Among the smart decisions made by the writing-directing team of Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins was the hiring of Alex North for their big screen tale of a sorcerer’s apprentice who arrogantly thinks he can stop a dragon from tormenting a remote and petty little kingdom.
By 1981, North’s output had slowed down from his peak years during the sixties, and while he was still scoring an eclectic mix of projects, they weren’t always worthy of his brilliant talent.
Some might trace the lack of interest among filmmakers and studios in his mature writing back to 2001: A Space Odyssey, when North’s score was rejected by director Stanley Kubrick in favour of classical music. North’s post-1968 films were a weird mix: the Greek-styled drama A Dream of Kings (1969), the killer rat film Willard (1971), William Castle’s oddball shocker Shanks (1974), Daniel Mann’s 1975 remake of Journey Into Fear (1975), and an intriguing collaboration with Robbie Robertson on Martin Scorsese’s Carny (1980).
Robbins and Barwood’s second smart decision was requesting a wholly dissonant score, which must have seemed like Heaven for North, since the abstract sounds he loved to create weren’t the dominant aspects of his later work (2001, the 1967 TV docu-series Africa, and Journey Into Fear excepted). Besides a gentle and very simple love theme for apprentice / dragonslayer Galen and hottie Valerian (which plays like a gentle, passionate but youthful sigh), most of what lies within North’s score is a mass of abstract sounds, intermeshing themes, and orchestrations (by Henry Brandt) that are far ahead of North’s prior experimentations in Cleopatra (1963) and Spartacus (1960).
Dragonslayer is actually a tough listen because there’s so much going on, and most of the sounds – often restricted to heavy low brass – don’t evoke immediate or specific images, which may explain why chunks of his score were mixed down, reduced, or re-arranged in the finished film. There’s a jaunty theme for Galen with flippity-flopping woodwinds, a love theme, a vaguely Greensleevian theme (“Jacopus Blasted”) for the idiot priest who seeks to fend off the dragon with a wicker cross, and the snarling dragon motif (nasty, coarse brass, and percussion consisting of tree trunks), but overt thematic statements are very rare.
“Visions and Reflections / Hodge’s Death” is an amorphous mass of intermeshing themes, but North seems to concentrate on a several layers of character thoughts, predicaments, and possible repercussions within the film’s subsequent scenes; it’s an approach that assumes the viewer will instinctively understand the meaning and implications of a scene through sonic impressions, and it’s a daring choice since Hollywood movies about dragons, princesses, and arrogant twits usual mandate easy-to-digest music that ensures even a low I.Q. rube comprehends a film's simplest conflicts.
North’s dragon theme doesn’t just signal ‘dragon bad’; it infers a sense of gloom, its centuries-old dominion over man, and of the overall primal state that keeps man in an evolutionary freeze. As one character quips, when the sorcerers are all dead, the dragons will also die, and one finds that attitude in the theme’s subtext: the abstract world created by North can only exist where there's narrow social order and facile religious beliefs, and it’s a world that’s utterly bereft of quaintness, gentility, and intellectual maturity. The irony is that in order to create a sound reflective of the Medieval times where monsters and crosses battle for power, the music has to be robustly complex.
It’s also notable how well North’s score fits the film amid its dense mix of sound effects and sound design for scenes in the dragon’s lair, the battles, and lengthy montages of deadly flames. Had North lived longer – as seems to be the case with many composers of his generation – he would’ve been rediscovered by another wave of young directors. That may have taken another decade – the eighties were particularly destructive to the art of orchestral scoring because of cheap synth music coming into vogue – but he would’ve enjoyed similar opportunities that would've challenged his genius.
In the end, North followed Dragonslayer with a handful of scores for TV and film, the last gem being The Dead for John Huston, with whom he worked with regularity until both giants passed away – Huston in 1987, and North in 1991.
Those less fond of abstract scores may find Dragonslayer to be noisy, dumbfounding, and frustrating, because the sonic images are tough to grasp, but this is the apex of a mature mind with an extraordinary gift for applying modernism to the needs of an escapist film. Multiple listens always reveal further layers of detail in the score, as well as nuances in bizarre cues like “The Lance / The Lottery."
La-La Land’s CD marks the fifth time the score’s been released, after a dual LP set (mastered at 45 rpm), standard silver and gold CDs, and in a North compilation disc (all from Southern Cross / Label X). Whereas the prior score CDs boosted the music content by 7 mins., this new disc features cues in chronological order, plus additional outtakes, including source music (“Dance Montage”), and alternates for “A Slight Skirmish” and “Main Title.”
The album’s mastering is first rate (taken from engineer Eric Tomlinson’s 3-track tape) and sounds frankly awesome through a dynamic sound system, and Jeff Bond’s liner notes provide a solid overview of the film, as well as cue breakdowns.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan