Category Archives: Reviews

Soundtrack Collection: E.T. to Edward Scissorhands

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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Soundtrack Collection: Dragonheart to Dutch

Dragonheart

Dragonheart (Randy Edelman, 1996): Randy Edelman’s main theme to Dragonheart has been used in so many trailers for other movies that it is likely to be instantly familiar to most people even if they have no idea what it is from.

The theme is introduced during the opening cue, entitled  “World of the Heart (Main Title)”.  It is a primarily string-driven theme with a warmly noble quality to it.  The theme has a definite grandeur and sense of importance, which is obviously the reason why it has become so popular to re-purpose it.  In some parts of the score, starting with the album’s 2nd cue “To the Stars”, Edelman adds a wordless choir to the theme as well, giving it an even broader scope.  Much of the score continues in the same vein as the theme, usually strongly melodic with strings generally in the forefront.

The score does have occasional darker patches, such as the very prominent percussion and chant-like vocals found in the cues “Einon” and “Bowen’s Decoy”.  The former cue also introduces some distinctive ethnic elements to the score, with some old-European styling to some of the melodies. This includes some prominent use of acoustic guitar in this and a number of other cues.

Despite the highly melodic, fairly large-sound to the score, Edelman actually makes pretty extensive use of synthesizers during much of the score.  During some of the bigger orchestral segments, synthesizers are used to enhance the percussion and give the score a bit more active bass.  Some of the lighter, more comedic sections of the score place the synthesizers more up-front, as in the cue “The Last Dragon Slayer”.

The soundtrack to Dragonheart was released on CD at the time of the film’s release and is still readily available.  The album contains a relatively generous 45 minutes of score and is generally a solid representation of the score, although I suspect there would be plenty of material for an expanded release.

Dragonslayer

Dragonslayer (Alex North, 1981): This big-budget Disney/Paramount co-production (unusual at that time) wasn’t a big hit at the time of its release, but it has increased somewhat in stature over the years.  It isn’t considered a classic by any means, but it is now generally fairly well-regarded as one of the better entries in the sword & sorcery genre.

The score to Dragonslayer came fairly late in Alex North’s distinguished career and it was really his last score for this type of epic, action-oriented period piece, the type of film in which the composer often exceled.  He delivered a dark, minimally-thematic score that is often a bit difficult to listen to separate from the film, despite the score’s obvious artistry.  North’s score is an avant-garde, often biting effort that lacks the generally upbeat sense of fun that is usually associated with this genre.  It isn’t for everybody and has long been a controversial score among fans, but it is a complex and always interesting score.

While North never really establishes much in the way of strong, distinctive themes that carry through the score, he does introduce melodic material, although it is often surrounded by very active, often dissonant music.  For example, the cue “Maiden Sacrifice” introduces a distinctive, tender melody, but generally overwhelms it with intense strings, brass, and percussion.  This type of approach is repeated fairly often throughout the score.

It is fairly well known that North repurposed portions of his rejected score to 2001: A Space Odyssey for Dragonslayer and those familiar with the either or both of the recordings of that score will certainly recognize its echoes here.  In particular, the waltz that North wrote for the space station docking sequence is clearly reproduced in the cues “Burning Village” and “Dragon Sore-ing” as well as during the finale and over the end credits.   It becomes the most thematic part of this score, although I’m not sure I would think that had I not heard the 2001 score.  In each cue, North builds on his already existing music to build something distinct to this score.  The two scores really make for interesting companion pieces.

While the score did receive a fairly limited LP release as well as an earlier CD release (of dubious legitimacy), the first truly official CD release came from La La Land Records in 2010.  It is a limited edition of 3,000 copies, although still readily available at the time I’m writing this.

Dreamer

Dreamer (Bill Conti, 1979): This fairly obscure Bill Conti score opens with a “Main Title” cue featuring a pleasantly old-fashioned Americana swing-music style, which figures prominently in other parts of the score as well.  Towards the end of the cue, it transitions into more of the late-70s pop style that is more typical of Conti’s scores during that time period.

The score is kind of all over the place stylistically, with some cues featuring the old-fashioned style, others in the more pop style, such as the romantic pop cues “Double Image”, “Blurry” and “Alley Cat”.  The cue “Pool Room” even has a country instrumental style while “Waitress Walking” is pretty much pure disco and “Racking Pins” has a bit of a Mexican mariachi style.

The soundtrack also includes a catchy, 70s pop song entitled “Reach for the Top”.  The song was written by Conti and performed by Pablo Cruise.  It certainly isn’t as memorable as Conti’s famous “Gonna Fly Now” which was written for Rocky just a year earlier, but it still has the same triumphant, anthem style.

The score for Dreamer was released by Varese Sarabande paired with Conti’s The Scout on a 1,000 copy limited edition “CD Club” release, which is now sold out.  The music from Dreamer runs around 40 minutes.  Note that the above image is poster art from the film as there was no Dreamer cover art with the CD.

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Soundtrack Collection: Dirty Dozen to Dragnet

The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen (Frank De Vol, 1967): The 1967 hit The Dirty Dozen was an early example of the more edgy, revisionist approach to war movies that would eventually largely dominate the genre.  The film is an all-star action/adventure about a squad of hardened criminals that are sent on a suicide mission during World War II. 

Composer Frank De Vol, who is probably better known as a songwriter (including the famous “Brady Bunch” theme) provided a very upbeat, traditional war movie score that was intentionally designed to be somewhat in conflict with the film’s very violent, and even cruel, depictions of war.  Separated from the context of the film, the score loses its ironic component and, instead, simply plays as a fun, old-fashioned war movie action score.  I consider it to be a fascinating and impressive aspect of this score that it plays so differently in the film and on an album.

Central to the score is a fairly simple, 4-note motif that sounds like it could easily be matched to the four syllables of the movie’s title, although De Vol fortunately avoids that temptation.  Surrounding that motif is a score full of marches and largely dominated by brass and percussion.  The tone of the music remains generally light throughout much of the score and even occasionally takes amusing turns, such as the big band sound first heard during the cue “The Builders / Train Time”.  On occasion, De Vol also incorporates familiar melodies such as “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and “You’re In the Army Now” in a few cues.  The score also has some fairly traditional suspense cues as well, such as “The Wire Cutter / Posey’s Fight”.

The soundtrack also features two original songs that were written by De Vol for the film.  These include a German folk-style song entitled “Einsam” and performed by Sibylle Siegfried and the pop song “Bramble Bush” performed by Trini Lopez.  The latter is pretty firmly steeped in the popular style of the late 60s and is the one part of the film’s music that does tends to date it.

Film Score Monthly released a limited edition CD (still available) of the complete score in 2007.  This CD release more than doubles the running time of the original LP release, which had received a couple previous CD releases paired with other scores.  The limited edition CD also contains the first releases of the versions of the two songs as used in the film.  It does also include the album versions of the songs as bonus tracks, along with a few pieces of source music and score alternates.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Miles Goodman, 1988): Miles Goodman was a prolific film composer during the 1980s and 1990s (until his untimely death in 1996 at age 46), although very few of his scores have been released to CD.  Goodman tended to specialize in comedies, many of which also contained a number of songs, which is likely the main reason for the relative lack of score soundtracks.  His frequent collaboration with director Frank Oz was a particularly fruitful one.

In 2010, La La Land Records put out a limited edition CD of Goodman’s score to Oz’s big comedy hit Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  While the release was a limited edition of only 1200 copies, it is still readily available at the time that I’m writing this.  The film was a farce starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine as con-men competing to woo a mark played by Glenne Headly.  The setting is a small coastal town in France, which provides Goodman with the opportunity to provide a lively, European sounding score.

The score is consistently upbeat, with an often jazzy style to it.  Strings and horns dominate, particularly in the fast paced, swinging main theme, which debuts in the opening cue “Prologue/Dirty Rotten Theme” and then figures prominently throughout the score.  The rest of the score continues in a similar style, with the string composition particularly conveying a European classical feel to much of it.  The aptly named “Ruprecht Tango” is a particularly strong example of the European influences.

The soundtrack also includes Goodman’s instrumental arrangements of a few well-known standards: Jerome Kern’s “Pick Yourself Up”, Irving Berlin’s “Putting On the Ritz”, and Harry Warren’s “We’re In the Money”.  Stylistically, these arrangements fit in very well with the rest of the score.

Doctor Dolittle

Doctor Dolittle (Leslie Bricusse, 1967): The 1967 big-budget (for the time), musical version of Dr. Dolittle was, at the time of its release, a notorious box-office failure that was also pretty widely savaged by critics (although the film was surprisingly nominated for the Best Picture Oscar).  While it isn’t quite right to say that the film has become a classic, it has played reasonably well on TV and home video over the years and some of the songs have endured fairly well. 

The most famous and enduring of Leslie Bricusse’s songs is “Talk to the Animals”, which was performed by Rex Harrison as the title character.  That catchy song won the Academy Award for Best Song that year and is now something of a standard that is likely to be recognizable even to those that don’t really know the film.  This familiar song is fairly typical of the lyrical style found on all of Bricusse’s songs for the film and the overall score does have a very coherent sound with the songs all fitting together well.

Harrison, who was best known as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, was the central performer and dominates the song score.  The songs are written to be well-suited to his distinctive style of speak-singing and he does bring a fair amount of charm to his songs.  Besides “Talk to the Animals”, he also is solo performer on “The Vegetarian”, “When I Look In Your Eyes”, “Like Animals” and “Something In Your Smile”.

The other prominent performers on the soundtrack are Anthony Newley as the doctor’s friend and Samantha Eggar as the love interest.  Newley was a very popular singer at the time and lends his expressive voice to  several solos, including “My Friend, the Doctor”, “After Today”, “Where Are the Words” and the title song.  He also duets with Eggar on “Beautiful Things”.  Eggar has the solo “At the Crossroads” and duets with Harrison on two songs: “Fabulous Places” and “I Think I Like You”.

The soundtrack was originally released on LP with the film and has been issued on CD a couple different times.  The content of all releases has been the same, with the full set of songs from the film, including “Where Are the Words” and “Something In Your Smile”, which only were used in the early road-show version of the film.  The only instrumental piece is the overture that opens the album.

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Soundtrack Collection: Die Hard to Dirty Dancing

Die Hard

Die Hard (Michael Kamen, 1988): Today, the original Die Hard is considered to be an iconic action film.  Not only was it a blockbuster that kicked off a major franchise and established the film careers of Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman, it essentially served as the prototype to an entire sub-genre of action movies that are now regularly described with a phrase starting with “Die Hard on a …”  At the time it came out, the film was viewed as having more limited potential, though, particularly due to it headlining Willis, who at the time was primarily a TV actor and mainly known for romantic comedy.

Likely due to the limited expectations for the film as well as the prominent use of non-original music, no soundtrack album was released along with the film.  Although the sequel scores were released with the films, Michael Kamen’s score remained unavailable (at least officially) until Varese Sarabande finally put it out on a 3000 copy limited edition “CD Club” release in 2002.  That release sold out fairly quickly and used copies today fetch prices well in excess of $100.  The soundtrack seems to be a pretty obvious candidate for a re-issue, but right now it remains one that is costly and difficult to obtain, if you don’t already have it.

Kamen’s original contributions to the score were dominated by stark, intense themes dominated by deep brass, vivid strings, and some very effective acoustic guitar.  The most recognizable component is a brief, guitar motif that is essentially the Die Hard series’ musical signature.  This motif is really too short to truly classify as a theme, but it is a distinctive element that is instantly associated with these films. 

A particularly interesting element to this score is Kamen’s use of the film’s Christmas time setting.  Kamen occasionally integrates sleigh bells or bell choir into the score as well as brief samples of familiar Christmas tunes such as “Winter Wonderland”.  These brief excerpts are presented in an almost chillingly menacing way.  The use of familiar holiday-associated melodies and instruments presented in this way makes for a very interesting effect.  The film memorably ends with the upbeat holiday classic “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” playing over the end credits and the song also closes the soundtrack CD, although in an instrumental version rather than the traditional version used in the film.

The most prominent and memorable non-original music used in the score is the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  Bits of this familiar melody are regularly integrated into the score, essentially serving as a primary theme for the film’s villains.  The melody is then presented in full accompanying the key scene where the villains manage to open the safe that they came to the building to rob.  The disconnect between this emotionally full and usually joyful music and the temporary triumph of the bad guys is a bold, memorable and remarkably effective musical choice.  While “Ode to Joy” is not traditionally associated with the holidays, its use still served to vividly underscore the film’s unusual juxtaposition of festive/joyful elements with violence and peril.

Die Hard 2: Die Harder

Die Hard 2: Die Harder (Michael Kamen, 1990): For the first sequel to Die Hard, the filmmakers (led by new director Renny Harlin) didn’t stray too far from the formula established in the first film.  The sequel once again takes place during the holiday season and again has Bruce Willis fighting back against terrorists in a fairly enclosed complex (this time an airport instead of a skyscraper).  The film even included a few bits of dialog that directly addressed the implausibility of Willis’ character facing two such similar situations.

Michael Kamen was brought back to score the sequel and provided a score that is contains some similarities to the original, although with a few key differences as well.  One of the most obvious differences right from the start is that this score seems a bit more fully orchestral than the original.  Even the familiar Die Hard signature motif is generally performed by the orchestra’s violin section this time instead of on acoustic guitar as in the original.

The airport setting provided a more expansive setting, including considerably more outdoor sequences, so the somewhat larger scale of the score is fitting.  The first score tended to be dominated by stark, tension-filled cues, and there are similar ones here as well, the new one provides more opportunities for more dynamic, high-octane chase type music as well.  The cue “Snowmobiles”, which accompanies an almost James Bond style chase sequence late in the film, is a particularly good example of this side of the score.

Kamen did not repeat the use of “Ode to Joy” or the Christmas carol excerpts from the first film.  He does once again incorporate an existing piece into the score, though.  This time the piece that he uses is “Finlanda” by Jean Sibelius, which is certainly not as well-known or familiar as the Beethoven piece.  A full performance of the piece closes out the soundtrack CD, which was released by Varese Sarabande at the time that the movie came out.

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Soundtrack Collection: Diamond Head to Die Another Day

Diamond Head

Diamond Head (John Williams, 1963): Diamond Head was John Williams’ first feature film score to receive a soundtrack album release (some of his TV work was released earlier).  The LP was originally released on the Colpix Records label and is currently available on CD from Film Score Monthly, paired with Lalo Schifrin’s Gone With the Wave.  The Diamond Head album runs a little over half an hour and features a mix of Williams’ original score and various Williams-composed source cues.

In the 1960s, Williams most frequently scored comedies and most of his scores tended to have a light, pop/jazz style.  Diamond Head was a drama, though, and featuring a score that much more closely resembled Williams’ later highly thematic symphonic sound. Cues such as the “Main Title” cue as well as “Sloan Strolls” and “Sloan’s Dream” are very recognizably in line with Williams most recognizable style of music.

The inclusion of the source cues makes the album into something of a hybrid between Williams’ early and later approaches to scoring.  The source cues have more of a small ensemble, somewhat jazz-influenced sound to them with an emphasis on piano, horns, and underlying percussion.  The cue “Catamaran” is a particularly interesting hybrid, starting off with a lighter jazz piano melody before eventually seguing into a string-dominated orchestral conclusion.

The album opens with a title song written by Hugo Winterhalter and performed by James Darren, one of the film’s co-stars.  The song is a pretty typical pop song of that era, although with a bit of a Hawaiian tropical influence to fit the setting of the film.  Williams does occasionally incorporate Winterhalter’s melody into the score cues.

Diamonds Are Forever

Diamonds Are Forever (John Barry, 1972): Diamonds Are Forever was the 7th film (and the last to star Sean Connery) in Eon Productions’ James Bond series.  By this point, the musical style of the series was firmly established by John Barry, who had worked on all of the previous films and was the sole credited composer on all but the first.

As was often the case with the Bond scores, the central melody here comes from the title song, written by Barry with lyrics by Don Black and performed by Shirley Bassey over the opening title.  This was Bassey’s second Bond theme song after her famous performance of “Goldfinger”.  While she would only return to the series one more time (for “Moonraker”), her vocal style remains the one that is most associated with the Bond films.

The song itself is a textbook example of Barry’s James Bond sound, with his distinctive mix of strings, piano, and blasting horns.  The lyrics to the song are loaded with sexual innuendo, even a bit more so than usual for a James Bond theme.  The theme has a distinctive melody that Barry uses well throughout the rest of the score.  Of course, the classic James Bond theme is also incorporated into the score periodically, including an electric guitar rendition that played over the usual gun barrel opening and more orchestral versions in other parts of the score.

The score is very typical of Barry’s Bond scores, with a very melodic, but often boldly energetic approach.  As expected, it is dominated by lush strings and extremely active brass.  As is usual for Barry, there is a bit of an underlying jazz influence, particularly in the occasional saxophone riffs.  The score does have a few interesting variations, particularly the unusual female choral music featured in the cue “Slumber, Inc.”

The most complete and readily available soundtrack release is an expanded CD that was released by Capital/EMI records back in 2003.  This disc contains about 75 minutes of music from the film (including a number of alternate cues), definitely a dramatic expansion over the original 35 minute LP release.  The CD is rather oddly sequenced, though, with the music presented in a seemingly almost random order.  While the title song does at least open the CD, the gun barrel opening doesn’t appear until track 13!  Throughout the album, the music is way out of film sequence.

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