Archive for July, 2010

Soundtrack Collection: Black Stallion to Blues Brothers

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

The Black Stallion

The Black Stallion (Carmine Coppola, 1978): Intrada’s 3-CD set of the score to The Black Stallion may simply be too much of a good thing, at least when attempting to listen to it all at once.  The first two discs essentially contain everything that was written for the film: the score as heard in the movie, numerous unused cues, and various source cues.  The 3rd disc contains the 35 minute LP program that was released with the film.  The total of the 3 discs comes out to over 2 hours of music.

Fortunately, there is nothing that says that one has to listen to the music all at one time.  Certainly the score is very good and it is certainly not a bad thing that all of it is available.  For the most part, I’ve found that the album version is probably the best choice for listening straight through, while the other parts  might be better suited to playing in parts or to occasionally include in broader “shuffle play” mixes.

While Carmine Coppola (father of Francis, who produced the film) is the primary credit composer, the film also contained contributions from composers Shirley Walker, Nyle Steiner, Kenneth Nash, George Marsh, and Dick Rosmini.   The Intrada set includes appropriate credits for all the composers, thus making it possible to identify who wrote what parts.

Much of the score is very guitar-centered, with generally simple orchestration.  The score includes a fairly distinctive primary theme melody (which opens and closes the original album presentation), which features a solo guitar backing a main melody played by the orchestra, particularly the strings.  This theme is used throughout the score and generally establishes the overall tone of the presentation.  Other parts of the score tend to have a bit of an ethnic flavor, with a number of different instruments in use.  Some of the unused cues on the Intrada complete score discs are more fully orchestral than is generally heard on the cues used in the film.

The Black Stallion Returns

The Black Stallion Returns (Georges Delerue, 1983): Not too long after Intrada put out their CD release of The Black Stallion, they also put out a disc of Georges Delerue’s score to the film’s sequel.  While this score only required a single CD release, it still contains the complete score as heard in the movie as well as the original 1983 album presentation for a total running time of around an hour and 17 minutes.

Delerue doesn’t reuse the themes from the original film, but instead scores the film in his own distinctly melodic style.  His main theme for the sequel does have some similarity, at least in spirit, to Carmine Coppola’s theme for the original film, but it is significantly more fully orchestral, with an emphasis on strings and woodwinds.  The acoustic guitar that was fairly central to the first film’s score is not carried over to the sequel.  I overall think that Delerue’s score is an easier and more satisfying listen than Coppola’s outside of the film.  It tends to be more melodic and straightforward orchestral with a definite flare towards the adventurous.

A huge highlight on this soundtrack is the absolutely thrilling “Finale” cue, which runs for over 8 minutes in length and masterfully sums up all of the film’s themes on its way to an immensely satisfying conclusion.  Due to the discs format of presenting the complete score followed by the original album, this finale is presented twice on the disc.  It is good enough that I don’t really object to hearing it twice in one play through.

Black Sunday

Black Sunday (John Williams, 1977): For many years, Black Sunday was arguably the most significant John Williams score that had never received a soundtrack release.  In early 2010, Film Score Monthly finally corrected this by releasing a CD containing over an hour of Williams’ music from the film.  The CD is part of their limited edition Silver Age Classics series, but they produced 10,000 copies which should keep it available for at least a little while.

This score was composed during possibly the most important phase of his career.  The two other scores that he composed for films released  the same year were Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  His Black Sunday score does resemble his other scores from that time period, but it is quite a bit darker in tone as required by the disturbing subject matter of the film.

Building of tension is Williams’ prime role here and he is very effective at  accomplishing that.  For a good example, the cue “Nurse Dahlia/Kabakov’s Card/The Hypodermic” primarily features some low, fairly repetitive notes that build up a great deal of tension until the cue finally ends with a burst of shrieking strings reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s famous Psycho music.   Another interesting cue is “The Test”, which features chimes, initially by themselves and then later joined by the orchestra’s string section, an effect that builds a notably tense and foreboding atmosphere.

Other cues do have a more melodic style, such as the fairly sad melody that Williams contributes for the cue “Moshevsky’s Dead” or the more active string and brass driven melody in “Preparations”.  Williams also provides a melancholy, brass melody for the end titles, which the CD includes both in the film version and in a version without the underlying pop-style percussion.

The score also includes some very good chase and action music, particularly late in the score.  It is in the action cues that the connections to his other scores of that time period are most evident.  In particular, there is some noticeable similarities to some of the action cues from Close Encounters in this score.

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Soundtrack Collection: Big to The Black Hole

Sunday, July 25th, 2010

 Big

Big (Howard Shore, 1988): Despite the fact that the film was an enormous blockbuster that essentially led Tom Hanks’ transformation from light comedy actor to major movie star, no soundtrack album was released at the time that the film came out.  There wasn’t even a pop-song album with songs inspired from the film.  Howard Shore’s score to the film remained unavailable until 2002 when Varese Sarabande finally issued a limited edition CD (which is still available) as part of their CD Club series.

Those familiar with Howard Shore’s music mainly from his popular scores to the Lord of the Rings trilogy or for thrillers like Silence of the Lambs and Seven probably wouldn’t be too quick to recognize this score as coming from the same composer.  The Big score is light and pop-infused, with a bit of a new-age jazz styling to it.  In fact, hearing this score without knowing the composer, I would probably be more apt to guess it was by someone like Dave Grusin or Michael Gore. 

That isn’t to say that the score isn’t good.  In fact, it is very charming and fits the film perfectly.  The score is generally not fully orchestral, instead featuring piano as the predominant instrument, with synthesizers providing most of the backing for it.  The score is primarily built around a fairly simple piano melody that serves as a primary theme for Hanks’ character.  Shore creatively expands on the theme over the course of the film, with it essentially growing larger in scale, and becoming more fully orchestral, as the character becomes more a part of the adult world.  Particularly notable is the addition of strings to the theme during the cue “Falling In Love”, essentially growing it into more of a romantic theme.

The score does also include some fantasy elements, mainly for the scenes involving the carnival and the story’s central fortune telling machine.  The cue “Zoltar” is the primary example of this, with the music taking on a somewhat darker, almost creepy, tone.  The CD also includes alternate takes of several cues as bonus tracks.  These are all a bit darker in style and, interestingly, mostly more fully orchestral.  Shore likely chose to rework portions of the score to lighten the tone a bit, partly by scaling the score down a bit.

The CD does include a couple source cues, most notably the toy piano version of “Heart and Soul” that accompanied the film’s most famous sequence.  Shore also incorporates the melody of that famous song into the film’s end titles suite.  The album also includes an adaptation of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”.

Big Fish

Big Fish (Danny Elfman, 2003): While the film was definitely extremely quirky and off-beat, Big Fish is probably the least flamboyantly weird of Tim Burton’s films to date.  The film’s story of an adult son recalling the tall tales that had been shared by his dying father is very character-driven drama, but in a format that still allows Burton to allow his very skewed view of the world to shine through.  The variety of settings and circumstances of the recounted tales gave Danny Elfman a particularly rich set of opportunities and he delivers one of his more varied and complex scores.

The soundtrack album is actually a mixed song and score album, although Elfman’s portion runs about 40 minutes, which is roughly 2/3 of the album.  The songs are the first seven cues on the album, opening with “Man of the Hour”, a Pearl Jam song specifically written and recorded for the film.  The rest of the songs are period classics from Bing Crosby, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, The Vogues, The Allman Brothers, and Canned Heat.  It is a nice collection of songs, although, other than the Pearl Jam song, they are so common that it is pretty likely most people already have one or two in their collection elsewhere.

Those expecting the gothic styling or predominant choruses that are common in Elfman’s Tim Burton scores are apt to be pretty surprised by this one.  This is a much more intimately orchestral score, dominated by piano and strings.  A gentle and effective main theme is established in the title cue.  The theme is tender and melodic, bringing to mind the side of Elfman that was first noted in his score for Sommersby, but which doesn’t come out in too many of his scores.  His “Sandra’s Theme” is a romantic, major key theme that had an interestingly more downbeat ending to it.  Another highlight is “The Growing Montage”, which starts off quiet but builds into a brassy fanfare complete with a little bit of Elfman’s trademark choral writing.

The score does showcase a few different styles in order to accommodate the changing settings of the film.  “Shoe Stealing” has a bit of a country feel, including a featured solo guitar.  The cues “Leaving Spectre” and “Return to Spectre” have a bit of a sad tone, with the latter making very effective use of a solo violin.   “Returning Home”, on the other hand, has a much more optimistic style, complete with soaring strings and triumphant-sounding horns.  Pretty much the full range of the score is represented in the impressive 11 minute “Finale” cue.

Elfman does contribute one brief song to the film, which ends the soundtrack album.  The song is entitled “Twice the Love (Siamese Twins’ Song)” and is performed by Bobbi Page and Candice Rumph, who played the twins in the film.  It is a pretty typically goofy and quirky song, but pretty entertaining.  Of course, it will mean basically nothing to anyone who hasn’t seen the film, though.

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Soundtrack Collection: Basic Instinct through Beverly Hills Cop

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

 Basic Instinct

Basic Instinct (Jerry Goldsmith, 1992): Throughout his career, Jerry Goldsmith all too frequently was hired as the composer for bad movies  that failed at the box-office.  Basic Instinct was a rare case where he scored a bad movie that ended up being a big hit.  Obviously, there are probably a lot of people that disagree with my assessment of the film, but I also expect that most people will agree that Goldsmith’s score was among the film’s biggest strengths.

The score is very atmospheric, built around a fairly dark main theme that would be very much at home in a classic film noir.  Much of the music has a sensual, even erotic, quality, that contrasts intriguingly with the tension-filled suspense music.  Strings dominate the score, with woodwinds and piano providing considerable support.  Brass is used sparingly, mainly for the few action sequences as well as to provide a sudden sting to underscore certain shock moments.  

Varese Sarabande released a nearly 45-minute long CD of the score when the film first came out.  In 2004, Prometheus Records put out a 75-minute CD containing the complete score presented in film order.  The expanded version is actually somewhat easier to find than the original, so it is probably the best choice if you don’t already have a copy of this score.  Whether or not to upgrade if you already have the original release is a harder call.  The score actually becomes somewhat repetitive over the longer running time and I suspect the shorter release would be sufficient for most people.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes

Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Leonard Rosenman, 1973): For the fifth film in the original Planet of the Apes series, Leonard Rosenman returned as composer, having previously scored the series’ second film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (reviewed later in this post).  Film Score Monthly released 35 minutes of the score on a Silver Age Classics limited edition CD (which is still available) paired with Tom Scott’s score for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth film of the series.

The style of the score is typical for the series, mostly retaining the mostly atonal, coldly intense symphonic approach that was first established with Jerry Goldsmith’s highly acclaimed score for the original film.  As you would expect, the music closely resembles Rosenman’s earlier score for the series, although he mostly introduces new themes for this entry. 

While most of the score does continue the atonal approach, this score does include some unexpectedly melodic material, which gives it a warmer overall sound than the previous scores in the series.  The “Main Title” cue actually is more melodic than expected for the series, opening with a fairly quirky, fast-paced march.  The melodic quality is also very well represented in the effective closing cue, entitled “Only the Dead”, which has a fairly upbeat, even optimistic quality to it.

A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind (James Horner, 2001): This Oscar-winning drama was the fifth collaboration between composer James Horner and director Ron Howard.  It was the most low-key and introspective of the films that the two have done together and Horner provided a suitably sensitive score, although one that will sound pretty familiar to fans of Horner’s work as it does use many of his favorite motifs.

One of the main strengths of this score is Horner’s effective use of female vocals.  Opera star Charlotte Church (who was only a teenager at the time) is the featured vocalist on the score and her considerable vocal talents serve to add quite a bit of weight to the score.  Church performed the song “All Love Can Be”, which was based on one of Horner’s main themes, but her vocals are a key component throughout the entire score, usually as a wordless vocal instrument.

The most prominent theme in the score is a rhythmic theme led by piano and vocals along with diverse instrumental projections.  It is a theme that is fairly difficult to describe in words, but is very reminiscent of a similar theme that was central to Horner’s earlier Sneakers score and which has also turned up periodically in some of his others as well.  This is a style that is distinctly and recognizably Horner’s and A Beautiful Mind may feature his most effective use of it.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (Richard Sherman & Robert Sherman, 1971): Disney reteamed a number of key members of the creative team behind Mary Poppins for Bedknobs and Broomsticks, another musical that mixed live action and animation.  While not as successful either creatively or financially as the earlier film, it is still a film with many charms, including another winning song score by the Sherman Brothers.

Angela Lansbury was the lead in the film and her considerable vocal skills are very well used on the film’s signature ballad “The Age of Not Believing” and the peppy “A Step In the Right Direction”.  The male lead is David Tomlinson, probably best known as the father in Mary Poppins, and he is an especially entertaining performer.  He brings a lot of energy and fun to such numbers as “With a Flair” and the lengthy production number “Portebello Road”.  Lansbury and Tomlinson work together very effectively as well on “The Beautiful Briny” (from the film’s key animated sequence) and “Substitutiary Locomotion”. 

The soundtrack album includes a few bonus tracks, including “Nobody’s Problem”, another Lansbury solo ballad that was edited out of the film.  Demo versions of two other unused songs, “Solid Citizen” and “The Fundamental Element”, are also included.

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Soundtrack Collection: Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Note: My discussion of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast ended up being so lengthy that I decided it would fit best as a separate post. 

  Beauty and the Beast: Special Edition Beauty and the BeastBeauty and the Beast: Broadway Cast (cover #2)

Beauty and the Beast (Alan Menken & Howard Ashman, 1991): Beauty and the Beast is my favorite of Disney’s animated films and on my short list of favorite movies in general.  The film’s music is absolutely critical to its success.  At the time, it was the closest that an animated film had come to duplicating the style of a modern Broadway musical and, thus, it was no big surprise when several years later an adaptation of the movie became Disney’s first Broadway show.

The film featured six songs, and two reprises, by the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who had written songs for Disney’s The Little Mermaid a couple years earlier.  One previously deleted song, entitled “Human Again”, was added back in to the film for the 2002 re-issue of the film in Imax.  Menken also wrote the film’s score, which is largely based around the song melodies, but also introduces a couple additional themes.

The film and soundtrack albums open with a “Prologue” with David Ogden Stiers reading narration that sets up the story.  Alan Menken’s musical accompaniment to this is essentially an (unfortunately) uncredited adaptation of Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Aquarium” from “Carnival of the Animals”.  The music fits wonderfully, although its pretty obvious source should have been credited.

The opening number is entitled “Belle” and serves as an introduction for both the film’s heroine and, late in the song, the villain Gaston.  This is an impressively-scoped number featuring an entire ensemble, led by Paige O’Hara as Belle.  During my first viewing of the film, I remember realizing during this sequence that my jaw was pretty much hanging open from the amazement that they had pulled off such a sweeping, Broadway-style number.  This really felt like something very new and unexpected for this medium and the song and sequence continues to impress even after numerous viewings.

“Gaston” remains one of the best villain songs from a Disney film.  It also has some of the most clever wordplay of Howard Ashman’s impressive career, even managing to work in the word “expectorating”, which may have been a first for a song lyric.  The song really captures Gaston’s distinctive traits while also being exceptionally funny, with Richard White’s (Gaston) and Jessi Corti’s (La Fou) contributing highly to that.  Probably because it really doesn’t mean much out of context, the song isn’t as well known as the others from the film, but it may actually be the most complex and accomplished.

The two best known songs from the film are “Be Our Guest” and the title song.  The former is presented in a big, Busby Berkley style showstopper.  The sequence is probably the most traditional for an animated music number, but it still is tremendous fun and aided greatly by the great vocals by Jerry Orbach (Lumiere) and David Ogden Stiers (Cogsworth).

The Oscar winning title song is, of course, performed by Angela Lansbury and accompanies the romantic dance sequence late in the film.  The song has already become something of a standard and is easily one of the most beautiful songs in the Disney catalog.  The end credits’ duet version of the song performed by Peabo Bryson and Celine Dion became a huge hit on the pop chart, but pales in comparison to Lansbury’s version.

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Soundtrack Collection: Batman

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Batman66

Batman (Nelson Riddle, 1966): Although I am too young to have seen it during its original airing, the late 1960s Batman TV series became a childhood favorite of mine via the syndicated reruns.  The series was very campy and silly, qualities that made it very appealing to me as a pre-teen.  My fondness for the series actually made it a bit difficult for me to warm up to the much darker version of the character that was seen in the later film versions.

Nelson Riddle scored many episodes of the series as well as the full-length feature version that was released theatrically at the end of the show’s first season.  The score to the movie was released on a limited edition CD by Film Score Monthly in 2000 and was re-issued, with a few minutes of additional music, by La La Land Records earlier this year.  I have the earlier release and didn’t see a need to upgrade to the newer one.

Riddle was best known as a jazz and big band arranger, having worked with numerous big names ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to Frank Sinatra.  This background is evident in his approach to the Batman music, where he provides a highly jazz-oriented score heavily dominated by horns and guitar.  It is a fun and fast-paced score, which is pretty deeply rooted in the 1960s Rat Pack style.  The score is very thematic, with Riddle providing a separate, distinctive theme for each of the villains.  The film brought together all the major villains, so there is quite a bit of variation to the score.

The famous and highly familiar main theme to the TV series was written by Neal Hefti and is incorporated pretty regularly into the score.  The theme gets a pretty complete performance (minus the vocals) during the cue “Batmobile to Airport” and then is referenced pretty regularly, usually in shorter bursts.  The complete theme, including the “Batman!” vocals, is featured as a bonus track at the end of the CD.

Batman89

Batman (1989, Danny Elfman): Although Danny Elfman had already done a handful of film scores (including his first two projects with Tim Burton), his score for Burton’s 1989 Batman film really was the one that established him as an important voice in film scoring.  The score was so successful that Elfman has frequently been the first choice for other super-hero movies, to a degree that sometimes has come perilously close to type-casting.

Elfman’s main theme has fairly iconic and is pretty instantly recognizable and associated with the Batman character, despite that fact that it was only used in the two Tim Burton/Michael Keaton films and as the theme for the early 90s animated TV series.  The darkly ominous opening fanfare that transitions into a haunting, brass-centered march is a very distinctive construction that very effectively fits the portrayal of the title character as a mix of tortured angst and heroic action.

While the main theme serves as the primary theme for the title character, he also introduces very effective secondary themes.  Jack Nicholson’s Joker is introduced with some brassy circus music at the end of the cue “Kitchen, Surgery, Face-off” and the character’s over the top nature is also reflected in the fairly extravagant cues “Joker’s Poem” and especially the self-explanatory “Waltz to the Death”.  A darkly melodic theme is provided for the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Vicky Vale, fully presented in the cue “Love Theme”.

The cue “Decent Into Mystery” introduces a wordless chorus into the score in a darkly resonant manner that has later become one of the most recognizable trademarks of Elfman’s film scoring.  Well paced and exciting action music, of course, is also a hallmark of this score in very strong cues such as “Roof Fight”, “Attack of the Batwing” and especially the thrilling “Finale” cue.

At the time that the film came out, much of the emphasis was on the songs that Prince wrote and performed for the film and the initial soundtrack release only contained those songs.  Elfman’s score came out on a separate CD release a few months later.  Interestingly, today the Elfman score album is still in print while the Prince album is not, although it is still widely available on bargain tables or used copies.  I’m not really a Prince fan and never purchased his album, so I can’t really comment on the content.

BatmanReturns

Batman Returns (Danny Elfman, 1992): I’m well aware that my view is in the minority on this one, but I actually prefer both the film and score for Batman Returns to the more popular original.  After the enormous success of the first film, both Tim Burton and Danny Elfman were given a considerable amount of free reign and the result was a much more quirky film and score.

Of course, Elfman does reprise his main Batman theme in the sequel, but little else is repeated.  The new score is much more string focused than the brassy approach with the original.  Elfman also much more prominently features wordless choir in this score, particularly with his main theme for The Penguin.  In many ways, this score actually more closely resembles Elfman’s Edward Scissorhands score than the previous Batman score.

Elfman provides very distinctive themes for the film’s two primary villains: The Penguin and Catwoman.  As noted above, The Penguin’s main theme makes extensive use of wordless (and sometimes “la la la”) choir, providing something of an otherworldly quality to the theme.  The character’s theme is introduced during “Birth of a Penguin” and “Birth of a Penguin, part 2”, which open the soundtrack album and the film.  As these play over the film’s opening title, the theme is effectively interweaved with the Batman theme, at times with the choral elements actually layered over the older theme.

The Catwoman theme is introduced in “Selena Transforms” and “Selena Transforms, Part 2” and substantially developed further in “Cat Suite”.  This theme features solo violin, giving it a pretty distinctively feline quality.  The theme is melodic and haunting and generally sticks with me when I listen to the album.  As Catwoman doubles as Bruce Wayne’s love interest in the film, her theme also serves as the film’s romantic theme.

The album ends with the song “Face to Face”, which was performed by  Siouxsie and the Banshees and was used in the film during a ballroom sequence when Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle (Catwoman) are dancing together.  The song was co-written by Elfman and fits in very well with the score, including incorporating some brief references to the Catwoman theme.

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