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_December 2006 _

The End of '06


Way back in July, I re-aligned the column's focus, largely because of the paucity of DVDs with film music content, and during those intervening months, there's again been few titles that made one sit up and giggle with glee.

Warner Bros.' continued to pour out boxed sets themed on specific stars (Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando), but none bore any isolated scores, unique shorts, composer commentaries, or composer-related featurettes of substance.

Granted, a key problem is that many older composers had expired into the Heavens above, but few historians were engaged by the major labels to tell us why the music of some of the newly released films - particularly classic flicks - was so memorable.

This isn't a knock against all those Biography and History Channel specials archived by Warner Bros. and Fox on their special editions (they're highly entertaining, and some are densely filled with info, given their short running time), but Paramount's DVD for MI3 (Mission: Impossible III) was a superb example of what's wrong with DVD releases.

Forget about how MI3 was structured like an Alias episode, or how the plot was clunky and dull. All Mission: Impossible films are beholden to star Tom Cruise, and that's part of the cinematic package. The problem with the 2-disc DVD set is how the extras are entirely designed around Cruise. The whole package was tailor made like a love-fest, and it goes beyond the standard featurettes of seeing star learning new stunts; star laughing with fellow thespians; star shivering on another cold day on the set, and so on.

On both discs are 'tributes' to Cruise and his legacy as a master entertainer; these aren't segments of the actor seen receiving awards for his work from the cottage industry of awards organizations on TV, but the montages of famous film clips, with music, sound-bites, and quotes played to audiences - a lame, idiotic bonus that fills out the discs and promotes Cruise's other work, which we ought to go out and buy, because the clips must have triggered a fabulous memory nerve in our brains.

The adulatory tone above is imposed on every making-of featurette in the set, and that sadly extends to the composer section, which goes beyond the familiar montage of composer quotes, scenes from the recording session, and brief clips of the music welded to scenes. What's been set up is the star waxing blandly about the worth of the music, the richness of a theme, and how important the music is to the success of a film, followed by an endless series of shots showing the star at the recording session. It may seem like a trivial thing, but here's the problem: there's no educational or meritorious content happening. It's us experiencing the wonderment of film music by proxy through the star, as he weaves, mingles with musicians, and then plays with the conductor's baton.

And how does this dignify Lalo Schifrin's landmark theme? How does this isolate the contribution of the composer beyond the oft-uttered truism of 'music is important to film'? A DVD's extras are a package that's supposed to entertain and inform; if you doubt the two can co-exist, watch any of the detail-heavy extras that fill up any set for a film by Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, or James Cameron. Or watch any of the smart featurettes produced for Universal's catalogue of Alfred Hitchcock films, which were assembled by producers who knew the term Special Features didn't equal a 3-5 minute montage of film clips and tight sound-bites of filmmaking being fun, and love-talk using blah terms like generous, genius, and visionary.

MI3's composer featurette was plainly victimized by a design that presented star before filmmaking - itself an umbrella term that covers all facets of a film, including the score and its composer. When you reduce that contribution to feel-good montages and verbal drivel, it's bereft of content and becomes eye candy, never to be watched again.

If you bought the film for repeated viewings, the extras should live up to those same standards used by the filmmakers - which is a solid cornerstone of every special edition put out by indie label Criterion, and is sometimes followed by other filmmakers who recognize the true value of putting together noteworthy extras. When the extras reduce the value of a creative technician to a waving, smiling background figure with token sound-bites, it's just filler.

The perfect contrast is the music featurette on Fox' Omen disc. The remake was unnecessary, but it gave us one of the best horror scores this year, and one of Marco Beltrami's strongest works in the genre. We see the film's director en route, and at the recording session at Abbey Road Studios, but there's significant interviews with musicians and composer, and the montage makes a point in demonstrating the collaborative process of film scoring, even at the recording stage: this included the pianist smacking the piano pedal, forming a chilling motif throughout the score; and the work of the musicians, whose performances and ideas can refine a score into a more powerful work.

While Fox' releases of The King and I (isolated score and music featurettes) and Deadfall (isolated mono music track plus a meaty tribute to John Barry) were the most notable studio titles, MFTM's nod to DVD labels & producers goes straight to the indie labels, who recognized the composer as an important creative force in any movie.

 - NoShame's 2-disc set of Colt 38 Special Squad was an important release because they put the spotlight on Stelvio Cipriani, and actually let a composer speak eloquently about his craft at length.

- KOCH's set for Tous les matins du monde/All the Mornings of the World was just as memorable for including a long documentary on musician/composer Jordi Savall, whose performance on the viol da gamba enriched the film story, and whose quest to rescue the instrument and ancient music were affectionately covered in the bonus doc.

- Criterion's set for Pabst' 1927 classic, Pandora's Box, features four music scores, making it one of the most unique releases of the year. (This title will be reviewed in the next print edition of this column.)

- EuroArts' DVD of Morricone Conducts Morricone presents a rare film music concert from 2004, and is a sign that such concerts can succeed in the home video market.

There were also releases with bonus audio CDs and some isolated scores as well from indie labels, but overall, 2006 lacked, well, oomph. Warner Bros. released a stellar set of Forbidden Planet, but the nod to composers Louis and Bebe Barron was still short, and the producers missed the opportunity to craft a separate featurette that examined the sounds in greater, but accessible detail.

It's one of those things where producers should pause before they start production on a special edition, and ask themselves some key questions:

- Is the film a classic?
- Is the score a musical milestone?
- Was the composer unique among his peers and contemporaries?
- Has the score been examined in a context that can be distilled into a compelling featurette that sheds new light on the craft of film scoring, and/or adds new info on a movie that's been written about for decades from a familiar angle?
- Is a historian available, and interested in crafting a commentary with fresh insight, making the DVD release of interest to fans, film music students, and film buffs (in the broadest sense)?

Media-wise, we're at an unwanted crossroad right now. HD-DVD and Blu-ray have returned us to the Beta vs. VHS war from eons ago. This is a situation that's fraught with all kinds of problems, many of which have been debated on myriad sites, so there's no point in a retread. The players are expensive, the movie selection isn't impressive, the leap from DVD to high def isn't as massive as VHS to DVD, and availability is sometimes limited in specific markets.

For example: because Canada has 1/10th of the U.S. population, we get less domestically released titles, leaving online and local shops to import a broad spectrum titles, including classics from Warner Bros.

The need to import some HD and Blu-ray titles also gives some merchants or big box vendors leeway to overprice, making it appear natural that a new high-end format should be more expensive than the standard DVD release. Not necessarily so, because Warner Bros. have made it a point to price their classic titles competitively and lucratively: In some locales, Grand Prix, for example, is available for less than the standard 2-disc DVD, while more recent films are just a few dollars above the standard DVD. In terms of pricing and more classic titles, HD-DVD is making a stronger impression.)

Here's the point: more plasma and LCD sets are being sold each year (this Boxing Day was particularly popular for monitor sales), so more consumers are clearly able to afford one of the main components necessary to watch a high-def disc, but those with buying power still recall prior format wars, and don't want to get stuck with an obsolete format.

With players still pricey, there are too many people sitting on the fence, waiting for one of the formats to die fast. Whoever wins will save merchants and rental shops from carrying triple inventory, and film fans will be more willing to drop several hundred on a player, and slowly build up a library when they know their investment isn't going to become another DIVX beer coaster.

When CDs were new, the players were pricey, as were the CDs, but we all made those introductory steps because there were some beloved works that we wanted to hear on CD in its best form, or because additional music was present on the CD release.

The storage capacity of both high-def formats could be a bonus for film music fans when there's a winner, because there'll be a standard, and producers might rethink the kind of extras they put onto a disc. If two or three DVDs can fit on one without any quality loss, then maybe crafting a composer featurette from all that recording session footage is viable; or placing isolated music stems, or engaging a historian for a commentary track, is totally doable.

You know. Give it more substance.

A singular release could therefore become one great big DVD-ROM if it's thought out right, but the interest among major studio labels probably won't be high, and once again it'll be independent labels who will demonstrate the entertainment and educational impact of a new format, while the majors plan new tins, miniature lobby cards, hand-painted bookends, numbered medallions, lenticular holograms, and more cardboard O-sleeves.

Happy New Year, and here's hoping 2007 will have more resonance !


Mark R. Hasan (2006)

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