Soundtrack Collection: F/X to Fantastic 4

F/X

F/X (Bill Conti, 1986): I remember really liking this mid-80s thriller about a special effects artist that gets caught up in real life intrigue, but I also admit that I don’t really remember very much about it.  While Varese Sarabande released a soundtrack LP at the time of the film’s release, I never bought it and the score didn’t particularly stick with me after seeing the film.  As a result, I ended up essentially re-discovering this score with the 2007 Varese Sarabande CD Club release.

Bill Conti provides a moody, vaguely noir-inspired mixed orchestral and electronic score with several melodic main themes as well as fair amount of suspenseful, string-dominated music.  The "Main Title" cue actually opens with a bit of suspense-driven piano and string music before shifting into a brassy, percussive fanfare.  About a minute and a half in, it then transitions into the score’s main theme, which features a string melody overlaid with a repetitive piano motif.

The more melodic aspect of the score first comes into play in the cue "Rollie’s Diversion", which is primarily a piano-driven version of the main theme, although with some strings joining in towards the latter half of the cue.  The theme continues to provide a melodic line throughout the score, although the darker, more-suspenseful music tends to dominate the soundtrack.  Conti does occasionally provide some of the brassy, fanfare type music that is often his trademark.  In addition to the brief fanfare during the main title, the cue "No Loose Ends" also is a very brassy, action-oriented cue and is very recognizably Conti.  Horns are used more sparingly here than in most of Conti’s scores, but that just tends to make them a bit more impacting when they do appear.

The score is primarily orchestral, but Conti does make sparing use of electronics, such as in the cue "The Wrong Hit".  The electronic elements are typically used to ratchet up the suspense a bit.  Another change of pace comes with an extended militaristic drum solo during the late cue "Lipton’s Last Ride".

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 (Bernard Herrmann, 1966): The CD that I have of this classic Bernard Herrmann score is not actually the original soundtrack recording.  Instead, it is an excellent re-recording of the score by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, conducted by William Stromberg.  This re-recording was released by Tribute Film Classics in late 2007 and also includes music from Herrman’s score to the "Twilight Zone" TV episode entitled "Walking Distance".  The music from Fahrenheit 451 runs a little over an hour in length and is billed as being complete.

Herrmann’s score uses an interesting mix of fairly light-touch, vaguely fantasy-inspired melodies along with some darker, fairly oppressive music.  The lighter portions are dominated by piano as well as frequent use of xylophone and harp.  The darker material features aggressive, lower-register strings as well as some slower, vaguely-sad melodies.  The two styles of music are often presented side-by-side, reflecting Ray Bradbury’s story’s depiction of a society that is characterized by a surface happiness masking an underlying oppression.

There are some faster paced, action-oriented cues as well.  Herrmann makes especially effective use of very fast paced violins in these segments of the score.  Really good examples of this aspect of the score can be found in the cues "Fire Alarm" and "The Hose".  Occasional bits of xylophone and harp overlaying the strings add an especially appealing bit of color to these cues.  Herrmann also includes some emotional, melodic material, particularly in the later part of the score.  "The Reading" is a particularly emotional cue.

The score is presented as 47, generally very short cues.  The longest cues run a little over 3 minutes while many are well below a minute in length.  Despite this, the score does not seem choppy or disjointed.  The music is arranged so that the cues typically flow cleanly into one another, making for a very effective listening experience.  The large number of cues mainly makes it very easy to connect each bit of music directly to the appropriate part of the film.

Family Plot

Family Plot (John Williams, 1976): Family Plot is an historically significant film as it was the final movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  It is also significant to movie score fans as the score was written by John Williams, the first and only collaborator between arguably the most popular director of the movies’ golden age and arguably the most popular film composer of the modern age.  This collaboration also came at the start of Williams’ rise to fame, sandwiched between his scores for Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977.  Despite this pedigree, surprisingly the score to Family Plot remained unavailable (except for short excerpts on a few compilation albums) until it was released by the Varese Sarabande CD Club in late 2010.

The score is very recognizably in Williams’ distinctive style.  The album opens with a cue called "The First Séance", which has a mystical sound complete with choir.  It is reminiscent of some of the music that Williams would provide for Close Encounters of the Third Kind a year later and, especially, themes he would write years later for Empire of the Sun and A.I., although those later scores certainly present this style in a more serious light than hereWilliams provides a fairly simple, but distinctive main theme melody which is prominently presented in the second cue,  "Blanche’s Challenge", prominently featuring both harpsichord and synthesizer in order to give it an unusual flavor.

The entire score has a whimsical, offbeat nature to it, although intermixed with Williams usual strong melodies and distinctive brass and strings.  Both the harpsichord and a number of synthesizer elements help to give it this tone.  Williams also occasionally incorporates some dark, crashing piano to further provide a little bit of thematic darkness to the score.  These aspects of the score pre-shadow a style that the composer would more fully develop a decade later with The Witches of Eastwick.

One thing that is interesting about Williams’ one and only score for Hitchcock is that there is really no attempt to really even give a nod to Bernard Herrmann’s iconic scores for Hitchcock’s earlier classics. Just two years later, Williams would jump pretty much full force into his take on that style with his score to Brian DePalma’s The Fury, but the Family Plot score remains much more distinctively Williams’ style.

The CD ends with two bonus tracks.  The first is "Family Plot Theme", which is a pop-instrumental variation on the film’s primary theme.  This was created for a planned soundtrack album that was never released back in 1976.  It definitely has a 70s pop feel to it, but is a reasonably good presentation of the main melody and not an unwelcome addition to the album.  The last cue is a source music cue entitled "The Stonecutter" and it has a jazz/disco style that was very much of its time.  It is fun to hear this somewhat different side of Williams, although at 6 1/2 minutes the cue kind of wears out its welcome.

Varese Sarabande was, unfortunately, only able to locate masters of the score that were somewhat limited in quality.  The material is monaural, although the mixing makes a best effort to create a semi-stereo depth of field to the score.  The result is more flat sounding than other better preserved recordings from the era, although I do believe that they did the best they could with the elements available.  Still, I would consider this CD to be a must for any serious fans of Williams or film music in general.

Fantasia

Fantasia (Various, 1940): For his third animated feature (following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio), Walt Disney shifted in a markedly experimental direction.  Fantasia used eight familiar works of classical music as accompaniment to animation in order to tell dialog-free stories via the melding of music and visuals.  The result was Disney’s first box-office failure, but one that has ultimately become highly appreciated due to its tremendous artistic merit.

To record the music for Fantasia, Disney teamed up with conductor Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra.  At the time, Stokowski was among the most popular classical conductors, with a style and personality that helped to bring a lot of public attention to the art of classical music.  Reportedly, he was very instrumental in convincing Disney to take on this project to begin with and was a major collaborator throughout.

As you would expect, the 2-CD soundtrack album to the film contains the recordings used in the film.  The pieces used in the film were Bach’s "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor", Tchaikovsky’s "The Nutcracker Suite",  Paul Dukas’ "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice" (featuring Mickey Mouse in the film’s best known sequence), Stravinsky’s "The Rite of Spring", Beethoven’s Symphony Number 6 ("Pastoral"), Ponchielli’s "Dance of the Hours", Mussorgsky’s "A Night on Bald Mountain", and Schubert’s "Ave Maria".  Of course, some of these are presented as excerpts, particularly "Nutcracker" and Beethoven’s symphony.  The finale’s pairing of "A Night on Bald Mountain" and "Ave Maria" is probably the most striking arrangement for the film.

Certainly, other recordings of every one of these pieces are readily available.  In most cases, one or more recording of each is probably pretty likely to be in most substantial classical music collections.  My own collection contains other recordings of pretty much all of these as well.  The actual recordings from Fantasia certainly do have a personality of their own, though, making the soundtrack a worthwhile purchase for fans of the film.

One notable aspect of Fantasia was that it was the first major motion picture to be recorded in stereo sound.  A specially designed surround sound system called "Fantasound" was installed into theaters showing the film in its initial road show release.  These presentations were the very first time that audiences experienced the kind of dynamic, multi-channel sound that we come to expect in movie theaters today.

Because of this, the music was recorded with extremely active and prominent stereo effects, all of which are reflected on the soundtrack.  This can make the playback of the score a bit disconcerting, particularly through headphones, although it also can be pretty impressive on home surround sound systems.  These stereo effects are definitely a reason why some may prefer other recordings of these pieces, but they also provide the soundtrack an original personality.

In the early 1980s, Disney commissioned a new digital recording of the music under conductor Irwin Kostal.  At the time the original recordings were thought to have aged too badly for an acceptable restoration and Disney felt that they were better off doing a new recording.  This was never well received by purists and even general audiences seemed to have a bit of a sense that something was a bit off.  They reverted to the original recordings with the film’s next re-issue and all subsequent releases.  This re-recording was released on LP at the time of the film’s re-release in the early 1980s and was briefly available on CD in the early 90s. It is somewhat difficult to find now.

Fantasia 2000

Fantasia 2000 (Various, 2000): Walt Disney’s original idea for Fantasia was to regularly update the film for re-issues, replacing some segments with new ones.  After the relatively poor reception of the original film, it took 60 years for a version of that vision to become a reality.  The follow up was first released with great fanfare as an Imax-exclusive on January 1, 2000, serving as Disney’s celebration of the new millennium.  The film featured seven new segments, plus a reprise of "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice."

The new pieces featured in the film were the opening to Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Respighi’s "The Pines of Rome", Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue", Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto #2, the finale from Saint-Saens’ "Carnival of the Animals", Elgar’s "Pomp and Circumstances", and Stravinsky’s "Firebird Suite".  Most of the new segments were performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under conductor James Levine.  The one exception was "Rhapsody in Blue", which was performed by The Philharmonia Orchestra under Bruce Broughton and featuring soloist Ralph Grierson.

As with the soundtrack for the original film, the Fantasia 2000 soundtrack doesn’t contain any music that can’t be found elsewhere.  In fact, "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice" is the exact same recording that is found on the original Fantasia soundtrack.  Still, these recordings are crisp and lively and are generally top-notch performances of an excellent selection of classical works.  Being newer recordings, these recordings do not have the showy stereophonic effects that were included in the original.  Even the mix on "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice" has been toned down for this version.

Once again, some of the pieces are abbreviated versions of longer works, especially the Beethoven piece which is only the 3 minute introduction to the full symphony.  I certainly would recommend seeking out more complete versions of the works that are abbreviated here, but this is still a fine collection of music.  The original film’s limited popularity (even as its reputation has grown) was often thought to have at least something to do with its length.  As a result, Fantasia 2000 was designed to be a shorter film (by more than 1/2 hour) with each segment generally shorter as well.  The Beethoven segment is only 3 minutes long while the Saint-Saens is only 2 minutes.  This probably was a right decision, as the new film does have a faster pace and is somewhat easier to absorb in one sitting.

Another nod towards accessibility was the use of some selections that are very familiar even to those that otherwise aren’t overly interested in classical music.  This kind of applied with both "Nutcracker Suite" and Beethoven’s "Pastoral" symphony in the first film, but even those may not be as instantly familiar to most as the opening to Beethoven’s 5th, "Rhapsody in Blue", and "Pomp and Circumstances".  The last was an especially interesting choice, since it took a piece widely known in a specific context (graduation ceremonies) and adapted it to a new context (Noah’s Ark) in a generally impressive manner.

Fantasia 2000 Collector's Edition

Disney released two different versions of the soundtrack CD, a standard version and a collector’s edition (shown above), which was exclusively available at The Disney Store.  The musical contents of both versions is identical, with the collector’s edition coming in fancier packaging.  Some may prefer the standard edition as it comes in a regular jewel case instead of the oddly folding, thin plastic cover used for the collector’s edition.

Fantastic 4

Fantastic 4 (John Ottman, 2005): John Ottman uses a traditional, predominantly orchestral and choral-based approach to scoring the financially successful but not especially well-regarded adaptation of the Fantastic 4 comic book series.  The result is a very bombastic, typically energetic score.

It is a style that is pretty obviously inspired by John Williams’ landmark Superman score, which Ottman would directly adapt for Superman Returns a year later.  While he obviously didn’t have direct access to Williams’ themes with this score, many of Ottman’s compositions here pretty closely resemble the original music that he would later contribute to the Superman sequel.

The soundtrack opens with a main title march that is rousing, although a bit darkly shaded.  Choral material is mixed in with the central brass and percussion, giving it a touch of added grandeur.  I don’t really find it to be an especially memorable theme, although I have a hard time placing exactly why that is.  It could be that it is just a bit too derivative or it could come from the lack of a memorable film to associate it with.

The score is dominated by very bombastic action scoring, although Ottman does provide a few quieter, nicely-melodic moments.  The main theme of this type is introduced right after the main title in the second cue “Cosmic Storm” and is also particularly well used in the early part of “Changing”.  Some more playful bits figure occasionally, such as in the cue “Unlikely Saviors”.  Even here, the Williams’ influence is pretty evident with some obvious stylistic nods to the theme for Ned Beatty’s Superman character.

The Varese Sarabande soundtrack album for the film runs about 45 minutes and is probably a sufficient representation of this score.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (John Ottman, 2007): The soundtrack to the sequel to Fantastic 4 immediately opens with the “Silver Surfer Theme”, the most prominent new theme introduced in the sequel.  This theme is stylistically very much in keeping with the themes from the first film, with a mix of some march-like bombast with stately, grandiose brass and string melodies.  Its immediate introduction in a concert arrangement right at the start of the CD works well as a quick intro to the most important new element to this score.

The rest of the score largely sounds like an extension of the first film’s score, although electronic elements did seem a bit more prominent this time in cues such as “Chasing the Surfer”.  I generally consider musical consistency in a sequel to be a positive, although this score doesn’t really feel like it expands the material all that much.

I think part of the problem here is that Ottman took a more repetitive approach to the music this time.  There isn’t as much thematic variation, with the new Silver Surfer theme and the main Fantastic 4 theme as the only real stand-outs among a lot of fairly anonymous action scoring.  The new theme is certainly nice, but otherwise there really isn’t much to latch onto with this score.

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