Archive for September, 2010

Soundtrack Collection: The Clearing to Cocoon

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

The Clearing

The Clearing (Craig Armstrong, 2004): As I know little about the film, it is fairly unlikely that I would have bought this soundtrack myself. It is one of several that I was given by a friend who works at the movie studio and it is a pretty good score.  My only previous familiarity with Craig Armstrong was mainly through his projects with Baz Luhrmann, which tended to be pretty song-oriented.  It is interesting hearing a more full score.

Much of the score has a very dark and moody quality.  The opening cue is a solo violin presentation of the score’s main theme.  This kind of low-key presentation of the theme establishes a pretty distinctive mood right at the start.  The theme is a fairly simple motif, built around a fairly simple 8 note melody with the first 3 notes repeated.  This motif is woven throughout the score, often either via the solo violin or via piano (including a stand-alone solo piano cue of the theme). The soundtrack ends with a full orchestral arrangement.

Armstrong includes some electronic elements as well, introducing a bit of a modern style to some parts of the score.  The early cue “Arnold On His Way” especially showcases this aspect of the music and comes as a somewhat interesting shift in tone after the moody, more classical instrumentals of the first couple cues.

Cliffhanger

Cliffhanger (Trevor Jones, 1993): Trever Jones’ Cliffhanger is one of my favorite action scores of the early 1990s and it comes from what I think was probably the most purely entertaining action film of Sylvester Stallone’s career.  I’ve always found it a bit puzzling that Jones didn’t make a bigger name for himself as an action composer.

The score is built around an absolutely thrilling main theme.  The theme is built around a series of very brassy fanfares backed by some absolutely soaring strings.  This is one of those themes that really sticks in your mind after listening to the album or seeing the film.  The opening cue of the album is a terrific concert arrangement of the theme.  It may have played over the main title, although I don’t recall for sure.  Either way, it gets the album off to a rousing start while firmly establishing the score’s primary musical voice right from the beginning.

Stallone’s action movies often tended to have something of a brooding quality to them and Jones’ score does reflect this with some cues that are fairly moody.  This is pretty effective scoring, with Jones retaining a melodic quality that never strays excessively far from the style of the main theme.  This helps to keep the darker side of the score from becoming oppressive and also retains a cohesive sound to it.

One thing that might be a tad surprising about the score is that it doesn’t have a lot of extremely high-adrenaline action music.  It isn’t completely absent, of course, but even some of the core action cues like “Bats” or “Helicopter Fight” still stay very anchored in melody and are a bit heavier on tension and mood than on what you might usually expect for a big-budget action movie.  When more actively percussive music comes into play, it tends to be particularly effective due to its fairly sparing use.

Cloak & Dagger

Cloak & Dagger (Brian May, 1984): I haven’t seen it for years, but this was a movie that I especially enjoyed when it first came out.  I was 15 years old and already a definite computer/video game nerd by then, so the film connected with me pretty well.  What I don’t remember was ever really thinking too much about the music in the movie, particularly since there was no soundtrack released.   Intrada released Brian May’s score for the first time earlier this year and I found the music to have a certain familiarity, although not as much as I might have expected from a film that I saw a number of times back when it was reasonably new.

May provided a pretty charming adventure score for the film.  It is a fully orchestral score with a somewhat old-fashioned sound.  Considering the computer and video game theme to the film, it is actually a bit surprising that the score is so traditional and lacking in electronic elements.  The score is dominated by some very active string and piano melodies, with occasional militaristic brass and percussion brought into some of the action sequences, including a pretty great march that appears occasionally during the score and then gets a full performance in the end credits cue.  Gentle woodwinds often accompany piano during the more quiet parts of the score.

The score is very energetic and fast paced, although it is somewhat limited in thematic elements.  May does introduce a very short primary motif that serves as something of a main theme for the score, but it isn’t one that is especially distinctive and, thus, probably not one that will stick in your mind too much after seeing the film or hearing the album.  In fact, this fairly minimalist main theme is probably the reason that I didn’t find the music exceptionally memorable based on multiple viewings of the film.  This isn’t necessarily a negative, though, as the music is pleasant to listen to and likely served the film well.

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Soundtrack Collection: Chronicles of Narnia to A Civil Action

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

 The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Special Edition Soundtrack)

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Harry Gregson-Williams, 2005): Obviously inspired by the enormous success of the Lord of the Rings films, Walden Media and Disney saw adapting C.S. Lewis’ classic Chronicle of Narnia book series as an obvious opportunity to create a similar, but more family-friendly, franchise.  Shrek co-director Andrew Adamson was a somewhat surprising choice to helm the first film in the series.  Adamson brought along Shrek composer Harry Gregson-Williams, giving him a welcome opportunity to stretch his talents quite a bit beyond the animation and contemporary action scores for which he was mainly known.

The film cranked up the intensity and scope of the action and battle sequences quite a bit compared to the books, which gave Gregson-Williams the opportunity to create some fairly intense action music.  The soundtrack gets off to a very fast-paced start with the opening cue, “The Blitz, 1940”, a percussion and brass driven action cue that accompanies the film’s surprisingly intense opening sequence.  This type of action music again will later dominate the final portions of the score, particularly the lengthy finale cue simply entitled “The Battle”.

The majority of the score has a more melancholy and moody quality, which is introduced in the second cue, entitled “Evacuating London”.  The first half of the cue introduces some simple piano-driven melodies before transitioning to an otherworldly, largely electronic theme accompanied by vocals by Lisbeth Scott.   A more gentle, traditionally orchestral version of the same basic theme is central to the next cue, “The Wardrobe”. Later, Gregson-Williams provides an appropriately regal main theme for Aslan the lion, heard particularly prominently in the opening to the cue “To Aslan’s Camp”.  That is the theme that eventually serves as essentially the primary theme for the film, with some fairly frequent statements during the battle music late in the score.

The entire score has a somewhat surprisingly modernistic sound to it, generally forgoing the more traditional British classical scoring approach to this kind of fantasy that Howard Shore had used for The Lord of the Rings.  Gregson-Williams introduces a number of ethnic elements and also uses a fair amount of electronic instruments as well as frequent choral and solo vocal elements.  I find it to be an effective score, although probably not what a lot of people expected for this material and, thus, it has tended to be a somewhat controversial one.

The album ends with four songs, all of which are very atmospheric and moody in style, with a somewhat modern electronica-ballad style.  “Can’t Take It In”, performed by Imogen Heap, and “Where” by Lisbeth Scott were both co-written by Gregson-Williams and are based on themes used in the film.  “Wunderkind” by Alanis Morrisette and “Winter Light” by Tim Finn are not connected with the rest of the film’s music.  With the exception of “Where”, the songs are each pretty long (4-5 minutes+) and they kind of wear out their welcome.

Note that there were quite a few different soundtrack albums for the film.  Two score albums were released, a standard and a special edition.The musical content is identical on both releases, with the special edition simply offering fancier packaging.  I have the special edition because I was able to get it at a decent price, but there is little reason to spend much extra for it.  There also were at least two song compilation albums released which were really just “inspired by” the movie.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (Harry Gregson-Williams, 2008): Composer Harry Gregson-Williams returned to the world of Narnia for Prince Caspian, the second entry in the series.  The score maintains stylistic continuity with the first one, including reprising a couple main themes, but it does also take a more action-oriented approach while downplaying some of the more otherworldly elements from the original.  The result is a score that is in the same family as the first one, but perhaps a bit more conventional.  While less of a creative leap, I also think it is a somewhat more listenable score.

Just like with the first score, this one opens with a driving, percussion and brass action cue.  The cue this time is called “Prince Caspian Flees” and it perhaps demonstrates Gregson-Williams’ background in Hans Zimmer’s scoring company more than any of the cues in the previous score.  The piece definitely has a quality that reflects Zimmer’s driving, orchestral/electronic approach to action scoring.  This cue sets the tone for the kind of action scoring that dominates a lot of this score.  This opening cue does also introduce a new theme for the title character, although it is only sparingly used during the rest of the score and feels a bit underdeveloped.

The key themes from the original film are reprised here, with the primary theme for the siblings that are the story’s central character first making an appearance in the second cue, “The Kings and Queens of Old”.  The regal theme for Aslan is used very frequently in this score, initially making its re-appearance in the cue “Arrival at Aslan’s How”.  As in the first score, that theme tends to serve as a victory theme in the battle cues which, as noted earlier, dominate this score much more than the original.

As with the previous soundtrack, several songs are included at the end of the album.  Once again, they are generally in that modernistic, electronic folk ballad style and really aren’t exceptionally interesting.  This time, Gregson-Williams is not credited as a writer on any of the songs and the performers, Regina Spekter, Oren Lavie, Switchfoot, and Hanne Hukkelberg, are all unfamiliar to me.

Prince Caspian was the last released film in this series at the time that I’m writing this.  As of this point, this will be the last film in the series for Disney, Gregson-Williams, and director Andrew Adamson.  The third film in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Trader, is scheduled for release (by Twentieth Century Fox) later this year with Michael Apted taking over as director and David Arnold taking over the scoring.  It will be interesting to hear whether Arnold chooses to retain any of Gregson-Williams’ themes.  I tend to hope that he at least retains the Aslan theme in order to keep some musical continuity to the series.

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Soundtrack Collection: China Syndrome to A Christmas Carol

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome (Michael Small, 1979): Here is a definite oddity in my collection: a score album from a movie that had no musical score.  While it certainly isn’t the only album I have of a rejected score, this one is, I believe, unique since the filmmakers decided to replace the score with nothing at all.  They didn’t even go with a song or classical temp score or anything like that.  Instead, they decided that the film’s tension would be stronger and more effective without music.

A 30-minute program of Michael Small’s unused score plus about 7 minutes of original source music by Small was released by Intrada in a 2009 limited edition CD of 1000 copies.  The album is entirely in mono as stereo masters of the music could not be found.  The CD has sold out and copies on the secondary market generally sell in the $35 range.

Small’s score is primarily performed with synthesizers and a small orchestra.  It is a pretty dark, minimalistic score that was clearly designed to ratchet up tension and suspense.  The electronic sound of the synthesizers is frequently supplemented by low violins and occasional horns to generate a fairly grim style for much of the score.  One major exception is “Meltdown!”, which is a very fast paced and exciting action cue.  In this cue, the violins tend to move much more into the foreground while the synthesizer elements are played at a very rapid, pulse-quickening tempo.  Melody is largely absent from the score until the sensitive opening to “The Truth and Finale” closing cue, which then segues into a more pop-inspired conclusion.

Two cues entitled “News at 6:00” and “News at 11:00” are included in the main score section of the album and have a fairly pop-centric, newsroom sound complete with xylophones and timpani.  These cues are nicely done and help to break the tension a bit.  The album also ends with two suites of source cues, which mostly further build on the newsroom element of the story, including various news themes, bumpers, etc.  It also includes some extended, disco-style party music.

It is kind of hard to judge whether the decision to drop the score entirely was the right on without hearing the music in context, but the film works so well as released that it is a hard decision to criticize.  The overall mood that Small’s score creates even on the album makes it seem pretty likely that using this score wouldn’t have reduced the tension much.

Chinatown

Chinatown (Jerry Goldsmith, 1974): Chinatown was pretty high on the list of the most acclaimed films that Jerry Goldsmith ever scored.  The score is a perfect fit to the film and a major contributor to its success.  This is made all the more amazing by the fact that Goldsmith was brought in as a last minute replacement composer and, reportedly, only had 10 days to compose it.

The score is a very moody score composed for a relatively small ensemble, dominated by a solo trumpet.  Strings, piano and harp provide additional accompaniment while the score is notable in the absence of woodwinds.  The effect is a score that builds a very intimate, darkly romantic mood.  Central to the score is a melodic, romantic main theme which is introduced during the opening cue, entitled “Love Theme from Chinatown (Main Title) and then woven throughout the score.  The main melodic line for that theme is featured on the solo trumpet giving it a smoky, jazzy feeling that ultimately came to largely define the overall mood of the film.

The available soundtrack album only runs about 30 minutes in length and that includes three cues of period source music.  The soundtrack was originally released on LP at the time of the movie’s release and was re-issued on CD by Varese Sarabande.  Unfortunately, the CD is now long out of print and used copies tend to go for very high prices (approaching $100).  This is a score that desperately needs a re-issue.

CHiPs

CHiPs (Alan Silvestri, 1978): I’m a big fan of Alan Silvestri.  I have many of his scores in my collection and a lot of them get played frequently.  Before he broke through as a big-name film composer in the mid-80s, he spent quite a few years working in series television.  Probably his most prominent job was serving as the primary composer for the popular motorcycle police series CHiPs starting in its second season.

So far, Film Score Monthly has released three CDs of Silvestri’s music for the series, one for each of the second, third, and fourth season.  While I find the music to the series to be an interesting peek into the early phase of a favorite composer’s career, I also admit that one disc was enough and I haven’t purchased the season 3 or season 4 discs.  Note that the season 2 CD has a running time of an hour and 17 minutes and that seems pretty long for this material.

Upon hearing the music from the series without identification, fans of Silvestri’s famous symphonic scores would not likely pick it out as his work.  The scores are all disco instrumentals, performed by a small orchestra and continuously featuring the traditional underlying disco beat.  The score is consistently upbeat and does include a fair amount of melodic themes and those melodies do, every once in a while, contain a bit of Silvestri’s recognizable style.

The season 2 CD also includes one 6 minute suite, entitled “Trick or Treat” (from a Halloween episode) that was composed by Bruce Broughton.  This cue is stylistic consistent with the Silvestri cues and it isn’t especially obvious that it was by another composer, much less another composer with a very distinguished career ahead. 

The CD opens and closes with Silvestri’s arrangements of John Parker’s series theme as played over the main and end titles. 

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Soundtrack Collection: Chain Reaction to Chicken Run

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

Chain Reaction

Chain Reaction (Jerry Goldsmith, 1996): During the 1990s, Jerry Goldsmith frequently took jobs scoring 2nd tier action films.  These were usually medium-budget major studio releases with reasonably well-known actors, but they weren’t big budget tentpole releases starting top box-office draws.  Goldsmith delivered very competent scores for these films, even often helping to elevate the film’s overall quality, although they didn’t usually count among the composer’s most memorable work.  Chain Reaction, which starred Keanu Reeves and Morgan Freeman, was one of the more forgettable of these films and scores.

Goldsmith created a nicely melodic main theme, introduced during the opening cue “Meet Eddie”.  The theme is orchestral with a strong emphasis on strings, but also with a substantial synthesizer assist.  The synthesizer component gives the theme a bit more of a pop sensibility, particularly in its overall rhythmic line.  The rest of the score (as presented on the CD) is pretty typical Goldsmith action and suspense music, very competent but not extremely distinctive.  The cue “Ice Chase” is one of the better examples of Goldsmith’s approach to chase music during this period of his career, though.

Most of Goldsmith’s scores during that era were recorded in Los Angeles with union musicians.  At that time, the musicians’ union had a pretty rigid and costly re-use fee regulations that would greatly limit the viability of soundtrack album releases that were unlikely to be big sellers.  Various music labels, especially Varese Sarabande, did still put out albums of these scores, but with short running times.  This one runs just slightly over 30 minutes in length.  While some of the scores from that era have received expanded releases now that the union has adopted more favorable fee structures, Chain Reaction is one that has not been revisited.  It is possible that this is a score that would make a bigger impression with a more complete release.

Chaplin

Chaplin (John Barry, 1992): Chaplin was John Barry’s first major film score after his big, Oscar-winning success with Dances With Wolves.  While this is a smaller-scale score than this one, it does clearly come from the same era of Barry’s career, when his focus had shifted more towards lushly romantic melodies than big action cues.

The score is dominated by piano and strings, although with some occasionally very prominent trumpet sections.  The main theme has a gentle, kind of melancholy quality to it.  While the score is mostly fairly upbeat, the lush style that Barry utilizes often gives it a bit of an edge of sadness.  This actually reflects the film pretty well as it is a biography of a comedic genius with a bit of a dark side. 

Barry also provides some very lively music for the segments depicting Chaplin filming.  The cue “Discovering the Tramp/Wedding Chase” contains great examples of this aspect of the score.  The cue “The Roll Dance” is a particularly fun, old-fashioned turn-of-the-century nickelodeon style cue. This overall more up-beat approach becomes somewhat dominant during the later part of the score, as the film shifted its focus to Chaplin’s professional career.  This puts the score into a more upbeat territory as it progresses.

Central to score is a melodic love theme that suffers a bit from a perhaps slightly too close resemblance to the main theme from Dances With Wolves.  The theme starts off almost the same as the previous film’s theme before veering off with a different conclusion.  This theme is particularly prominent in the cue “Charlie Proposes”.

The soundtrack also includes instrumental, orchestral versions of Charlie Chaplin’s famous song “Smile” incorporated into the score at a few points.  The album also ends with a vocal performance of the song, sung by the film’s star Robert Downey Jr.  It is a kind of odd, modern pop arrangement and it would have been nice if the soundtrack had included a more straightforward performance of it as well.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)

The Charge of the Light Brigade (John Addison, 1968): This score was included in Film Score Monthly’s “MGM Soundtrack Treasury” boxed set.  The film was a remake of a 1936 Errol Flynn movie (with a score by Max Steiner) about the events surrounding England’s involvement in the 19th century Crimean War against Russia.

The album opens with a title song performed by Manfred Mann, featuring lyrics taken from Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous poem that served as a basis for the film’s storyline.  The song has a late-60s contemporary, folk song style.  The liner notes mention that it isn’t clear if the music to the song (which wasn’t used in the film) was written by score composer John Addison or by Mann, but the melody is not incorporated into the score.

The “Main Title” is a Victorian-style choral and orchestral work with a fairly royal sound to it.  This style continues to be incorporated into other parts of the score, with occasional repeats of this primary choral theme as well as other musical motifs that often bring to mind royalty. This includes some familiar, period-appropriate choral songs in the cues “War Fever” and “Across the Seas” as well as a very traditional sounding waltz in the cue “Lady Scarlett’s Ball”.  The score is heavy on brass fanfares and other brassy melodies. Strings are dominant in some of the more romantic sections of the score.

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