A film score has a limited time to hook audiences into a movie, and whereas the opening titles is generally the main spot where the main theme or a film’s mood is established, sometimes it’s the short incidental piece in a prologue that nail a film’s essence.
The opening track, “Black Bird,” is one half of Knightriders’ heart, and it’s that mystical quality from a pennywhistle, electric guitar and moody keyboard that introduces us into the spiritualism that keeps the film’s hero, Billy, grounded, as well as drives him to dominate his troupe of Renaissance players and they perform shows town by town, and engage in jousting matches on steel-shielded motorcycles.
Donald Rubinstein hasn’t written many scores – most in fact have been for George Romero, including Martin (1977) and the ill-conceived Bruiser (2000) – but the quality and grace with which he fuses classical, traditional Medieval, folk, jazz fusion and rock is flawless, and one wonders why he never pursued a more active career in film scoring.
Perhaps it lay in the character stories and odd tales that aren’t quite what major studios are apt to produce; the film wasn’t a success, and while admittedly overlong, the movie and score are two very special works that have to be absorbed with full attention.
It’s hard not to be grabbed by Rubinstein’s score, although most will probably cite the heroic title music with its air of regal triumph as the film’s most memorable and hummable piece. Where the film and score really gel are specific scenes centered on character intimacies, and montages that detail the troupe’s huge efforts in setting up camp and enticing fickle visitors with evocative music, dances, and theatrics from an idyllic Medieval era.
“Blacksmith’s Melody,” whether heard via full orchestra with Morriconesque male chants, or via a rustic acoustic quartet, is the theme that captures the joy the film’s characters receive from living half in the modern world (they travel with trucks, vans, and have the know-how of mechanical repair) and half in a mindset where their social order – king, knights, challengers, and royal court – is rooted in a Medieval belief system.
Rubinstein’s period-styled themes – including a cut derived from Handel – are very beautiful, and he’s very adept at arranging boisterous themes like “Gallant” for small ensemble, or in a fusion setting, which makes use of a 45-piece orchestra, rock styled drums, and lovely harmonies that flow on airy woodwinds and brass.
The aggressive rock prelude with drums, swaggering brass, and female vocals in “Title Suite” is a good example of how the music repositions the focus between time-specific perspectives.
The interplay between orchestra and ensemble also allows Rubinstein to realign the dimensions of the film’s conflicts. More formal orchestral cues (or parts of cues) show a archaic traditions at play or under threat (whether from outside challengers in the jousting tournaments, or amoral small town cops), whereas intimate musical performances bring audiences into the campfire discussions and ego wrestling as the troupe struggles with internal social disorder, and economically realities.
When jazz fusion comes into play, it’s often during moments of physical conflict, if not to address the tenuous nature of being king: Billy always has to watch out for challengers that might be hungrier and more conniving than the himself.
The midsection of “Title Suite” is the best example of Rubinstein’s seamless fusion technique because it evokes the harmonics of the score’s lyrical ensemble cues, yet adds tension with intersecting string figures and cymbal taps. When rock drums and electric guitars are added, the music mimics the clash not only between jousting characters, but the engine sounds and fumes that are wholly different form the horses and hoof sounds of ancient duels.
The clashing of temporal elements is also evident in “Bravery,” a coarsely performed jig with a cyclical phrase buffered by a rapping drum solo, and short duel between violin and drum. While it’s a lively rendered cue, it also reminds viewers of the immortal nature of physical combat and the euphoria in being victorious from a combination of wits and physical strength.
Perseverance’s CD includes the complete film score, although the source materials are from very subdued mono stems that lack strong fidelity. It’s not an archival source (there are no pops or ticks in this cleanly mastered disc) but the mono cuts are sometimes flat and require a volume boost in spots.
Fans of the film will be delighted that the jousting and more pensive emotional cues –short ones like “Foreboding,” or the tender (and very lengthy) “Redemption Party,” with its Yiddish-styled sax solo – are here, as well as the two main vocal cues: the softly rendered “Never Weather Beaten Sail” by John Dowland, and Rubinstein’s “I’d Rather be a Wanderer,” which was sung live as the cameras rolled and filmed the concluding funeral scene (with rumbling thunderstorm sounds, too).
The CD comes with an illustrated booklet, and excellent liner notes from Daniel Schweiger who concisely chronicles the film and score’s production. The film may be an acquired taste for some, but Rubinstein’s music is superb.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan