Archive for February, 2011

Soundtrack Collection: E.T. to Edward Scissorhands

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 20th Anniversary

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (John Williams, 1982): E.T. is a film that is very special to me.  I was 12-years-old when the movie came out and I found it especially easy at that age to relate to the central character (Elliot) and the central story of friendship and the importance of home really connected.  Despite 3 huge preceding blockbusters, this was really the film that made Steven Spielberg a household name and, even now, it still feels like his most intimately personal film.

My first time seeing the film was also an especially memorable one.  We went to a sneak preview showing 2 weeks before the film’s general release.  There really hadn’t been a lot of buzz about the movie and we went solely on the basis of the ads that promoted it as coming from the same director as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  We really knew nothing about the story or what to expect.  The theater was completely full, to the extent that they had even over-sold and were offering free movie passes to people that would give up their seat (we didn’t).  Seeing the movie with so little advance knowledge was amazing and, to this day, it remains the only time that I have seen an audience give a film a spontaneous standing ovation at the end.

John Williams’ Oscar winning score is, of course, widely considered to be one of the composer’s top-tier masterpieces.  The “Flying” theme is one of his most instantly recognizable and is a staple of compilation albums and film music concerts.  The score is thematically very rich and that familiar theme is only one of several very distinctive musical ideas that Williams weaves together into a truly magical and thrilling work that perfectly matches the film’s impressive range of emotions.

The score opens with what is effectively ambient noise over the opening credits.  As the credits fade away, the first of the film’s musical themes is introduced with a simple, plaintive 6-note melody played on the flute.  This simple theme both opens and closes the film, with the simple flute rendition replaced by a bold brass statement of the theme at the end.  The statements of the simple theme are typically expanded to include additional strings and deep brass.  This effectively serves as a primary theme for the titular character and the sense of wonderment connected with the presence of an alien visitor.

The famous “Flying” theme doesn’t actually appear until around the middle of the film and doesn’t get a full-blown performance until “The Magic of Halloween” when E.T. makes the bicycle fly for the first time.  One brief, earlier performance of the theme does make an impression.  During the cue “Frogs”, the theme receives a sweepingly romantic statement as Elliot (who is emotionally linked to E.T.) kisses a female classmate while E.T. is watching a observing a romantic movie on the television at home.

The third very distinctive and familiar theme from E.T. is “Over the Moon” (using the title of the concert arrangement on the original soundtrack release), which is typically featured prominently during the films chase sequences.  This is actually perhaps the most beautiful and uplifting of the themes in the score and Williams chose to use an impressive solo piano (eventually joined by full orchestra) arrangement over the end credits.  The theme makes its first strong impression in the cue “Searching for E.T.” and reappears during most of the subsequent action scenes.

Williams also provides the score with a bit of a darker side, primarily represented by a very deep, brassy theme that is used during the key sequences involving the government agents that are pursuing E.T.  This theme very effectively conveys the sense of menace surrounding those sequences.  This theme somewhat resembles the primary E.T. theme structurally, connecting it as kind of a darker analog to that main theme.

The score’s finale brings all of the themes together into one of the most impressive cues ever written for a film.  The piece, which is entitled “Escape/Chase/Saying Goodbye” on the complete score album and was named “Adventures On Earth” for the original soundtrack LP, runs for just over 15 minutes.  Spielberg has mentioned in interviews before that Williams made the unusual choice not to record the piece directly to the film and that Spielberg ended up editing the film to fit it.  This complex piece is often played in full at Williams’ live concerts.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Original)

There have been 3 major releases of the score and, to be frank, any fan of this score needs to have 2 of them.  The original 1982 LP release (which was later released on CD in 1986) contains a re-recording of the score.  This album runs around 40 minutes in length and is especially notable for the excellent concert arrangements of “Flying” and “Over the Moon”.  In 1996, MCA Records released an expanded soundtrack containing the original film tracks, except for an alternate version of the end credits that was missing the “Over the Moon” theme.

Finally, a “20th Anniversary” edition was released in 2002.  It contains the complete score, including the previously unreleased “Main Titles” (as noted earlier, this is mainly ambient noise) and the film version of the “End Credits”.  It only added a little under 5 minutes of music that was missing from the 1996 release, but the difference in the end credits cue alone justifies it.

The “20th Anniversary” release is definitely the version to get if you want to limit yourself to a single release of the score, but I think that it is worthwhile to own the 1982 LP program as well, principally for the concert arrangements.  Both versions are easy to obtain at low prices (copies can be found for well under $10), so I see little reason not to have both of them.

Earthquake

Earthquake (John Williams, 1974): The disaster movie formula established in the 1970s is built around a mix of soap opera style personality-driven melodrama and fast paced, fighting-for-your-life action sequences.  John Williams proved to be a particularly good choice for scoring those films as the composer has proven to be equally adept with both styles of scoring.  His score for Earthquake demonstrates those skills pretty effectively, although the soundtrack album (which only runs a little over 30 minutes) tends to be dominated somewhat by the more melodramatic scoring.

The score features a distinctive main theme, which is first heard over the film’s main title and is given a concert arrangement in the cue entitled “City Theme”.  The theme is peppered throughout the soundtrack, although the composer holds it back enough that it never becomes tiresome.  The other dominant dramatic theme is a romantic theme that is heard during the cues “Love Scene” and in a concert arrangement in “Love Theme”.

If you are looking for a soundtrack album to use to test out a subwoofer, this is a pretty good choice.  As you would expect from a film entitled Earthquake, the more action oriented part score has some segments with some pretty deep bass and the soundtrack CD even ends with a sound effects cue.   The soundtrack opens with some low percussion right at the start of the “Main Title” cue and the bass-heavy scoring especially dominates the cue “Cory in Jeopardy”.  In addition to expected percussion, Williams makes very effective use of some minor-key piano and deep strings.  The cue “Something for Remy” directly incorporates sound effects towards the middle of the cue.

The soundtrack includes a couple of disco/pop style instrumentals that do tend to date it a bit.  These are composed by Williams and are still recognizable as fitting with his usual approach to melody, but they definitely are very much of the era when the score was composed.  This aspect of the score is mainly heard in the cues “Miles on Wheels” and “Something for Rosa”.  Williams also includes some jazzy, saxophone dominated music, notably in the cue “Medley: Watching and Waiting/Miles’ Pool Hall/Sam’s Rescue”.

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HP/Palm Pre and webOS Review: Media (Music and Video)

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

This continues my review of the HP/Palm Pre and webOS.  Click below for the previous parts:

Part 1: Introduction and Hardware
Part 2: User Interface, Launcher, and Multitasking
Part 3: Synergy (Calendar and Contacts)
Part 4: Phone, Web, E-mail, and Messaging
Part 5: Camera, Photos, and Maps/Navigation

While the current version of webOS does an adequate job as a media player, I think it falls short of what it could, or should, have been.  A lot of commentators have noted that Apple’s success with the iPod means that the iPhone’s media capabilities should be expected to exceed those of their competitors, but I think there were opportunities for Palm to pull ahead here in many ways.  Instead, the media capabilities not only fall short of the iPhone, but, in some ways, also fails to match older competitors such as Windows Mobile and even the Palm OS.  I haven’t seen strong indications yet that HP is targeting these issues with webOS 2.0, although maybe there are partnerships to be announced in February.

The greatest opportunity would have come from countering Apple’s infamous adherence to a closed ecosystem by working to make WebOS  compatible with as many audio/video formats as possible.  Instead, Palm only included support for pretty much the same formats that Apple did, mainly variants on MP3 and AAC audio and H264 and MP4 video.  I think that Palm seriously missed the ball by not at least licensing the Windows Media formats from Microsoft and/or including support for common open-source codecs like Ogg Vorbis and Flac.

A big disadvantage on Palm’s side is a complete lack of support for any kind of protected formats at all.  That isn’t a huge deal for music, since most online stores have now gone to distributing unprotected files, but it greatly limits the available support for commercial movies and TV programs or for audiobooks.  I strongly think they HP should make every effort to get support for Audible.com audiobooks and for Windows Media protected video onto the platform as soon as possible.  In fact, I think seem support for protected video content will be absolutely essential for the tablet that they are expected to announce next week.

One of the biggest advantages Apple has is their tight integration with iTunes, which is now the largest music retailer in the US.  Palm wiselywebOS Amazon MP3 Store webOS Amazon MP3 Storepartnered with Apple’s most aggressive online competitor, Amazon.com, to include a nicely designed application for locating, purchasing, and downloading music.  I didn’t really expect to use this much, but I have actually ended up purchasing quite a bit of music this way.   It is nice to be able to purchase and very quickly start listening when I hear about some music of interest while away from home.  The music is the same quality as the downloads purchased from Amazon via the desktop and, since it is unprotected, you can easily transfer the tracks to a computer via the USB connection.

Possibly the single biggest miscalculation that Palm made early on with webOS was hacking synchronization compatibility with iTunes by having the phone attempt to impersonate an iPod.  This put Palm into a war with Apple, which they simply couldn’t win.  For a while, every update to iTunes intentionally broke this feature, with Palm having to quickly code a new hack into their OS updates.  The synchronization has now been broken for over a year and Palm finally gave up on the feature early.  The 1.4 update disabled the “Media Sync” option by default, requiring those still trying to sync with an older version of iTunes to go into the settings to re-enable it.  I’d be surprised if the feature is still present at all in Web OS 2.0.

That war with Apple was a monumental waste of time and resources on Palm’s part that left them with some damage to their reputation (the USB committee even cited them for using Apple’s USB ID) and a missing feature for their users.  It isn’t remotely surprising that Apple didn’t want Palm doing this and it created an ethical grey area at best.  Palm would have been much better off either partnering with a more willing maker of music management software or building their own synchronization tool, possibly making use of Apple’s published API’s for accessing the iTunes library.  Web OS still needs a viable media sync capability and hopefully HP is working on a sustainable solution.

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