Soundtrack Collection: Big to The Black Hole

 Big

Big (Howard Shore, 1988): Despite the fact that the film was an enormous blockbuster that essentially led Tom Hanks’ transformation from light comedy actor to major movie star, no soundtrack album was released at the time that the film came out.  There wasn’t even a pop-song album with songs inspired from the film.  Howard Shore’s score to the film remained unavailable until 2002 when Varese Sarabande finally issued a limited edition CD (which is still available) as part of their CD Club series.

Those familiar with Howard Shore’s music mainly from his popular scores to the Lord of the Rings trilogy or for thrillers like Silence of the Lambs and Seven probably wouldn’t be too quick to recognize this score as coming from the same composer.  The Big score is light and pop-infused, with a bit of a new-age jazz styling to it.  In fact, hearing this score without knowing the composer, I would probably be more apt to guess it was by someone like Dave Grusin or Michael Gore. 

That isn’t to say that the score isn’t good.  In fact, it is very charming and fits the film perfectly.  The score is generally not fully orchestral, instead featuring piano as the predominant instrument, with synthesizers providing most of the backing for it.  The score is primarily built around a fairly simple piano melody that serves as a primary theme for Hanks’ character.  Shore creatively expands on the theme over the course of the film, with it essentially growing larger in scale, and becoming more fully orchestral, as the character becomes more a part of the adult world.  Particularly notable is the addition of strings to the theme during the cue “Falling In Love”, essentially growing it into more of a romantic theme.

The score does also include some fantasy elements, mainly for the scenes involving the carnival and the story’s central fortune telling machine.  The cue “Zoltar” is the primary example of this, with the music taking on a somewhat darker, almost creepy, tone.  The CD also includes alternate takes of several cues as bonus tracks.  These are all a bit darker in style and, interestingly, mostly more fully orchestral.  Shore likely chose to rework portions of the score to lighten the tone a bit, partly by scaling the score down a bit.

The CD does include a couple source cues, most notably the toy piano version of “Heart and Soul” that accompanied the film’s most famous sequence.  Shore also incorporates the melody of that famous song into the film’s end titles suite.  The album also includes an adaptation of Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade”.

Big Fish

Big Fish (Danny Elfman, 2003): While the film was definitely extremely quirky and off-beat, Big Fish is probably the least flamboyantly weird of Tim Burton’s films to date.  The film’s story of an adult son recalling the tall tales that had been shared by his dying father is very character-driven drama, but in a format that still allows Burton to allow his very skewed view of the world to shine through.  The variety of settings and circumstances of the recounted tales gave Danny Elfman a particularly rich set of opportunities and he delivers one of his more varied and complex scores.

The soundtrack album is actually a mixed song and score album, although Elfman’s portion runs about 40 minutes, which is roughly 2/3 of the album.  The songs are the first seven cues on the album, opening with “Man of the Hour”, a Pearl Jam song specifically written and recorded for the film.  The rest of the songs are period classics from Bing Crosby, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, The Vogues, The Allman Brothers, and Canned Heat.  It is a nice collection of songs, although, other than the Pearl Jam song, they are so common that it is pretty likely most people already have one or two in their collection elsewhere.

Those expecting the gothic styling or predominant choruses that are common in Elfman’s Tim Burton scores are apt to be pretty surprised by this one.  This is a much more intimately orchestral score, dominated by piano and strings.  A gentle and effective main theme is established in the title cue.  The theme is tender and melodic, bringing to mind the side of Elfman that was first noted in his score for Sommersby, but which doesn’t come out in too many of his scores.  His “Sandra’s Theme” is a romantic, major key theme that had an interestingly more downbeat ending to it.  Another highlight is “The Growing Montage”, which starts off quiet but builds into a brassy fanfare complete with a little bit of Elfman’s trademark choral writing.

The score does showcase a few different styles in order to accommodate the changing settings of the film.  “Shoe Stealing” has a bit of a country feel, including a featured solo guitar.  The cues “Leaving Spectre” and “Return to Spectre” have a bit of a sad tone, with the latter making very effective use of a solo violin.   “Returning Home”, on the other hand, has a much more optimistic style, complete with soaring strings and triumphant-sounding horns.  Pretty much the full range of the score is represented in the impressive 11 minute “Finale” cue.

Elfman does contribute one brief song to the film, which ends the soundtrack album.  The song is entitled “Twice the Love (Siamese Twins’ Song)” and is performed by Bobbi Page and Candice Rumph, who played the twins in the film.  It is a pretty typically goofy and quirky song, but pretty entertaining.  Of course, it will mean basically nothing to anyone who hasn’t seen the film, though.

Big Wednesday

Big Wednesday (Basil Poledouris, 1978): Film Score Monthly released this CD of Basil Poledouris’ first major scoring project, and the first of his collaborations with director John Milius, as part of their Silver Age Classics series.  The film was a beach/surfing movie (although with some very dramatic elements) and the use of a symphonic score instead of a rock soundtrack was a significant change of pace for the genre.

The score has a bit of a folksy quality to it, with some of the cues very prominently featuring guitar performed by Hawaiian musicians Keola and Kapono Beamer.  Their guitar playing is front and center on the more personal, character-oriented themes while Poledouris engages the full orchestra for the surfing themes.  The fully orchestral material particularly takes the forefront in “The Challenge/Big Wednesday Montage”, which contains some very brassy fanfares along with some impressive percussion and strings.

The soundtrack contains two songs as well.  One entitled “Crumple Car” is performed by Danny Aaburg and there is an end credits song entitled “Song of Three Friends (Only Good Times)” which is performed by the Beamers.  The album also has a number of bonus tracks containing film versions or alternates of some of the cues and some source music.  The album ends with the trailer music.

Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (David Newman, 1991): For the sequel to the hit Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, returning composer David Newman provided a large-scale, orchestral score.  Despite the film’s obvious comedic focus, Newman provided the film with a generally serious action/fantasy score that served the film exceptionally well and is also very enjoyable to listen to on CD.

While rock music is a central element of the film’s storytelling and songs are used to score portions of the film, the David Newman score avoids including rock elements.  The score is dominated by brass and percussion action music, with synthesizers occasionally serving to add some otherworldly sounds to a few sequences or to help ramp up the action a bit.  The score also occasionally slows down for some more tender, melodic themes, such as in “The Proposal”.

The characters’ visits to Hell and Heaven provide Newman the opportunity to write two lengthy (about 6 minutes each) showcase cues that prove to be the highlight of this score.  As expected, the Hell cue is fairly dark music, with brass and strings supplemented by wordless choir.  While dark, the Hell music isn’t as somber as might be expected, certainly a side effect of the film’s comic side and the characters’ basically nonchalant attitude even in the most extreme situations.

The music for the Heaven sequence is, of course, much lighter and more upbeat.  Once again a wordless choir is employed, although with more of an angelic sound.  Strings, woodwinds, and even chimes dominate the orchestral accompaniment.  It is a fairly predictable way to score a Heaven sequence, but that is really what the film called for and Newman delivers the expected in an effective manner.

At the time of the film’s release, the only soundtrack release was a song album that didn’t include any of Newman’s music.  Intrada released a limited edition score album in 2007 that presents a 40 minute program of the score.  While the CD is sold out at Intrada, copies are still fairly easy to locate at around the original price.  The album is also still available as a digital download.   It should also be noted that, at least so far, Newman’s score to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure remains unreleased.

Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain (Richard Rodney Bennett, 1967): This score was included on Film Score Monthly’s MGM Soundtrack Treasury boxed set released in 2008 and was re-issued in 2009 by Kritzerland on a single CD paired with Roy Budd’s The Final Option (which was also in the FSM boxed set).  I’m not familiar with the film or, outside of this score, the composer, but this is actually a pretty cool score.

The album opens with a main theme that features a fairly jazzy sound and some very impressive piano playing.  Another key theme, presented in the cue “Anya”, is a haunting, woodwind-based melody.  In a few cues, Bennett uses an ondes martinot, an electric instrument with a fairly eerie sound that is reminiscent of a theramin.  The result is an impressively varied and unusual sounding score.

Birdman of Alcatraz

Birdman of Alcatraz (Elmer Bernstein, 1962): This score comes from the era where Elmer Bernstein became established as a top film composer.  The score came from the same general time period as his seminal scores for The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and To Kill a Mockingbird.  While this score isn’t as well known as those others, and the soundtrack remained unavailable until 2006, it fits in pretty well with the others creatively and in terms of style.  The soundtrack was released by Varese Sarabande as part of their CD Club series.  It is a limited edition, but not currently sold out.

The score is a quietly dramatic orchestral score with dominant woodwind and strings.  It is very sensitive, subtle music that shows off Bernstein’s melodic talents.  A subtle main theme is established during the “Main Title” cue and is carried through the score. Most of the score remains very low-key, but occasionally some more brassy bits do shine through such as in “Cage Preparations” or “Book Montage”. 

The album ends interestingly with a cue simply entitled “The Birdman”, which is an interesting mix of more rhythmic instrumentals and piano playing as well as some wordless vocals.  This then transitions into a fully vocal song set to the same melody.

This score isn’t as flashy or dynamic a score as some of the composer’s others from that general era, but it is very well written and emotional score that should be in the collection of any Bernstein fan.

The Black Cauldron

The Black Cauldron (Elmer Bernstein, 1985): The Black Cauldron is probably the most significant and important failure that the Disney company has had to date.  The box-office and critical failure of this very big budget and heavily promoted animated feature resulted in the company very nearly shutting down their entire animation division.  As a result it is a film that the company has a bit of a tendency to try and disown.  This unfortunately has led to the movie’s excellent Elmer Bernstein score not getting the attention that it deserves.

At the time of the film’s original release, Disney licensed Varese Sarabande to produce a soundtrack LP.  This album did not feature the music as recorded for the film, but is instead a Bernstein-conducted re-recording of a little over 30 minutes of the score.  That album was very briefly released on CD as well, but is now long out of print and nearly impossible to find.  Varese’s license did allow them to release that album on iTunes a couple years ago and it remains available as a download only.  The iTunes release is the version that I have.  Obviously, this score would benefit greatly from a new CD release containing more of the score and the original film tracks.

The taste of the score that is currently available is excellent, though.  Bernstein provided a very rich, orchestral score full of exciting action and adventure cues.  The film was not a musical, unusual for Disney animated films to that point, so Bernstein’s score was required to carry the entire film from a musical perspective.  The score pretty extensively uses the ondes martenot, a favorite instrument of Bernstein for his fantasy-oriented scores, particularly in Ghostbusters just a year earlier.  This instrument gives the score an otherworldly quality at times, helping to emphasize the fantasy setting.

The score is very thematic, with Bernstein’s music helping to capture the personalities of the key characters and the film’s settings. Highlights of the score include a very dark, percussion and piano driven theme for the film’s villain, The Horned King, as well as very playful themes for Gurgi, the film’s sidekick, and in the cue “The Fair Folk”.  The film’s protagonist, Taran, is given a nicely heroic theme.  A gentle, romantic theme is provided for Eilonwy, the love interest.

The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia (Mark Isham, 2006): Brian DePalma’s 2006 attempt at an old fashioned film noir was not very successful or well regarded, but composer Mark Isham provided an impressively dark and moody score that actually plays pretty well for me even without having seen the film.

The score gets off to an exciting, action-packed start with “The Zoot Suit Riots”, with pounding brass and very active strings quickly grabbing the listener’s attention.  This type of action playing re-emerges at several other points in the score, although the majority is more moody and atmospheric rather than action-oriented.  Trumpet solos and piano are used pretty regularly, the cue “The Two of Us” is an excellent example, giving the score a bit of a slow jazz element.

The Black Hole

The Black Hole (John Barry, 1979): This was my first film score album.  I was 10 years old when the movie was first released and my father took me to see the movie.  At that time, my music collecting mainly consisted of some Disney “story of” albums and an otherwise varied mix of kid-oriented albums.  When I saw the movie, I immediately took to John Barry’s music and, upon leaving the theater, I told my father that I wanted the soundtrack album.  He initially pointed out that the movie didn’t have any songs, but I confirmed it was the orchestral music that had caught my attention.  Since he has been a long-time classical music fan, I think he was pleased by this and he readily agreed to take me to the store to buy the album.

This was one of the last films that actually opened with an overture before anything even appeared on screen.  The overture introduces one of Barry’s two primary themes for the film, an exciting trumpet-driven fanfare that transitions into a brass and percussion march.  I think this is among the most memorable and distinctive themes of John Barry’s career.  The theme from the overture does re-appear in the later cue “Laser”.

The second primary theme is introduced over the film’s main title.  This is a much darker, more ominous theme that primarily features a continuously repeating six-note motif overlaid with a progressively building counterpoint.  As with the overture, this is another very distinctive and memorable theme, although one that I’m sure some may find to be a little overly repetitive.  The theme fits the film extremely well, though, as it basically sounds circular.  The “Main Title” version of the theme only runs a little under 2 minutes, but it is more thoroughly developed in the cue “Zero Gravity”.

Although the two main themes (especially the second one) are revisited frequently during the score, Barry does provide a variety of additional themes and general action music.  In many ways, this score actually seems to be something of a transition point for Barry, with some of the music resembling his action music for the James Bond series, but much of it also reflecting the more lush style that he would adapt during the later part of his career.

Unfortunately, the soundtrack to The Black Hole has never been released on CD.  The original LP release, which is often cited as the first digitally recorded movie soundtrack, runs just over 1/2 hour in length.  A few years ago, Disney did re-master the album and release it to iTunes as a digital download, but unfortunately not in a lossless format.  For some reason, I’ve found that this score suffers a bit more from compression artifacts than some of the other download-exclusive releases and would suggest that finding a good quality copy of the LP (it isn’t too hard to find) and transferring that to CD or digital files might be the better choice if you have the equipment.  Of course, an expanded CD release of this score would be extremely welcome.

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