Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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Henry Mancini's LifeForce: An Appreciation

Lifeorce is a score I have recently had a chance to revisit. Although I had seen the film once, it was on television and so it had been severely cut to eliminate much of the more disturbing graphic violence and the not-so-disturbing nude Mathilda May. Since it was my understanding that the complete version of the film made little more sense than the truncated version I saw, I didn't really feel the need to follow up on it.

I was too young at the time to really have paid much attention to the scorr when I first saw it, but I came across a recording of the main theme on a Telarc Erich Kunzel album, and it blew me away.

I found the original Varese Sarabande CD in a record store in Connecticut (where I also found Michael Nyman's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) and bought it immediately. My initial reaction was... I don't want to say I was disappointed, but it certainly wasn't what I expected. LifeForce has a propulsive main theme, but the score proper was quite dense, perhaps a bit too much for my taste at the time.

A decade later, I was ripping many of my CDs for play in my new Sony mp3 CD player. I had the chance to listen to a lot of music that I hadn't in a while. Except for the occasional excerpt, I hadn't really listened to LifeForce since I bought it in '91. In that time, my musical tastes had been extensively broadened. In '91, I hadn't discovered 20th century music yet. Alex North was one of those old fogies, Bernard Herrmann was barely a blip on my radar, and who the hell were Sergei Prokofiev and Arnold Schoenberg? No, my music was pretty consonant at the time.

Of course, the previous paragraph is misleading in that it implies that there are a lot of tone rows, aleatory music or themes without a tonic center. This is not the case. LifeForce doesn't flirt or abandon tonality, but it definitely is music that, out of context of the movie, requires a certain sophistication to appreciate.

LifeForce was scored by the late, great Henry Mancini, who is best known for his deservedly acclaimed scores (and pop album re-recordings) of the music for Blake Edwards films, including The Pink Panther and its gabazillion sequels, Breakfast At Tiffany's, Victor/Victoria and so on. He was also behind the rock-influenced music from Orson Welles' classic Touch Of Evil and a personal favorite, Stanley Donen's Charade.

This is all a far cry from LifeForce, which, on one hand, is a return to form from when Mancini labored at Universal scoring low-budget horror films with Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner. On the other hand, the scope of the film was larger than anything Mancini had scored before, so it inspired an operatic approach that is larger in scale than its most apparent ancestors.

Nothing could be further from the playful melodies Mancini became popular for than LifeForce. This score is one of the purest horror film scores in history. Even Jerry Goldsmith's Alien, as prickly and dissonant as it is, has moments of quiet warmth. No such respite exists in LifeForce. Recording with the London Symphony Orchestra gave Mancini the opportunity to utilize their much-lauded brass section, and the final product for full orchestra and extended brass choir, sounds different not only from anything else in Mancini's oevre, but also from how orchestral film scores usually sound.

If Mancini's harmonics are not particularly dissonant, his orchestration is clearly 20th century, as opposed to the 19th century Romantic approach usually taken in film music. Strings sound icy instead of warm, woodwinds are harsh instead of comforting and the brass is raw and cutting... the opposite effects of their usual functions. The result is a unique work. LifeForce is like a good, deep gulp of delicious, silky blackness. The score is kept from becoming dull partly because of Mancini's compositional skill - his leimotives are distinctive and lend themselves to great variation - but also through the overall structure of the piece.

The beginning of the film was shot in a such a way as so to emphasize the music. In setting up the premise, director Tobe Hooper envisioned a cinematic ballet*. Mancini responded by composing a three-movement tone poem (an abridged version of which is called "The Discovery Suite" on the album). Dark mysteriouso textrues with hints of the chaos to come in the score create an epic starting point.

As the score plays out, over time the more enigmatic music develops into the more active and apocalyptic finale. Building orchestra forces lead to complex brass crescendos in both the "Autopsy" and "Hyde Park" cues. "Carlson's Story," which is on the album, is a great example of build-up and pay-off, working both as score an absolute music. The score reaches Wagnerian heights of drama in the "Interrogation" and "Blood Clot" cues, leading to the cynical bombast for the military forces and the relentlessly exciting "Web Of Destiny," a cue in three parts that closes the film and the album.

The CD for this score is only 37 minutes long. There is approximately 72 minutes worth of music in the film, so there is plenty of room for expansion at a later date (a Varese Sarabande Deluxe Edition, perhaps?) EDIT: The complete score was eventually issued by BuySoundtrax.

This was a case where I was familiar with the album before I heard any of the omitted cues, but once I had, I realized how well-composed and carefully modulated the score as a whole is. It is nothing short of a masterpiece, unfortunately bound to a film many feel would be better forgotten.

This begs the question: Where did this score come from?

In addition to being unique in Mancini's body of work, it is also odd that Mancini would have been chosen for a project of this type. Of course, Mancini had composed dark scores in the past (he got his start working on Universal horror films), but nothing on this grand scale.

My guess is that the filmmakers were looking for a different sound than the genre is known for... this approach can be disasterous (Eric Serra's Goldeneye) or serendipitous (Howard Shore's Lord Of the Rings trilogy, Ennio Morricone's Spaghetti Westerns).

As for Mancini's inspiration, well, it is impossible to say. I don't think we'll ever know what motivated him to create this gothic tapestry of terror, but it seems apparent from the detail and complexity on display in the music itself that he was having a great time with the chance to scare the living hell out of people instead of making them laugh.

Elmer Bernstein has commented that he wasn't happy about the fact that in the early eighties he was typecast as a comedy composer (this despite the fact that many of these comedy scores, Stripes, Airplane! and Ghostbusters are classics in their own right), and it is possible that his feeling constrained by the limitations of that genre made him take advantage of his chance to cut loose in Heavy Metal. I wouldn't be surprised if the same weren't true of Henry Mancini, who, one can easily assume, was often hired not so much because of his keen dramatic acumen or his musical virtuosity, but rather because he could compose music that would not only serve the film but sell records.

LifeForce is a fantastic work, a perfect example of how a film score can make for rewarding listening.


* This was altered in American prints of the film, shortened and re-scored by Michael Kamen and his producer/engineer Stephen McLaughlin.

I rented Miller's Crossing the other night. Although I am a huge Coen Brothers fan, this film managed to slip through my fingers, and last night was the first time I had seen it.

All I can say is: "Wow."

This is clearly the best work of many of the involved artists' careers, particularly cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld. I have rarely seen a film so beautifully photographed. There are times when there is the same type of synergy between the photography, acting and music that one finds in the ghost's farewell sequence in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

Tags: bernard herrmann, elmer bernstein, film music, henry mancini, joel & ethan coen
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