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.
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 (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”.
East of Eden (Lee Holdridge, 1981): This score comes from a big-budget TV miniseries based on the classic John Steinbeck novel. Lee Holdridge provided a suitably epic scale, melodramatic score that is richly steeped in Americana.
Holdridge score is lushly orchestral, featuring a sweeping main theme that is introduced during the “Main Title” cue. The music is dominated by rich strings and some very front and center and effective woodwinds. Brass is understated but frequently present as well. Some parts include some fairly dramatic piano as well, particularly on the cue “Enigma”.
The main theme sets the tone for richly wistful and romantic melodies that appear during parts of the score. Holdridge does also include some darker melodies such as the one introduced in “The Sons” or the melancholy style used in the cue “Home”. Particularly in the mid-section of the score, these qualities become more dominant. The cue “Conflict and Resolution” is especially a standout, opening with one of the darker melodies, before shifting into a more upbeat brassy section that then leads into a particularly full-blooded rendition of the main theme.
Intrada’s now sold-out limited edition (1000 copies) CD release features the contents of the original 1981 LP program in stereo, followed by an additional 26 minutes of previously unreleased monaural score cues. This adds up to a very generous running time of nearly 80 minutes.
East-West (Patrick Doyle, 1999): The French/Russian period drama East/West (Est/Ouest in the original language) was little seen in the United States, but fortunately its soundtrack album is readily available. The film was scored by Patrick Doyle, in his third collaboration with director Régis Wargnier (the previous collaborations were Indochine and Une femme française). Doyle provides the film with a big scale, ethnically-appropriate score in the composer’s distinctive, classically-influenced style.
While the score includes plenty of Doyle’s usually expert string compositions, this score also includes some very powerful and prominent piano, expertly performed by well-known pianist Emanuel Ax. Despite the participation of such a distinguished soloist, Doyle is actually very selective in the use of the solo piano, making it all the more impactful in the cues where it does appear, such as in a brief segment of the cue “You’re Doing It For Us”, where Ax’s piano briefly and aggressively takes the focus from the previously dominant strings. Ax’s piano is finally given its best showcase in the impressive and exciting back-to-back cues “The River” and “The Race”.
Doyle’s considerable songwriting skills are on display in several distinctly ethnic songs that reflect the film’s Russian setting. These include the noble “Farewell of a Slav” as well as the spirited, celebratory tune “Smuglianka”. The song “Nightingales” effectively adapts a theme used elsewhere during the score (most notably in “The Church”) into an operatic piece for male soloist and chorus. A reprise of this closes the album in the cue “The Land”.
Ed Wood (Howard Shore, 1994): Due to a temporary falling out between Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, Ed Wood is one of Burton’s only two films that was scored by someone else (the other was Sweeney Todd, which used the Stephen Sondheim music from the musical). Howard Shore was hired to score the film and delivered an absolutely terrific score that fit the film wonderfully. Although it is hard not to wonder what Elfman might have done with this film, it is also hard to imagine a better score for this film than the one Shore provided.
Shore’s score is a pretty much perfect re-creation of the classic 1950s science fiction and horror scores, just like the ones that were found in Ed Wood’s actual films. The score has a tongue-in-cheek sensibility to it but, just like the film itself, it is humorous in a loving manner that comes closer to homage than parody.
Shore’s main theme is a fast-paced, kind of warped lounge music tune featuring aggressive bongos and plenty of Theremin. The main theme plays over the “Main Title” and receives an even better concert arrangement in the cue “Ed Wood (Video)” which closes the soundtrack album. The score has its fair share of more straightforward orchestral music, including a surprisingly classical theme with lilting brass and strings used in the cue “Glen or Glenda”. Another highlight is the triumphant, brassy march featured in “Ed Takes Control”.
Other portions of the score take on a bit more of a sentimental strain, particularly for the romantic aspects of the film as heard in “Ed & Kathy”. Shore also very cleverly weaves bits of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” into some portions of the score, as in the cues “Eddie, Help Me” and “Sanitarium”. The score even includes a mambo (“Kuba Mambo”), complete with accompanying vocals.
Honestly, the score is kind of all over the map in styles (appropriately), so I could really go on and on here describing each variation, but those discoveries are probably better made by listening to the album or, better yet, seeing the film. The album features a mix of well-developed themes for pretty much every aspect of the story as well as a variety of original source cues, making for a decidedly unusual listening experience.
I’m not usually a fan of dialog excerpts or narration on score albums, but I see this album as being an exception. The album includes a couple of very aptly and appropriately chosen bits of narration that really fit exceptionally well with the bits of music that they accompany. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the narration excerpts are exceptionally amusing and completely capture the film’s bizarre sensibility.
I will state outright that I absolutely loved the film Ed Wood and consider it to be Burton’s 2nd best film to date (#1 will come later in this post). Howard Shore found exactly the right musical accompaniment for every part of the film and I enjoy this album tremendously. I do admit, though, that it would be an extremely puzzling (at best) score to anyone that does not know the film.
Edge of the City (Leonard Rosenman, 1957): This early Leonard Rosenman score has a very short running time (only 14 1/2 minutes), but features some impressively brassy and exciting themes. The score was released on CD by Film Score Monthly, paired with Rosenman’s score for The Cobweb. This same pairing was released on LP closer to the time of the films’ original release.
The main theme to Edge of the City is an energetic, very brass dominated march which is paired with a melodic counterpoint. The soundtrack opens with a “Main Title” cue that starts with some fairly dark, atonal music before quickly transitioning into a full presentation of that main theme. The score’s other distinctive melody is a romantic, string-dominated theme that is well represented in the cue “Love In the City”.
Rosenman’s style often has a distinctive atonal approach that is on display during much of this score. A particularly strong example of this aspect is on display in the cue “Violence In the City”, where the use of wild brass along with dissonant strings and piano create a sound that is fitting of the cue’s title.
The Edge (Jerry Goldsmith, 1997): On the surface, The Edge appeared to be a fairly straightforward survival thriller that followed the experiences of plane crash survivors trapped in the Alaska wilderness and struggling against a black bear. With a screenplay by David Mamet and starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, the film actually was a much deeper drama that was as interested in the characters’ psychology as it was in the thriller aspects.
Jerry Goldsmith’s flexibility as a composer made him an excellent fit for this film. He was able to provide appropriate musical accompaniment for the action sequences, the psychological drama, as well as the majestic vistas of the film’s Alaskan setting. This score is apt to be more appealing to the fans of Goldsmith’s majestic orchestral compositions and his darker, brassy thriller music. There is occasional action, percussive action music (such as in the cue “The Ravine”), but that tends to be fairly infrequent.
The focal point of the score is a hauntingly beautiful main theme for horns. The theme is first hinted at during the opening cue, “Early Arrival”, before getting a full presentation in “Lost In the Wild(s)”. The theme is majestic in scope and perfectly reflects the film’s setting as well as the relatively big ideas at the core of the storyline. Goldsmith incorporated the main theme into more of the body of the score than he often did with his main themes, giving it an especially strong prominence. A variety of orchestrations and various derived themes helps to avoid repetitiveness. The soundtrack ends with an unusual, jazz piano arrangement of the main theme. It doesn’t quite fit with the orchestral approach of the score, but still provides an intriguing take on the melody.
Somewhat unusual for a score from the later part of Goldsmith’s career, the score is pretty much entirely orchestral without frequent (if any) use of synthesizers or other electronic instruments. This approach feels right for the rustic, back-to-nature setting of the film. Particularly during the action cues, Goldsmith sometimes uses the orchestra to create an approximation of some of the sounds he usually created via electronics, an approach that is surprisingly effective. The score to The Edge is an especially strong presentation of Goldsmith’s considerable skills with orchestration.
With the film’s original release, BMG Classics/RCA Victor released a CD soundtrack containing a little under 40 minutes of the score. This wasn’t a bad representation of the score’s highlights, although it was definitely incomplete and the sound quality was a bit mixed. The CD also went out of print fairly quickly and became somewhat difficult (and expensive) to obtain.
Fortunately, La La Land Records released a CD of the complete score in 2010. This CD is re-mastered for much better sound quality and contains over an hour of score, including a little over 5 minutes of bonus tracks presenting some alternate takes. This release is a limited edition of 3,500 copies, but is still available from their website.
Edward Scissorhands (Danny Elfman, 1990): In my comments about Ed Wood above, I mentioned that it was my 2nd favorite Tim Burton film. My favorite is his other film that starred Johnny Depp as a strange outsider named Edward. While several of Burton’s other films have been more popular and, arguably, more ambitious, I truly believe that none has been as personal or heartfelt as Edward Scissorhands. The film really moved me and it remains not only my favorite Burton film, but one of the titles on my short list of all favorite films.
Danny Elfman’s score is also my favorite of the composer’s many scores for Burton’s films. The film’s story is unquestionably a fairy tale and Elfman’s score is really nothing short of magical. The score is romantic and melodious, packed with gentle charm and ethereal emotion. Before this score, Elfman was mainly known for superhero action scores and comedies and I really feel that this one propelled his career to a new level.
The “Introduction (Titles)” cue establishes the score’s main theme. It starts with a simple, music-box style piano melody that is then joined first by lush strings and then by a wordless choir. The choir takes the lead for much of the melody in both the main theme and throughout the score, effectively allowing the human voice to anchor the score’s emotional construct.
The theme, and in fact the whole score, has a strongly balletic quality with obvious Tchaikovsky influences. In fact, the score was in part later adapted to a ballet based on the film. The idealized suburban world that serves as the story’s main setting is represented by a peppy cue called “Ballet De Suburbia (Suite)”, which very directly (as the title suggests) evokes the ballet style of the score. The theme also receives a very prominent and expressive performance in the cue “Ice Dance”, where it is directly used as dance music in the film itself.
Elfman carefully develops the main theme over the entire length of the score with much of the music being based on variations. This makes the score unusually cohesive thematically, actually making it feel much like a single long work. The choral elements as well as the piano and strings are pretty much ever present in the score. Brass is certainly well used in some cues, especially some deep brass in the cue “Cookie Factory”, but even then it still maintains the same melody.
As the later part of the film turns darker, Elfman’s score also introduces a more menacing quality, while still retaining the same basic melodies and instruments. He very effectively weaves in more brass and percussion as well as sharper strings and more urgent choral elements in cues such as “The Tide Turns (Suite)” and “Final Confrontation”. The continuation of the same thematic core even in these darker segments gives the score a definite arc.
The soundtrack CD contains a little over 45 minutes of Elfman’s score and covers most of the significant musical moments from the film. The album also ends with Tom Jones performance of the song “With These Hands”, which is a bit of a jarring conclusion, even though it was used in the film. An expanded version of the soundtrack will be included with the mammoth (and expensive) Danny Elfman & Tim Burton 25th Anniversary Music Box which is scheduled for release later this Spring.