Soundtrack Collection: Bolt to Brave Little Toaster


Bolt (John Powell, 2008): Disney’s 2008 CGI animated feature was not a musical, thus the soundtrack album primarily features the orchestral score by composer John Powell, who has generally done some of his best work in animated features (including Shrek, the Ice Age sequels, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon).  This was his first score for Disney and it is well suited to the film.

The soundtrack album opens with the two songs from the film, both of which have a modern country style.  The first is “I Thought I Lost You”, the end-credits song performed by the film’s voice stars John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, which is a fairly interesting pairing for a duet.  The other song is “Barking at the Moon” performed by Jenny Lewis, which was used more prominently over a key montage sequence in the film.

Powell’s score has an interesting mix of styles, due to the somewhat dual nature of the film itself.  The main story of the lost dog trying to find its way home called for a fairly tender, emotionally driven score, which Powell builds around a piano-driven main theme.  This aspect of the score is quickly introduced during the first cue of the score portion of the soundtrack entitled “Meet Bolt”.  Powell also provides a fun, vaguely Godfather-inspired  theme for Mittens the cat, which is introduced in the cue “Meet Mittens”.  Other parts of the score have a bit more of a rural, country-inspired feel.

The other key aspect of the score is the very fast-paced, action music that is principally featured in the title character’s super-hero type TV series within the movie.  For these sequences, Powell provides an edgy, heavily synthesizer driven score.  On the soundtrack album, these cues feel a bit out of step with the rest of the score, although they fit perfectly in those sequences in the film.  This aspect of the score is heard early on with “Bolt Transforms” and “Scooter Chase” and Powell does occasionally re-introduce some of the TV series action music during appropriate, action-oriented sections of the main storyline.

Born Free

Born Free (John Barry, 1966): Outside of his James Bond songs, the title song from Born Free is almost certainly the most recognizable and familiar composition of John Barry’s career.  The Matt Monro recording of the song (which features lyrics by Don Black) was a big hit and  became Monro’s signature song.  A cover version by Roger Williams was also a top-10 hit.

The title song is the best remembered aspect of the score and its melody is the dominant theme.  Like the song, the score is very lush and romantic and extremely melodic.  Fitting the family-oriented adventure film, the score has a definite playful quality to it and Barry also occasionally introduces some bits and pieces of African styling, such as some of the use of percussion in the cue “Elsa at Play”.  Some slightly darker tones come into play in “The Death of Pati”, while still maintaining the overall style of the score.

For the 1966 soundtrack album, Barry conducted a re-recording of the score’s highlights.  This re-recording plus the Monro version of the song runs just under 40 minutes in length.  The soundtrack album was released on CD by Film Score Monthly in 2004 in a, rare for the label, non limited-edition that was widely distributed to stores.  The CD doesn’t contain any additional music (or the original film tracks), but it is a solid representation of the score.

Born on the Fourth of July

Born on the Fourth of July (John Williams and Various artists, 1989): This film featured John Williams first of the three scores (preceding JFK and Nixon) that he composed for director Oliver Stone.  Those scores were among the darkest and most somber that Williams composed.  This means that they weren’t among the most accessible to listen to separately from the films, but the scores were exceptionally effective within the films.  The Born on the Fourth of July score isn’t one that I return to very often, but it is a very impressive, serious composition that should be a part of any serious film music collection.

The soundtrack album for Born on the Fourth of July is a mix of a song and score album.  The film used contemporary to the era music pretty extensively to help establish the late 60s/early 70s setting and, particularly, the scenes involving the Vietnam War protest groups and the general counterculture of the era.  The album opens with cover versions of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall” by Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians” and John Fogerty’s  “Born On the Bayou” recorded by The Broken Homes.  Both of these were recorded for the film.

The rest of the songs were original artists versions of “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “American Pie” by Don Mclean, “My Girl” by The Temptations, “Soldier Boy” by The Shirelles, “Venus” by Frankie Avalon, and  the familiar choral version of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River”.  All are good songs, of course, but they are also very widely available from other sources and it would have been vastly preferable to have had more of the score instead.

The score portion of the album opens with “Prologue”, a distinguished and somber theme for solo trumpet, extremely well performed by former Boston Pops lead trumpeter Tim Morrison, a frequent Williams collaborator.  This immediately establishes the very serious mood of the score.  This theme is re-visited quite a bit during the rest of the score cues and Morrison’s solo trumpet is also utilized to perform other themes within the score.

During the second cue, “The Early Days, Massapequa, 1957”, Williams establishes the other primary theme of the score, which is a fairly romantic Americana theme that reflects the all-American, small town origins of the film’s central character.  As the score progresses, this theme is re-visited frequently, but with darker, more downbeat shadings as the film’s very serious story arc plays out.  This is especially true of the last couple cues of the album, which score the last parts of the film after the injured main character has returned home from the war.  Especially effective is Williams use of a bit of a pop beat under the trumpet performance of his Americana theme during “Homecoming”, with a revisit of the “Prologue” theme interrupting it, causing a fairly abrupt shift from optimism to sadness.

The soundtrack also includes a couple cues that underscore the film’s war sequences.  The first of these, “The Shooting of Wilson” is mostly very dissonant in sound with harsh strings and bursts of percussion and brass underlining the tension and pain of the war.  It is the most difficult cue on the album to listen to, although it is still very expertly composed.  The cue ends with repeats of the score’s two main themes, providing a sort of release.  The second war cue, “Cua Viet River, Vietnam, 1968” is more melodic and interweaves more of the main themes, but in a very dark and foreboding style.  Williams’ use of vocal whispering (with unrecognizable words) is a particularly unsettling element of this cue.

Williams’ score only takes up about 25 minutes on the album, so this is obviously a very prime candidate for an expanded release.  Not counting Williams (mostly early) scores that have never been released outside of their films at all, this is almost certainly his most under-represented score out there.  The album does hit the top highlights of the score giving a solid taste for it, but there definitely is a need for more of it to be made available.

Read More »

Soundtrack Collection: Black Stallion to Blues Brothers

The Black Stallion

The Black Stallion (Carmine Coppola, 1978): Intrada’s 3-CD set of the score to The Black Stallion may simply be too much of a good thing, at least when attempting to listen to it all at once.  The first two discs essentially contain everything that was written for the film: the score as heard in the movie, numerous unused cues, and various source cues.  The 3rd disc contains the 35 minute LP program that was released with the film.  The total of the 3 discs comes out to over 2 hours of music.

Fortunately, there is nothing that says that one has to listen to the music all at one time.  Certainly the score is very good and it is certainly not a bad thing that all of it is available.  For the most part, I’ve found that the album version is probably the best choice for listening straight through, while the other parts  might be better suited to playing in parts or to occasionally include in broader “shuffle play” mixes.

While Carmine Coppola (father of Francis, who produced the film) is the primary credit composer, the film also contained contributions from composers Shirley Walker, Nyle Steiner, Kenneth Nash, George Marsh, and Dick Rosmini.   The Intrada set includes appropriate credits for all the composers, thus making it possible to identify who wrote what parts.

Much of the score is very guitar-centered, with generally simple orchestration.  The score includes a fairly distinctive primary theme melody (which opens and closes the original album presentation), which features a solo guitar backing a main melody played by the orchestra, particularly the strings.  This theme is used throughout the score and generally establishes the overall tone of the presentation.  Other parts of the score tend to have a bit of an ethnic flavor, with a number of different instruments in use.  Some of the unused cues on the Intrada complete score discs are more fully orchestral than is generally heard on the cues used in the film.

The Black Stallion Returns

The Black Stallion Returns (Georges Delerue, 1983): Not too long after Intrada put out their CD release of The Black Stallion, they also put out a disc of Georges Delerue’s score to the film’s sequel.  While this score only required a single CD release, it still contains the complete score as heard in the movie as well as the original 1983 album presentation for a total running time of around an hour and 17 minutes.

Delerue doesn’t reuse the themes from the original film, but instead scores the film in his own distinctly melodic style.  His main theme for the sequel does have some similarity, at least in spirit, to Carmine Coppola’s theme for the original film, but it is significantly more fully orchestral, with an emphasis on strings and woodwinds.  The acoustic guitar that was fairly central to the first film’s score is not carried over to the sequel.  I overall think that Delerue’s score is an easier and more satisfying listen than Coppola’s outside of the film.  It tends to be more melodic and straightforward orchestral with a definite flare towards the adventurous.

A huge highlight on this soundtrack is the absolutely thrilling “Finale” cue, which runs for over 8 minutes in length and masterfully sums up all of the film’s themes on its way to an immensely satisfying conclusion.  Due to the discs format of presenting the complete score followed by the original album, this finale is presented twice on the disc.  It is good enough that I don’t really object to hearing it twice in one play through.

Black Sunday

Black Sunday (John Williams, 1977): For many years, Black Sunday was arguably the most significant John Williams score that had never received a soundtrack release.  In early 2010, Film Score Monthly finally corrected this by releasing a CD containing over an hour of Williams’ music from the film.  The CD is part of their limited edition Silver Age Classics series, but they produced 10,000 copies which should keep it available for at least a little while.

This score was composed during possibly the most important phase of his career.  The two other scores that he composed for films released  the same year were Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  His Black Sunday score does resemble his other scores from that time period, but it is quite a bit darker in tone as required by the disturbing subject matter of the film.

Building of tension is Williams’ prime role here and he is very effective at  accomplishing that.  For a good example, the cue “Nurse Dahlia/Kabakov’s Card/The Hypodermic” primarily features some low, fairly repetitive notes that build up a great deal of tension until the cue finally ends with a burst of shrieking strings reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s famous Psycho music.   Another interesting cue is “The Test”, which features chimes, initially by themselves and then later joined by the orchestra’s string section, an effect that builds a notably tense and foreboding atmosphere.

Other cues do have a more melodic style, such as the fairly sad melody that Williams contributes for the cue “Moshevsky’s Dead” or the more active string and brass driven melody in “Preparations”.  Williams also provides a melancholy, brass melody for the end titles, which the CD includes both in the film version and in a version without the underlying pop-style percussion.

The score also includes some very good chase and action music, particularly late in the score.  It is in the action cues that the connections to his other scores of that time period are most evident.  In particular, there is some noticeable similarities to some of the action cues from Close Encounters in this score.

Read More »

Soundtrack Collection (24 through Accidental Tourist)

24 Seasons 1-3 24 Seasons 4-5

24 (Sean Callery, 2001-2006): I have never actually watched the TV series 24, although I think I would probably like it and expect to eventually catch up with it on video.  The CD soundtracks for the series were given to me as a gift and I’m not sure I had actually listened to them before this.  I have two separate volumes of music from the series, one that covers seasons 1-3 and another that covers seasons 4-5.  All of the music is by composer Sean Callery, who I presume has done all the scoring for the show.

The series main title opens with some general beeps and other sound effects (only on the version on the season 1-3 disc) followed by some fairly atonal electronic music.  It then segues into a much more fully-orchestral and melodic theme than I was expecting.  Much more electronics are used in the rest of the scoring for the episodes, although there are orchestral areas as well.  Parts of the scores also include some rock elements (particularly electric guitars) and some techno beats.  A wordless choir is also used occasionally as well as some more chant-like vocals.  The music includes slower elements too, including some gentle piano melodies and some string-oriented pieces.

Without being familiar with the show itself, I don’t know what these various elements are meant to underscore, but the music is highly varied and a fairly unpredictable listening experience from my perspective as a non-viewer.  The track titles (for example, “’Copter Chase Over L.A.”) and the style of music do sometimes provide a pretty clear picture of what kind of scene is being scored and these clues suggest that Callery usually doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of how to score an action/thriller series.  The music is good, though, and I appreciate the fairly singular voice to the scoring of this series.  In recent years, it has become more common for a single composer to do all the scoring for a series and it is a trend that I very much like.

The 25th Hour

The 25th Hour (Georges Delerue, 1967): This score was released on CD by Film Score Monthly as part of their “Silver Age Classics” series and is paired on the disc with Delerue’s score to Our Mother’s House.  I’m not very familiar with the film, except to know that it was a drama that centered around the Holocaust.  As that subject-matter suggests, the music is pretty somber in tone, with a dirge-like main theme.  The dark mood is further enhanced by use of a wordless male choir.  Delerue’s scores are known for being extremely melodic and that is true of this one, although the melodies are definitely darker in character than is typical with his scores.  The whole album isn’t downbeat, though.  In particular “Johann in Budapest” and “Gathering of the Flowers” are very pleasant, almost waltz-like melodies and are very recognizably Delerue.

36 Hours

36 Hours (Dimitri Tiomkin, 1964): Film Score Monthly released this score as part of their “Golden Age Classics” series.  The CD opens with the song “A Heart Must Learn to Cry”, which is a fairly typical early 60s romantic ballad.  Tiomkin uses the melody from the song at various points throughout the rest of the score as well.  The score is generally melodic, with a strong emphasis on piano melodies.  The movie was a World War II dramatic thriller and the score does have some tense moments, although the majority of the score seems to put more emphasis on dramatic and romantic elements.

633 Squadron

633 Squadron (Ron Goodwin, 1964): This is another Film Score Monthly “Silver Age Classics” release.  I don’t know why they considered this one “Silver Age” while 36 Hours from the same year was “Golden Age”.  I’m guessing it had to do either with the era the composer is more associated with and/or with the fact that 633 Squadron is paired on a 2-disc set with Goodwin’s Submarine X-1 score from 1969.

The score is a very rousing, brassy war movie score with quite a few fanfares and soaring strings.  The sound quality is not the greatest, unfortunately.  This is certainly a reflection of the condition of the source tapes, but the music tends to have a fairly harsh sound to it.  The music is great and this recording is worth having, but it is a shame that higher quality elements weren’t available.  The majority of the album is a remastered stereo version of the original LP soundtrack program, but the disc ends with an 8 minute suite of additional material (in mono) taken from tapes provided by Goodwin.  There is also a fun suite of jazz source music.

7 Women

7 Women (Elmer Bernstein, 1966): This score for John Ford’s final film was released as a Film Score Monthly “Silver Age Classics” series entry paired on a single CD with Hugo Friedhofer’s score to Never So Few.  The film is set in China and Bernstein introduces a bit of an Asian flavor to the music.  The score has a lot of fairly quiet, sensitive passages, generally dominated by saxophone and flute.  There is also some fun action music that would sound very much at home in a western.

The 7th Dawn

The 7th Dawn (Riz Ortolani, 1964): This score was included as part of Film Score Monthly’s now out-of-print MGM Soundtrack Treasury, which was a boxed set of 12 CDs containing 20 different scores from the MGM library.  I’m not really familiar with Riz Ortolani outside of this score, but this score is very enjoyable and easy to listen to on CD.  The majority of the music is very lushly romantic and strongly melodic, largely built around a main theme that shares the film’s title.  Several tracks are different album arrangements of that theme, including one with vocals.  The film apparently has a war element to it and the score includes some energetic battle music as well.

84 Charing Cross Road

84 Charing Cross Road (George Fenton, 1987): Varese Sarabande released this score as part of their limited edition CD Club series.  Fenton provided a gentle, up-beat score, appropriate for a film that was a fairly small, character-oriented drama.  One particularly notable track is “Dear Speed”, a very sweet melody that is entirely performed on a solo piano.  The album does include a few tracks that were not composed by Fenton (although he did the arrangements), including the traditional “Sussex Carol” for a Christmas sequence, “Auld Lang Syne” for a New Year’s sequence and an excerpt from Correli’s “Church Sonata in A”.

9 to 5

9 to 5 (Charles Fox, 1980): The soundtrack to this hit comedy, which was released by Intrada Records as a limited edition last year, opens and closes with Dolly Parton’s extremely familiar and popular title song. The song isn’t incorporated into the score, although a few passages call it to mind without really directly quoting it. The score is by Charles Fox, who did quite a few comedy scores during the late 70s and early 80s as well as writing a number of popular TV themes, including those for Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and The Love Boat.

Fox’s score for this film is light and up-beat and occasionally even a bit silly.  The silliness is most notable in the track titled “Violet’s Fantasy”, which includes a lot of cartoonish-style music and even some wordless female vocals that sound like they are right out of an early Disney movie and ending with a chorus singing “Halleluiah”.    Bits of the score, particularly the track “Dora Lee’s Fantasy”, have a bit of a country feel, obviously connecting with Parton’s starring role.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (John Williams, 2001): I believe that this score is John Williams’ best of the 2000s and, in fact, I’m inclined to pick this score as the best of its decade.  The soundtrack runs a little over an hour and covers the most important parts of the score, although I definitely think this title should be a prime candidate for an expanded, complete release.  Some longer promo CDs (I’ve never managed to get a hold of one) were distributed for Academy Award consideration, but a longer commercial release would be extremely welcome.

The film is a very controversial one that generated pretty polarized responses (I was very much on the positive side), but the score was pretty universally acclaimed for its complexity and beauty.  The highlight of the score is a theme fully realized in the track “Where Dreams are Born”, which is one of Williams’ most distinctive and powerful melodies.  This theme represents the film’s central relationship, between the robotic boy David and the adoptive mother that abandons him.  The theme is first introduced in the impressive 10 minute long track “Stored Memories and Monica’s Theme”, which introduces it along side some gentle choral segments.

While the highly-melodic main theme is vital to the more dream-like last portion of the film, the earlier parts of the score tend to be darker in tone with less distinctive melodies.  Especially notable is some unusual instrumentation choices during “The Moon Rising”, including some electronics, strong percussion and wordless vocal chanting.  These definitely put some emphasis on the strangeness of the world depicted in the film’s second act.

The music adapts as the tone of the movie changes, ranging from very dark, percussive music during the mid-section of the film all the way to more traditional fantasy-style scoring, including female chorus, for later parts of the film.  Finally, the concluding scenes are scored with piano-focused versions of the main theme along with some gentle woodwind melodies.

Particularly during the early parts of the film, some of the score does bring to mind some of the musical choices Stanley Kubrick made for 2001: A Space Odyssey, particularly a few segments that somewhat resemble the Gayane Ballet.  Of course, A.I. was a planned collaboration between Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, who ended up writing and directing the film after Kubrick’s death.

The soundtrack also includes two versions of the song “For Always”, one performed by Lara Fabian alone and another that is a duet between Fabian and Josh Groban.  The song is not used in the film at all, but the melody is based on the theme featured in “Where Dreams are Born”.  The vocals lend it a fairly haunting quality that fits well with the overall tone of the score.  The solo version seemed a bit more effective to me, with the duet having a bit more of a pop style.  The duet was probably intended as a possible single from the film (perhaps originally intended for the end credits?), although I don’t think it was ever released as one.

The Abyss

The Abyss (Alan Silvestri, 1989): For James Cameron’s first underwater adventure film, Alan Silvestri composed my pick for the best score in any of Cameron’s films to date.  The film crossed several dramas, causing Silvestri to really exercise his flexibility as a composer.  The movie is part military/submarine thriller, part romance, and then concludes with a purely fantasy-driven finale that is more than a little bit inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Silvestri is very successful at providing the right music for each segment, while still making it all sound like part of the same score.

After a short, otherworldly choral “Main Title” cue, the military-thriller component of the score quickly comes into play with the highly percussion-focused “Search the Montana”.  Other strong action-oriented cues include “The Crane”, “The Fight”, and “Sub Battle”.  Silvestri’s tension-filled music for "Lindsay Drowns” added tremendously to the effectiveness of one of the film’s most intense sequences.  The film’s main theme then makes its first really fully-formed appearance in “Resurrection”, the follow-up to that scene.

One of the most interesting cues in the score is “The Pseudopod”, which underscores the film’s much talked about “water tentacle” sequence.  The cue starts off with pretty intense, almost horror movie style music.  Eventually it segues into the more fantasy-oriented music as the characters discover the nature of the visitor and start examining it more closely.  In the end, the music turns sinister as the military commander that served as the film’s antagonist comes into the scene.

The score goes into full fantasy mode with lots of brass and strings accompanied by soaring choral music for the last 3 cues of the CD: “Bud on the Ledge”, “Back On the Air” and “Finale”.  The nearly 7 minute final cue is particularly strong and exciting music and quickly became one of my favorites after I first got the CD back in 1989.  It is still a track that I like to re-play fairly often.

The Accidental Tourist

The Accidental Tourist (John Williams, 1989): While John Williams is best known for big, brassy scores for blockbuster action/adventure films, throughout his career he has also been periodically brought in to score much smaller, more dramatic films as well.  His compositions for these projects has typically been very sensitive and often quite beautiful music.

Williams’ score for Lawrence Kasdan’s late 80s drama is primarily built around variations of a distinctive primary melody.  This primary theme is introduced in the Main Title in a version that focuses primarily on piano, but later tracks do provide variations on other instruments, including full orchestra.  Williams does an interesting job of varying the pacing and instrumentation on the theme in order to reflect the changing moods of the main character.

While scores built predominantly around a single theme like this can sometimes feel very repetitive, that really isn’t the case with this one.  The theme is varied sufficiently at various points during the score and Williams does include additional material bridge and counterpoint the main melody as needed.  The relatively short 40 minute running time of the soundtrack also helps.

John Williams: A Hollywood Legend (Concert Review)

Hollywood Bowl – August 30, 2008

John Williams’ annual concert of film music with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl has been an annual tradition for me as long as I have lived in Southern California.  I’ve been a huge fan of Williams’ music since I was a kid and I love these regular opportunities to hear his music live, particularly with Williams conducting it himself.

Even though I have continued to attend, and thoroughly enjoy, the concerts every year, my last review was of the 2005 concert.  The concerts are great fun, but the content is basically similar from year to year.  The concerts tend to be targeted more towards the fans of Williams’ mainstream blockbusters than at film score enthusiasts, which results in the selections usually being drawn from a somewhat limited subset of Williams’ exceptional repertoire of compositions.

Williams typically includes a section featuring additional material besides his own during his concerts, sometimes including guest performers.  My interest in those parts has varied from year to year.  Generally, I have most enjoyed those segments when they have been very focused on classic film music that clearly influenced or otherwise connected strongly with Williams.  The second half of this year’s concert featured a lengthy tribute to musicals directed by Stanley Donen, with each piece introduced (in person) by Donen himself.  This was easily my favorite "extra" yet from the Williams’ Hollywood Bowl concerts I have attended.

Read More »

Indiana Jones Memories: Temple of Doom

Click here for my previous post on Raiders of the Lost Ark

By the time the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out in 1984, the dominance of the multiplex was really starting to take hold.  The sequel opened both at the big single-screen Flint Cinema where Raiders played, but it also opened at a suburban multiplex (the Genesee Valley Theaters) that was much closer to our family’s home.  This was the same release pattern that was used for Return of the Jedi the year before.  My sister and I saw Jedi at the first after-school matinee at the multiplex and then saw the film again that weekend in the better 70mm 6-track Dolby presentation at the Flint Cinema.

We had expected to follow the same basic pattern with Temple of Doom, which was also opening the Wednesday before Memorial Day, a week or so before school let out for the summer.  Much to our surprise, my father had other ideas.  At the time, the local newspaper in Flint came fairly late in the afternoon.  After work, my father was looking through the paper and called my sister and I into the room.  He then showed us the full-page ad for the movie that announced a midnight showing that night at Flint Cinema and asked us if we could promise to still get up and make it to school the next day if we all went to see it.  Of course, our answer was a definite "yes". 

Not being a night person at all, my mother again opted out of the first showing (another good excuse to see the film again soon…), but my father, sister, and I headed out to the theater late that evening.  This was my first experience seeing a midnight movie.  It wasn’t a sold-out show, but the enthusiasm level of the audience was about as high as it could get.  The crowd cheered and applauded at all the right moments and clearly was having a great time.  I particularly got a kick out of the reaction to Indy’s entrance.  The first time we see the character in this film, he is well-groomed and dressed in a white tuxedo.  The audience reacted with applause, although it was a bit restrained and even a little delayed as it took a moment for it to register that it was him.  At the end of the prologue, Indy makes a second entrance dressed in his traditional leather jacket, fedora, bullwhip, etc. and that prompted cheers and wild applause.

I obviously had a much better idea of what to expect than I did prior to the release of the first film, which led to quite a bit more heightened excitement about the film, but also a lot less mystery and surprise.  What I actually liked a lot about the film (and I’m a bigger fan of it than many people are) was that I felt that Lucas and Spielberg really did find some surprising and unexpected directions to take the movie.  Right at the very start, I certainly wasn’t expecting the movie to open with an entire Busby Berkley style musical number.  I even recall momentarily wondering if they were running the wrong movie.  A lot of people were also put off by the darker tone and overall modified structure compared to the first film, but I felt that it made the movie seem a bit fresher than most sequels.  The film was, if anything, even faster paced than the first and, even with the ultra-late showtime, I certainly had no trouble staying awake for the movie.  Yes, I did make it through the school day the next day as well.

I liked the film a lot and did see it several times in the theater that summer, but not as many times as the first film.  In fact, it wasn’t even really the movie that most dominated my attention that summer.  As a 14-year-old boy, I was right in the primary target audience for Ghostbusters, which became my favorite movie of that summer and the one that I gave the most repeat viewing.  The Indiana Jones films have overall likely withstood the test of time better over the last 24 years and I suspect most people might even be a bit surprised to learn that Ghostbusters was actually a bigger box-office hit overall that summer.  Still, it did play through the whole summer and I do recall several return trips to see it again.

In my post on Raiders, I mentioned that the John Williams score was something of a milestone.  While the sequel score wasn’t as much of one, it did come as something of a surprise to me and still remains one of my favorites.  The big surprise was Williams’ decision to abandon all of the themes that he had written for the first film with the exception of the iconic Raiders March.  At that point, I never really had conceived of a sequel score that would essentially start from scratch instead of further developing the first film’s music.  It caught me a bit off-guard, but also appealed to me very much.

I will close with probably the silliest and oddest personal story that relates to this movie.  At the very end of the credits is a somewhat cryptic credit that simply says "Thanks to Reed Smoot".  Being a couple teenagers, my sister and I both thought that was kind of a funny name and were also intrigued by the mysterious credit.  It then became a running joke for the two of us for quite some time, with us often joking about being the only members of the "Reed Smoot Fan Club".  Without the vast information available online today, we didn’t have any success finding any information on Mr. Smoot.  We were pretty sure he wasn’t the early-20th century Utah Senator that was the only reference we found to the name.  I now know that Mr. Smoot is actually a respected cinematographer that is best known for his work on a variety of IMAX features.  He apparently did some second-unit photography work on the film, which was the basis of the credit.  If Mr. Smoot ever stumbles on this, I hope he doesn’t mind that a couple silly teenagers had some goofy fun with his credit.

Indiana Jones Memories: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Unless you have been living under a rock (and possibly even then), you probably know that a brand-new Indiana Jones movie is opening this Thursday.  My wife and I have already arranged for a babysitter and purchased our opening night tickets.  With that in mind, this seems like a good time to reminisce a bit about my experiences seeing the previous movies in the series.  In this post (and later ones about the other two films), I’m not really going to write reviews, although I expect to reveal at least a bit of my opinion of each.  Instead will just tell a bit of the story of my own experiences.

With 19 years having past since we last saw Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and 27 years since the character was first introduced in Raiders of the Lost Ark, I’m part of a likely pretty large group of adults who will be going into this new movie with a hope of recapturing a little bit of magic from my childhood.  I was only 11-years-old when the first movie came out and was 14 and 18 when the previous sequels came out.  As a long-time movie enthusiast, I probably would list other films (including others by Spielberg and Lucas) as somewhat higher on both my lists of favorites and bests, but I can think of very few that invoke more fond memories or that had quite as much influence on my love of movies and my cinematic preferences.

When Raiders of the Lost Ark came out back in 1981, I was already a fan of the Star Wars films (The Empire Strikes Back came out one year earlier) and, not surprisingly, was immediately very receptive to the promotion of a new George Lucas movie starring Harrison Ford.  My older sister (who was 14 at the time) also had a definite movie-star crush on Ford, which also helped to build our family’s interest in the movie.

The first that I ever heard about the film remains my pick for possibly the most amusingly wrong magazine article I’ve ever seen about a movie.  I don’t remember the specific publication (although my sister may still have the clipping somewhere in her files), but it was a movie rumors column in either a teen magazine or a general entertainment magazine of some sort.  The short article ran right around the time that The Empire Strikes Back was released and announced that the 3rd film in the Star Wars series would be coming out only one year later and would center around the character of Han Solo.  The title of this new film would be "Lost Raiders of the Ark".  I’m sure that whoever wrote that is very proud…

Back in 1981, I didn’t really follow the movies very closely and certainly didn’t have access to the kind of ready information on the topic that is out there today.  For the most part, the first real awareness of Raiders came primarily when the ads started hitting.  Back then, George Lucas and, especially, Steven Spielberg were not really household names, so the ads heavily promoted the movie as "From the creator of Star Wars and the director of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind".  As I said, the Star Wars connections were the big draw for me, although I had seen and enjoyed Close Encounters (but only on TV).  I didn’t see Jaws until a few years later.  After seeing Raiders, I quickly became a Spielberg fan, something that really solidified a year later when our family went out to see a sneak preview of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial without knowing much of anything about the film other than that it was from the same director.

My father took my sister, my best friend, and me to see the first evening showing of Raiders on its opening night.  We were living in Flint, Michigan at the time and saw the movie at The Flint Cinema, an old-fashioned single-screen theater.  Built in the late 60s shortly after the end of the movie palace era, it wasn’t anything overly fancy but was mainly known for a large screen and 70mm, 6-track Dolby presentation.  I think Raiders was actually the first film we saw there as the first two Star Wars films had opened at the nearby Eastland Mall Cinemas instead.  The movie pretty much blew us all away.  We knew it was supposed to be a fast-paced adventure movie, but I don’t think any of us really were prepared for the scope of the film or the sheer level of adrenaline it would pump.

My Mom wasn’t originally sure she was that interested in the movie (she hadn’t really liked Star Wars) and decided that she didn’t feel like dealing with the opening night crowds for the movie.  We, of course, all came home and told her that she needed to see the movie as soon as possible and we all went out to see it with her the next weekend.   As a joke, we all conspired ahead of time to repeatedly warn her that the movie started out very slowly, but promising her that it got better as it went along.  As you might expect, the very exciting opening sequence in the idol cave caught her very much off-guard.  She really loved the movie, although the intensity did get to her a bit at times.  She was holding my Dad’s hand during much of the movie and afterwards they laughed that she instinctively pulled her hand to her mouth, thus biting my Dad, during the Well-of-Souls sequence when the snake climbed out of the skeleton’s mouth.

Over the course of that summer, this became the first movie that my sister and I went to see multiple times in the theaters during its initial release (we had seen Star Wars and a few Disney films more than once due to re-releases).  By the end of the film’s run, I saw it a total of 13 times.  My father absolutely fell in love with the movie as well and went along with us to many of those showings.  Prior to that, he had never been much of a movie fan and didn’t typically see anything more than once.

John Williams score to the movie also represented a bit of a milestone for me.  I had started to become interested in movie scores a couple years earlier.  My interest was first sparked by John Barry’s orchestral score to Disney’s The Black Hole, which ended up being the first score soundtrack that I purchased.  My interest expanded dramatically after getting first The Empire Strikes Back and then the original Star Wars soundtracks and I then started a collection of movie score LP’s from movies involving outer space.  Over a year or so, I bought a bunch of albums including Close Encounters, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Superman, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc.  After seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark and hearing Williams amazing music for the film, I immediately wanted that soundtrack.  It was at that point, that my interest really broadened to film scores in general instead of just to souvenirs of space movies.  This really established my musical tastes for the long term as film scores remain the dominant part of my collection and my music purchases today.

I loved the sequels and have certainly been very impressed and excited by other action/adventure movies over the years as well.  I think Raiders will always hold a very special place in my memory, though, and I don’t really believe any other movie will ever quite match the surprise and excitement that surrounded this one.

The Film Music of John Willams (Concert Review)

Hollywood Bowl – September 2, 2005

A concert review by Jeffrey Graebner

John Williams conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in a film music concert at the Hollywood Bowl has been an annual summer tradition for me ever since I moved to Southern California in 1996. The Friday, September 2, 2005 concert featured a good mix of selections from Williams’ own film scores as well as a few selections from other celebrated film composers.

Including a couple summers where Williams conducted multiple concerts, this was the 11th concert of his that I have attended at the Bowl. Adding a couple earlier concerts with the Boston Pops as well as one concert of mainly non-film compositions at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, this was the 14th time that I have seen Williams conduct a live concert. I’ve been a film score enthusiast since I was around 10-years-old, with Williams’ compositions being important to establishing and continuing that preference.

As is typical of Williams’ Hollywood Bowl concerts, this one featured a good mix of his extremely well-known selections as well as a few that will be very familiar to film score enthusiasts, but probably not to the more mainstream audiences that make up the bulk of the attendees. It came as no surprise that the program was dominated by his scores to films by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, but there were a few less widely recognized selections, including the welcome inclusion of some works by other film composers.

As with most concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, this one got off to a patriotic start with a performance of The Star-Spangled Banner, which was then well complemented by a performance of The Liberty Fanfare, the concert piece that Williams wrote to commemorate the re-dedication of The Statue of Liberty following its refurbishment in the late 1980s. Either this piece and/or one of Williams’ Olympic themes are usually included even when the remainder of the concert is all film music. This is a very rousing and inspirational piece that helps to quickly pull the audience into the concert. These two opening pieces were the only non-film compositions included in the concert.

A definite shift in tone came next as, without any commentary, Williams transitioned into a pair of suites illustrating opposite views of alien visitation. First was a suite from Spielberg’s 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film that featured one of the most famous, and my personal favorite, Williams’ scores. While this was definitely not the first time I had heard a suite of music from this film performed at one of the concerts, it is always a very welcome inclusion.

The highly melodic, almost magical tones of the Close Encounters theme were then followed by the much darker and foreboding music from Spielberg’s film of War of the Worlds, which was released earlier this summer. This was Williams’ first time conducting music from this score in concert and, while it was very interesting to hear, I tend to doubt that it is going to become a concert staple. The exciting, action-oriented cue “Escape from the City” seems more likely to be used as an occasional change-of-pace interlude in future concerts than the very dark, downright mournful “Epilogue”, which was also featured.

Read More »

War of the Worlds (2005)

A film review by Jeffrey Graebner

Steven Spielberg’s new adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic novel War of the Worlds contains many of the conventional elements of the mainstream disaster movie and adds an unusual layer of realism, both in style and characterizations. The result is a genuinely scary film that maintains a very high level of tension and excitement.

The film, which was adapted by screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp (the latter also adapted Jurassic Park and its sequel The Lost World for Spielberg) pretty closely follows the structure of Wells’ novel, but transports the setting from 19th century London to present day New York. The central character of an absentee father (Tom Cruise) trying to escort his children to safety is created for the film, a smart decision as Wells novel was told through the eyes of an undeveloped first-person observer, an approach that wouldn’t likely work as well on film.

Cruise gives a good performance as Ray, a man who initially is not very sympathetic or heroic, but is ultimately forced to find some maturity and parental instincts by the extreme circumstances of the alien invasion. The character is a variation of the charming, cocky, but irresponsible persona that Cruise has frequently portrayed in past films and it is interesting seeing those traits treated more as negatives that need to be overcome instead of strengths, a somewhat natural progression as Cruise has become older and is naturally going to be playing characters with greater responsibilities. Ray is likable, but clearly a lousy parent who has to struggle to gain enough trust from his children to provide any chance that he can keep them safe.

Read More »