Archive for October, 2010

Soundtrack Collection: Cutthroat Island to David & Bathsheba

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

Cutthroat Island

Cutthroat Island (John Debney, 1995): Cutthroat Island is one of those movies that is best known as a legendary flop.  In this case, it is particularly notable as the film that killed off Carolco (the previously successful production company behind films like Basic Instinct and Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and the one that led to a conventional wisdom that movies about pirates were box-office poison, at least until Disney, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Johnny Depp changed everyone’s mind a decade later.  I actually think it is a film that is better than its reputation, but it still is pretty severely flawed and it isn’t too difficult to see why it didn’t succeed.

Had the film been a hit (or at least less of a bomb), I think there is a good chance it would have propelled composer John Debney solidly onto the film composer A-list years before his acclaimed score to The Passion of the Christ finally did.  Debney provided an old-fashioned, fully orchestral swashbuckler score that was largely in the Korngold tradition.  His score supported the film wonderfully, giving it a sense of adventure and fun that the screenplay and performances didn’t always live up to. 

The score is very brass heavy, much of it built around an exciting main theme that served as a primary theme for Geena Davis’ lead character.  The theme is quickly introduced in the opening cue “Main Title/Morgan’s Ride”, initially as a brassy, orchestral opening march.  This version of the theme is so big and bold that it seemed unlikely that it could get any bigger right up until the point where Debney adds in the choir during the second part of the cue.  The result is wildly over the top, but in a very good way.

This is not a score that is very into subtlety and the quieter moments are somewhat infrequent.  When they do come, Debney pretty deftly changes the orchestration on the main themes, keeping a tonal consistency to the score.  In particular, the primary romantic theme (first introduced in the second cue, “The Rescue/Morgan Saves Henry”) is really just the primary theme with its tempo slowed down and transitioned primarily to strings instead of brass.  The score also includes some occasional, lower tone suspense music, such as what is heard during parts of the cue “Anclee Plots/To Spittlefield”.  These are effective, but the brassy adventure music is never far behind during these segments.

The soundtrack CD released with the film contains a generous 1 hour and 10 minutes of music and covers the key parts of the score.  The CD was released by Silva Screen Records in the UK and Nu.Millennium in the US.  At least in the US, the film’s box-office failure resulted in the soundtrack not being very widely distributed to stores and I recall that this was one of the first CDs that I ended up purchasing online from a soundtrack specialty store.  Despite this, the CD isn’t especially rare and can pretty easily be obtained at very reasonable prices even now.  In fact, Silva Screen UK still lists it in their active catalog. The Amazon link at the top of this review is to that edition.

Cutthroat Island (Expanded)

While the original soundtrack contains a good, generous representation of the music, the film was pretty much continuously scored, meaning that a lot of music was missing.  In 2004, Prometheus Records released a 2-CD expanded edition of the soundtrack that runs an amazing nearly 2 1/2 hours in length and contains essentially all the music from the film as well as bonus tracks including a synth demo of the main title and a few tracks with the choral portion removed.  This may be a bit much for casual listeners, but is definitely the best choice for major fans of the score.  This release is still possible to obtain, but is rarer and typically quite a bit more expensive than the single disc version.

The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code (Hans Zimmer, 2006): For Ron Howard’s blockbuster adaptation of Dan Brown’s hugely popular novel, Hans Zimmer provided an intense score that provided an interesting mix of his own typical thriller scoring and some traditionally classical religious sounding themes.  The result was one of Zimmer’s most effective and melodically diverse scores of recent years.

The film was pretty firmly steeped in classical traditions and, thus, the score is much more fully orchestral than most of Zimmer’s recent efforts.  Electronics aren’t completely absent, but are used very infrequently, usually to unobtrusively add a bit to the tension.  This gives the score a somewhat different and refreshing quality compared to the somewhat repetitive nature of some of Zimmer’s recent thriller scores.

The majority of the score is very string-focused with frequent choral elements, with male choir often underscoring the more intense moments while female choir is used for the more spiritual.   Solo vocals also come into play occasionally, as with the haunting female vocal used in the cue “Rose of Arimathea”.  Many of the cues have a definite resemblance to classical religious hymns, but with Zimmer occasionally strengthening the intensity of the strings or adding bits of brass to build tension.  Particularly good examples of this include the final portions of the cue “The Paschal Spiral” and “Fructus Gravis”.

The most familiar theme in the score is also its most modern sounding, a propulsive, drivingly rhythmic theme that is first introduced during the opening cue, “Dies Mercurii I Martius” and closes the score as well.  This theme serves as kind of a primary theme for the story’s puzzles and is used most often during the sequences with that focus, although it actually appears very infrequently on the soundtrack album.  This is also the primary theme that survived in the somewhat more typically Zimmer-style score for the sequel, “Angels & Demons”.

The album ends with a choral hymn entitled “Kyrie for the Magdalene” by Richard Harvey.  Although not written by Zimmer, it fits in fairly well stylistically with the rest of the music.

Damien: Omen II

Damien: Omen II (Jerry Goldsmith, 1978): Jerry Goldsmith’s one and only Academy Award was for The Omen, a particularly impressive accomplishment when you consider the Academy’s usual lack of attention to horror movies.  After that major creative success, it isn’t too surprising that Goldsmith returned to the material for the 1978 sequel (and later for the third film), providing a leaner and more action-packed score that is related to the original more in stylistic approach than in the specific musical content.

The score to the original Omen was particularly characterized by its choral pieces that brought to mind the dark, demonic flip side to a religious hymn.  The sequel score extensively uses this same approach and, in fact, the dark choir is present almost continuously during the score, with only occasional brief respites.  The orchestral accompaniment is dominated by strings, percussion, with occasional bursts of harsh brass.  Organ and electronics are also used to effectively add to the unease on occasion.  The famous “Ave Satani” from the first film is only occasionally re-visited, although much of the new music resembles it in style.

Goldsmith completely eliminated any use of the melodic “Piper’s Dream” love theme from the first film, which also removes the earlier score’s primary source of release from the dark tension.  The score does have a few quieter moments, but Goldsmith manages to weave a certain underlying tension even to those pieces and typically they end with bursts of dark mayhem.  In particular, the cue “Thoughtful Night” features some of the score’s most melodic and emotional music, but ends with an abrupt return of the demonic choral music.

The original soundtrack album released with the film actually contained a re-recording of the score instead of the actual film tracks.  That album was released on LP at the time of the movie’s release and was later released on CD by Silva Screen Records.  In 2001, Varese Sarabande released a deluxe edition that contains both the original album and the film tracks on a single CD. 

The film apparently only contained a little over 35 minutes of original music and the original film tracks only run a couple minutes longer than the album presentation.  The main differences in the two versions are in some of the orchestrations, the presentation order, and some performance details.  In particular, the organ tends to be more intense and dominant in the film tracks than in the re-recording.  The differences are mostly fairly subtle, but it is good that both sets of performances are now available.  One major oddity on the film tracks is the cue “Snowmobiles”, which is a melodic, upbeat orchestral piece that seems totally disconnected from the rest of the score.  It comes as a definite surprise on the album.

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Soundtrack Collection: Con Air to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

Con Air

Con Air (Mark Mancina & Trevor Rabin, 1997): Teaming up Mark Mancina and Trevor Rabin, two of the major composers to come out of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures film score company during the late 1990s, Con Air features a pretty hard-driving, largely electronic score that echoes the film’s intense, adrenaline-fueled action.

At the very beginning of the soundtrack, the score’s intensity is established with the opening “Con Air Theme”.  The cue starts with some very rough, metallic sounding sounds that are closer to sound effects than to music.  This transitions into the score’s primary theme, which is melodic but very much in a rhythmic, rock-instrumental mold.  The main theme somewhat resembles Mancina’s well-known Speed theme, which suggests that he probably was the primary driver on it.  Most of the rest of the cues continue in this rock-based style and the Hans Zimmer influence is pretty evident in this score as well.

The second cue, entitled “Trisha”, introduces a softer, very melodic theme for Nicolas Cage’s character’s wife, the only really significant female character in the film.  This theme is the primary deviation away from the hard driving nature of the rest of the score.  At least on the soundtrack album, the theme only appears very rarely after this initial presentation of it.

Oddly, the final cue on the soundtrack album is entitled “Overture”, suggesting that the album producer doesn’t know the meaning of that word.

Conan the Barbarian

Conan the Barbarian (Basil Poledouris, 1982): Although he had been around for quite a while, and even scored some high profile projects, this extremely popular score did quite a bit to elevate Basil Poledouris into the upper tier of composers and established him as a solid choice for scoring high energy action films.

The best known theme from the score is the highly percussive “Anvil of Crom”, which is the opening cue of the soundtrack album (preceded by a brief spoken prologue).  It features a very rhythmic drumbeat which is overlaid with a brassy march-type melody.  It is a recognizable theme that had a pretty obvious influence on a number of future action score themes, particularly Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator and Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall.

The whole score is mix of some very active and dynamic action music, dominated by brass and percussion as well as some pretty impressive choral elements.  The entire score maintains a very strong melodic quality, with strings generally brought in to enhance the more emotional portions of the score.  Poledouris establishes some pretty strong thematic material here with some very distinctive melodies.

The original LP release of the soundtrack from the time of the movie’s release ran around 49 minutes and was later re-issued on CD by Milan Records.  That CD edition is still pretty easy to come by and is also available as a download or as an in-demand CD-R release from Amazon.  Varese Sarabande also released an expanded CD edition back in 1992 that ran over an hour in length.  That edition is out of print and relatively difficult to find at reasonable prices.  I only have the shorter Milan release.

Congo

Congo (Jerry Goldsmith, 1995): This adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel was seriously panned by critics (although it did reasonably well at the box-office), although I think it actually is a film that is a lot better than its reputation.  Possibly its strongest component was the exciting, ethnically-appropriate score by Jerry Goldsmith.

The score closely reflects the setting of the film, with the use of a lot of African-style percussion and rhythms.  These are integrated carefully with Goldsmith’s typical style of fast paced and melodic action music.  The primary theme is based around the song “Spirit of Africa”.  Popular African vocalist Lebo M, best known for his arrangements and performances for The Lion King, provided mixed African and English-language lyrics and performed vocal versions of the song that open and close the album.  It is a very cool song, particularly if you  and the melody is used frequently throughout the score.

The soundtrack CD contains only a little over 33 minutes of the score and, thus, an expanded release would be very welcome.  Now that Paramount has recently started working with specialty soundtrack labels, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if an expansion of this score shows up at some point in the future.

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Soundtrack Collection: Cohen & Tate to The Commitments

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Cohen & Tate

Cohen & Tate (Bill Conti, 1988): Intrada very recently released a CD containing the first ever album release of Bill Conti’s score to this late 80s Roy Scheider thriller.  It is a surprisingly dark and aggressive score for Conti and isn’t immediately recognizable as his work.  It is an effective score and an interesting look at a different side to a popular composer.

The score is dominated by some very aggressively low piano music, which generally serves as the primary theme for the score.  Harsh strings and some very deep brass, particularly French horn, additionally build upon the foreboding atmosphere that is established by the primary piano music.  Much of the score is fairly dissonant and non-melodic, instead going for more of a rhythmic approach.  There are some exceptions where Conti does introduce more melodic elements, such as a fairly cold, but definitely melodic theme that is particularly clearly established in the cue “Tail Lights”.

The later part of the score includes some pretty intense action music, with percussion joining the deep piano and strings to create some aggressively fast-paced, very rhythmic music.  The short cue “It’s Really Them” is one of the first really strong examples of this aspect to the score and this approach is further developed impressively in the cue “Kaboom”.  In the end, all of the different elements of the score come together in the fairly impressive “The Last Battle” cue.

The Color Purple

The Color Purple (Quincy Jones, 1985): To date, The Color Purple remains the only full-length theatrical movie directed by Steven Spielberg that did not contain a score by John Williams.  Before Spielberg joined the project, Quincy Jones was already attached as a producer and wished to score the film as well.  Jones, working with a fairly large team of co-composers and orchestrators, delivered a score that fit the film exceptionally well and also plays quite well on CD.

The primary theme to the score is a beautiful melody that seems to be inspired by Georges Delerue.  In fact, the theme is perhaps a bit uncomfortably close to Delerue’s main theme from the 1967 film Our Mother’s House.  Despite this similarity, it is still an exceptionally nice theme that works extremely well in the film and the score.  The theme is initially introduced as primarily a flute melody, but is developed into more fully orchestral versions.  Much of the score has a pretty distinctively rural quality to it, particularly emphasized by the occasional use of harmonica.

The score also occasionally introduces some other ethnic elements, most significantly some African rhythms, starting with the cue “High Life/Proud Theme”.  Jones and his team are particularly effective at blending some of the score’s melodic themes with these African rhythms in order to retain a cohesiveness to the score.  This ethnicity is most impressively featured in the very powerful cue “Celie Shaves Mr./Scarifiaction Ceremony” which underscores one of the film’s most intense sequences. 

Songs play a key role in the film as well due to one of the key characters, dubbed by singer Tata Vega, being a singer in a 1930s juke joint.   The most important of these is the very distinctive, jazzy song “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister)” which actually opens the soundtrack album (as the first part of the “Overture” cue) and then is given a complete performance later.  Vega also performs the songs “Careless Love”, “The Dirty Dozens” and leads a choir in the lively gospel song “Maybe God Is Trying to Tell You Something”. 

Back in 1985, a 2-LP soundtrack album was released that was pressed on rather striking purple vinyl.  The same program was eventually released on a 2-CD set that still remains in print and readily available.

Coma

Coma (Jerry Goldsmith, 1978): Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Michael Crichton’s 1978 medical thriller Coma was generally one of the composer’s more dark and challenging scores of that era of his career.    The score somewhat straddles the line between the more atonal approach that Goldsmith sometimes took during the 1970s and the more melodic approach that dominated his later scores.

A distinguishing element of this score was that Goldsmith composed it using a limited orchestra, principally featuring piano, strings, and percussion as well as some occasional electronics.  Brass is entirely absent from the score.  The result is a score that has a sort of compressed, vaguely oppressive tone, reflecting the overall mood of the film itself.

While much of the score is fairly non-melodic and atonal, Goldsmith does provide a melodic, somewhat pop-inspired love theme that is only used very sparingly.  The theme is given a full performance in the cue “Cape Cod Weekend (Love Theme from Coma), but is rarely re-visited within the main parts of the score.  The expanded soundtrack ends with a song entitled “Sunday’s Moon” which adds lyrics by Goldsmith’s wife Caroline to the theme.

A 35-minute soundtrack album was released on LP at the time of the movie’s release and has been re-issued twice on CD, once by the now-defunct Bay Cities label and also by the Chapter III label, which paired it with Goldsmith’s score to Logan’s Run.  Most recently, Film Score Monthly released an expanded, 51 minute (including bonus tracks) program of the score as part of a 2-disc set that also included scores from two other Michael Crichton movies, Westworld and The Carey Treatment.  That release is still available.

All of the soundtrack releases have included an additional disco instrumental entitled “Disco Strut”, written by Don Peake.  This cue is pretty much exactly what you would expect from a cue by that title and is definitely a product of its era.  The soundtracks also include a disco version of Goldsmith’s love theme, which benefits from the strong source melody, but still is rather dated.

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