catchy and memorable melody and is re-visited pretty regularly throughout the score.  The entire score is very brass and percussion focused, with strings and chorus joining in pretty regularly as well.

Author! Author!

Author, Author (Dave Grusin, Johnny Mandel, 1982): Johnny Mandel initially was hired to score this Al Pacino romantic comedy, but his score was ultimately rejected and replaced with one by Dave Grusin.  Varese Sarabande’s CD Club limited edition release includes both scores on a single CD, with Grusin’s score running about 25 minutes and Mandel’s about 23.  Note that the film included a hit song, “Coming Home To You” by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, that isn’t on the CD.

Grusin’s score has a pop music sound, using mostly electronic instruments, mainly keyboard, although saxophone is also pretty common.  During the main title track, Grusin introduces a primary melody that is repeated regularly throughout the score.  It is a warm, infectious melody, although the repetition is a bit much.    Grusin’s jazz background does shine through occasionally, particularly with the solo saxophone in “Out and About”.  The score has a pretty dated sound, definitely recognizable as a comedy score from the early 80s.  It is a good representative of that kind of score, but probably not to everyone’s taste.

Mandel’s score is orchestral, featuring a main theme that is primary played by solo piano with the string section occasionally joining in.  One fairly quietly romantic theme introduced later in the cue “Reels Five and Six” (the cues for Mandel’s score were not given titles but are instead represented by the reel numbers where they would have fit in the film) features a very nice melody played on a solo guitar. The final track (“Reel Twelve”) opens with a solo violin excerpt from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” before transitioning into an orchestral finale.  The score has a darker quality and isn’t as constantly cheerful in quality as Grusin’s, but also doesn’t sound nearly as dated.  On CD, I think it is the better of the two scores, although I don’t really know which was better suited to the film.


Avalon (Randy Newman, 1990): Barry Levinson’s 2nd film in his autobiographical Baltimore trilogy (which also includes Diner and Tin Men) was a film that I absolutely loved.  It is one of those rare films where I became so completely absorbed in the lives of the characters that I hated to leave them when the film came to an end.  Randy Newman’s sensitive, Americana score definitely contributed to the film’s success.

Newman’s score uses a variety of solo instruments to evoke varied moods throughout the score.  It opens with a simple, solo piano presenting the main theme.  Solo violin, trumpet and woodwinds later take on the same melody.  These instruments dominate the entire score, which remains gently melodic throughout.  The use of trumpet solos for some of the score’s most emotional moments is particularly effective.

Newman makes the interesting choice of avoiding ethnic elements in a film about an early 1900s Polish immigrant family with a strong emphasis on their adaptation to life in America.  Newman correctly recognized that the right emphasis should be on the characters’ current home rather than where they had come from.  Americana orchestral music itself certainly is largely an adaptation of European classical music styles, which makes it very well suited to this type of story.


Avatar (James Horner, 2009): I’ll state right off that I’m probably one of the very few people left that hasn’t yet gotten around to seeing Avatar.  It isn’t a lack of interest that has kept me from seeing the film, but instead simply that I didn’t find a good opportunity to get out to see the film during its theatrical run and finding a 3 hour+ block to sit down and watch a movie on DVD isn’t exceptionally easy either.  I do expect to try and see the film some time in the fairly near future, so I might need to re-visit this score at a later date.

The expectations for this score were obviously very high considering that the last collaboration between James Cameron and James Horner was Titanic, which set records both for box-office gross and soundtrack sales.  While Avatar was as financially successful a film, the soundtrack wasn’t as big a breakthrough among non-collectors.  

This is the the first time in quite a while that Horner has taken on a full-blown science fiction film and there might be an expectation that the score might resemble his early successes in that genre such as Star Trek II/III, Aliens, and Cocoon, but it really doesn’t resemble those scores much.  This score does seem to be more akin to his other scores from the late 90s and 2000s.

A lot of the music is fairly dark, with some heavy percussion, strings, and low brass along with some choral elements.  The score doesn’t have the ethnic elements that have been common in some of Horner’s more recent scores (particularly Titanic), which is probably to be expected for a movie set on an alien planet.  In their place, he uses some fairly unusual instrument choices and carefully placed vocals to generate a bit more of an exotic sound.  The score does establish a couple distinctive themes, including one primary melody that comes a little bit too close to the primary love theme from Titanic.

Probably in an attempt to duplicate their last success, the album ends with a pop ballad entitled “I See You (Theme from Avatar)”, which is performed by Leona Lewis.  It is based around one of the primary themes from the score, although it is not nearly as memorable as the Celine Dion hit from Titanic.

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Soundtrack Collection: Angels in America to As You Like It

Angels In America

Angels in America (Thomas Newman, 2003): This HBO miniseries had an extremely distinguished cast (including Al Pacino and Meryl Streep) and was directed by Mike Nichols.  Along with the other feature film talent on the project, Thomas Newman came on board to compose the score. 

The album opens with a somewhat startling 1 minute opening choral piece that has a very religious quality with Latin vocals, revisited fairly regularly in the later half of the score, including in cues such as “The Infinite Descent” and “Broom of Truth”.  It is a somewhat unexpected start to a Thomas Newman score album and definitely grabs attention.  It then transitions into “Angels in America (Main Title)”, which  is a melodic orchestral piece that sounds more recognizably like Newman’s usual laid-back, atmospheric approach.

The main themes are orchestral with an emphasis on strings and woodwinds, although Newman does introduce some synthesizers at various points as well.  In cues such as “The Ramble”, “Quartet”, and “Her Fabulous Incipience” electronic instruments dominate to bring a fairly tense, almost desperate quality to the music.  In other cues, electronic instrumentation is layered over the orchestral music in a way that gives it a somewhat ethereal sound, probably to emphasize the religious elements to the story.  As it progresses, the mini-series moves more in the direction of fantasy and that is reflected in Newman’s score, particularly with the increased use of wordless choir late in the album.

The disc includes source cues “Solitude” and “A Closer Walk with Thee”, both of which are older recordings with sound quality that matches.  The album ends with the very upbeat gospel song “I’m His Child” performed by Zella Jackson Price.


Angie (Jerry Goldsmith, 1994): Angie is not one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best known scores, and was featured in a movie that is pretty much forgotten, but it features a main theme that I have always found immensely appealing and it is a soundtrack album that I have re-visited fairly regularly.

The soundtrack opens with a full presentation of the main theme in a cue aptly named “Angie’s Theme”.  The theme features a very infectious, almost waltz-like melody and is initially presented with a bit of a French ethnic sound.  Goldsmith makes pretty heavy use of electronic instruments in the piece, along with strings, piano, and even accordion. 

The main theme remains central to the remainder of the score, although the fairly playful nature of the opening track is moderated over time into more mature sounding presentations, intended to reflect the title character’s personal growth over the course of the film.  Woodwinds are particularly dominant in some of those later versions while the electronics are greatly reduced.

The Varese Sarabande soundtrack album is fairly brief (about 35 minutes), which was pretty typical for lower-profile score releases at that time.  This is probably a score that would benefit from an expanded re-issue.


Animaniacs (Various, 1993): This is one really silly CD.  The 30 minute long album contains quite a few key songs from the Spielberg-produced animated series from the early 1990s.  As you would expect, the album opens and closes with the amusing opening and closing title music from the series, which were written by Richard Stone and Tom Ruegger.

The rest of the songs are very silly, but also frequently very catchy and humorous.   Most of the songs are written by some combination of Randy Rogel, Paul Rugg, and/or Richard Stone.  Most of the songs are performed by the Warner brothers and sister: Wakko, Yakko, and Dot who are voiced by Jess Harnell, Rob Paulson, and Tress McNeille respectively.

A couple of the songs actually do have some educational value as well.  This is particularly true of “Yakko’s World”, which has lyrics that are simply a list of all of the nations in the world.  Similarly, “Wakko’s America” is a list of the states and state capitals and “The Planets” gives names and brief descriptions of the planets in the solar system.  These songs could potentially be very useful as teaching aides for younger kids.  The album also includes two parodies of Gilbert & Sullivan: “Yes, Brothers Warner We” and “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Cartoon Individual”.  These could potentially be used as introductions to the real thing.

Anna Lucasta

Anna Lucasta (Elmer Bernstein, 1959): This jazzy, early score by Elmer Bernstein was released by Varese Sarabande as part of their limited edition CD Club series.  The music is monaural, but the condition of the recordings seems to be very good.  The album opens with a song called “That’s Anna”, performed by Sammy Davis, Jr., who also starred in the film.  The melody from the song is used as a main theme through the score.

The score has a very dramatic and sometimes romantic sound, with an emphasis on horns.  Many of the tracks feature an old fashioned jazz sound, with solo saxophone, drums and symbols, and lots of bass.  The mix between the jazz and more conventional orchestral is an interesting combination.

In their description of the album, Varese Sarabande referred to the four tracks that start with “The Runaways” as “one of the greatest scored sequences of Bernstein’s entire career”.  This segment of the score is the strongest presentation of the jazz-style in the score, starting with some pretty intense percussion that is next joined by very dynamic and impressive brass and piano music.  It really is a rather remarkable sequence and a definite highlight of this score.

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