Soundtrack Collection: China Syndrome to A Christmas Carol

The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome (Michael Small, 1979): Here is a definite oddity in my collection: a score album from a movie that had no musical score.  While it certainly isn’t the only album I have of a rejected score, this one is, I believe, unique since the filmmakers decided to replace the score with nothing at all.  They didn’t even go with a song or classical temp score or anything like that.  Instead, they decided that the film’s tension would be stronger and more effective without music.

A 30-minute program of Michael Small’s unused score plus about 7 minutes of original source music by Small was released by Intrada in a 2009 limited edition CD of 1000 copies.  The album is entirely in mono as stereo masters of the music could not be found.  The CD has sold out and copies on the secondary market generally sell in the $35 range.

Small’s score is primarily performed with synthesizers and a small orchestra.  It is a pretty dark, minimalistic score that was clearly designed to ratchet up tension and suspense.  The electronic sound of the synthesizers is frequently supplemented by low violins and occasional horns to generate a fairly grim style for much of the score.  One major exception is “Meltdown!”, which is a very fast paced and exciting action cue.  In this cue, the violins tend to move much more into the foreground while the synthesizer elements are played at a very rapid, pulse-quickening tempo.  Melody is largely absent from the score until the sensitive opening to “The Truth and Finale” closing cue, which then segues into a more pop-inspired conclusion.

Two cues entitled “News at 6:00” and “News at 11:00” are included in the main score section of the album and have a fairly pop-centric, newsroom sound complete with xylophones and timpani.  These cues are nicely done and help to break the tension a bit.  The album also ends with two suites of source cues, which mostly further build on the newsroom element of the story, including various news themes, bumpers, etc.  It also includes some extended, disco-style party music.

It is kind of hard to judge whether the decision to drop the score entirely was the right on without hearing the music in context, but the film works so well as released that it is a hard decision to criticize.  The overall mood that Small’s score creates even on the album makes it seem pretty likely that using this score wouldn’t have reduced the tension much.


Chinatown (Jerry Goldsmith, 1974): Chinatown was pretty high on the list of the most acclaimed films that Jerry Goldsmith ever scored.  The score is a perfect fit to the film and a major contributor to its success.  This is made all the more amazing by the fact that Goldsmith was brought in as a last minute replacement composer and, reportedly, only had 10 days to compose it.

The score is a very moody score composed for a relatively small ensemble, dominated by a solo trumpet.  Strings, piano and harp provide additional accompaniment while the score is notable in the absence of woodwinds.  The effect is a score that builds a very intimate, darkly romantic mood.  Central to the score is a melodic, romantic main theme which is introduced during the opening cue, entitled “Love Theme from Chinatown (Main Title) and then woven throughout the score.  The main melodic line for that theme is featured on the solo trumpet giving it a smoky, jazzy feeling that ultimately came to largely define the overall mood of the film.

The available soundtrack album only runs about 30 minutes in length and that includes three cues of period source music.  The soundtrack was originally released on LP at the time of the movie’s release and was re-issued on CD by Varese Sarabande.  Unfortunately, the CD is now long out of print and used copies tend to go for very high prices (approaching $100).  This is a score that desperately needs a re-issue.


CHiPs (Alan Silvestri, 1978): I’m a big fan of Alan Silvestri.  I have many of his scores in my collection and a lot of them get played frequently.  Before he broke through as a big-name film composer in the mid-80s, he spent quite a few years working in series television.  Probably his most prominent job was serving as the primary composer for the popular motorcycle police series CHiPs starting in its second season.

So far, Film Score Monthly has released three CDs of Silvestri’s music for the series, one for each of the second, third, and fourth season.  While I find the music to the series to be an interesting peek into the early phase of a favorite composer’s career, I also admit that one disc was enough and I haven’t purchased the season 3 or season 4 discs.  Note that the season 2 CD has a running time of an hour and 17 minutes and that seems pretty long for this material.

Upon hearing the music from the series without identification, fans of Silvestri’s famous symphonic scores would not likely pick it out as his work.  The scores are all disco instrumentals, performed by a small orchestra and continuously featuring the traditional underlying disco beat.  The score is consistently upbeat and does include a fair amount of melodic themes and those melodies do, every once in a while, contain a bit of Silvestri’s recognizable style.

The season 2 CD also includes one 6 minute suite, entitled “Trick or Treat” (from a Halloween episode) that was composed by Bruce Broughton.  This cue is stylistic consistent with the Silvestri cues and it isn’t especially obvious that it was by another composer, much less another composer with a very distinguished career ahead. 

The CD opens and closes with Silvestri’s arrangements of John Parker’s series theme as played over the main and end titles. 

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Richard Sherman & Robert Sherman, 1968): The children’s novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was written by Ian Fleming, who is otherwise best known as the creator of James Bond.  the film rights to the story ended up with Bond producer Albert Broccoli, who saw the opportunity to make a big budget, Disney-style family musical and a starring vehicle for Dick Van Dyke.  The resultant film is fun and fairly well remembered (particularly by my generation), but it is also too long and kind of gives the impression it was made by filmmakers that weren’t really too comfortable with this kind of project.

For the music, Broccoli hired the Sherman Brothers to write the songs, one of their rare non-Disney projects.  They also brought in conductor Irwin Kostal (who had worked with the Shermans on Mary Poppins), as music arranger, conductor, and score composer.  The result was a very memorable musical song score, anchored by a title song that is pretty instantly recognizable even to casual fans of the film.  The other generally well-known, stand-out song from the film is the very sweet lullaby “Hushabye Mountain”. 

The film and score are very much structured as a showcase for Dick Van Dyke and he performs on the vast majority of the songs.  In fact, only 5 of the 14 songs (including reprises) do not feature him.  Several of the songs are either solos for Van Dyke or at least feature him primarily with other characters providing backup support.  The other most prominent cast members include Sally Ann Howes as the female lead and Heather Ripley and Adrian Hall as the children.

The soundtrack album is a good collection of the songs from the film. The Rykodisc release that I have does also include a number of dialog excerpts, but these are all placed on separate cues and can be easily skipped or programmed out if desired.  A more recent Varese Sarabande release (linked to above) has the same musical program but eliminates the dialog.  Kostal’s work is represented by the overture arrangement of the title song (which opens the album) and a 3 1/2 minute bonus suite of instrumentals that closes the album.

A Chorus Line

A Chorus Line (Marvin Hamlisch & Edward Kleban, 1985): The 1985 film adaptation of A Chorus Line, one of the longest running shows in Broadway history, was a pretty notorious flop.  It not only bombed at the box-office, but also was pretty panned by critics and by fans of the stage show.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why it was so disliked as I generally enjoyed the film.  I’ve never seen the show on stage and wasn’t really exceptionally familiar with it before seeing the film.  Perhaps if I knew the show better, my reaction might have been different.

The songs are, of course, very good and generally seem to be pretty well performed on the soundtrack.  The cast members are all pretty much unknown.  The only well-known actor in the film was Michael Douglas as the show director, but his role is a non-singing one.  Doing a quick scan through the Internet Movie Database, the rest of the cast mostly has done TV guest appearances and other similar roles.  Alyson Reed who plays the key role of Cassie did have a major role in the High School Musical series and does also have a fairly substantial stage resume.   I would imagine that most or all of the cast have had more significant stage roles, but none are names that I find particularly recognizable. 

The two best known songs in the film are the big choral number “One” and the ballad “What I Did For Love”, performed in the film by Reed.  Both are songs that most people would recognize even without their origin in the show/movie.  The songs “At the Ballet” and “Nothing” are also fairly well-known.  The film includes a couple songs, “Surprise, Surprise” and “Let Me Dance For You”, which were not in the stage production.  Also, several songs from the stage version are absent from the film, including “Hello 13, Hello 14, Hello Love” and “The Music and the Mirror”.

A Christmas Carol (TV, 2004)

A Christmas Carol (Alan Menken & Lynn Ahrens, 2004): This made-for-TV musical version of Charles Dickens’ often-told Christmas story was an adaptation of a stage show that ran during the holiday season at Madison Square Garden in New York City for quite a few years in the 1990s and early 2000s.  The stage production had used quite a few well-known actors in the role of Scrooge, including Tim Curry, Tony Randall, Roger Daltry, F. Murray Abraham.  For the TV production, Kelsey Grammer was a good selection for the role.

The songs for the show were written by Alan Menken with music by Lynn Ahrens.  This was actually one of Menken’s most complex musical song scores, with a considerable amount of the story told through Ahren’s lyrics.  Lengthy songs such as “Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball”, “Abundance and Charity”, and “Christmas Together” musically present significant portions of the narration surrounding the ghost visitations.  The excellent romantic duet (actually a trio, since both the young and old Scrooge participate) “A Place Called Home” as well as the charmingly optimistic “God Bless Us Everyone” have strong potential of surviving as holiday standards.  Both songs have already started appearing on various Christmas albums.

The TV cast included a number of other familiar performers, including Jason Alexander as Jacob Marley, Jane Krakowski as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Jennifer Love-Hewitt as Scrooge’s lost love Emily.  While both Alexander and Krakowski are very familiar TV actors, they also have considerable musical theater experience (as does Grammer) and handled the music very well.  Love-Hewitt is not as experienced in musicals, but handles her one key singing part (during “A Place Called Home”) acceptably, although it was notable that the break-up sequence, sung in the stage production, was switched to spoken dialog in the TV production.

A Christmas Carol (Stage, 1994)

A cast album for the stage show was released back in 1994 and featured Walter Charles as Scrooge and a supporting cast that generally isn’t well known outside of the musical theater world.  Despite the more familiar voices on the TV soundtrack, I have to say that I generally prefer the original cast album, if for no other reason that I had owned it for years and listened to it regularly during the holiday season.  In this case, my preference is almost certainly driven somewhat by familiarity, even though I had never seen the stage production.  Regardless, either album is very much worth getting and fans of the music may very well want both versions as they do provide different interpretations.

A Christmas Carol (film, 2010)

A Christmas Carol (Alan Silvestri, 2009): Robert Zemeckis directed this Disney-produced motion-capture animated version of the Dickens classic story.  As usual, Zemeckis brought along Alan Silvestri to write the very Christmasy orchestral score for the film.  The score re-visits some of the same territory that Silvestri had explored a few years earlier for Zemeckis’ The Polar Express (a score that badly needs a more-complete release), although the story and score go into much darker areas than that earlier one.

The “Main Title” cue immediately establishes the holiday tone to the score, providing an overture that intermixes orchestral arrangements of several traditional Christmas carols with an original brass and bells theme that sounds like a carol.  It is a pretty exciting and upbeat cue that establishes a somewhat festive mood at the opening, before the score moves into darker territory.  The next couple cues, including “Scrooge Counts Money” and “Marley’s Ghost Visits Scrooge” are much more ominous cues, dominated by strings and low brass, before the latter cue concludes with a fairly manic, dance melody.

Some of the later cues that cover the ghost visitations, particularly past and present, have a gentler and more cheery sound to them.  Traditional Christmas carols, particularly “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” continue to be incorporated pretty frequently into these parts of the score, as is Silvestri’s own festive main theme that was introduced over the main title.  Strings and wordless choir are used to bring a bit of a wistful, sentimental mood to some of this music as well. 

Because of the film’s 3D, big-screen approach, Zemeckis brings a fair amount of scope to some of the supernatural elements of the film, such as the transitions to the scenes that the ghosts wish to show Scrooge.  These call for some soaring melodies from Silvestri, such as the lively cue “Flight to Fezziwig’s”, which ends with the main theme being presented with choral lyrics for the first time.  The score also includes some pretty fast-paced action music, such as in the cue “Carriage Chase” an interesting case of chase music that is built around very Christmas carol sounding melodies.

The soundtrack album ends with “God Bless Us Everyone”, an original song performed by Andrea Bocelli and written by Silvestri with lyrics by Glen Ballard.   The song is, as you would expect, built around the score’s main theme.  It is a big, operatic carol with Bocelli’s baritone vocals backed by full orchestra and choir.  I could easily imagine this one becoming a new holiday standard.

Disney has recently moved to download-only releases for most of their instrumental film scores (for non-musicals) and, thus, this soundtrack is not available on CD.  I definitely recognize that the music industry is going to increasingly move in the direction of phasing out the CD in favor of downloads, but I do wish they would start making lossless versions available.  While the sound quality is pretty decent on the downloads, and probably will be sufficient for most listeners, it is still troubling that the music is not available in full CD quality.  This loss is particularly noticeable if you need to reduce the bit-rate further for playback on portable devices with lower available storage.

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