|_November 2005 _|
Fall/Winter 2005 wrap-up, Part 1
No doubt one of the biggest holiday sellers will be George Lucas's Star Wars Episode 3: The Revenge of the Sith - supposedly the final entry in the profitable Star Wars franchise, although the second season of the animated TV series, Star Wars: The Clone Wars has successfully explored and further developed characters and storylines not fully covered in the latest theatrical film.
Once again returning as writer/director, Lucas chose a more action-oriented approach to Sith - perhaps an effort to satisfy the masses, as Episode 2 proved less popular with substantive loyal fans - and much of the Sithian narrative involves a series of battles that periodically kick start the film after extraordinarily banal dialogue exchanges between a stiff Anakin, and his pregnant wife, Padmé.
Scope has never been a problem with Lucas - over six films, and with the aid of other creative personnel, he's managed to craft a multi-generation saga that ought to be compelling onscreen - but his inability to write stirring dialogue leaves the always-impressive casts marginally bored. Much of the extras on the Sith's two-disc set focus on the film's visual effects - a creative area that's been a crutch Lucas has used to maintain the nomenclature of a filmmaker, when his greatest skills are really that of a hands-on, visionary producer; directing and writing aren't his fortes.
The challenges for John Williams were far greater this time: Sith is the latest installment in a six-episode series (not including the cutesy Ewok TV movies) that already boasts epic themes and extraordinary orchestral variations that literally trace the lifespan of several core characters; and perhaps more so than in Episodes 1 and 2, Williams was faced with action sequences that frequently ran like the antiseptic gyrations within a faced-paced video game. Otherworldly characters performing extraordinary actions are the norm for Lucas' swashbuckling characters, and while prior entries had more formal action set-pieces with live-action stunts, in Sith, the problem isn't dissimilar from the action bursts rendered for Blade 2, and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: between the moment an actor readies for a leap and safely lands on his/her feet, the audience is treated to the character morphing into a digital humanoid. Performing physical acrobatics so sleek and fast, the character suddenly becomes a digital action toy, leaving the actor an even greater chore to bring the audience back into a character's emotional intimacies once he/she has dusted dirt off the shoulders.
It is during those plastic moments of a character's cyber-gymnastics that the composer is most valuable: after balancing his music with Dolby and DTS rendered sound effects, Williams' music must ease an audience back to the emotional conclusion of a scene, and if needed, set the stage for some vital psychological subtext that failed to materialize during wan dialogue exchanges.
The key making-of documentary on Fox' packed Sith DVD release means to give appreciation to the immense populace Lucas employed during the film's lengthy production schedule, and each episode begins after an onscreen menu scrolls the names of each department's creative team, before flipping to a new sub-category.
"Star Wars is essentially a silent movie, except for dialogue exchanges," says George Lucas, and the music must go "beyond the 'Duel of Fate'", and be leaded with a more formal, tragic weight. The composer segment within the formal documentary is fairly brief, and shows Williams conducting his score, plus a few brief words to the camera - all pretty much expected this time, given Williams' feelings on Lucas' extraordinary series have been sufficiently documented since 1977.
The more intriguing aspects has sound guru Ben Burtt describing the use of the ProTools software to control all 200+ audio tracks at any given time, and customize the score in so many ways. "It usually boils down to Sound Effects versus Music, and that means [orchestrator] Kenny Wannberg verses Ben Burtt," says the latter in a cheeky moment, and like the dialectic between the sound and music technicians, the making-of segment follows the sound elements from recording, mixing, and final marriage to the edited lava duel sequence. The ability to select and create a custom mix beyond the original soundstage recording makes it clear a listener can have distinct listening experiences of a music score: an affected recording that maximizes the dimensions of a 5.1 or 6.1 surround sound experience, and the soundtrack album - aimed for a more traditional listening venue with two or more speakers in a home theatre configuration.
Moving on, the rare inclusion on DVD of an isolated music score to a classic Golden Age film - particularly for a Biblical epic - gives audiences the chance to experience the moments that helped the composer create an epic score, and allows one to observe the film with a sharp emphasis on the nuances that were missed when things called dialogue and sound effects happened to be present during that first viewing.
For the last laserdisc incarnation of Ben-Hur in 1994, Turner included an isolated stereo music track which, in the pivotal era of emerging bootlegs, resulted in a 3-CD set of original score from Germany (or someone in a basement in North America.) The same entrepreneurial spirit also fostered the release of laserdisc-derived CDs for Robin and Marian, and Something Wicked This Way Comes). That multi-disc Ben-Hur set, which was unique for adding rare acetate recordings still commercially unavailable, was quickly superseded by Rhino's eloquent 2-CD set.
Unlike the 1996 Rhino set, the laser's isolated score didn't feature extended passages or alternate tracks, but the experience of watching the standard for a successful Biblical epic, with its respective score, was downright magical. The first Ben-Hur DVD in 2001 was a decent production, but like their recent multi-disc set for Gone with the Wind, Warner Bros. have gone to the limit by remastering the film, here from a true MGM Camera-65 source, and bringing back the isolated stereo score.
The track has some obvious edits - given it's still married to the edited film's action - but film fans and nascent composers can watch, appreciate, and learn why Rozsa's approach to the Biblical genre was so popular and effective. Being associated with a genre affected Rozsa at various times in his career - resulting in a series of marvelous fantasy/exotica scores, social 'problem' pictures, and film noirs - and in spite of having created an extraordinary work in 1953 for Quo Vadis, the 1959 version of Ben-Hur was the sum total of his creative brilliance and musicological zest that collectively conveyed an ancient period using a powerful arsenal of melodic themes and motifs.
In the hour-long documentary from the 1994 laserdisc, and replicated on the 2001 and 2005 DVD releases, Rozsa received a mere mention - largely because the doc had to spotlight so many other creative people in what was then the most expensive picture ever made - but in the new 2005 doc, the overall angle is how Ben-Hur affected some of the top talent working in movies today. The late David Raksin makes a brief appearance as a vintage colleague, so to speak, while Don Davis and Elia Cmiral reflect the awe for titans like Rozsa - who's work turned young filmgoers in the 1950s and 1960s into some of today's most active and respected composers.
Most American Biblical epics haven't aged very well in the intervening decades - largely because the genre seemed to function as a kind of feel-good pill for a nation rebuilding itself after the brutality of WWII, and the trauma brought on by the Red Menace, anti-Communist fears, and the Korean War. (It also helped to be soothed in an air-conditioned cinema, watching romance and action splayed across an upwards of 2.76:1 aspect ratio with surround sound.) Reflecting Fifties mores and still governed by the Production Code, these aging epics still thrill... and sometimes elicit a few unintentional belly laughs for moments of painfully silly melodrama. (Call it sheer heresy, but Cecil B. DeMille's own indulgent brand of loony Biblical exotica, divine finger waving, and his fostering of over-the-top performances, reached its apex in his 1956 production of The Ten Commandments. Elmer Bernstein's score remains a sublime creation, but DeMille's VistaVision epic is an intensely funny comedy.)
It's an achievement for Rozsa that his score has aged so well, and has maintained a healthy life in subsequent concert performances and studio recordings. The best recordings remain the London albums of both Quo Vadis (mandatory in any Rozsa collection) and Ben-Hur, but for the experience of watching spectacle and grand, orchestral music, Warner Bros.' new DVD set fulfills it perfectly. Fans of Carl Davis will also be delighted that the 4-disc set also contains the 1925 version of Ben-Hur, which also spawned a successful soundtrack album from Silva Screen.
(Like the studio's four-disc set for Gone with the Wind, Warner Bros. have also replicated some vintage promo material in a small-scale booklet - here, it's the Random House book that was included with the original 1959 MGM LP box. Collectors should still hold onto the set, however, as the reproduction doesn't include all of the contents from the Random House-printed book: most of the promo pap is there, but dropped are 4 pages of cast bios, and the Ben Stahl paintings that bookended the slim hardcover, "depicting memorable moments in Ben-Hur [which] are arranged so that they may be removed for framing" by cutting along the dotted line.)
Another film that benefited from a deluxe laserdisc release is The Wizard of Oz, via the Ultimate Oz set in 1993 - a monstrous box that featured stills, a continuity screenplay, archival and documentary extras. The chief goodie for film music fans was the inclusion of five hours from the score's recording sessions, which included a bevy of alternate, outtake, and rare rehearsal tracks. (Warner Bros.' first DVD lacked these audio goodies.) The new three-disc set also trumpets the studio's "4K" resolution transfer - basically a process that transfers the film elements to enormous hard drives for an intense cleaning and restoration (this time taking about eight months) while maintaining the highest bit rate.
Like Gone with the Wind, the Oz soundtrack was meticulously cleaned up, but unlike Wind's more subtle Dolby 5.1 remix, the audio engineers took advantage of surviving alternate mike positions from the original recording sessions, and crafted a mix which places the music in the front surround area, and adds minor ambient reflections in the rear surrounds. (Some will recall a stereo version of the Scarecrow's longer "If I Only Had a Brain" dance that was included in the Oz laserdisc, as well as That's Entertainment! III in 1985.) The original mono mix is still present on the DVD, and the new 5.1 was tastefully constructed, and employs occasional surround panning when there's overt action sequences (such as the Wicked Witch's swirling broomstick ride). The restoration featurette on the DVD has the engineers playing back before/after noise removal comparisons, and comparing differences between the original mono sound image, and the new 5.1 remix, via a scene-specific playback. (Note: the DVD also has an isolated music and sound effects mix, in addition to the laser's commentary by John Fricke.)
The set's Audio Vault section beholds a vintage Lux Radio performance from 1950, with Judy Garland reprising her most famous role (and still sounding incredibly youthful); and rare rehearsal demos and outtakes from the recording session. The latter score extras weren't included on Rhino's two-CD set from 1995, but were featured on the Ultimate Oz laserdisc. Ideally, if you have the Rhino CDs and new Warner Bros. DVDs, you should have almost everything for general listening purposes, leaving the old laserdisc for something more scholarly (or retentive).
A more intriguing release - delayed for a bit, but finally released in September - is Columbia's excellent disc of Major Dundee - the 1964 epic that, according to director Sam Peckinpah, was savaged by the studio and producer Jerry Bresler. The basic chronology, as outlined in the DVD's commentary track by a trio of Peckinpah historians (including the versatile Nick Redman) offers a more fair assessment of What Went Wrong.
Peckinpah, who frequently clashed with his producers, decided to film the unrefined screenplay using a budget that had already been scaled by the studio. Costs soared, studio bigwigs angrily poked at Sam, and he was eventually fired, leaving producer Bresler to reduce Peckinpah's original edit to a less troublesome 136 mins., before Columbia further shortened the film to 124 mins, and added a music score by Daniele Amfitheatrof (which include a grating theme song performed by Mitch Miller and His Gang). Is the film, now somewhat restored via the Bresler edit, a masterpiece? No, but the first hour remains a marvelous sign of what could have been, had the screenplay's middle and final third been properly fixed as Peckinpah had hoped to do, during filming in Mexico.
Dundee is very much a precursor to The Wild Bunch - in terms of themes, locations, and storylines - and the new score by Christopher Caliendo - replacing the Amfitheatrof score disliked by Peckinpah - is a remarkable achievement for such an audacious venture. Rescoring a thirty year-old film isn't a reassuring concept to some, but the reasoning, according to Peckinpah's supporters, was justified: the director hated the score, loathed the title theme. Purists should note, however, that Amfitheatrof's score is still present in the film - a menu option on the DVD allows one to watch the long version with either soundtrack - but due to the use of seamless branching, one can't flip between scores during playback. The shorter 124 min. version - which, even to some of the commentators, had some advantages over the longer version - is not on the DVD.
Having scored only a few films - including the 1928 silent, A Lady of Chance for Turner Movie Classics - it's unlikely most will have a sense of Caliendo's own compositional style - his approach is nevertheless extremely clever: using a minimum of themes, the variations alone evoke the style of a mid-Sixties studio composer; and though he occasionally echoes, from an non-intrusive distance, Amfitheatrof's Dundee theme, Caliendo's score is part retro, and part bridge between the style of the period, and the sometimes abstract approach employed by Jerry Fielding in Peckinpah's seminal and iconic masterpiece, The Wild Bunch.
The commentary track fleetingly addresses the new score (a knee-deep examination of Dundee's two soundtracks can be read in Joe Sikoryak's lengthy article for Film Score Monthly), but it's fair to say the musical elements are part of the overall puzzle as to why Dundee is regarded as a notoriously maligned, lost masterpiece, and the four-years that passed before Peckinpah would return to feature films; with The Wild Bunch in 1968, he'd find his ideal musical collaborator in Jerry Fielding.
Briefly as we close, North American fans of The Battle of Britain and A Bridge Too Far can finally enjoy the 2-disc editions that were previously available only to Region 2 consumers in Europe. The Region 1 set for Battle replicates the entire contents, including the selectable option to watch the film with Ron Goodwin's replacement score, or Sir William Walton's rejected score. (For an in-depth examination of Battle's two soundtracks on DVD, readers can access an extract in MFTM's Features section at http://www.musicfromthemovies.com/feature.asp?ID=13, or read issue 43 of MFTM for the complete article.)
Paramount has also taken advantage of the reissue craze that's endemic to the DVD market, and riding on the recent success of Steven Spielberg's version of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, the studio has remastered the original 1953 George Pal classic, this time porting over the surround sound remix present on the 1994 laserdisc - though the laser's still unique, because it featured an isolated music and effects track of Leith Stevens' memorable score. (Paramount's current DVD of When Worlds Collide also lacks the '94 laser's isolated music and effects track.)
The new War DVD also has Orson Welles' infamous radio broadcast that frightened a nation into believing, with the aid of Bernard Herrmann's music, Martians were attacking the planet. (In the audio book version of Peter Bogdanovich's 1992 conversational tome, This Is Orson Welles, Welles laments as to never benefiting from any royalties, as the surviving recording of the broadcast was, according to Welles, a 'private' venture, which has since appeared in countless LP, audio tape, and CD incarnations.) One item that should have been included on the DVD: the 1955 Lux Radio Theater broadcast version of the film, with Dana Andrews, Pat Crowley, and music by Rudy Schrager.
In Part 2 of the fall wrap-up, we'll examine the unusually detailed composer spotlights in The Fly II, and the new two-disc edition of The Man with the Golden Arm.
Mark R. Hasan (2005)
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