|_August 2004 _|
The documentary is one genre that's been enjoying increasingly greater exposure on home video lately, with a number of high-profile films raising its stature as not only a viable choice for a night at the movies, but as an exciting choice on an ever-broader spate of DVD titles being released each month.
When Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine debuted on DVD last year, a sudden demand for his previous work arose, turning the spotlight on several works that have since made their own DVD premieres. Then came Fahrenheit 9/11, and its record box office take shows controversial subjects will always attract audiences, although one can argue Moore's persona and devoted fan base also helped a bit (along with animated appearances in televised media venues, and verbose discussions regarding Disney's decision to withhold the hot potato movie before a more savvy distributor bought the film).
Alongside Columbine, fellow documentary Capturing the Friedmans also managed to attract viewers on DVD, aided by its own 2-disc treatment (with extras that are mandatory, since the film itself leaves many open questions).
Besides his Friedmans score, Andrea Morricone's film work remains relatively sparse. The composer featurette (7:00) - filmed during the score's recording in Rome - begins with the amusing arrival of the film's director and editor/co-producer, as they drive a suitcase-of-a-car towards the recording studio.
Morricone's English is somewhat limited, but he describes meeting the filmmakers, discussing the film's unsettling topic of a family and community destroyed by charges of incest, and we're treated to some moments with the orchestra as they perform the film's symphonic score under Morricone's baton. Pity the music remains unavailable on CD, but Morricone's skill and sensitivity no doubt contributed to one of 2003's most notable films.
Given a more quiet release on indie specialty label Docurama, Death: A Love Story, running a smidge over an hour, relies much more on home video footage than Friedmans to chronicle filmmaker Michelle LeBrun's efforts to help her dying husband, Mel Howard, as liver cancer ultimately claim his life.
In terms of film music content, the DVD is unique in offering almost 24 minutes of Miriam Cutler's gorgeous music as a bonus track. Archived separately, Cutler's music - about 10 tracks, spliced one after the other - is an eclectic mix of styles that suit the film's disparate moods. Kicking off with a jazzy, folk-styled track, a repeated synth percussion motif bridges the remaining tracks that individually veer from Middle Eastern chants, small chamber passages, and some standout vocal arrangements that close the brief yet moving suite.
Cutler's scored a number of documentaries over the years, though her best-known work so far is Lost In La Mancha - that bittersweet portrait of Terry Gilliam's impossible chance to film Don Quixote, when Murphy's Law assaulted Gilliam with sometimes apocalyptic cruelty.
On a much larger scale, Kurt Swinghammer's score for the new NFB [National Film Board of Canada] release McLuhan's Wake archives almost 71 minutes of score, titled and chapter-indexed like the bonus audio gems in Warner Bros.' classic film sets. Spanning 25 tracks, Swinghammer's music is seriously retro, capturing the synthetic, ambient sounds of late-80s gear for director Kevin McMahon (Yo-Yo Ma, Inspired by Bach: The Music Garden).
Sometimes recalling the eddying sounds of Tangerine Dream, the moody soundscapes are frequently revisited by a thematic phrase and lengthy, metallic-styled rhythmic passages. Though the overall score has moments of repetition, it's a nice inclusion in an already well-packed DVD that boasts director commentary and archived interviews. Very few documentary soundtracks are commercially released on CD, so perhaps these two discs will demonstrate the format as a viable conduit for doc film scores.
A sneaky side of Ennio Morricone is revealed by the composer himself in relatively extensive interview segments of Anchor Bay's Companeros DVD (previously released separately, and re-packaged in a boxed set titled "Once Upon A Time In Italy: The Spaghetti Western Collection").
Actors Tomas Milian and Franco Nero are the obvious stars of the 17-minute featurette, but Morricone steals some attention when he describes the construction of his maniacally bizarre title theme. The whole movie has maintained a modern feel due to the core buddy relationship between the nutty lead characters (one an evil rube, the other a slick, selfish double-crosser), and Morricone's score really enhances the character relationships and the film's offbeat sensibilities.
Nero, a major contributor to the spaghetti western genre, also understands Morricone's value to the genre, and offers his own incisive comments between the composer's own analytical thoughts on the quality of his early Sergio Leone scores (with Morricone describing Fistful of Dollars as "the worst western music that I've ever done for Leone"). Morricone's theme anecdote eventually pays off with a great punchline, as the song's a hybridization of completely disparate idioms.
Morricone also explains that his music for Companeros was designed to be sonically different, due to the success of his prior Sergio Leone scores; by giving Companeros a wholly fresh sound, director Sergio Corbucci's film wouldn't be so overtly compared to Leone's work.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly remains Morricone's most commercially successful soundtrack, enjoying almost a year on Billboard's Top 100 charts (climbing as high as #4), and it's deserving that, if not for the score's commercial success, its artistic merits are detailed in MGM's new DVD for Sergio Leone's epic conclusion to his Man With No Name trilogy.
Previously released on DVD, the new disc contains the expanded version that was sparingly released in select theatrical venues, with a remastered Dolby 5.1 mix, and some new sound effects to add extra oomph. Not all of the directional effects work naturally - there's still odd moments when spatial ambience seems to flip between mono and re-channeled surround - and not all of the restored scenes are wholly necessary. Fans will likely be the greatest supporters of MGM's decision to assemble the closest version of Leone's longest cut, while more general filmgoers may find the new material a bit redundant in spots.
Nevertheless, the new version (which also contains the pungent original mono mix) comes with a second disc of featurettes, and much like Paramount's special edition release of Once Upon a Time in the West, Morricone gets his own featurette. (I know, it seems a bit trifling that a composer's measure of acceptance within the home video domain is to get his own little video documentary, but while film music fans would prefer sexier extras - isolated scores, outtakes, recording session stills, bio sketches, a sample of hair, etc. - the featurettes offer an acceptable compromise.)
Jon Burlingame ably describes the Leone-Morricone relationship that began with Fistful of Dollars, and covers all the major bases of their professional relationship and the major themes, written prior to and after principal photography. (After The Good, according to Burlingame, all of Leone's films were pre-scored with theme demos by the composer, and formerly scored, once the editing was done.)
An audio-only archive has Burlingame describing each major theme and its evolution, and the score's commercial success with record buyers in 1968. Better still is the historian's reading of the famous prison camp song, whose lyrics are sometimes obfuscated when the beating of Tuco becomes the sequence's centerpiece. It's a heck of a downer, yet the song's poetic lyrics aptly summarize the increasingly scorched landscape that Eastwood and his ersatz companions wander through before the film's unforgettable conclusion in a cemetery.
Two other previously released films are given 2-disc expansions, although film music fans should note a few omissions. The Great Escape, while assembling a series of interviews under the guidance of author Steven Jay Ruben, does not replicate any material from Criterion's laserdisc, which contained audio comments by Elmer Bernstein on the commentary track.
Warner Bros. have also re-issued Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee's last completed starring role, adding a documentary from the Region 2 DVD on the film's production, and contains a brief appearance by Lalo Schifrin. (Why does he consistently get seconds-long soundbytes?) More importantly, however, is the dropping of the film's isolated score track that appeared on the previous special edition disc. The doc, however, does contain a fascinating collection of outtake fight scenes from Lee's final film, The Game of Death. The doc's producers managed to secure rights to the footage of unused scenes, whereas the theatrical cut of Game of Death (starring Bruce Lee, Lee's optically enlarged eyes, and a really bad lookalike since Lee died during filming) is available from Fox. That film's been nicely remastered, although the lack of any extras means John Barry's rare Kung Fu score gets no attention.
Elite Entertainment have again made available another classic thriller made during Australia's cinema renaissance, which included other cult favorites like Strange Behavior (released by Elite with an isolated Tangerine Dream score), and Thirst.
Originally titled Harlequin - after the titular, Rasputin-like character influences a politically connected family about move closer to a governmental power core - Dark Forces, like Elite's DVD of Thirst, also contains an isolated Brian May score track, and while in mono, it still manages to reveal May's skill in delivering a symphonic mix of lush character themes and chilling underscore.
As with his commentary track for Thirst, producer Anthony Ginnane provides a thorough portrait of the environment that fostered the careers of directors like Simon Wincer and Richard Franklin, and the major contributions made by composer Brian May to an industry that, according to Ginnane, was largely dormant for decades. Better known for his horror and mostly B-level films in America, May gets a lot of credit for his contributions to Australia's then-nascent film scoring scene, and fans of May's work will enjoy several significant anecdotes of the late and still-under-appreciated composer.
A film of more questionable quality is given the deluxe treatment in the Lions Gate/Fox refit of Highlander 2: The Quickening. First issued in a version that established the Highlanders as a race of aliens from the planet Zeist, director Russell Mulcahey perhaps kicked and screamed loud enough until he was permitted to assemble a director's cut (running 109 minutes), under the pseudo-cool moniker "The Renegade Version," that excised the inter-stellar nonsense and reinstated scenes needed to counteract massive logic gaps in the original 89-minute theatrical version.
The new 2-disc release should please Highlander fans with several lengthy making-of featurettes, including a 9-minute segment on Stewart Copeland's score. Seated in front of a green screen while film clips and assorted recording studio footage play in the background, Copeland humorously describes what until then was a major orchestral project. Moving from the film's Wagner aria into "humble Copeland" underscore, it's a wry recap of tackling the broad science-fiction scope of the film, with a funny nod to the Fairlight dead tech used to compose the score and some action passages. Copeland also describes the lengthy recording techniques employed to blend the orchestral passages with the synth elements, and how the project remains an anomaly for having more written underscore than finished film.
Copeland also makes a brief appearance in the behind-the-scenes featurette for the TV series Dead Like Me (from MGM), but there's few meaty details regarding his score. Mostly a promo puff piece, the short segment has the composer and series creator being very excited about the show and its quirky characteristics, but lacks the minimal substance found in the Highlander featurette.
Dennis McCarthy also gets a bit of a narrow spotlight in the making-of featurette for an otherwise excellent DVD release for writer/star Charles Busch's Die, Mommie, Die!, released by Sundance in their continuing series of indie films.
Die! is a spot-on parody of the "Grand Dame Guignol" sub-genre that Busch expanded into feature-length form his short play, and those familiar with the genre will also get a kick out of McCarthy's excellent score. Walking a fine line between satire and sympathy for the film's dirty-minded characters, McCarthy also wrote an excellent song for Busch's drag performance of the film's Grand Dame character on an Ed Sullivan-like TV show, and the tune - with its insidious worm-like structure and lyrics - is briefly dissected by the composer in an ultra-short clip (though
Though Ron Goodwin's music isn't isolated in Warner Bros. new double-bill release of Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned, fans of Goodwin's work will be thoroughly impressed by the quality of his suspense writing. Both films contain commentary tracks, with author Steve Haberman and screenwriter John Briley (yes, he of Gandhi fame) respectively discussing the production and artistic merits of each film.
B-level director Wolf Rilla managed to take a shelved script by Sterling Silliphant and create a classic science-fiction thriller with Village, and his intelligent use of sound and underscore provides Haberman to describe use of Goodwin's understated music in an already eerie little film. The tonal continuity certainly paid off with Goodwin's involvement in the sequel, and director Anton Leader's use of arresting compositions, high contrast images, and subtle slow-motion effects no doubt inspired Goodwin to write one of his least melodic scores. Better known for his war and action scores, the Damned double-bill shows Goodwin beyond his epic writing, and showcases 2 scores that really deserve their own commercial release.
In Part 2, we'll examine some composer commentaries (including Ray Faiola's first, for Alexander's Ragtime Band), and HVE's recent wave of Merchant-Ivory productions.
Mark R. Hasan (2004)
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