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_December 2003 _


Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a peculiar film that, for a few generations, conjures some rather frightening impressions – I’m thinking specifically of the Child-Catcher (beautifully played with malevolent grace by Robert Helpmann), trolling the village streets of “Vulgaria” with his jail cart, a long net, and a sharp hook for wayward children. Never having experienced the film theatrically but through endless TV airings, it’s rather amazing that a nearly 2 and ½ hour film would be tolerated by energetic children.

With an Intermission around the 85 minute mark, the film demands major patience from kids, but it endures as a classic due to the gorgeous production values, sly casting, the coolest flying car ever designed, and the lively score by the Sherman Bros. ( 

There’s an overt cutesiness that, at times, is grating for the older set, but then patient adults can also enjoy some bizarre, occasionally naughty moments that have the texture of a 1940s Warner Bros. cartoon. (A ghoulish duet, “Chu-Chi Face,” between Anna Quayle and Gert Frobe, pits gibberish lovey-dovey lyrics with choreographed knives and trap doors; and  Frobe begins the musical set with a naughty double-entendre in “Vulgarian”/aka German.)

The Sherman Bros.’ melodies are exquisitely constructed, alternating between a nighttime song, lively sets with chorus, and a melancholy ballad, like “Doll on a Music Box,” that’s elevated to  tragic-comedy when interpolated with “Truly Scrumptious.”

MGM’s new Special Edition finally offers a gorgeous widescreen anamorphic transfer, showcasing Christopher Challis’ exceptional cinematography, and Ken Adam’s intricate sets. The soundtrack really booms in Dolby 5.1, and includes the auto-engine prologue sounds, Intermission music, and Exit music. (The strangest aspect, however, is the Portuguese mono sound mix. Though the songs are intact, chunks of the underscore are completely different from the English mix. At one point, “Deck the Halls” plays over a sequence where two Vulgarian spies attempt to blow up a bridge but are broiled when the deed is poorly timed.)

For fans of the composing team, Disc 2 contains 14 piano demos, with intros setting up the song placement. Added notes also detail certain lyrics, title changes or dropped material.

Another favourite of grown-up children is Transformers: The Movie, release by Rhino, around the time the first and second seasons of the TV series appeared on DVD. Composer Vince DeCola gets a small featurette for his best-known score, and he explains with mixed bewilderment and pleasant surprise when fans started contacting him about releasing his music. Appreciative, proud of his contribution, and quite affable, DeCola has made several appearances at Transformers conventions over the years with a session band, delighting attending fans of the feature film. While there’s no isolated score, DeCola discusses his involvement with the tightly scheduled production, and the heavy use of synthesizers for the 1985 film.

An isolated score is featured on Columbia’s excellent DVD of The Endurance – a jaw-dropping documentary that combines footage shot by the Ernest Shackleton team as they attempted to reach the South Pole with Edwardian technology. The late and seriously under-appreciated composer Michael Small wrote one of his best scores for the film, providing some stirring symphonic passages and atmospheric synth material. The DVD includes a director commentary track, and excellent featurettes that offer supplementary material on the expedition, and the dramatic reconstruction of Shackleton’s lifeboat journey across deadly ocean stretches.

Director George Butler co-directed the Arnold Schwarzenegger body-building docu-drama, Pumping Iron (recently released by HBO on DVD) in 1977, and The Endurance re-teamed Small with Butler for a wildly different subject and film style. A fitting end to Small’s career, The Endurance becomes a whole new experience when viewed only with the film score. While his talent is solidified with this elegant DVD, there’s obvious sadness when one considers the few films Small scored during his last 10 years.

Composer David Thrussell’s second film score has also been isolated on Lions Gate’s DVD for The Hard Word, an Australian caper starring a greasy Guy Pearce, slender Rachel Griffiths, and memorable, fast-talking supporting actors. Thrussell fluidly makes the move from the DJ world to film scoring, fashioning a darkly humorous work that fuses the hard sonics of classic orchestral crime scores with sharp, brassy writing; listeners will find it quite reminiscent of Henry Mancini’s more brooding dramatic material from the Sixties. In addition to the isolated score, there’s a music video of Thrussell’s more techno-based Main Title, using film clips and geometric patterns rippling across the screen.

In 1999, director Ron Mann chronicled the saga of hemp in his lively documentary, Grass. Focusing on the 20th century, Mann’s film was slanted towards the U.S. government’s anti-hemp policy, particularly after WW2, but ended rather abruptly with the Reagan era. Enter the British doc Magic Weed, which offers a broader historical perspective, and comes in a 2-disc release from Snapper Music (available in Region 1 and 2 editions). Disc 1 showcases the doc, which chronicles the usage of the cannabis plant over several thousand years, and adds several featurettes and interview segments. It’s a totally pro-hemp production all the way, and Disc 2 is really a 39-minute audio CD, featuring material by the Ozric Tentacles.

Culled from previously released material released by Snapper, the CD is an obvious sampler of the band’s music (categorized as a blend of neo-psychedelia, space rock and neo-prog), and includes printed titles for the 5 lengthy instrumental works. Highly rhythmic, the selections deliberately conjure states of smoky, spiritual enlightenment, and makes for an enjoyable, hazy ride, and nice treat after being immersed in the debate over hemp and smokable weed.

William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. finally gets an excellent transfer from MGM, with the director supervising the audio and video transfer to a state he describes as superior to all existing prints. A converted fan of the digital domain, Friedkin upgraded the film’s mix to enhance sounds and music cues, and fans of Wang Chung’s distinctively Eighties score will be impressed by the broad dynamics and friendly bass. The DVD doesn’t include the original music video, but there’s some choice comments regarding Friedkin’s decision to engage the pop duo for their first film score.

During the film’s theatrical release, Wang Chung and Friedkin appeared on a U.S. morning show to discuss their collaboration (a pity those publicity appearances are generally left off DVDs), and the director approached the duo in a manner similar to Tangerine Dream, for their 1978 work on Sorcerer. Like The Dream, Wang Chung were told to write extended musical ideas which Friedkin later re-edited, and employed according to his own unique, sometimes jarring, stylistic choices.

Tangerine Dream went through a similar journey when asked to score Michael Laughlin’s idiosyncratic 1981 horror film, Strange Behavior. Elite’s DVD contains a mono isolated score track, and writer/co-producer Bill Condon discusses the unusual agreement between the filmmakers and composers: a copy of the film was sent to The Dream in Germany, and the music arrived a few weeks later, which could only be used in the film and never in any soundtrack album. Condon, the same Oscar-winning writer of Gods and Monsters, also notes in the commentary track how a few cues from Strange Behaviour were later re-used by the composers in other films.

Elite’s transfer is very nice, and along with deleted scenes and trailers, the commentary track (which includes two of the film’s lead actors) also provides a rather vivid portrait of the horror genre at the time, which, for many burgeoning filmmakers, was the only way to enter the film business before the larger studios devoured the remaining independents.

One of the top-selling DVD sets of the year, Paramount’s Indiana Jones box gathered long-awaited DVDs of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, along with a bonus disc containing featurettes on each film.

Though the films look grand and sound wonderful in their new DVD format. A fair overview of each film is covered in several featurettes – using cast members, and a fairly candid Steven Spielberg – but those expecting to see pristine, complete versions of those old TV specials will have to hold onto their VHS and/or Betamax copies.

Naturally, John Williams gets a featurette on his vibrant contributions to the series, and within the 12 minutes the composer covers the union of his 2 Indy themes into the famous March, and his lengthy collaborations with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Comments from the aforementioned 3 films are illustrated with obvious clips, and a few vintage recording session moments; neither deep nor completely fluffy, those less familiar with Williams’ work will find the featurette of greater interest, while fans will be disappointed by the lack of greater detail and longer archival goodies.

John Williams also appears in Universal’s remastered special edition for Midway, which includes footage shot for the expanded TV airing (a common practice during the Seventies) , and several featurettes. There’s a 6-minute exploration of the film’s music, with Williams, producer Walter Mirisch, and director Jack Smight discussing the famous Midway March, and the composer dipping into his past, as he grew up with news reports during WW2, and performing in a marching band.

The composer also makes a brief appearance in a featurette on Sensurround, which is worth noting because Williams is the only composer to have scored 2 Sensurround feature films. Familiar with the lower frequency oomph from Earthquake, the composer’s score no doubt had to maintain a balance between the heavy sound effects which were used to blend archival war footage with dramatic recreations. As editor Frank Urioste explains, Sensurround could have been used for high frequencies, but if the computerized control panel didn’t work during theatrical playback, treble frequencies “would probably blow out your eardrums.”  Lovely.

During 2003, Paramount decided to massively drop prices on select back catalogue and new release titles, positioning themselves as a more collector-friendly label (and leaving Columbia almost solo as a label with bare bones titles in the higher $20+ range). One of Paramount’s best releases of this year is Once Upon A Time In The West, Sergio Leone’s hugely operatic tribute to the westerns of his youth – particularly those from John Ford – with a sweeping score by Ennio Morricone.

Remixed in Dolby 5.1 with a stunning picture clarity, the 2-disc set (priced under $20!) includes many lengthy featurettes that paint an affectionate portrait of one of Italy’s greatest genre directors. Though Leone wanted Morricone to compose the music before filming began on each of the preceding Clint Eastwood westerns, only the last reel of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was filmed and edited according to the pre-written music. “Something To Do With Death,” the last major featurette on Disc 2, includes an extended discussion with writer Sir Christopher Frayling, and directors John Carpenter and Alex Cox, regarding the collaborative relationship on West between Leone and Morricone, and the 4 themes on which the lengthy score is based.

Switching to another genre, writer/director Victor Salva enjoyed a measure of box office success with Jeepers Creepers, an eerie if rather jumbled tale of two very stupid high school grads hunted by a demonic, bat-like creature which emerges every 23 years to hunt the most fear-prone folks of a small mid-western town. The Creeper regenerates lost or damaged parts by devouring them directly from his victims. Knowing those chunks of information help explain the Creeper’s need to feed in Jeepers Creepers 2, a pretty decent thriller, whose streamlined narrative picks up where the first left off, as the Creeper assaults a stranded busload of stupid high school jocks with less than 24 hours before the 23-year meatfest must end.

Returning with writer/director Salva is composer Bennett Salvay, who’s given a 10-minute featurette in MGM’s packed DVD. The short production doc mixes a friendly Q&A between director and composer, and lengthy chase montages intercut with performances from the recording session. It’s really a shame Salvay’s score wasn’t isolated on the DVD; much like Harry Manfredini and Nicholas Pike, Salvay’s genre work, particularly in the orchestral realm, employs some wonderful modernistic writing, and his minimal use of synthetic sweetening really pays off in giving the film score a sharp, raw quality. Seemingly using no overt synth effects, Salvay’s orchestral writing recalls Christopher Young’s early horror work, with added wit to enhance the obvious pleasure the Creeper’s derives from terrorizing, maiming, and consuming teens before a lengthy hibernation.

The last major title of note is Hulk, perhaps the year’s most controversial release due to the studio playing the old switcheroo with Mychael Danna’s score and engaging Danny Elfman for a quick refit. Hopefully we’ll one day get a chance to hear Danna’s musical interpretation on disc; having enjoyed a professional relationship with director Ang Lee, the shift to another film genre – the comic book movie – would no doubt have yielded musical results as intriguing as the director’s own memorable attempts to extract deeper character relationships within the stylized framework of Hulk.

On September 9th, 2002, Mychael Danna was given the podium at the Toronto International Film Festival to discuss his music, and lengthy association with writer/director Atom Egoyan. After the 60+ minute discussion, moderated by Paul Tonks, Danna stepped aside and kindly answered a few questions regarding Hulk.

Though he hadn’t yet scored the film – production was still in its early stages – Danna was aware comic book grandeur was an overall style director Ang Lee wanted to explore. “Clearly ‘bigness’ is something that works for those sorts of things,” explained the composer. “Big, wide sounds of a big Western orchestra – and I think clearly we will be touching on that world, but there’ll also be other elements.

“With the picture so far we’ve been throwing up all sorts of bizarre bits of exotica from here and there, and it seems to work very nicely in a kind of disorienting way… I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I’m studying African percussion right now, and… I have a feeling we’re going to be in that world as well.”

Both anger and cellular transformation are key themes in Hulk, and Danna’s early ideas included some electronic manipulation of the score. As he enthusiastically described, “I think what’s going to be fun about this score is that we’re going to do a lot of different things all at once; it’s the kind of thing we’re going to feel very free to enter into any realm to pillage and move on, and grab something else and electronically manipulate it, and squish it.”

At the time of our interview, the live-action footage was almost complete, with CGI work already in gear and slated for completion by May of 2003.

Brought in early to discuss musical ideas with director Lee, Danna continued: “I’ve been on set a couple of times; we’ve been talking. We are now putting various thing up against the picture which they’re starting to cut,” though the film’s scale of visual pyrotechnics was certainly greater than previous assignments. “It’s something that I’ve done on a small scale before,” he concluded,  “but never to the extent of this film. There’s going to be a significant percentage that is CGI, and it’s something that I’m going to have to learn how to score.”

When finally released in the Summer of 2003, the re-scored film received mixed responses from critics are fans – they either loved or loathed the film, with the sudden flip from human hero to a computerized, video game Hulk being the biggest problem – but Danny Elfman ultimately composed a score which largely avoided the familiar terrain the composer himself has explored in Batman, Darkman, and Spider-Man. The 5-minute segment between composer and director illustrates the success of the film’s new score: director Lee emphatically wanted nothing Elfmanesque, hence a greater reduction in some of the choral and percussive motifs that have made the composer’s early scores so recognizable. Lee’s insistence and sense of humour pushed the right buttons, and while not a featurette of great substance, the interview segments during the recording session have Elfman relishing the director’s stylistic challenges, and the composer’s revisitation to the scoring techniques of his professional idols (with Bernard Herrmann beaming at the top).

In the next column we’ll examine several Merchant-Ivory films new to DVD, with comments from Richard Robbins.


Mark R. Hasan (2003)

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