September 4th, 2003

Conan the King (Conan the Barbarian)

Assorted Business

Excellent News

My uncle called me yesterday. He spoke to the Toyota dealer in Weymouth. The inspector from Millenium (the warranty company) checked out the engine from my car and they will indeed be covering the entire cost of the job. When they will be finished is a question (my schedule is about to become much tighter as I start school next week), but at least I won't have to pay for it.

I have been asked to provide information about the film scores that I discuss in the public entries in my journal so that people can track down the music that I discuss if they so desire. This sort of thing is my pleasure, obviously, so I have included a piece on each one based upon trade paper capsules. I think it looks a little pretentious, actually, but I figure that at least it is the "professional" method...

Elmer Bernstein Hurls Metal

In compiling and editing Fantasy Epics, I had the chance to revisit Elmer Bernstein's score from Heavy Metal. Bernstein was working a lot with Ivan Reitman and John Landis at the time, which is why in the late seventies and early eighties he was doing so many comedies. These comedies were nevertheless getting the full benefit of a composer of Bernstein's abilities. That's why, despite the lack of an album release, Stripes is so recognizable to just about everybody; it is a military theme written in the same vein as his immortal The Great Escape. There were a few exceptions, such as the Reitman-produced 3-D Spacehunter: Adventures In the Forbidden Zone and Saturn 3, both of which feature some great music, but his filmography of the time had Airplane!, Animal House, the "God Music" from The Blues Brothers, Trading Places and so on.

Many of the scores that Bernstein penned at the time are, in my mind, modern classics. Ghostbusters and Spies Like Us, for example, show an intelligence, wit and dramatic acumen that is so spot-on as to be rare. Those two scores had to balance out alternative elements in their respective genres; Spies Like Us was a spy movie cum Road to... movie cum comedy, while Ghostbusters was a horror movie cum action movie cum comedy. The scores work for all these aspects, which shows a deft touch and great artistry.

Bernstein is one of those composers who has been working for decades, but his star shows no sign of dimming. Even Jerry Goldsmith, who is still composing scores better than almost all of his contemporaries, has yet to write a new score on par with his best work (John Williams would also fall into this category were it not for his superb score for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which proves that he can still do anything he damn well pleases). Bernstein, however, continues to produced bona-fide masterpieces. The Grifters, The Field, My Left Foot, Rambling Rose, Far From Heaven and many others all are brilliant, beautiful works that show a great sensitivity not only to the needs of the film itself, but also an ear for what sounds great as music.

Heavy Metal, an animated film based upon the American version of the French science-fiction/fantasy magazine Metal Hurlant, is different.

First off, there were the songs. The film is called Heavy Metal and so it was stuffed with heavy metal songs. These tracks are often used in the film to sort of complete a soundscape, and are rarely commentative on the action.

Second of all, the film is an anthology, which means that each section would require its own score independent of the others, save for the choral Loc-Nar motif that ties the film together.

Two of these sequences, "Den" and "Taarna," were set in what was clearly recognizable as fantasy universes (there was technology in "Taarna," but it was seen as a threat).

"Den" encapsulates everything that is wrong with Heavy Metal. In their attempt to make an adult cartoon, the filmmakers ended up with a set of silly adolescent daydreams. Den is transformed from a quiet geek into a buff hero (although his inner voice, essayed by John Candy, retains his "gee-whiz" quality) for whom women seem to fall out of their clothes for any reason. Although set in a simplified, slimmed-down version of Richard Corben's Neverwhere, "Den" never really manages to fire the imagination, and sort of lies there flat.

"Taarna" fares a bit better, as the story is told straight and in a visually arresting style. The story is simplistic, and the makers seem to find every excuse imaginable to get Taarna out of her already skimpy clothing. On the other hand, for this sequence, the animators made a valiant effort to incorporate sequences that were not possible in the world of analogue special effects. When Taarna flies, the animated image was able to show you vast landscapes, breathtaking vistas and a moving perspective that Industrial Light and Magic could only dream of showing at the time.

Both of these sequences rely heavily on the scores by Elmer Bernstein.

Elmer Bernstein, of course, composed the impressive score from The Ten Commandments in 1956. It doesn't get much more epic than that, now does it? The Ten Commandments is a great score, richly thematic and varied, as befits the lavishly mounted production (regardless of how I feel about the theology and Charlton Heston, I still think that the film is an impressive bit of storytelling). This was a major coup for him at the time, as it was very rare that a composer so young would get such a major project, but the death of Victor Young (Cecil B. DeMille's composer of choice for the project) forced the decision. The resulting music spoke for itself.

Heavy Metal, in 1981, had the benefit of a composer with that in him, but also had the advantage of several decades of experience. The Ten Commandments sounds almost naive by comparison. Gone is most of the mickey-mousing. Instead, Bernstein concentrates on the epic sweep of the material.

Both "Den" and "Taarna" have noble themes for their protagonists that serve as the centerpiece for their respective scores. In the case of "Den," he composed a brassy fanfare. In many ways, it is "Den" that is the more varied of the two. The cues "Den Makes It" and "Den and the Queen" both feature beautiful interludes for the sex scenes. The score is very active at all times, though, and so the commentative music is often very interesting, usually built around one short tonal phrase that repeats as the accompaniment changes. This is similar to minimalism, although the phrase itself will often change at some point.

If the thematic material for "Den" is busy, then "Taarna" is the score with the larger scope. The music is gargantuan, as befits the breathtaking images on the screen. The Taarna theme, apparently, came from another project that never came to fruition. It is a gorgeous long-form melody that adapts quite easily to this idiom. It is first heard tentatively on the Ondes Martenot (an early electronic instrument favored by Bernstein and Maurice Jarre), but opens out in "Flight" for full orchestra and chorus. It is often set against monolithic brass and syncopated snare drums. "Taarna" has a score like "Den" in that it is often built on the similar foundations (such as the quasi-minimalist action cues), but the style is slightly different, based around longer phrasing and more expansive orchestration. Bernstein also adapts "Dies Irae" as a sort of stinger for the villains.

The score for "Taarna" is one that is a great experience to listen to as it truly encapsulates the ideal that so much of the fantasy film score aspires to. This became very apparent while putting together the 3 disc set for Fantasy Epics.

As I was putting together the suites for these CDs, I decided that the first score on each disc would represent some zenith of the genre. As a result, the discs each start out with Trevor Jones' The Dark Crystal (disc one), Basil Poledouris' Conan the Barbarian (disc two) and Heavy Metal (disc three).

One of the things I noticed about all three scores is how through-composed each one is. Furthermore, the connection between the scores and the films that they accompany is very sophisticated. The Dark Crystal is a musical portrait of this world that had never been seen before, Conan essays the title character's emotional state to a perfect tee, and Heavy Metal is a evocation of the genre itself.

Each one reaches a sort of operatic level in the way the music plays out (this made the suites very interesting to edit... what do you cut, what do you keep to best represent the score?). The fantasy genre does rely very heavily on music to sell itself, which is one of the reasons why Howard Shore is having such a field day with The Lord of the Rings, and so it stands to reason that the music would be very strident and center-stage.

Elmer Bernstein has only really done a few fantasy scores. The Ten Commandments, The Black Cauldron, Heavy Metal... I'm hard-pressed to think of many others. His work was mostly in a faux-jazz idiom (The Man With the Golden Arm, A Walk On the Wild Side etc.), a sensitive and pretty style (To Kill A Mockingbirdetc.), Copland-esque Westerns (The Magnificent Sevenetc.) and so on. The fantasy genre is one that should be as tied to him as Jerry Goldsmith is to science-fiction or Bernard Herrmann is to thrillers, but for some reason nobody gives him these projects.

One of the advantages to the new CD I have is that, in addition to the better sound than the previous disc, it has more music than the LP, so I now have one of my favorite cues from the film, "Den's Trek Across the Desert," as well as the complete varied and aggressive "Barbarians" cue from "Taarna."

I first came across Heavy Metal at my graduation party. A friend had brought a bunch of movies to entertain whomever wasn't in the pool at the time; as Jerry Riggs' "Radar Rider" blasted, I was surprised to see the credit, "Music by Elmer Bernstein," followed immediately by "Conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra" flash on the screen. It was in the "Den" sequence that I realized that this was no filler score, only marking time between the songs. I should have known that Bernstein was a name I could trust.

The score for Heavy Metal was composed and conducted by Elmer Bernstein and orchestrated by Christopher Palmer, David Spear and Peter Bernstein; the music was performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with London Voices and Jeanne Loriod on Ondes Martenot at St. Peter's Church in Morden, Surrey and was engineered by Keith Grant, who mixed the score at Olympic Studios in London. 35 minutes worth of the score was available only on an out-of-print Full Moon/Asylum LP (5E-547) which is highly recommended not only for the music but sound quality as well; copies can be attained at Footlight Records. The album is currently not available on CD.

John Williams

Since Hook was on the same disc, I gave that suite a good listen afterward.

John Williams is one of my favorite composers, but as anyone with even a passing knowledge of my taste knows, he is one of the worst fucking soundtrack album producers in the known universe.

Hook, luckily enough, is blissfully free of his usual slice-and-dice, shuffle and muddle habits, probably because the CD was a rush job (the track titles do not appear on the outer packaging, only the disc itself). It is one of Williams most magical scores, full of wonder, emotionally involving themes and thick, rich orchestration, all of which is served perfectly by Shawn Murphy's superfantastic recording.

Williams' music is best heard apart from the film, which is a lame attempt by Steven Spielberg to try to evoke the Peter Pan mythos. It fails miserably because while Spielberg may certainly share with Pan a desire never to grow up, he also lacks the kind of perspective to understand the popularity of J.M. Barrie's stories. To be sure, he understands why he likes them, but he doesn't quite get what the common denominator is. One of the major successes of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings series is that he really is tapping into what makes those books successful; Spielberg in Hook is sort of riffing on Peter Pan by throwing money at it (the sets and costumes are, admittedly, impressive), but the film has an artificial heart.

As usual, even if Spielberg produces yet another well-made turd, John Williams creates a masterpiece.

I have often wondered how much input Spielberg has on the scores for his films. Given what he has said about film music in the past, and what he writes in the liner notes for the soundtrack albums for his films, my impression is that he has an interest in film music but doesn't really understand much about it from the point of view of a filmmaker. It seems that he just managed to hook up with Williams when they were both young and up-and-coming, and that as Williams has grown enormously in craft and artistry, Spielberg advanced at a much slower rate, and, figuring that anything Williams would come up with will be better anything anybody else would, gives him carte blanche. It certainly makes sense given that Williams wrote Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1941, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial for him, all brilliant film scores. Quite a start to a collaboration.

The score for Hook is much deeper and evocative than anything that the film offers. This is a case in which Williams scores the concept rather than the film. If it works in the film (and it certainly does, better than it deserves), then so much the better.

A similar situation occurred with Saving Private Ryan. Williams' music, as Royal S. Brown pointed out in his review in Fanfare, is more about a quiet acceptance of the losses of the soldiers in World War II, which is why the title music is called "Hymn To the Fallen." Spielberg's film is, essentially, a more graphic (and self-righteous) version of a Samuel Fuller war movie, and would have been better served without a score. There is less than twenty minutes of music in the film, which for a film of that length is unusual*. When the score does appear, it feels "pasted-on." Given where the score appears in the film, it seems that Spielberg was a little nervous about not having music in sequences that he would normally rely on music during. On the other hand, I think the album (which was filled out with additional music written specifically for it) is full of great music. It doesn't fit Saving Private Ryan, though.

It is interesting listen to Hook today, partly because of the quality of the music, but also because of the stylistic similarities to the score from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone or Sorcerer's Stone or whatever. Before the film came out, Marian Shenedig, a frequent poster to the Film Score Monthly and message boards, postulated that it would sound like a cross between Hook and The Witches of Eastwick. This was a pretty accurate description of what the music sounds like, although the film/music interaction is much closer to the operatic heights that Williams reached with Superman: The Movie.

When Williams scored Superman, he was scoring the American myth (sorry, Mr. Campbell, but Kal-El got there before Luke Skywalker did). Since the film treated its subject material with a reverence not seen before (and rarely since) given the character's origins, Williams was given some visually arresting material to score by director Richard Donner. His music evolves over the course of the film along with Geoffrey Unsworth's cinematography; on Krypton it is haunting as befits the high-contrast black-and-white-in-color palette of those scenes, in Smallville is is a slice of Copland's Americana set to the earth tones on the screen, in Metropolis it is very bold and in-your-face to accompany the highly colorful images.

The score for the first Harry Potter film is also the score for a concept, rather than the film itself (which, outside of the casting, production design and, of course, music, is rather lame), but by tying itself so firmly to the idea of Harry himself, it managed to strike a chord owing as to the popularity of the books.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a film that isn't all that engaging unless one has read the books. Director Chris Columbus' ace in the hole here was that their target audience was people that had read the book. And that is an extremely large number of people. Those of us who had not yet perused J.K. Rowling's novels, the film was a bore.

The music, however, managed to convey to this author at least, that which was so magical about the books that have caused them to be such a success. Harry is, of course, the next myth (this one seems to be on a more global scale, however), and so fits easily alongside Superman and Luke Skywalker... both of who have had their adventures scored by John Williams.

Hook is, in many ways, the score that set the template for how Harry Potter would play out. There are playful melodies cut from the same cloth, a heart-on-my-sleeve emotionalism that somehow manages to not be cloying. If both scores are sentimental, it's because they damn well mean to be, and who better to push those buttons than the composer of E.T.?

Of course, The Witches of Eastwick was the spawning ground for much of the witchcraft element of the story. A highly sophisticated score for an adult comedy, Williams wrote one of his most infectious themes for this film. This score is definitely set in New England, however, and there is a significant difference from the world that Harry Potter inhabits.

I have found myself listening quite often to Harry Potter, always drawn in by the enormous wealth of themes and motives that flow in and out of the score. The celeste and French horn work on the score gives it a unique flavor, but this is definitely a score written in a style that Williams has not revisited in a long time. His more recent work has taken a turn for the dark, with such works as Presumed Innocent, Sleepers, A.I. and so on. Flirting with tonality and thematic structure (sometimes abandoning it altogether), Williams style has become more idiosyncratic as time has gone on. His skills as a composer continue to grow, but when he does score a film that would seem to be demanding a more simplified style, such as the two Star Wars films, one gets a schizophrenic amalgamation of his newer and classic idioms. That is one of the reasons why the scores from The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones do not have the grip on the listener that the music for the original trilogy has; Williams is bringing a more mature approach to this music than the films can really stand up to.

Harry Potter, however, could easily have been composed in 1983 or thereabouts. In a sense, it is because of the fact that he is composing a score for what is essentially a children's movie (which is all that he ever considered Star Wars anyway) that allows his genius for melody and thematic spotting to come to the forefront in a way that has not been apparent for some years.

(The second Harry Potter film was scored by William Ross based on Williams' score for the first film and new themes Williams had written for The Chamber of Secrets. While the score is effective in the film, and his themes for Fawkes and the Chamber are equal to any of his others, there is less variation between this score and its predecessor than would have occurred had Williams done the whole score himself. That he didn't was due to Williams' full schedule, as he was working on Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Catch Me If You Can at the time; hopefully he will be back for a full score for Prisoner of Azkaban)

The score for Hook was composed and conducted by John Williams with lyrics written by Leslie Bricusse and orchestrated by John Nuefeld and Alexander Courage; the score features Mike Lang on piano, vocals by Amber Scott and was engineered by Shawn Murphy assisted by Sue McLean. The 75 minute album is available on Epic Soundtrax (EK 48888) and should still be in print.

The score for Superman: The Movie was composed and conducted by John Williams with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and orchestrated by Herbert W. Spencer and Arthur Morton; the music was performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and was engineered by Eric Tomlinson at Abbey Road Studios in Denham, England. There is a 2 disc set of the complete score, including outtakes and alternate cues, on Rhino (R2 75874) that is essential. The score is also isolated in Dolby Digital 2.0 on the DVD (which also includes outtakes on the second side), which is heavily edited as it appears in the film.

The score from Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone was composed and conducted by John Williams and orchestrated by Conrad Pope and Eddie Karam; the music featured London Voices with Celeste solos performed by Randy Kerber and was engineered by Simon Rhodes at Air Studios in Lyndhurst and Abbey Road Studios in Denham, England. 73 minutes are available on a Warner Sunset/Nonesuch/Atlantic Records CD (83491-2), thankfully with only minor abridgment to the selections (although the album for the sequel is the usual Williams-produced mishmash).

The score for Saving Private Ryan was composed and conducted by John Williams and orchestrated by John Nuefeld and performed by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus featuring French horn solos by Gus Sebring and trumpet solos by Tim Morrison and Thomas Rolfs and was engineered at Symphony Hall in Boston by Shawn Murphy, who mixed the score at Todd-AO scoring Stage in Studio City. A 64 minute CD is available on Dreamworks Records (DRMD-50046). It should be noted that most of this music was written and recorded for the album itself, and does not appear in the film.

The score for The Witches of Eastwick was composed and conducted by John Williams and orchestrated by Herbert W. Spencer and was engineered by Armin Steiner at 20th Century Fox Studios; a 49 minute CD was released at the time of the film on Warner Brothers Records (9 25607-2) but has been out of print for many years. The Warner Brothers DVD of the film (11741) isolates the score in Dolby Digital 5.1, but the sound quality is not up to the standards of the CD (it is only mastered at 384 kbps), and it is also missing most of one of William's most arresting cues, "The Ballroom Scene," which was cut from the film for reasons best known to the filmmakers.


* One of the best film scores of all time is Jerry Goldsmith's Patton, which runs about a half hour. Despite the length of the film, it feels heavily scored partly because of intelligent spotting, but mostly because what Goldsmith did was come up with a theme that perfectly illustrated the title character; the echoing trumpet triplets reflect his belief in reincarnation, the organ chorale reflects his religious background, and the march reflects his military mindset. While Goldsmith had a unique character (and a masterful performance by George C. Scott) to base the score around, there is nothing in Saving Private Ryan that really lends itself to that sort of connection, and as a result, Williams music, good as it is, doesn't really fit.

Kicking Myself

I've been listening to a lot of film music lately, which means that for the past few days I haven't been thinking about the film I'm working on with Suitboyskin, which is what I should be doing. It seems I only do serious work on that project when I'm listening to rock and roll.

Suit called me last night and we went through a whole bunch of structural issues that have not been forseen; solutions to most of them were pretty straightforward, though.

I wonder what my compatriots at Film Score Monthly and will think of the final product. While the editorial staff of FSM will probably like the movie and its use of music, there are quite a few people out there that hate the idea of rock being used in movies at all. It's a shame, because you really don't get to be much bigger of a film music fan than myself, and I am the first to admit that some films do not lend themselves to a traditional symphonic score.

I'm thinking about how silly Easy Rider would be with a European-style romantic score. Or Pulp Fiction. Or Rushmore.

It would appear that my grandparent's computer is about ready to crash... I mean dead. It is a rather old thing, actually, about five or six years or so. While this is enough to shout out "obsolesence" to the rest of us, it is the only computer that my grandparents use for modern stuff, like paying bills on line and the like.

Methinks it is time they got a new one or gave up the ghost on this mess.

I just recieved the official CD of Alan Silvestri's exciting score to Predator. In addition to much better sound than the bootleg, this release has all the short action cues edited together to form the tracks as they appear in the film. Elliot Goldenthal's perversion of Alfred Newman's classic "Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare with CinemaScope Extension" is also included. This is all coupled with great artwork, notes and presentation.

Predator was never released, though an announcement was made in the early 90s, when Arista was distributing Fox Records (the Star Wars box set, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Laura, etc). The CD would contain 49 minutes of music from Predator and 24 minutes from Michael Kamen's Die Hard. The Goldenthal version of the fanfare would also be included.

That was ten years ago. Since then, Die Hard had been released seperately, freeing up the rest of the album for the complete score. The Varese Sarabande club knew that this has been eagerly awaited since the film came out, and produced a package accordingly.