Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

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"Do you like movies about… gladiators?"

This is it. This is the BIG ONE. I've had other holy grails, but this is the one that forever remained a pie in the sky that was way too high. Other, vastly inferior scores enjoyed release after release. Bootlegs abounded, but in horrific sound quality, featuring tape hiss you couldn't cut through with a chainsaw and a ground hum so loud you may as well be using a chainsaw. For the longest time, one of my all-time favorite film scores was one that I would rarely listen to because the existing MCA CD, a reissue of the LP, was woefully inadequate as a representation of the score and because the sources for any additional music were so bad that they were damn near unlistenable.

Alex North's take on the Roman epic has the same scope as anything by Dimitri Tiomkin, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman or Alfred Newman, but it is written in his personal style, steeped in 20th Century American modernism. As a result, Spartacus is pretty sonically unique among the great Hollywood epics (North would return to the genre for his outstanding, but very different, score for Joseph Mankiewicz's Cleopatra), but no less emotional and engaging or all that. Indeed, the love theme which was heard to schmaltzy excess on the original LP, serves as a stark contrast to much of the uncompromising and often brutal music that graces much of the film.

I've waited for a decent-sounding, legal release of the complete score for Spartacus for most of my life. When it finally arrived from Varèse Sarabande, it was as a gargantuan special edition box set, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Spartacus, the 100th birthday of the late Alex North and the 1000th CD release executive producer Robert Townson was involved in. The naysayers have a point about the pricetag; I agree that a more modest edition with only the first four discs would have satisfied most, especially in the current economy, but somewhere deep inside of me, there is a voice in full agreement with Townson that anything less would have been an insult by this point.

So what we have here of the actual Spartacus score is one disc of the stereo tracks that were prepared for a prospective double LP which feature the relevant album edits (the soundtrack album was eventually pared down to a single LP for the final release), two of the complete score properly edited in good-sounding monaural sound, another disc of outtakes, alternates and preliminary recordings. The stereo disc is okay, but the monaural set is where the real gold is. The music just draws you in and leads so fluidly into the next scene; the score needs no abridgment to engage (a quality I personally find it to have in common with many of Alex North's scores, including the aforementioned Cleopatra) and the mono sound is mostly crisp (there are a few spotty moments here and there, but they're fleeting). I'll admit to having heard some of the unmentionables that had been floating around out there, and I always felt that you had to fight through the noise to hear the music. This presentation, properly annotated and edited is fantastic. The clarity emphasizes the transparent quality of North's orchestrations despite the inherent complexity of the music itself, as discussed in the hefty book.

Chief among the restored material is the flip side of the theme for the slaves; the original LP only had the theme in it's 'freedom' setting, such as "Blue Mountains and Purple Hills," while here we hear the 'slavery' rendition in the Libyan mines sequence, the prelude to the gladiator fight and the crucifixions at the finale. This version of the theme is more pervasive in the film, but the less dramatic and more pleasant 'freedom' arrangements were what was thought would sell more records. Similarly, the strident, relentless brass and percussion themes for Crassus are completely missing from the original album save for a few hints in the main title. This angry and mechanical piece serves as a counterpoint to the more hopeful theme for Spartacus himself, itself given many more variations that round out the presentation. There is no question that the score works better in complete format rather than any truncation.

I was unsure of what the two disc Spartacus: Love Theme and Variations album would bring to the package, having actually heard them I can say with authority that they're a wonderful tribute. They not only demonstrate the beauty and mutability of Alex North's melody and how it could inspire such an eclectic group of musicians, but also illustrates how his music is still alive and being played. It isn't like listening to the same track over and over again at all, instead the melody itself acts as an anchor against the diversity of arrangements and performances.

The DVD is another touching tribute, mostly because the interviewed parties are all extremely enthusiastic about the music of Alex North in general and that of Spartacus in particular. I agree that it runs a bit long and I might have found it overkill were it any other score but Spartacus. But it is Spartacus, so it deserves it.

Spartacus is here at long last!!!
Tags: alex north, cinema, film music, franz waxman, miklós rózsa, stanley kubrick
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