|_May 2005 _|
Both Warner Bros. and Universal began releasing collections of their classic film noire movies late last year, and Fox has followed with a trio of excellent special editions: director Henry Hathaway's Call Northside 777, Elia Kazan's prescient virus thriller Panic in the Streets , and Otto Preminger's immortal Laura.
Alfred Newman's scores for Northside and Panic are very sparse, keeping in line with the docu-drama style of each film, while Preminger's direction of Laura demands a more generous musical approach, due to its diverging themes of jealousy, guilt, and obsession.
David Raksin's score, however, is still comparatively sparse, particularly when placed beside the meatier noire scores by Miklos Rozsa, yet Laura achieved a broader level of immortality through its hypnotic theme which the late composer declared, in his first (and sadly only) DVD commentary track, has been recorded over 400 times since it's commercial release.
A vocal single, with words by Johnny Mercer, came out because Fox received a regular barrage of mail, asking where one can buy the song. Raksin's complete score (about 27 minutes) was decades later issued in suite form on CD by Fox back in 2000 (coupled with Bernard Herrmann's Jane Eyre), and over the years the story of the theme's genesis against a tight weekend deadline has been oft-repeated.
Fox' DVD offers an excellent presentation of the film proper, plus a deleted scene deemed too heady for wartime audiences already coping with unwanted rations; and there's two informative Biography docs on Gene Tierney, and Vincent Price.
The film is also accompanied by two commentary tracks: historian Rudy Behlmer more or less adapts his chapter from his entertaining book Behind the Scenes into a fairly consistent narrative; and on the second, David Raksin is joined by historian Janine Basinger. There's a decent collection of information overall, but both tracks should have been edited into one fluid narrative, as often found on Criterion discs. Mind you. Criterion has produced their own share of imperfect tracks - notably the dry, theoretical, and sleep-inducing oral essays by Marian Keane for Alfred Hitchcock's The Thirty-Nine Steps and Spellbound - but overall they've managed to follow a format that avoids repeating virtual anecdotes.
That's primarily where the Fox tracks falter, and it's something that should have been caught before the discs were put into production. Behlmer recounts Raksin's weekend struggle to find a theme before the approaching deadline, and Raksin details the same facts in his own words. Basinger also repeats film and music facts covered by Behlmer, and it all pretty much motivates the listener to reach for the shuttle button.
Sadly, Raksin speaks less than a handful of times; the veteran composer's other appearances are literally one- and two-word utterances edited between Basinger's more consistent contributions. Film music fans will find little of note in Raksin's track with Basinger, although the two film historians do fill in some career holes that Raksin chose not to investigate.
Mark Isham fares far better in The Cooler from Lions Gate, in which his retro, big band score is isolated in Dolby 5.1, and includes some cues not present on the commercial soundtrack album. Joined by co-writer/director Wayne Kramer, the track is more conversational than analytical, and Kramer's admiration of film scores often has the two going off on straightforward film music tangents - favourite scores, styles, lounge music, and what qualities Kramer wanted Isham to bring to The Cooler.
Isham's DVD commentaries - Blade and Fly Away Home - are generally solid observations of a composer dissecting his work and craft, and it's clear the two men developed a strong friendship during production. Kramer's own film music interests include his hope that the more famous Isham might just like The Cooler script enough, and accept the scoring assignment; and there's an amusing mention of Isham's commercially unavailable Point Break score - something that really peeved Kramer until his wish was (privately) fulfilled by the composer himself.
Another composer who jointly appears with the director on a DVD commentary track is newcomer Christopher Lennertz.
Like Wes Craven, writer (and occasional director) Clive Barker has loaned his name to several projects - mostly the unending Hellraiser sequels, of which two are slated for release this year - and in most cases, these 'presented by'/executive produced works are destined for cable TV and DVD (read: direct-to-video) outlets. In most cases they're utterly generic horror fodder, and Saint Sinner differs somewhat from the formula. Barker receives a Story By credit for the film, but the final script, alongside Joshua Butler's direction, borrows heavily from Alien, Hellraiser, and Stargate.
An original film produced for the Sci Fi Channel, Universal's DVD contains some deleted scenes, and a feature-length commentary track with director Butler, executive producer Barker, and composer Christopher Lennertz. As we've seen in prior DVD releases like Frailty, when there's more than two contributors, the composer is often marginalized by discussions on more generic production minutia - how cold it was that day, who really drove the screeching getaway car, etc. - and Lennertz has just a handful of opportunities to discuss his score. That isn't to say he's forced to sit still by Barker and Butler; there's genuine respect between each contributor, but the score proper doesn't really figure much in the 85 minute track. Where score dominates, the composer offers minor details on working with his superb Hungarian Choir, the film's limited musical budget, and the production's smart decision to record large acapella segments, when a large choir + orchestra simply weren't feasible.
Like Christopher Young's work on the first Hellraiser film, Lennertz achieves a magnificent sound with his musicians, and crafts a rich horror score that blends harsh percussive clusters and orchestral eruptions with more gentle choral passages, using Sanscrit winnowed from a hefty resource book. The ancient words are thematically are tied to the film's regular doses of bodily violations and mutations; but as sentences, they're pretty much nonsensical.
It's a path Jerry Goldsmith also followed by using Latin in The Omen, and the use of ancient words and phrases offers up a brief discussion on the late, great composer. Of passing interest is Barker's anecdote in wanting Goldsmith to score a film adaptation of The Thief Of Always, which was apparently planned but never followed to fruition. Barker questioned the composer about those creepy Omen lyrics, but he doesn't go any deeper into their discussions of what musical ideas would have been applied to the aborted project.
Fans of Barker's work may find Saint Sinner more satisfying than the myriad Hellraiser sequels, but the movie's most enjoyable aspect is Lennertz' lengthy score. An isolated score track set to a graphic horror film is a marvelous way of augmenting a film's visual style, nuances, and the emotional subtext, and while the DVD lacks such a feature, Christopher Lennertz' excellent music is available on CD (from La-La Land Records, in a limited release of 3000).
Danny Elfman's first movie score was lucky enough to enjoy an LP release from Varese Sarabande, and though released on a slightly shorter CD by the same label, the complete score and songs can be heard in Dolby 5.1 in Fantoma's massively packed DVD of Richard Elfman's freakish cabaret show, Forbidden Zone (1980).
Begun in 16mm and later re-photographed in 35mm when more money was available, this black and white sketch comedy has politically incorrect stereotypes, and plenty of surreal vulgarities involving little people, diapered adults, squishy mammaries, and mental diminutives wearing pig noses - all based on routines the Elfman brothers honed in their live performances with the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo.
Fantoma's DVD comes with a commentary track with director Elfman and co-writer/actor Matthew Bright (later to become director of the 1996 Little Red Riding Hood parable, Freeway, which Danny Elfman also scored), and an excellent making-of featurette that has both Elfman brothers describing early careers with the Mystic Knights, and the production of the no-budget film. If you've read Janet Halfyard's excellent score analysis for Elfman's Batman score (published by Scarecrow Press, and also reviewed by MFTM), the featurette basically adds a fat chapter on the composer's transitional period from stage to film; it's already well-outlined in her book, but the DVD's interview fills in some gaps that Elfmanites will find highly informative.
As we've seen in prior DVD wrap-ups, there's often a sequel among the classic and not-so-classic movies, and Blade: Trinity tries hard to recapture the kinetic energy of the first Blade film, yet manages to feel more like the tenth entry in a tired franchise. Writer/Director David S. Goyer penned the first two films, and perhaps therein lies the fatal flaw: Blade: Trinity refits the Stephen Dorff vampire leader with whiny/pouty Parker Posey; Donal Logue's dismembered but persistent supporting vampire from Blade is riffed in Trinity by a less talkative and more beefy goon; and the need to top each action scene once again pads the latest sequel to an unnecessary two hours. The new elements in an otherwise familiar battles are co-stars Jessica Biel and Ryan Reynolds, whose own characters are respectively bland, and amazingly unfunny.
Each Blade composer has had to balance his scoring chores with songs cemented to key scenes and montages: Mark Isham went for a brooding synth and orchestral blend that managed to smoothly weave in and out of the pumping songs laid over the main battle sequences; and Marco Beltrami's large orchestral score was tweaked by Danny Saber and buoyed by a similar number of songs.
"He's an action hero, but he's a black action hero," says Blade: Trinity co-composer, The RZA, and "the previous Blades always had a hard techno sound - very, very strong good music - but to me it never really gave the urban of Blade, 'cause Blade's a tough motherf****r, you know what I'm saying? What makes him such a good hero is that urban toughness that comes out in some of the scenes, so my approach was that maybe see if I could find a few tunes in a few things that could, you know, compliment that element of it that hasn't been maybe discovered by other composers of the previous films."
Writer/director Goyer adds, "I wanted The RZA's sensibilities interwoven throughout the soundtrack and throughout the traditional score… For the traditional score, we found a young composer named Ramin Djawadi who worked with Hans Zimmer… [Djawadi] was young and eager and wanted to explore, and he really liked the idea of working hand in hand with The RZA."
The featurette has Djawadi first going through a chase scene with The RZA's electronic music; then with swelling orchestral; and finally both mixed together. Overall, the featurette balances attention between Goyer and his composers, and interlaces comments between a generous mix of behind-the-scenes footage from the recording session, and film clips.
The RZA also adds a humbling, but empowered observation: "My music is being played by an orchestra. People in my neighbourhood never would expect no s**t like that. They think that we too cool to listen to classical, or we too cool to play an instrument… I'm not able to pick up a brass, but I'm able to pull up a parameter on my keyboard; and I'm able to play a brass line, I'm able to play a flute line or a string line. I would love to be a violinist, but I don't have that talent, but fortunately modern technology has stuck in all these synthesizers, and you could just basically vibe in."
Goyer concludes the featurette by saying, "When you take two or three people that maybe have slightly different sensibilities and you can figure out a way to make them work together, I think the end result can be more interesting than what either of them would've done on their own." In spite of the film's obvious flaws, at least the music manages to evoke a design that is a distinctive interpretation of Blade's character, and the associates and villains in his world.
Part of that formal sound design is also credited in the End Titles to Machine Head's Tobius Enhus, a member of the Machine Head collective that initially began as a company set up for straightforward sound designing of films, and have moved on to score a few feature films, like the conspiracy thriller Blind Horizon.
A fractured narrative of an amnesiac who tries to piece together his recent past to prevent the assassination of the American President in a small town, Blind Horizon ran into trouble when the film's producers felt the structure was uneven, confusing, and lacked a more polished panache for thriller audiences. A veteran editor was brought in to recut the film, though what's left is a slick but pretty confusing movie that tries to converge and coordinate past and present events to a suspenseful payoff.
Lions Gate's DVD surprisingly treats the film's production woes as a secondary drama, and the post-production featurettes offer intriguing glimpses at a movie's overhaul when the director's cut fails to satisfy the expectations of the producers and money men.
The Machine Head featurette - running almost 15 minutes - essentially gathers key participants of the film's sound and score design, and dissects their decision to craft a score as a group effort. The completed score is an unsurprising mix of impressions that lack a distinctive voice; even co-composer Enhus acknowledges other members chose different approaches because of their own inherent strengths and interests, and the film's production and post-production supervisors recall their surprise in finding up to 20 Machine Head members at a spotting session, "calling out" character names each wanted to cover.
It's an approach that, in Blind Horizon, just doesn't work, making the earnest views by the group's members all the more fascinating. Some film music aficionados may recall the mandate of Cinemascore - the amalgamated group of composers who scored Raw Deal, and felt that tackling Hollywood as an all service-all styles entity was better than pounding the pavement solo - although Machine Head seems to follow the more collective philosophy of Hans Zimmer's Media Ventures.
Unlike Media Ventures, however, the aggregate tracks by Machine Head composers never coalesce into a balanced style; the Media Ventures sound is unmistakable, predictable, and often restricted to key genres because of its overtly commercial designs, whereas the Machine Head sound in Blind Horizon ultimately reflects the film's own disjointed structure.
What the DVD featurette captures, though, is a unique and idealistic philosophy towards film sound - fusing music and sound design, much like a large band whose music exploits the strengths of every member - but whether such a large group can genuinely meet the needs of a single film requires more experimentation, and refining a concept that was, at the beginning of production, fully embraced by director Michael Haussman.
The consistent, idiosyncratic style of writer/director Wes Anderson with composer Mark Mothersbaugh is also traced in Criterion's superb 2-disc release of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, which contains a 20+ minute featurette on composer, plus a gallery of unedited musical performances in Portuguese by Brazilian recording artist and actor, Seu Jorge.
Mothersbaugh's been interviewed in depth before, but the featurette tapes the composer in his huge working pad: a big, lime-green saucer of a building that houses the recording studio, offices, and a large collection of instruments. Both fans of the director and composer will love the mix of anecdotal and straight talk of working with director Anderson since Bottle Rocket (1996), and the special Casio-styled sounds that form the skeleton of the Zissou score. Mothersbaugh dug up many antique synthesizers to find the right sounds for the film, and film clips illustrate the obvious dead tech audio and film gear that fictional underwater explorer Steve Zissou still uses in his dated, Jacques Cousteau documentaries, and the film's actual music score that's upgraded from vintage electronic gear to small orchestra in the second half.
The composer basically gives us a tour of his circular work-pad, and Criterion's edited his interview material to fit a more fluid narrative structure; on a commentary track, that's pretty much on par for the label, but on film, the results still work - but with a funny discontinuity. Most of the time, Mothersbaugh cradles his chubby pug dog, and the dog's position regularly alternates between alert, at peace, and dosing like a lumpy baby in the composer's arms. It's a cute motif, if you will, that adds to the composer's down-to-earth personality, and Mothersbaugh frequently relates to his own professional past with Devo, and discussing the band's early relationship with film, costumes, and a more theatrical approach to performing with props.
There's also some good observations on the dilemma some band members face when they take a crack at film scoring after a band break-up, and realize that the weaknesses buoyed by other members become serious roadblocks when the solo artist lacks the experience and innovation to handle the demands and commercial needs of a film project. Mothersbaugh welcomed the fast pace of TV scoring during his formative years, and it's to his credit he not only survived the fast turnaround time of his Pee-Wee's Playhouse years, but appreciated the efficiency of the Hollywood system.
Though released a few months ago, two other Criterion releases are worth noting as well.
After working as an assistant director in France, Volker Schlondorff moved on to make his first feature at the age of 25, and chose Robert Musil's slim novel The Confusion of Young Torless. Released in 1966, Young Torless was quickly labeled by supportive critics as a key film in the New German Cinema movement, and its distinction includes a rare film score by German composer Hans Werner Henze.
Henze's original film output is relatively sparse, but fans of The Exorcist will no doubt recognize him as the composer of "Fantasia for Strings" - the stirring, harsh work that was excerpted by director William Friedkin in his effectively chilling pastiche score, and placed over the movie's final credits.
Those unfamiliar with Henze's concert works should definitely catch Criterion's excellent DVD of Young Torless, which features Henze's complete score in an indexed music cue gallery. Preceded by a brief video intro, director Schlondorff describes his decision to engage the novice film composer: "We don't want a movie score in the story - I want it to be different." Taking place during the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the outbreak of WWI, Schlondorff wanted a sound akin to composers such as Bartok, but Henze proposed a more interesting approach that delighted the director.
Using ancient instruments lacking vibrato, Henze composed his sometimes surreal music using the drehleier - a guitar-shaped machine with a few strings, a rotating wheel, and piano-like keys - and the viola d'amore. Other instruments and organic percussion textures collectively evoke a primeval, melancholic atmosphere that perfectly captures the nature of the film's immutable, grey landscape. Grey bleakness is one aspect Henze's score conveys, and much like Bernard Herrmann's 'black and white' music for Psycho, Henze's 'grey' is meant to capture the immaturity of Robert Musil's "roughly cut boys" - a term employed by Schlondorff in the director's own interview featurette.
A quick highlight: "Abandoned," one of the film's shortest cues, has a particularly rustic chamber ambience. Beginning with various instruments near the end of a performance warm-up, the intersecting tones gently coalesce into a gentle union, and form a sadistic irony to the ugly off-screen drama that marshals Torless away from his more brutal companions, as they increase the sadism in their beatings towards class loser Basini.
Henze's decision to go archaic and unrefined was welcomed by a director wanting music atypical of the more formal and melodic material written for movies, and Criterion's DVD contains just over 13 minutes of music, indexed into 10 cues. Schlondorff also adds in his video introduction that Henze constructed the cues with beginning and endnotes meant to form natural chain links when each cue is played in a back-to-back suite.
Another intriguing release from Criterion is Jules Dassin's hugely entertaining The Night and the City - his last film for Fox, as the Blacklist was already limiting the writer/director's career choices in America.
Screen Archives Entertainment [SAE] recently released a 2-disc set that featured the scores for the respective American and British versions, and though Criterion makes available the Franz Waxman-scored American cut (which is Dassin's preferred version), the differing British cut, scored by Benjamin Frankel, is only seen in clips via a 23-minute featurette.
Hosted by Christopher Husted (he of the Bernard Herrmann Estate), the analytical featurette covers the agreement set between British and American studios that guaranteed a set sum of theatrical revenue be allotted towards the production of British-made films with local crews and cast. Meant to stave off an increasing power of U.S.-controlled theatrical chains, studios, and movies, Night and the City is a peculiar oddity constructed for two isolated territories: Britain, and the rest of the globe.
Unlike the fluid mix of crew and actors - namely American headliners Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney, plus a fine supporting British cast - the film's music soundtracks and longer/additional scenes in the British version reflect their target cultures. Husted compares several scenes from both versions, and notes both the musical styles of the period, and the extra film footage that added more character information, dialogue exchanges, and plot minutia.
A more sparse score, Frankel's complete cues are fully represented on the SAE CD release, but the composer's score would have been better served by including the complete British version in Criterion's DVD release. Husted's comparative analysis is very helpful, but seeing and hearing how the score serves a film as a whole, mixed with dialogue and sound effects, is impossible without watching the film from head to toe. In that regard, Criterion's DVD release redeems the contributions of director Dassin and composer Waxman, but Frankel's work is sadly reduced to an archival curiosity, if not a footnote.
(Admittedly that's one of the dilemmas when two scores exist for two release versions: what happens to the alternate once the definitive version is the only one in circulation? It's less of a problem with major studio releases, but consider the numerous Les Baxter scores that aren't available because the original foreign versions are on DVD. Aside from old VHS tapes, sources for the Baxter-scored U.S. versions are old TV prints, and small video labels that specialize in public domain films.)
Whereas the first film was faithfully adapted by Kenta Fukasaku from Koushun Takami's superb novel, the sequel was planned by the first film's director, father Kenji Fukasaku, but ultimately directed by son Kenta when the elder died early into filming.
Both Battle Royale films were written by Kenta Fukasaku, but his attempt to further the adventures of the teenage terrorists who survived the game at the end of the first film rapidly falters after an obvious anti-America prologue, and Battle Royale 2 becomes a pale regurgitation of the original, with utterly unmemorable characters lacking distinction between each other. (One clarification in the new Korean release, though, is America being identified in place of "that other country" - terminology that thinly obfuscated the screenwriter's obvious anti-American pot-shots.) The music is still a major highlight (as is the mayhem, which resembles a teenage beach assault of Saving Private Ryan), but fans of the first film will find the sequel amazingly disappointing.
A more delightful (and certainly less somber) composer appearance resides in Warner Bros.' DVD for Captain Blood - part of the studio's Errol Flynn Collection that debuted in April.
A longtime veteran of MGM's music department, Johnny Green had appeared in a few early Vitaphone musical shorts, and Warner Bros. have added the 1935 ditty Johnny Green and His Orchestra, which has Johnny (with hair!) adding some musical excitement to a glum vacation retreat.
After playing piano in a zippy rendition of "A Mile A Minute," Green leads his assembled orchestra in a medley of his own material, which in turn lures three country hicks by a fence post to the patio steps, where they partake in some rustic 'Good 'ol Mountain Music.' Cheesy, goofy and giddy, the short concludes with a lovebird duet underscored by Green, before the Vitaphone logo closes the vintage short.
Green recorded a fair amount of his own songs during the Thirties and Forties, and though the paucity of available CD recordings is pretty appalling for a composer of his stature, those with functional turntables can still find decent collections in some old Decca recordings (like the 10" platter, His Music, His Piano, and His Orchestra), and the nearly hour-long 1934-37 collection from JJA Records/Box Office Productions, which contains a longer version of "A Mile A Minute" (and carries many other vocal tracks memorably spoofed in countless Warner Bros. cartoons).
Like some of Warner's prior classic film releases, Captain Blood comes with a mini-program of short subjects, newsreels, and cartoons, plus a Leonard Maltin intro designed for those unfamiliar with the value one got during the Thirties for a dime.
In the next print edition of this DVD column, watch for a detailed breakdown of the new Twilight Zone box set from Image, which not only gathers all of the classic Sixties episodes into seasonal, chronological order, but adds previously unreleased music in select isolate score tracks. Also in the upcoming review are comments from Image Entertainment addressing the discovery, restoration, and inclusion of these rare music stems; and a track comparison between the music on each DVD, and the commercially released suites originally issued by Varese Sarabande, and later re-issued by Silva Screen in their 40th Anniversary collection.
Mark R. Hasan (2005)
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