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_March 2005 _


As spring is rapidly approaching (bye-bye, evil snow & bone-chilling arctic air), a number of primo goodies are advancing from the production stage to actual street dates, but for now, let's do a quick recap of the more notable releases that followed the Xmas holiday season.

Certainly one of the biggest pre-Spring releases of 2005 is The Incredibles, writer/director Brad Bird's extraordinarily entertaining animated feature that intelligently blended the nostalgic elements of late sixties superhero TV shows with social satire - particularly the dilemma of a family just trying to cope with the realities of blah suburban life.

Composer Michael Giacchino captured the sound of the late sixties jazz orchestra, and meticulously married this unconventional sound to suit and enhance the dramatic needs of the film.  As he states in the making-of documentary included in Disney's excellent 2-disc set, "The Incredibles score is really about things exploding and people hugging." Or, as writer/director Bird adds, "the mundane and the fantastic sharing screen space," which includes a streamlined world of gorgeous homes, pastel-shaded cars, and vivid characters whose own weird bodies radiate sharp (and hysterically funny) attitude.

Having written for TV and video games, Giacchino clearly found the perfect vehicle to play with the sounds fans of Saturday morning cartoons loved, alongside the better-known lounge and jazzy music written by Henry Mancini, Billy May, and John Barry. Giacchino's appearance in the making-of doc is very brief, but longer extracts from the scoring session are included in a brief five-minute segment that also features short comments from conductor/orchestrator Tim Simonec, and recording engineer Dan Wallin. The latter also points out the use of analogue technology in capturing the score's sharp brass passages, and Giacchino elaborates on the virtues of recording cues with a full orchestra. The doc's camera frequently hovers between sound-blimped sections, and we get a chance to hear the marvelous work of the brass, strings, and percussion players.

Jazz is also a major component in the 2004 PBS doc Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, the latest collaboration between director Ken Burns, and Wynton Marsalis. Though Marsalis' score is available on CD, the mix of blues, big band, and Dixieland jazz are sampled in a short medley that's complimented by stills from the recording session.

Released in Italy on CD, the album for Armando Trovaioli's Lives of the Saints music is also available via a 3-disc DVD set from Warner Bros. Canada. The 2-part TV mini-series, based on Nino Ricci's best-selling novel, made a rapid debut on home video after its CTV network telecast, and the set's third disc is the 17-track album. Only annoyance: the repeated typo of "Armando Trovajoli" that's all over the printed art.

The inclusion of bonus music CDs in a DVD set is hardly new, as commercially unreleased music for Almost Famous and John Russo's atrocious 1999 Night of the Living Dead retrofit respectively featured the sublime songs by Peter Frampton, and unmemorable synth cues by Scott Vladimir Licina. Other examples of bonus releases include Don Davis' score with the German DVD of The Unsaid, and music from both Nekromantik films packaged with Barrel Entertainment's Nekromantik 2 DVD.

Studios in turn have bundled commercial CD albums with high profile releases - such as The Terminal, and Rudy - and Alliance Atlantis also added the soundtrack album for Foolproof (though it's a 'music from & inspired by' concoction that didn't contain any of Jim McGrath's 2003 score). Lives of the Saints at least offers the orchestral score (plus one vocal cut) written by one of Italy's lesser-known veteran composers.

Fox' upcoming 2-disc DVD for I, Robot will contain a composer/isolated score track, but that special feature has become less frequent on major studio DVDs, leaving it to smaller labels to offer, when available.

A good example is Cary Berger's score for Todd Hughes' The New Women, preserved on Culture Q Connection's loaded DVD. A no-budget sci-fi satire about a world where the men are suddenly found asleep one day, the DVD contains director interview and commentary track, and Berger's music is actually available in 2 formats: as an isolated track with transitions, edits, and source cues; and with a selection of score and source cues in an 'album' gallery.

The New Women is one of eight films Berger scored for Hughes, but the composer's better known for the 1997 documentary Full Tilt Boogie, of which the score appeared on a promotional CD. For The New Women, Berger's music is heavily dependent on the film's catchy theme song, a breezy ode to the new generation of women, forced to fend for themselves and redesign the human race as the males of the world lie in a perpetual coma.

The problem with the score is a lack of thematic diversity and few instruments: Berger employs a limited array of synthesizers that may hark back to the Eighties, but the film's soundtrack comes off as a rather cheap concoction. The album gallery contains more structurally unified tracks and source cues (most just stylistic variations of the primary theme), but even so-called bonus cuts include a disco version, and one sung by men. Overall it's a well-produced DVD, but Berger's score is a very limited work.

The revisitation of older titles has become fairly standard now for studios, as previous bare bones discs are given multi-disc special edition releases. A good example includes Michael Mann's Heat, which now sports a director commentary track, and highly informative making-of featurettes and scene examinations.

When interviewed by MFTM back in 1999 (Issue 25, page 18), one could sense Elliott Goldenthal's frustration with Mann's daily changes and suggestions. Asked by Rudy Koppl about the communication of particular needs, Mann made the composer feel "like Kurtz from Apocalypse Now"; Goldenthal slowly losing his sanity as each modification began to blur with the previous.

Time seems to have mellowed the friction from prior creative endeavors, and Goldenthal has a modest segment in which he describes the experimentation period that preceded the actual score writing; characterized by the composer as an invaluable exploration of sound textures, the period helped director and composer find a common ground to formalize the film's extraordinary musical landscape. Also on had is musician/composer Moby, briefly pointing out the two places where Mann utilized portions of his own striking works.

Another highly regarded film given the deluxe treatment is Warner Bros.' DVD of Chariots of Fire. That multi-Academy Award-winning film, alongside Giorgio Moroder's score for Midnight Express, gave electronic film music a major boost as a musical style and delivery medium no longer restricted to futuristic fantasy stories,  or contemporary dramas.

"Perhaps the single most important element in the story in the film, which blends totally with the film, is the music," says director Hugh Hudson, in the lengthy and informative making-of featurette. Accompanied by producer David Puttnam and Vangelis himself, it's an affectionate appreciation of a landmark score that also became a hugely popular soundtrack album that enjoyed radio airplay for many years.

The elusive composer describes the film's opening scene that was originally tracked with a different Vangelis composition, favoured by director Hudson. Sample footage is intercut with the director's initial choice and Vangelis' final effort, and then the composer's gone for the remainder of the featurette. It's a shame the legendary Vangelis wasn't given his own featurette, though perhaps he'll fare better when 1492 and the perpetually delayed Blade Runner make their definitive DVD debuts in the near future.

Also revisited by Warner Bros. is Spike Lee's epic adaptation of Malcolm X's autobiography. The nearly half-hour making-of doc gathered comments from many of Lee's colleagues and associates, and composer Terence Blanchard contributes a few sparse sound-bytes. Malcolm X remains one of Blanchard's best scores, largely because the it managed to walk a fine line in conveying epic scope and human drama without smashing the audience with aggressive, bombastic writing. Elegantly incorporating elements of jazz, blues, military marches, and a dab of Alex North, Blanchard's subsequent work for Lee has sometimes lacked diversity, Clockers remains a singularly frustrating experience, with the score's oft-repeated theme and its grating, minimal variation.

Ignored by the Oscars that year, Blanchard's 1992 score deserved a nomination, and Warner Bros.' DVD should have devoted more time to what was then a major work by an African American composer. Malcolm X marked a career shift for the gifted jazzman, and like his aggressive, fascinating Malcolm X Jazz Suite album, the score proper remains a notable, beautifully crafted work.

Less important among tweaked releases is Columbia's new Deluxe Edition for Leon / The Professional. While beefed up with a new interview featurette, Columbia continues to tweak already well-done special editions that hardly require an additional 10 or 20 minutes of memories, anecdotes, and reflections. The new Leon is still a well-produced set, but collectors should note the now out-of-print first release is the only source for Eric Serra's isolated music track.

DVD buyers will also note a pattern for films with sequels on the way: there's the first 'special edition' to satisfy the rental market; the new & expanded special edition, which sometimes includes an admission coupon for the sequel's theatrical release; and the 2-disc set that studios love to assemble for the Xmas season. One can easily argue the mere existence of film like Jurassic Park 3, Resident Evil 2, Species 3, and Starship Troopers 2 are tied to established video rental and sales figures of existing franchises; and in each case, the need for a functional script is unimportant when a DVD street date is set and firmly locked.

A fusion of blues, jazz, and pop characterize the score for Charles Shyer's 2004 remake of Alfie, with Jude Law delivering a solid performance as the titular womanizer who never learns why his lifestyle is pitiful and tragic.

Shyer's film smartly distances itself from the Michael Caine film and subsequent stage version (co-written by Burt Bacharach) by creating its own visual and musical identity from the onset. There's a brief quote from the famous Bacharach-Hal David theme song over the Paramount logo, but Shyer's decision to engage Mick Jagger and David A. Stewart to write the score (with a contribution from John Powell) captures the retro elements Alfie adopts for his own personal style.

Clothes, colours, local architecture, food and wine reflect the high contrasts of Alfie's persona, and the Jagger-Stewart score smoothens the stylistic elements within the flittering visuals, plus adds several layers of wit and warmth when Alfie's behaviour becomes increasingly less amusing. As the shift from wry comedy moves towards straight drama and later tragedy, the score gives room to the film's original songs, and Jagger's voice adds another layer of commentary - and empathy - when the audience might well be rejecting Alfie, and perhaps the film.

Alfie's repellant behaviour is still intriguing to the end - often because his efforts to rekindle past romances fail so completely, and some with sharply embarrassing conclusions; there's also a bittersweet quality that lingers; if only he wasn't such a rotten scoundrel, Alfie would be alright as a mate.

The Jagger-Stewart collaboration is given a 12-minute showcase among the DVD's already hefty collection of extras, and there's a good mix of comments and recording session footage via split-screen editing. Like the film, the multi-image and layered sound is effectively used to balance reflective and creative thoughts with recording session performances, particularly Jagger's rendition of "The Blind Leading The Blind" - the film's best song by far. While we're more accustomed to seeing scenes played with optional isolated music stems, it's equally effective to watch a scene with a vibrant vocal performance; musical tastes aside, the option reveals the singer as musical artist, carefully choreographing his voice to an actor's physical and emotional turmoil.

The director-composer relationship is spotlighted in Columbia's disc for Monster. Comprised of interviews with director Patty Jenkins and composer BT, the 15 minute featurette covers Jenkins' determination to engage BT - for her, BT was the only appropriate composer for the film - and BT's amusing discovery of the Monster script amid requests to score fodder like "Fast and Furious on Rollerskates, and Fast and Furious on Jet Skis…[The Monster score] was conceived from the ground up in [DTS 5.1]," says BT, and he describes the initially "irreverent" character of this surround sound placement, which later evolved into a more cohesive work, mixing a diversity of sound loops, split percussion effects, and special soloists for extended improvisations.

Both composer and director later appear together, and discuss key scenes and specific cues and themes. More interesting, however, is the option to view the featurette in Dolby Surround and the more discreet DTS 5.1, preserving the sound design of the film's original mix. (The 2-disc soundtrack album also offers the score in full DTS, and includes the director/composer discussion and film clips. Both the album and the DVD also include a nifty feature to play scenes with selectable dialogue, effects, and music combinations in DTS.)

Composer Gustavo Santaolalla gets a smaller featurette in Universal's DVD for The Motorcycle Diaries. Having scored Amores perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003), Santaolalla's career includes a short but fascinating collection of films beholding powerful human relationships, and in Diaries, Santaolalla wrote his themes sketches based on early impressions from the screenplay. Performing the instruments on the score, the composer has a short featurette (about 3 minutes) where he cites a few key scenes and instruments.

In the next column we'll discuss releases which include far more composer-friendly featurettes and extras, including Laura (featuring the late David Raksin giving his first and only commentary track), Night and the City (with a detailed analysis of the British and American versions), Young Törless (with isolated score tracks by Hans Werner Henze), and Forbidden Zone (boasting plenty of Elfman lunacy from brothers Danny and writer/director Richard).


Mark R. Hasan (2005)

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