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_December 2004 _


Criterion continues to forge new ground by carefully coordinating deluxe releases of foreign and classic films, beefed up with bonus materials that superbly place the films and their respective makers in proper historical context. Larger labels, like Warner Bros. Home Video and Twentieth Century-Fox, dig into their acquired film and television catalogues, while MGM and Universal produce their own original and more contemporary featurettes and documentaries.

So what's it all mean?

Certainly in the case of Criterion, the aim is to educate and preserve for future generations selected films, often with an international collection of supportive materials.

An excellent example is The Battle of Algiers, writer/director Gillo Pontecorvo's searing 1965 docu-drama of battling factions and vicious massacres in Algeria during the sixties. Along with a documentary on the French-Algerian conflicts, the DVD set offers a re-examination of the country after the tumultuous events depicted in Pontecorvo's landmark film.

One of Ennio Morricone's early films, the composer's score is given an economical showcase (4:30) in the production featurette, with comments from the director, editor, and composer himself.

"The part of my work I like best is when I'm almost finished editing," says Pontecorvo, in the DVD's making-of documentary. "I shut myself in with the Moviola and I start watching the film again and I whistle the musical themes I'd like to use. That's the moment when I truly begin to like the film."

It's a sentiment many directors have echoed, partly because it involves a stage during the film's finalization where footage viewed endless times backwards and forwards during picture and sound editing suddenly come to life with that magical element called music.

After viewing For a Few Dollars More, Ennio Morricone's western soundtrack greatly impressed the director, and Algiers marked one of the first instances where director Pontecorvo handed over the scoring duties to someone else. Himself responsible, in various degrees, for the soundtracks in his documentaries and prior feature films, Pontecorvo characterized Morricone as a talent with "a very strong personality" - a trait the composer also acknowledges in his brief interview segments.

Morricone's use of "four sounds" with subtle orchestra remains a fascinating example of powerful restraint, and his collaboration with Pontecorvo ignited a deep friendship, which included Morricone acting as best man at the director's wedding.

Whereas Algiers does not contain any musical extras, Criterion's releases for The Tin Drum (1979) and Short Cuts (1993) port over the isolated mono score tracks from the respective laserdisc releases. Tin Drum is also boosted by several interviews and featurettes covering director Volker Schlondorff's controversial film, and it's sometimes angry reception by select North American State and provincial censors. (In Ontario, Canada, lovable censor Mary Brown banned the film outright.)

The Short Cuts DVD retains most of the original laserdisc extras. (Note: the laserdisc incorrectly listed the isolated mono track as a stereo music & sound effects mix; the DVD merely replicates the same mono music stems, though it's still a mere shadow of Mark Isham's marvelous, and still unreleased, music score.)

Writer/Director/Actor John Cassavetes is also given the deluxe treatment by Criterion in their boxed set of five Cassavetes films: Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977), and A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

A few Cassavetes laserdiscs were rumoured to contain isolated music tracks, though none of the represented films contain any music extras. Unique to A Woman Under the Influence is a commentary track, with camera operator/cinematographer Mike Ferris, and sound recordist/composer Bo Harwood.

Both men worked on several Cassavetes films, and their track is a highly personal recollection of the independent filmmaker, to whom many actors gravitated because of his inspiring technique. Harwood's promotion to composer is really a minor footnote, in terms of film music history; Cassavetes preferred the raw demo tracks Harwood composed, and the music itself doesn't break any new stylistic ground. For those who admire Cassavetes' work and his filmmaking philosophy, then Criterion's set is a celebration of the independent film movement.

Harwood also appears in the superb documentary called A Constant Forge, and is one of countless colleagues who contribute vivid memories of a man clearly beloved by those with which he worked. Running over two hours, novitiates might want to break up the documentary in two or three sittings, as there's a great deal of actor talk, with a particular emphasis on Cassavetes' sometimes grueling and exhaustive explorations of how deep an actor can involve his or herself in a character, and create a truer sense of dramatic realism.

Towards the end, Harwood contributes some excellent anecdotes on Cassavetes' own quirky musical sensibilities (he couldn't hold a tune), and their collaboration on some vocal material for Opening Night. The documentary uses demo material of Cassavetes speaking his co-authored song, and some additional musical extracts at the doc's conclusion. (As a complete side-note, in the film there's also a curious jazz arrangement of Leonard Rosenman's Rebel Without a Cause theme, which should elicit a warm chuckle from film music fans. Elegantly performed, the theme works extremely well in its improvised transposition.)

Unlike indie label Criterion, Warner Bros. have a seemingly limitless trove of MGM, RKO, and Warner Bros. archival goodies, and almost every concern has been addressed in the new four-disc monster set for Gone With The Wind. Heavily cleaned up in all areas, the three-strip Technicolor extravaganza never looked better on home video, and a restoration demo includes details on the picture and sound work. Max Steiner's music was cleaned up from the original audio elements, and the engineers discuss how a Dolby 5.1 mix was created from the film's original mono stems. Purists should be relieved that only certain sound effects were given slight directional and ambient enhancement, while the music has not been dumbed down to one of those unrealistic, pseudo-stereo mixes employed by other labels. GWTW doesn't contain any new music bonuses (the two-disc Rhino CD pretty much has it all), but there's some added bio material on Max Steiner, courtesy of Rudy Behlmer's commentary track.

Universal's early DVD releases were either bare bones editions, containing just the movie and maybe a trailer, or special editions that duplicated the contents of their laserdisc releases.

For those who purchased the original DVD of John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), better hold onto that one, as the new release no longer contains the isolated music track present as an option in the audio menu for the DVD's excellent making-of documentary. Keeping in line with a no-score policy (much like the first release of director Stephen Sommer's The Mummy, which contained Jerry Goldsmith's music score as a fat track under the main menu), Universal's new DVD drops the music track in favour of a new anamorphic transfer, and new packaging (which labels seem to regard as reason alone to snap up the ever-increasing 'revised special edition' releases).

The first Thing DVD didn't really contain much additional music from Ennio Morricone's score: aside from the 'dog hunt' music that played under the film's main titles, the old MCA album and Varese CD have the same tracks; a few on the DVD aren't as tightly positioned or cross-mixed to form suites, but the contents are 95% identical to the commercial album.

Universal's new DVD for Dracula (1979) includes an excellent making-of featurette, and adds interview material with John Williams, and felicitous comments from director John Badham and star Frank Langella.

Another brief nod to the composer also exists on Universal's three-disc edition for Stephen Sommer's Van Helsing (2004), and demonstrates a typically frustrating mix & match pastiche of extras that should have been assembled onto one release. (For the purposes of efficiency, we'll ignore the existence of dual full screen versions, as these contain the same extras as the widescreen DVD releases.)

Van Helsing's standard special edition contains several extras spread over two discs, and the set acts as an intro to the film and the X-Box video game; whereas the three-disc edition adds a few additional making-of featurettes - including one on composer Alan Silvestri - and the original Frankenstein, Dracula, and Wolfman films on Disc 3 (which also exist in beefy "Legacy" collections). Call it a classic cross-promotion release, but the original films are better enjoyed in their own collections (which assemble all wolf, blood-sucking, and monster sequels in complete collections); the X-Box game is only level 1; and the missing music featurette could easily have fit onto the standard two-disc edition.

Just as confusing is Columbia's decision to release a two-disc edition of Spider-Man 2, as a slightly longer cut (we're talking minutes here) is slated for an upcoming release. Call it the LOTR template, where New Line permanently established a viable release pattern to issue their Lord of the Rings films twice: theatrical cut, followed by a longer DVD cut. (In the case of the LOTR triptych, the extras are exhaustive, wholly different from the first editions, and add anywhere from thirty to sixty minutes of new footage and music, making the DVD editions genuinely special.) With Spider-Man 2, buyers also have the bare bones Superbit edition, and a gift boxed set, which packages the two-disc edition with comic book, sketches, and postcards.

That said, Columbia's extras include a good "Sound & Music" featurette, which divides time between score and sound design. The effects team get the brighter spotlight - a short clip with Danny Elfman seems to have been added to keep film music fans hopeful of the composer's return - are we're treated to some amusing comparisons between the final film sound effects, and their actual sources (which are sometimes garage-based).

Elfman pops up for a few minutes near the end, and more or less talks about remaining fresh and inspired for a sequel, and a post-production schedule that's tighter than the first Spider-Man film.

In spite of writer/director Guillermo del Toro's prior (and meaty) DVD release for Blade II, the first two-disc release of Hellboy contains no film music related goodies. Again, Columbia's followed the first DVD edition with a three-disc release, replicating most of the featurettes; this time the film runs much longer, and includes an isolated music track of Marco Beltrami's superb score. Unlike Blade II, however, Beltrami isn't given a featurette, and the score is given a brief overview by sound designer Steve Boedekker, with a few clips from the recording session. (Taking a nod from LOTR, the three-disc Hellboy is also available in a limited box that includes a bust of Hellboy, for more ardent fans.)

Composer John Powell also gets a short featurette in Universal's Bourne Supremacy, and aside from a few recording session clips and film extracts, Powell has just enough time (4:45) to discuss the use of prior Bourne themes, and his efforts to focus on the character's emotional states which lie hidden beneath Jason Bourne's hard, driven visage.

Taking a break during his hectic LOTR schedule, Howard Shore contributed a few words regarding his work on Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994). Originally released in 2003 by Touchstone but abruptly pulled in spite of already long delays, the DVD was finally released this year without a cross-dressing featurette (that's what held it all up?), and contains featurette on the theremin, certainly one of the most bizarre electronic instruments ever invented.

Shore describes the period musical styles that came to his mind after watching a quartet of primo bad Ed Wood films, and his decision to use the theremin in his jazzy score. Using an ondes martinot (described as a French version of the theremin) at the recording session, the missing passages were later recorded by a theremin artist from Russia, herself a descendent of the instrument's inventor.

The featurette also includes a segment with musician Mark Segal, who reveals how the theremin works by performing a series of musical phrases. Pinching air, and moving his hands via gentle, sloping gestures, Segal demonstrates the truly odd nature of the instrument, and one can't help recall vintage sci-fi films (particularly Ferde Grofe's Rocketship X-M, which featured an extended theremin solo for the Martians).

Newcomer Zack Ryan gets a fleeting showcase in Cult Epics' DVD release of Bettie Page: Dark Angel, a curious effort to document the Irving Klaw years of famous and iconic fetish pinup model Page. Basically faithful recreations of lost fetish loops, narratively strung together by thin bio sketches, the film includes a surprisingly vibrant jazz score by Ryan, who appears in a short composer featurette with musicians. Ryan's rejected music for a nightmare sequence is also restored to the film, in a separately indexed extract.

James Newton Howard also gets a few minutes of screen time in the making-of featurette on Dreamwork's two-disc edition of Collateral. Though just a bit more than standard soundbytes, the score section within the featurette actually reveals (and explains) a great deal of director Michael Mann's musical sensibilities.

"One of the most purely enjoyable voyages you go on," he says, "is to find what the music's voice is. I love working with orchestras, when you can get the sound not the way orchestras conventionally sound." In Heat (1995), Mann had Elliot Goldenthal create a sonic terrain that recalled Tangerine Dream's music for Thief (1981). Partly ethereal, heavily rhythmic, and filled with tidal waves of surging volume, Goldenthal's score was the product of many back-and-forth consultations with the finicky director.

Collateral follows the peculiar textures established by Goldenthal, particularly during the film's wrenching finale. Interestingly, the end credits also list Goldenthal's "Steel Cello Lament" cue as source music in the final soundtrack mix.

The featurette makes it clear Collateral's three concluding passages are indeed Howard's creation. More surprising, however, is an interview with composer Antonio Pinto, credited at the end with 'additional music.' Pinto's best-known work is City of God, and the composer describes his own musical contribution: a terrifying scene set in a jazz club, in which we get a rare sense of Vincent's past after watching him hunt down victims on his hit list. (Oddly, Pinto also gets a source credit in the end credits, for a track lifted from the 2001 film, Behind the Sun. Confused?)

Given the stature of Elfman, Beltrami, Howard, and Shore, it's rather surprising that Paramount's two-disc edition of Top Gun (1986) includes a substantive twenty-minute featurette on the film's music. A classic example of escapism for the broad-minded, producer Jerry Bruckheimer recalls his early impressions of Harold Faltermeyer, who had been Giorgio Moroder's arranger and mixer on Flashdance. Cut to Faltermeyer, and for the first time the iconic composer is interviewed for a DVD, regarding his film work.

While identified with eighties comedy/action films, Faltermeyer's pretty much dropped off the map, and it's a real treat to have him describe his first big scoring assignment, which ultimately involved Moroder as producer.

Ridiculously reduced to a soundbyte in Universal's special edition for Scarface (1983), in Top Gun, Giorgio Moroder has several lengthy interview segments, and the featurette's pacing is relaxed, and very informative. Top Gun was part of formula product that helped established the song album as the definitive soundtrack release during the eighties, yet enemies of the practice should appreciate the candor of the interviews, which describe the construction of the score and song materials in action sequences involving powerful sound effects; even if you have the hit songs, making them fit is still a chore.

Moroder's comments are also intercut between interviews with Kenny Loggins and Terri Nunn; both artists enjoyed the same meteoric success from the film and soundtrack album sales, and Nunn describes her brief brush with Oscar fame. The featurette balances foci on Faltermeyer's score and the songs "Danger Zone" and "Take My Breath Away," and Nunn's own reverence for Moroder's production skills recall the Oscar-winning composer's stature in the music industry. Pretty solid featurette for an incredibly silly film.

Classic family fare gets a boost with Disney's 1964 release of Mary Poppins (or is it Sherry Bobbins?), featuring the deleted song "Cimpanzoo," as newly performed by the score's co-composer Richard Sherman on piano, with vintage production illustrations.

Sherman also appears in an amiable featurette titled "A Mary Poppins Musical Reunion."  Running about 17 minutes, Sherman sits at the piano while boyish Dick Van Dyke and elegant Julie Andrews recall the songs and production moments that boosted their careers in the feature film realm. Sherman describes the genesis of the film's famous songs, including "Spoonful of Sugar" and "Chim-Chim-Cheree," and the anecdotes are supported by the standard film extracts.

In the upcoming print version of this column, we'll examine three of this year's biggest DVD releases - the LOTR, Matrix, and Star Wars trilogies - with their bountiful extras and respective controversies. We'll also examine the symbiotic relationship these films share, along with THX 1138, with another kind of composer: the sound designer.


Mark R. Hasan (2005)

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