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_April 2006 _

Ancient music, bonus soundtracks, and the King Kong production diaries


Long unavailable on DVD, Tous les matins du monde (All the Mornings of the World) finally debuts in KOCH's superb Region 1 two-disc set, and should please fans of this poetic ode to the creation of, and secret devotion to music. Personal suffering and humility are the qualities that, according to the story's leading martyr, can spawn great art.

The DVD's extras includes two music-related goodies on Jordi Savall, the Catalan composer/musician who performed and interpreted classical works written for the viol da gamba - considered the Medieval grand-pappy to the modern cello.

Savall, who began his musical studies on the cello, fell in love with the viol, and pretty much made it his lifelong quest to rescue the instrument, and what was considered as rather ancient music, from long period of forced obsolescence.

Alain Corneau's 1991 film already makes a grand case in showing how a musician's differing performances - changes in emphasis and ornamentation, for example - can reinterpret a singular work, and evoke new colours and details. Savall himself used reinterpretation to show the world a new side of ancient music, and a short interview for French TV, conducted soon after the film's release and also archived on the DVD, makes light of the film's soundtrack album climbing on the music charts, and reintroducing the works of Jean-Baptiste Lully and Marin Marais to modern listeners.

A lengthy 45+ min. doc, filmed in 1996, follows Savall on his European tour, with multilingual interviews (in French, Spanish, and German) and many performance extracts in concert halls, and during recording sessions. Savall's career is eloquently traced through his performances and unending work with students and music societies, and Savall makes a sobering point about the extinction of music: whereas printed text, photos, and paintings can be enjoyed directly by a layman, music will always require an interpreter to bring a composer's notes to life, and without performances, the sounds of pioneering artisans not only disappear, but their work becomes relegated to narrow-minded summations by generations of disinterested and biased historians.

Moving to more modern (and goofy) terrain, we have the emerging sounds and punchy zeal of French composer Alexandre Azaria.

Although North Americans were deprived of a full score album for Azaria's Transporter 2, the French composer's robust music, written for Luc Besson's latest action pastry, was one of the key reasons Transporter 2 was way more fun than it deserved to be.

A 'symphonic, electro-rock-styled' tribute to the machismo redolent in John Barry's James Bond scores, Azaria's music also harkened back to Stanley Clarke's own bass-heavy Transporter score, but with a fatter and juicier orchestra at his fingertips.

The orchestral energy Azaria exploits was already evident in his 2004 score for Les Dalton - flipping between differing idioms, and delivering raucous action cues - but Transporter 2 is arguably his best work, and one of the top action scores of 2005.

For Fox' loaded DVD, there's a 10 minute music featurette, "Le Transporter: Making the Music," showcasing the recording session with ridiculous crane shots, and capturing the orchestra's performance without the later electronic goosing from Azaria's bass-friendly synths.

Interviews in the featurette's first half include the composer and music producer Jerome Lateur, with short glimpses of the film's director in the recording booth, while the final half deals with soundtrack's editing phase with the recording engineer.

Azaria's scoring approach is part tongue-in-cheek, part deadpan, and a few cues do more than transcend Besson's facile moments of sobering drama. (The rich gushing that underscores the reunion between the film's bickering parents and their kidnapped child is extraordinary, as the music pushes the scene into truly sublime bathos - all unintentional, as Besson's style tends to veer from Tex Avery sight gags and grimaces, to awfully trite melodrama.)

Originally produced for the film's French DVD, Fox unfortunately chose to overdub an English translation of most of the interview and side chatter, rather than opt for straight subtitles, and the featurette merely whets the interest in a composer whose managed to establish his own musical style, given Besson's own desire to stick with the electro-orchestral format pioneered by Eric Serra in the director's prior work.

Danny Elfman makes two appearances on Warner Bros. Home Video for a pair of Tim Burton films released theatrically in 2005.

The first resides in the music featurette for The Corpse Bride, Burton's gorgeous but wan effort to create a Grimm's fairy tale from an underdeveloped screenplay. It's a problem plaguing movies in which too much time was spent in the visuals, and not enough in crafting an engaging, character-rich script until the 11th hour.

In a live-action environment, such a dilemma created Mr. & Mrs. Smith (all boom and cheekiness, with a climactic shootout signaling to audiences 'Film Over'); with animated films, it's the art direction and technical finesse that sometimes become the film's unofficial stars.

The Corpse Bride, much like Robots, ultimately runs out of plot, and like the Smith actioner, Corpse Bride ends in a free-for-all of characters converging and chasing each other until peace and some justice reign again. (Even Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit fell victim to such a hasty wrap-up, with a wedge of cheese saving the day, and ending the film on a more placid, family-friendly note.)

Elfman's Corpse Bride music, however, ranks as one of his best, with fluid transitions between lush orchestral score, jazzy songs, and addictive tunes. The featurette covers Elfman's gorgeous piano version of the film's main theme, and the Cab Calloway-styled song, "Remains of the Day," which Elfman sung in spurts because the low, gravely texture of the lead vocals regularly reduced his voice to a whisper.

Of Tim Burton's other film in 2005, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the composer is given more room in the featurette on Warner Bros.' 2-disc DVD release to discuss his apprehension in tackling a story considered sacred in print, and filmed in 1971 by director Mel Stuart as Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

Stuart's version had outstanding songs by Anthony Newley, which forever tied Roald Dahl's anti-kiddie film to a series of memorable songs. A major jolt for veteran fans, therefore, was watching Tim Burton's interpretation without the famous Newley music (namely the "Oompa Loompa" song) - but with a solid story, a broadly eccentric visual canvas, and Johnny Depp's wildly hypnotic performance, Charlie ended up being a disturbingly fun ride. Elfman's own songs followed Burton's desire to incorporate as much of Dahl's lyrics and prose as possible, while establishing a visual style with enough distinction that viewers could accept a fresh interpretation of the famous story.

The DVD's 7-minute featurette, "Sweet Sounds," is much more satisfying here, as there's a less forced pacing to the chronological montage, tracing Elman's rough ideas into a set of retro-heavy song and contemporized orchestral score. Burton also pops up to mumble a few phrases, and the film's choreographer explains her own excitement in working with Elfman's eccentric songs.

Another story remade for the big screen was Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, with Roman Polanski crafting another period film with a rich orchestral score. Sony's DVD offers a rather syrupy making-of featurette (really just a glorified Electronic Press Kit) that neatly spotlights most of the production aspects, but, as is typical with these gushing productions, the composer gets a short nod - briefly identifying Rachel Portman - and having the director voice his approval of the score in a few short words.

England and the rest of Europe have been lucky to enjoy hefty two-disc editions of classic MGM and UA films, and the success of single-disc budget releases in America in those local big-box stores are part of the reason it's taken so long for Region 1 people to get sets like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Battle of Britain, A Bridge Too Far, The Great Escape, and The Magnificent Seven (with A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More still available only in Europe).

Seen from one angle, these multi-disc editions gather new and sometimes archival interviews and scholarly audio essays of classic movies, but these sets also justify the studio marketing departments to reissue a title in another anniversary incarnation, sometimes adding a singularly new featurette (hardly a reason to buy the title yet again), or a fancy metal tin to hold that which already exists in a perfectly fine case (like Edward Scissorhands, from Fox' marketing department, which can also hold cookies if one finds the tin to be a tad clumsy or boastful among one's other alpha-cased DVDs).

MGM/UA's Magnificent Seven already existed as a loaded DVD release, and in the new Region 1 two-disc set, Elmer Bernstein gets the spotlight in "Elmer Bernstein and The Magnificent Seven."

Produced in 2004 for the set, the featurette is hosted by noted historian Jon Burlingame, and features plenty of film clips set to Bernstein's immortal score. Part appreciation and thematic primer for the average film fan, the featurette highlights the score's key themes and variations, and Burlingame expertly explains Bernstein's skill in conveying intense moods and vital subtext (as in the highlighted montage, in which children, through an elaborate signal system, warn the Seven of the approaching villains).

It's a decent tribute that also adds useful insights for the filmmusic layman, but much has already been said and written of Bernstein's score in print, film, and audio in prior essays and interviews for more sophisticated film music fans.

Bernstein's The Ten Commandments also gets a new 3-disc treatment in Paramount's new 50th anniversary set, but fans should note the new set - Paramount's third release thus far - replicates the contents of the prior 2-disc set (see for the original DVD review), and, much like Warner Bros.' recent Ben-Hur set, adds the original silent version of Commandments (1923), uniquely accompanied with a commentary track, and an organ score.

First Run Features releases director Meema Spadola's cable TV diptych, Breasts: A Documentary (1997), and Private Dicks (1998), and the former contains an audio gallery of 13 cues by composers John Davis, Ananda Ellis, and Rehama Ellis. Totaling about 9 mins., the music for Breasts is mostly transitional material that plays under short montages and title cards for the frank, highly personal documentary. A mix of acapella jazz and Hindu vocal textures, it's a nice bonus for the highly regarded doc that played on several public TV stations, and is basically women of all ages and from all walks of life discussing in frank but personable manor the numerous issues - symbolic, sexual, political - that have been affixed to their special assets by Western society.

Wrapping up the remaining titles before spring DVD wave are three releases, each deserving some mention for their bonus audio CDs.

The stellar music of composer Kiril Dzajkovski is showcased on a soundtrack CD that accompanies The Great Water / Golemata voda, a Macedonian co-production from 2004, and released by Picture This!

Based on the novel by Zhivko Chingo, the story focuses on a dying politician who recalls his formative years in a post-WWII orphanage in Stalinist Yugoslavia, and his obsessive friendship with a mystical lad.

Dzajkovski's score is a rich work that combines traditional instruments, folk melodies, and modern orchestral/synth fusions. The 35 min. CD includes the bulk of the score (the film's tight narrative clocks in at just over 90 mins.) - and its bold, percussive tracks; a mournful main theme with wordless vocals that perfectly encapsulates the concentration camp atmosphere of what was essentially an indoctrination camp for youths; and the sweeping orchestral passages that sometimes reign in scenes sometimes straying a bit close to the gates of melodrama.

Kinetic rhythmic textures, rustic string solos, and warm and organic percussion instruments are placed way up front in several cues, and Dzajkovski's humanistic themes reinforce the tragedy where a native culture is smothered by Stalinist overlords. Alternating between score cues are some contemporary-styled tracks, including the jazzy "End Titles," and a jaunty source cue.

The only irritation is a lack of printed score info and track titles (which only exists in finely printed text menu in the DVD's Special Features section) but this is an elegantly crafted score that, through this DVD release, should bring Dzajkovski added attention from international filmmakers and film music fans. (Kiril Dzajkovski's prior film, Dust, a 2001 western co-starring Joseph Fiennes, is also out on DVD, via Lions Gate.)

NoShame's The Desert of the Tartars (Il Deserto Dei Tartari) DVD also comes with a bonus soundtrack album of Ennio Morricone's moody score, and replicates the contents of the 1998 by Screen Trax. The upstart DVD label has released an eclectic mix of sexploitation, horror, giallo, and classic Italian films (including The Railroader), and their latest lost gem rescues one of Valerio Zurlini's great films from oblivion.

An epic where grand events happen off-screen, Tartars is a strange film that never had a chance at the box office because nothing really happens in its lengthy running time. Deliberately slow and ponderous, Zurlini's film follows a young officer and his experiences at a remote Italian outpost, and treats the all-male cast not as soldiers, but as members of a tightly-knitted sect, living disciplined lives, while their very existence is being rendered obsolete by their disinterested leaders and the crawling passage of time.

Morricone's score mirrors the film's hypnotic quality with sometimes sparse orchestrations, and it reflects the haunting desolation of the film's main location - the gargantuan Bam Citadel in Iran, which for 2000 years, has rested atop a lonely mountain.

Also of note is NoShame's Luciano Ercoli Death Box Set, which gathers two of the director's violent gialli - Death Walks on High Heels, and Death Walks at Midnight - plus a bonus CD, The Sound of Love & Death, featuring music from various Stelvio Cipriani soundtracks.

Although the compilation album doesn't contain music from Ercoli's Death Walks on High Heels, there's 18 tracks from a number of crime and horror thrillers, including La Polizia ha le mani legate, Mark il poliziotto, Cara sposa, L'Ispettore anticrimine, La Polizia sta a guardare, Dedicato a una stella, La Polizia chiede aiuto, Il Medaglione Insanguinato, Incubo sulla citta' contaminata, Due cuori e una cappella, and Malocchio.

Most of the album's sequencing alternates the order of themes, as many cues repeat the same theme in slightly different guises, and the music styles vary from seventies pop-orchestral, to eighties synth pop in a few cases. The 58 min. album seems to be a variation on a Japanese Cipriani CD, released in 2002.

The last notable on the list is Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of King Kong, which gained unwanted notoriety when Howard Shore and Jackson parted ways weeks before the film's release date. The old 'creative differences' bugaboo was the official reason, and although Shore's distant cameo appearance in the film - as the orchestra conductor, during Kong's New York City premiere - remained in the movie, his music was gone.

The 2-disc DVD set of Kong gathers the production diaries shot during the last 33 days before the film's completion deadline, and includes a casual intro by Jackson before the viewer can pick and choose among a huge variety of making-of featurettes, spanning the film's enormous production and post-production schedule.

Replacement composer James Newton Howard is followed in a two-parter, and during the nine minutes of material, we see Howard in his studio, zipping through synth mockups for Jackson, plus lengthy snapshots from the various recording sessions for what was an insane schedule for any composer and his disciplined music team.

More overt than in prior DVDs, the emphasis is on the collaborative team efforts that translate a composer's sketches into a recorded cue, and the footage can't hide the exhaustion present on the musicians and executive members. (Howard at one point quips, "These are long days. I don't think I've ever worked so hard in my life." His on-camera exhaustion isn't as severe, but there's a rather uneasy echoing of  James Horner's predicament on Aliens: like Horner, Howard was also pushed to the limit in writing music in the evening, and having it recorded the following morning.)

Supervising Orchestrator Jeff Atmajian says a few words throughout the featurette, and there's moments from the Sony Recording Studios (formerly part of the old MGM), where The Wizard of  Oz and countless classic scores were recorded. Communications technology, pioneered and refined over the three Lord of the Rings films, is also up front, with the composer and director sharing televised discussions over a 6,000 mile gap.

While there's no mention of why Howard's schedule was so severe, Jackson's closing comments are a bit edgy, in which he says to Howard, "I've got a strange feeling that inspiration kicks in when the time is short, and I wonder if the music would be any better if you had more time." The composer supportively shakes his head, and adds a solid "No," and Jackson finishes, stating, "I think we've been blessed by an incredible adrenaline rush and all the inspiration that goes with it, and I think it benefited the music in a funny and weird way... Pain is temporary; Film is forever."

Fans should be aware, however, that Jackson's production diaries still remain (at least as of this writing) archived on the film's official website - including the original music featurette with Howard Shore. Viewable and downloadable as Apple Quicktime files, look for "Post Production Diary - 13 Weeks To Go" at, as it basically deals with the recording session, and has a brief moment of Shore's score playing against the exciting biplane assault on Kong, atop New York's Empire State Building. Of course the extract is too short to get any impression of Shore's own approach, and the featurette remains online (for now) as a tribute to a once-cherished collaboration between two very dynamic creative forces.


Mark R. Hasan (2006)

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