HP Palm Pre and webOS Review: Synergy (Calendar and Contacts)

This continues my review of the HP/Palm Pre and webOS.  Click below for the previous parts:

Part 1: Introduction and Hardware
Part 2: User Interface, Launcher, and Multitasking

webOS Contacts - Setup AccountsProbably the most innovative feature of WebOS is its ability to consolidate contacts and calendar data from multiple web-based sources, a feature that Palm branded as “Synergy”.  Currently, the OS can consolidate calendars from Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft Exchange and contacts from those same services plus LinkedIn.  Calendar entries and contacts entered directly into the phone can be directed to any of those services or to an online Palm Profile that is created during the initial set-up of the phone.

This ability to manage personal data from multiple cloud-based sources is the killer application in WebOS and other platforms (especially Android) are already implementing similar features.  At this point, the lack of a similar feature is probably the most glaring omission in Apple’s iOS.  It is becoming increasingly uncommon for anyone to have all of their contacts and calendars in a single location and the ability to effectively organize and consolidate it all is becoming vital.  Since I’ve had the Pre, it has become my primary calendar and address book.  Even when I’m near a desktop or laptop computer, I know that I’m likely to find the most complete version of what I’m looking for on the phone.

webOS Calendar - Setup AccountsWhile it generally works reasonably well already, the feature is somewhat in the infant stage.  HP/Palm especially needs to expand it to pull data from a wider variety of sources.  They are still missing a few major services such as MSN and AOL.  Native support for more generic formats such as iCal would certainly be a big plus as well.  Adding synchronization of tasks and memos is also an obvious need that I’m pretty surprised that they have yet to address. WebOS 2.0 reportedly exposes more of Synergy in its public APIs, which should allow more services to implement their own synchronization.

I also strongly believe that HP/Palm should beef up their own Palm Profile service for those that might prefer not to use a 3rd party service for managing their personal information.  At the very least, they should implement the ability to view and manage data stored in the Palm Profile via the web.  Currently the data are only accessible on the phone itself.  There have also been reports of data loss from the Palm Profile when people have replaced or had to hard-reset their phones and this is something that is simply unacceptable with a cloud-based solution and must not continue.

One other shortcoming that is often cited is that there is no out-of-the-box solution for synchronizing with desktop applications for those that are still generally avoiding storing this kind of information in the cloud.  They do provide a tool for doing a one time transfer of data from Microsoft Outlook or the older Palm Desktop (used with the old Palm OS), but it does not establish an ongoing synchronization.  I don’t personally feel this is a bad decision, though.  There are already third-party solutions available to do this kind of synchronization (admittedly at an extra charge) and I think it probably is wiser for Palm to keep their own focus on the cloud-based approach, which I do think will be the preferred solution for most people.

CalendarPalm Pre - CalendarIn the calendar application, the default view is a combined one with the events from each source (Exchange, Google, Facebook, etc.) color coded.  In the settings, you can select the specific color to use for each source and can also have it remove specific calendars from the combined view.  From the main screen, it is also easy to switch to a filtered view that only shows events from any single source.

GwebOS Calendar - Monthly Viewoogle’s calendar supports multiple calendars on a single account and webOS treats each as a separate source with its own color-coding and option to display or not in the combined view.  Since Google offers the ability to subscribe to iCal or other types of calendar feeds, this provides a method to pull in events from many calendar systems that aren’t directly supported by Palm.  I use TripIt for travel planning and scheduling and was able to subscribe to its calendar feed via Google.

I have found that there are some quirks/bugs in the system, which I hope Palm will work out in time.  Sometimes updates made online to a calendar have taken several hours to show up on the Pre and, occasionally, never made it there at all.  This problem was particularly common when subscribing to an external calendar source in Google and I eventually ended up dropping the TripIt subscription in favor of manual imports.

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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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HP/Palm Pre and webOS Review: User Interface, Launcher and Multitasking

This continues my review of the HP/Palm Pre and webOS.  Click here for the introduction and review of the Pre hardware.

User Interface

Palm Pre - LauncherIt is difficult to ignore that the webOS user interface was pretty closely inspired by Apple’s iOS on the iPhone and other related devices.  Palm was the first to directly challenge Apple’s claimed exclusivity on a multi-touch gesture based interface on a handheld, which creates some obvious similarities between the interfaces of the two phones.  I’ve never owned an iPhone, but have become familiar with it because of my wife’s phone as well as some friends and co-workers that have them.  HTC also tried to emulate some of the iPhone-style gesture navigation with the Touch Pro, although it was greatly affected by the limitations of a resistive touch-screen, the lack of multi-touch, and the overall non touch-friendly design of Windows Mobile.

Like the iPhone, the Pre uses a capacitive touch-screen which relies on the conductivity of human skin.  This prevents it from detecting input when using a stylus or much of anything else other than a finger.  This type of touchscreen allows generally accurate finger-based selection with fairly high durability and easy support for multi-touch.  It also demands a user-interface that is designed for finger-based touch in essentially every aspect of its operation.  The physical keyboard on the Pre allows for more traditional data entry and the webOS design makes use of the keyboard to augment the touch screen for tasks such as precise cursor positioning and text selection.  I can’t fault Palm for copying Apple’s approach to touch navigation as the approach works well.  Scrolling, panning, and zooming are incredibly easy and intuitive.

Directly under the screen there is a touch-sensitive “gesture area” that is used for some additional navigation.  The most commonly used is a right to left swipe across this area that goes back to the previous screen.  This is used so frequently that the initial device set-up process when the phone is powered up for the first time includes a short practice session for it.  The other frequently used gesture is an upward swipe from the gesture area onto the screen, which opens the main application launcher, and there are a handful of other less frequently used gestures.  Tapping the gesture area is used to initiate cut/paste and other special operations.  The gesture area has been hailed as one of the more inventive elements of webOS, but I am actually a little torn about its value.  I’ve gotten used to it, but I’m not fully convinced that “back” and “home” buttons wouldn’t be simpler and more straightforward.

I also am not 100% sold on the completely stylus-free interface as I still find occasions where I would like to be able to select items with more precision.  In particular, corrections and insertions during text entry are tricky, although WebOS does alleviate this by allowing finger swipes to be used for linear cursor movement when the “orange” key on the keyboard is held down.  I have also sometimes wished for a stylus (or even responsiveness to fingernails) when selecting smaller links in web pages or emails or when playing some kinds of casual games.  Still, the combination of good predictive algorithms and easy to use zooming does minimize this as an issue.  Of course, the lack of a stylus eliminates the possibility of handwriting recognition or freehand note taking.

Any photo can be set as the background image on the phone (I currently use a photo of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland).  The photo to use can easily be selected from the Photos application.  The webOS approach of hiding the launcher when not in use makes this particularly useful as the background photo frequently is fully visible instead of being hidden by icons.  Even when the launcher is displayed, it is kept slightly translucent so that the background image is still slightly visible.

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HP/Palm Pre and webOS Review: Introduction and Hardware

Palm Pre

In October 2009, I purchased a Palm Pre smart phone on the Sprint network.  As a Sprint Premiere customer, I am eligible for upgrade pricing on new phones after the first year of the two-year contract, making now a good time to assess my experience with the Pre and webOS and whether or not to continue with it or look at a switch to Android or some other platform.  My review will be presented in several parts over the next several days.

With Hewlett-Packard (HP) recently completing their purchase of Palm, there is the expectation of new webOS devices on the horizon.  Late in 2010, the Pre 2 was announced along with the new 2.0 version of webOS.  More new phone models and a tablet are expected during the first half of 2011, with announcements likely to be made at a press event HP has scheduled for February 9th. The Pre 2 is just a moderate upgrade to the specifications,  but it does address a few of the nagging issues with the Pre.  The OS update is pretty substantial and does add some nice new features, although most of those features will eventually be available on my current Pre as well via a firmware update.

In the United States, the Pre 2 is currently only available in a costly unlocked GSM version, although a subsidized version on Verizon Wireless is expected soon.  Right now, it doesn’t look too likely that other carriers are going to rush to pick it up.  A new Sprint webOS phone could be announced later, but I may have to consider whether or not an upgraded Palm phone would justify changing carriers and paying the cost of the pro-rated early termination fee for the 2-year contract (or waiting until October to upgrade).  I’ve found Sprint’s coverage near me to be spotty, though, so this may be worth considering.

I’m going to go into much more detail about the pluses and minuses of the Pre and webOS over the rest of my review, but I’m going to also cut to the chase and give my current thinking right away.  At this point, my plan is to sit tight for the time being and find out what new phones HP/Palm announces over the early part of 2011.  I do believe that webOS has some strong advantages over the competition that I would hate to give up and I would like to give the company a chance to impress me on the hardware side.  Upgrading to the Pre 2 right away would even be pretty tempting if it were available on Sprint, but I’m kind of glad it isn’t as I might be happier with a more advanced model.

I should mention that actually started writing this review shortly after I purchased the phone and have worked on it periodically, adding new thoughts and observations as my experience with the phone has grown.  Eventually, it felt like it had gotten to be old news, so I set it aside without completing it or posting.  I feel that writing my review over more than a full year of use gives me a more meaningful perspective  than if I had published a first-impressions review shortly after I got the phone.

My History with Palm and Smartphones

I have a pretty long history with Palm devices, starting with my first PDA: a work-issued Palm V back in 2000.  Since then, I have owned a Palm VIIx (their first network-connected device), Palm Tungsten-W (a very early smartphone), Sony Clie UX-50 (Sony licensed Palm OS for PDAs at that time), a Palm Lifedrive (PDA with a 4GB hard drive) and a Treo 700P.  While a couple of those were among the worst designed models that Palm has put out, particularly the Tungsten-W and Lifedrive, I definitely have a strong affinity to Palm’s approach to the design of PDA/phones.

In late 2008, I became frustrated with the limitations of the badly aging Palm OS and switched to a high-end (at the time) Windows Mobile phone: the HTC Touch Pro.  While that phone was very powerful and feature rich, I pretty quickly became frustrated by the slow, clunky, and inconsistent user interface and the general instability of the OS whenever I tried to do anything overly complicated with it.  In addition, Apple’s iPhone had largely re-defined the user interface for a phone and I couldn’t help feeling that I was using a seriously outdated operating system, particularly after my wife got an iPhone allowing me to gain some more direct experience with it.  While many of the technical specs of the Touch Pro are still higher than the Pre, the Palm phone definitely feels much more modern and elegant.

I was interested in Palm’s webOS operating system as soon as they announced it at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2009 and I followed the reviews and other coverage of the platform very closely, particularly after the official launch of the Pre in the early-summer.  I wasn’t eligible for a reasonably priced upgrade until October 1, which gave me a fair amount of time to monitor the progress of webOS and the Pre as well as its major competitors (particularly the Google-sponsored Android OS) before making a purchase decision.

Eventually, I realized that the webOS seemed to combine many of the good ideas that I’ve long found appealing about the iPhone, while addressing the biggest issues that have kept me from deciding to jump onto that bandwagon.  In particular, the inclusion of a physical keyboard, the generally more open approach to 3rd party development and the better support for multitasking were important advantages.  My research also indicated that the new OS still reflected some of the strengths that I had long associated with Palm, particularly a good balance between ease of use and flexibility/power as well as very innovative control over personal information management (PIM) data such as calendars and contacts.

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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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Soundtrack Collection: Delta Force to The Devil’s Brigade

The Delta Force

The Delta Force (Alan Silvestri, 1986): Alan Silvestri’s score to the Chuck Norris action film Delta Force is one of the most prominent fully-electronic scores of Silvestri’s film career.  There are no orchestral elements in the score at all.  It is instead entirely performed on a Synclavier synthesizer, giving it a very energetic, modernistic sound.  Silvestri’s musical style is definitely evident in the score, but the electronics gives it a somewhat different flavor.

The “Main Title” cue starts off with some very rhythmic, fairly dissonant material before eventually transitioning into a melodic, anthem-style main theme.  This theme melody is worked into other parts of the score and Silvestri also provides some other effective melodic elements, such as the music heard in the cue “First Class”.  Rhythmic action music is definitely the dominant feature of this score, though, and the album is pretty much packed with high-energy action cues.  The  main theme is often well woven into the action cues, as in the excellent cue “Rescue”.  The theme does a good job of providing a solid anchor for the score.  In several cues, Silvestri also programs the synthesizer to present a melody in a style that resembles a bell choir, providing an occasional bit of gentility during an otherwise intense score.

Intrada’s 2008 limited edition CD release is somewhat notorious among film score fans for the fact that all 1,000 copies had sold out within about 15 hours after the announcement.  This title is often cited as a case study for the growth of the soundtrack fan community and the demand for titles by major composers (particularly titles from the 80s and 90s), even when the movie and/or score isn’t thought to be particularly popular.  Used copies of this CD now regularly sell for well over $100, a price probably defined more by its reputation for rarity than by the quality of the score itself.  

The Intrada CD contains the complete score and runs for about an 1 hour and 15 minutes.  A 38 minute LP of excerpts from the score was released at the time of the film’s release.  A previous CD release on the Milan label paired about 32 minutes of the score (it was missing one cue from the LP release) along with excerpts from Jerry Goldsmith’s score to “King Solomon’s Mines”.  The Milan CD is generally easier to find at more reasonable prices, although the Intrada release is definitely a preferable presentation of the score.

Demetrius and the Gladiators

Demetrius and the Gladiators (Franz Waxman, 1954): This biblical epic was the sequel to The Robe, the hit film that had famously introduced the CinemaScope widescreen format to theaters a year earlier.  While The Robe featured a score by Fox’s music director Alfred Newman, the sequel was scored by Franz Waxman.  While Waxman does occasionally re-use some of Newman’s key themes from the previous film, the majority of the sequel score consists of original compositions.

The score is pretty much what you expect from biblical epics during that era, which certainly isn’t a bad thing.  The score is a large-scale orchestral work with lots of strings and brass as well as some dramatic choral elements.  The central theme is an exciting march that is loosely derived from Newman’s music for the earlier film, but with orchestrations and surrounding material that is original to the new film. 

Waxman’s most substantial original themes include a lush and seductively charged theme for the character of Messalina and a darkly menacing villain’s march for Caligula.  Messalina’s theme is first heard in a short presentation in the cue “Messalina” and is developed further during several later cues, some of which contain the character’s name.  The villain’s march is prominently featured in the cue “Caligula Enters”.

The soundtrack CD was released by Film Score Monthly as part of their Golden Age Classics series.  It is a limited edition of 3000 copies, but still readily available.  The score is presented in stereo with generally decent sound quality, considering the age of the recording.  A handful of damaged cues are presented as bonus tracks at the end of the CD.  Other bonus tracks include some original temp tracks that were provided by Newman and some brief alternates.

The album ends with a 5 minute cue from Film Score Monthly’s previous release of Newman’s The Egyptian, repeated on this release in order to correct a mixing error that was present on the previous release.

Demon Seed

Demon Seed (Jerry Fielding, 1977): Jerry Fielding’s score to Demon Seed was released on CD by Film Score Monthly in a Silver Age Classics limited edition that was paired with Fred Myrow’s score to Soylent Green.  The result was a CD release that definitely tends towards the strange.

Fielding’s score definitely falls into the weird category.  The score is dark and atonal, pretty frequently straddling, or even crossing, the line between music and sound effects.  Much of score is performed on synthesizers, although even the orchestral elements are rarely melodic. Only very rarely are bits of melody introduced, including in the final segment of the album’s first cue as well as much of the surprisingly brassy “End Credits” cue.  The overall effect of the score is definitely creepy and fairly unsettling.

Some of the motifs are presented on the CD both in electronic and symphonic versions, with the liner notes explaining that some of these electronic bits were unused in the film in favor of the symphonic versions.

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Soundtrack Collection: Day of the Locust to De-Lovely

Day of the Locust

Day of the Locust (John Barry, 1974): The soundtrack to this early 70s John Schlesinger drama contains a mix of of John Barry’s light and breezy scoring and a variety of old standards, which are meant to establish a stronger connection to the film’s 1930s period setting. Barry’s score represents around 20 minutes of the just over half hour running time of the soundtrack album, which is available on a 2,000 copy limited edition CD from Intrada.  The CD is a direct transfer of the contents of the original LP release from the time of the film’s release.

The score is primarily centered around a warm and gentle main theme, which is a very recognizable example of Barry’s usual lush approach to dramatic scoring.  The score contains a wide variety of variations on the theme with a number of different orchestrations, resulting in a number of cues that are given a parenthetical subtitle of “Theme from Day of the Locust”.  The theme is generally presented in a fairly straight-forward orchestral performance, heavily dominated by strings and woodwinds.  The cue “Fire and Passion” includes an interesting arrangement that primarily features acoustic guitar.

Barry does provide some period flavor in some of the cues, such as the big-band style swing music that opens the cue “A Picture of Love” as well as the bouncy tune provided in the aptly titled “Soft Shoe Salesman”.  The cue “The Flying Carpet” has a fun, almost circus-atmosphere to it, even including a whimsical use of slide whistle at time.  These types of cues give the score an appealingly playful quality.

The songs included are all very recognizable standards of the era.  These include Louis Armstrong’s performance of “Jeepers Creepers”, “Isn’t It Romantic” by Michael Dees, “I Wished On the Moon” by Nick Lucas, “Hot Voodoo” by Paul Zabara, and “Sing You Sinners” by Pamela Myers.  The songs are interspersed throughout the album and the sequence seems well selected.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Bernard Herrmann, 1951): Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still is definitely a milestone in movie science fiction.  In a time when the genre was dominated by cheesy monster movies, this was a serious, dramatic story with a powerful and resonant message.  Bernard Herrmann’s score is also a milestone, establishing a style that is now immediately evocative of alien invasion storylines.

The score’s distinct and signature element is its frequent use of the Theremin, an instrument with a distinctly other-worldly sound.  Herrmann uses it frequently throughout the score.  The score’s familiar main theme has an especially eerie quality, with throbbing strings and low brass played under a primary Theremin melody.  It clearly establishes a tone over the “Prelude” cue and then is used very effectively at key moments during the rest of the score.  Most of the score tends to build a tense, atmospheric mood with a certain hint of dread.  Bits of effective and propulsive action music do come at key moments, though, such as during the cue “Escape”.

In addition to the other-worldly, Theremin focused music, Herrmann also includes some effectively melancholy and melodically regal music for the cues “Arlington” and “Lincoln Memorial”.  These cues have a strong dramatic weight and are very effective at grounding the score during the key moments that need it.

The soundtrack CD was released on CD under a short lived Twentieth Century Fox Classics series (distributed by Arista), which is now out of print but still easy to find.  This CD contains about 35 minutes of music, which covers pretty much the whole score as heard in the film.  Much more difficult to find (I don’t have it) is a special CD that was only available packaged with the Laserdisc release of the film.  That CD contains about 18 minutes of outtakes, rehearsals, and alternate mixes.

Varese Sarabande released a re-recording of the score under conductor Joel McNeely, which is still readily available and apparently contains pretty much the same program as the soundtrack album.  I don’t have that release, but based on the quality of McNeely’s other re-recordings I would imagine it is a competent performance and likely has a better sound quality than the original soundtrack cues.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Tyler Bates, 2008): For the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Tyler Bates had the unenviable job of following in the footsteps of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score for the 1951 original.  While I doubt it was a conscious decision, it seems like Bates’ main way of distinguishing his effort from Herrmann’s was to make it as conventional as the original score was unconventional.  There isn’t anything substantially wrong with Bates’ score, but it just isn’t all that memorable or distinctive.

Bates approach to the score is fairly action-oriented, mix of orchestral and synthesizer music.  The score tends to be pretty heavy on brass and percussion and not especially thematic.  The synthesizer music tends to also become more dominant as the score progresses.  For the most part, Bates sticks more to modern action and tension scoring and avoids the type of moody, otherworldly qualities of Herrmann’s score, although with a few exceptions, particularly the cue “Surgery”.  Some cues have more of an electronic rock sound to them as well, such as the later part of the cue “You Should Let Me Go”.

Herrmann’s themes were not used at all in the remake’s score.  In the one likely homage to the original, there are bits of a Theremin used occasionally, although it is pushed far enough in the background that it isn’t particularly noticeable.  In fact, I wasn’t even entirely sure if a real Theremin is used or if its sound was just approximated via synthesizer.

For the most part, the score is listenable and holds up generally well for the 50 minute running time of the soundtrack CD.  If it hadn’t been written for a remake to a film with such an iconic score, it would probably have been an easier score to simply dismiss as an okay sci-fi/action effort.  Knowing what Bernard Herrmann did with the same material, though, it is easier for Bates’ effort to seem like a missed opportunity.

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Soundtrack Collection: Cutthroat Island to David & Bathsheba

Cutthroat Island

Cutthroat Island (John Debney, 1995): Cutthroat Island is one of those movies that is best known as a legendary flop.  In this case, it is particularly notable as the film that killed off Carolco (the previously successful production company behind films like Basic Instinct and Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and the one that led to a conventional wisdom that movies about pirates were box-office poison, at least until Disney, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Johnny Depp changed everyone’s mind a decade later.  I actually think it is a film that is better than its reputation, but it still is pretty severely flawed and it isn’t too difficult to see why it didn’t succeed.

Had the film been a hit (or at least less of a bomb), I think there is a good chance it would have propelled composer John Debney solidly onto the film composer A-list years before his acclaimed score to The Passion of the Christ finally did.  Debney provided an old-fashioned, fully orchestral swashbuckler score that was largely in the Korngold tradition.  His score supported the film wonderfully, giving it a sense of adventure and fun that the screenplay and performances didn’t always live up to. 

The score is very brass heavy, much of it built around an exciting main theme that served as a primary theme for Geena Davis’ lead character.  The theme is quickly introduced in the opening cue “Main Title/Morgan’s Ride”, initially as a brassy, orchestral opening march.  This version of the theme is so big and bold that it seemed unlikely that it could get any bigger right up until the point where Debney adds in the choir during the second part of the cue.  The result is wildly over the top, but in a very good way.

This is not a score that is very into subtlety and the quieter moments are somewhat infrequent.  When they do come, Debney pretty deftly changes the orchestration on the main themes, keeping a tonal consistency to the score.  In particular, the primary romantic theme (first introduced in the second cue, “The Rescue/Morgan Saves Henry”) is really just the primary theme with its tempo slowed down and transitioned primarily to strings instead of brass.  The score also includes some occasional, lower tone suspense music, such as what is heard during parts of the cue “Anclee Plots/To Spittlefield”.  These are effective, but the brassy adventure music is never far behind during these segments.

The soundtrack CD released with the film contains a generous 1 hour and 10 minutes of music and covers the key parts of the score.  The CD was released by Silva Screen Records in the UK and Nu.Millennium in the US.  At least in the US, the film’s box-office failure resulted in the soundtrack not being very widely distributed to stores and I recall that this was one of the first CDs that I ended up purchasing online from a soundtrack specialty store.  Despite this, the CD isn’t especially rare and can pretty easily be obtained at very reasonable prices even now.  In fact, Silva Screen UK still lists it in their active catalog. The Amazon link at the top of this review is to that edition.

Cutthroat Island (Expanded)

While the original soundtrack contains a good, generous representation of the music, the film was pretty much continuously scored, meaning that a lot of music was missing.  In 2004, Prometheus Records released a 2-CD expanded edition of the soundtrack that runs an amazing nearly 2 1/2 hours in length and contains essentially all the music from the film as well as bonus tracks including a synth demo of the main title and a few tracks with the choral portion removed.  This may be a bit much for casual listeners, but is definitely the best choice for major fans of the score.  This release is still possible to obtain, but is rarer and typically quite a bit more expensive than the single disc version.

The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code (Hans Zimmer, 2006): For Ron Howard’s blockbuster adaptation of Dan Brown’s hugely popular novel, Hans Zimmer provided an intense score that provided an interesting mix of his own typical thriller scoring and some traditionally classical religious sounding themes.  The result was one of Zimmer’s most effective and melodically diverse scores of recent years.

The film was pretty firmly steeped in classical traditions and, thus, the score is much more fully orchestral than most of Zimmer’s recent efforts.  Electronics aren’t completely absent, but are used very infrequently, usually to unobtrusively add a bit to the tension.  This gives the score a somewhat different and refreshing quality compared to the somewhat repetitive nature of some of Zimmer’s recent thriller scores.

The majority of the score is very string-focused with frequent choral elements, with male choir often underscoring the more intense moments while female choir is used for the more spiritual.   Solo vocals also come into play occasionally, as with the haunting female vocal used in the cue “Rose of Arimathea”.  Many of the cues have a definite resemblance to classical religious hymns, but with Zimmer occasionally strengthening the intensity of the strings or adding bits of brass to build tension.  Particularly good examples of this include the final portions of the cue “The Paschal Spiral” and “Fructus Gravis”.

The most familiar theme in the score is also its most modern sounding, a propulsive, drivingly rhythmic theme that is first introduced during the opening cue, “Dies Mercurii I Martius” and closes the score as well.  This theme serves as kind of a primary theme for the story’s puzzles and is used most often during the sequences with that focus, although it actually appears very infrequently on the soundtrack album.  This is also the primary theme that survived in the somewhat more typically Zimmer-style score for the sequel, “Angels & Demons”.

The album ends with a choral hymn entitled “Kyrie for the Magdalene” by Richard Harvey.  Although not written by Zimmer, it fits in fairly well stylistically with the rest of the music.

Damien: Omen II

Damien: Omen II (Jerry Goldsmith, 1978): Jerry Goldsmith’s one and only Academy Award was for The Omen, a particularly impressive accomplishment when you consider the Academy’s usual lack of attention to horror movies.  After that major creative success, it isn’t too surprising that Goldsmith returned to the material for the 1978 sequel (and later for the third film), providing a leaner and more action-packed score that is related to the original more in stylistic approach than in the specific musical content.

The score to the original Omen was particularly characterized by its choral pieces that brought to mind the dark, demonic flip side to a religious hymn.  The sequel score extensively uses this same approach and, in fact, the dark choir is present almost continuously during the score, with only occasional brief respites.  The orchestral accompaniment is dominated by strings, percussion, with occasional bursts of harsh brass.  Organ and electronics are also used to effectively add to the unease on occasion.  The famous “Ave Satani” from the first film is only occasionally re-visited, although much of the new music resembles it in style.

Goldsmith completely eliminated any use of the melodic “Piper’s Dream” love theme from the first film, which also removes the earlier score’s primary source of release from the dark tension.  The score does have a few quieter moments, but Goldsmith manages to weave a certain underlying tension even to those pieces and typically they end with bursts of dark mayhem.  In particular, the cue “Thoughtful Night” features some of the score’s most melodic and emotional music, but ends with an abrupt return of the demonic choral music.

The original soundtrack album released with the film actually contained a re-recording of the score instead of the actual film tracks.  That album was released on LP at the time of the movie’s release and was later released on CD by Silva Screen Records.  In 2001, Varese Sarabande released a deluxe edition that contains both the original album and the film tracks on a single CD. 

The film apparently only contained a little over 35 minutes of original music and the original film tracks only run a couple minutes longer than the album presentation.  The main differences in the two versions are in some of the orchestrations, the presentation order, and some performance details.  In particular, the organ tends to be more intense and dominant in the film tracks than in the re-recording.  The differences are mostly fairly subtle, but it is good that both sets of performances are now available.  One major oddity on the film tracks is the cue “Snowmobiles”, which is a melodic, upbeat orchestral piece that seems totally disconnected from the rest of the score.  It comes as a definite surprise on the album.

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Soundtrack Collection: Con Air to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Con Air

Con Air (Mark Mancina & Trevor Rabin, 1997): Teaming up Mark Mancina and Trevor Rabin, two of the major composers to come out of Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures film score company during the late 1990s, Con Air features a pretty hard-driving, largely electronic score that echoes the film’s intense, adrenaline-fueled action.

At the very beginning of the soundtrack, the score’s intensity is established with the opening “Con Air Theme”.  The cue starts with some very rough, metallic sounding sounds that are closer to sound effects than to music.  This transitions into the score’s primary theme, which is melodic but very much in a rhythmic, rock-instrumental mold.  The main theme somewhat resembles Mancina’s well-known Speed theme, which suggests that he probably was the primary driver on it.  Most of the rest of the cues continue in this rock-based style and the Hans Zimmer influence is pretty evident in this score as well.

The second cue, entitled “Trisha”, introduces a softer, very melodic theme for Nicolas Cage’s character’s wife, the only really significant female character in the film.  This theme is the primary deviation away from the hard driving nature of the rest of the score.  At least on the soundtrack album, the theme only appears very rarely after this initial presentation of it.

Oddly, the final cue on the soundtrack album is entitled “Overture”, suggesting that the album producer doesn’t know the meaning of that word.

Conan the Barbarian

Conan the Barbarian (Basil Poledouris, 1982): Although he had been around for quite a while, and even scored some high profile projects, this extremely popular score did quite a bit to elevate Basil Poledouris into the upper tier of composers and established him as a solid choice for scoring high energy action films.

The best known theme from the score is the highly percussive “Anvil of Crom”, which is the opening cue of the soundtrack album (preceded by a brief spoken prologue).  It features a very rhythmic drumbeat which is overlaid with a brassy march-type melody.  It is a recognizable theme that had a pretty obvious influence on a number of future action score themes, particularly Brad Fiedel’s The Terminator and Jerry Goldsmith’s Total Recall.

The whole score is mix of some very active and dynamic action music, dominated by brass and percussion as well as some pretty impressive choral elements.  The entire score maintains a very strong melodic quality, with strings generally brought in to enhance the more emotional portions of the score.  Poledouris establishes some pretty strong thematic material here with some very distinctive melodies.

The original LP release of the soundtrack from the time of the movie’s release ran around 49 minutes and was later re-issued on CD by Milan Records.  That CD edition is still pretty easy to come by and is also available as a download or as an in-demand CD-R release from Amazon.  Varese Sarabande also released an expanded CD edition back in 1992 that ran over an hour in length.  That edition is out of print and relatively difficult to find at reasonable prices.  I only have the shorter Milan release.

Congo

Congo (Jerry Goldsmith, 1995): This adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel was seriously panned by critics (although it did reasonably well at the box-office), although I think it actually is a film that is a lot better than its reputation.  Possibly its strongest component was the exciting, ethnically-appropriate score by Jerry Goldsmith.

The score closely reflects the setting of the film, with the use of a lot of African-style percussion and rhythms.  These are integrated carefully with Goldsmith’s typical style of fast paced and melodic action music.  The primary theme is based around the song “Spirit of Africa”.  Popular African vocalist Lebo M, best known for his arrangements and performances for The Lion King, provided mixed African and English-language lyrics and performed vocal versions of the song that open and close the album.  It is a very cool song, particularly if you  and the melody is used frequently throughout the score.

The soundtrack CD contains only a little over 33 minutes of the score and, thus, an expanded release would be very welcome.  Now that Paramount has recently started working with specialty soundtrack labels, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if an expansion of this score shows up at some point in the future.

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