|_January 2006 _|
Fall/Winter 2005 wrap-up, Part 2
The creation of Richard Thompson's music score for the unforgettable documentary Grizzly Man is showcased in the 50 minute bonus documentary on the Maple/Lions Gate DVD. Thompson, co-founder of the British folk group Fairport Convention, had a prior film score to his credit - the 1991 film Sweet Talker (aka Confidence) - before writing the music for Werner Herzog's unsettling documentary of self-styled bear activist Timothy Treadwell, who, along with his girlfriend, were devoured by a bear while the video camera recorded the audio of the horrific event.
Assembled from over 100 hours of diary-like video footage, Herzog created a documentary that synthesizes the troubled life of Treadwell, and investigates his naive belief that an untrained animal biologist could befriend and ultimately live among wild grizzly bears. Thompson's beautiful, acoustic score reinforces Treadwell's humanity, and equalizes the moments of sheer absurdity - like Treadwell scolding the massive carnivorous animals like untrained dogs for wandering too close to his observational post.
The edited footage in the music doc covers the two-day recording sessions, with director Herzog outlining his strict parameters, and guiding the musicians through each take. "Step down. Down. It's too melodious," he says to a perplexed Thompson. "Plant your foot down. This is the law of the Earth. You're too melodious into it. Settle the thing... Change the planet." Thompson's discreet reaction to Herzog's curious direction is delightful, and throughout the doc it's obvious Herzog loves the discovery and refining process that ultimately shapes a score to match a film.
Herzog wanted the music to stay true to the film's raw quality, and not enhance or refine the consumer-grade video footage. He describes how the music needs to reflect the 'raw soul' of Treadwell and the wild lands that made him give up a life of alcoholism, and follow a higher, moral goal of animal conservation. Thompson himself describes his attraction to folk music as 'sophistication within crudeness,' and his beautifully rendered score - uplifting, meditative, and at times jovial during a light-hearted fox chase - conveys the nobility of a man who was determined to live a life with a greater purpose than what conventional society could allow.
Another indie film of note is November, which borrows a concept from Ambrose Bierce, and follows the differing recollections of a woman traumatized by the apparent murder of her boyfriend in a convenience store.
Lew Baldwin's debut score is an ambient and thematically fragmented work, and Baldwin's overall contributions to the film are examined in a separate featurette. Like The Usual Suspects, the film's original structure was altered during post-production, and some clever ideas improved and somewhat clarified the film's constant shifts between temporal events.
Similar to John Ottman, Baldwin also functioned in two primary roles: as composer, and creator of the film's effective visual montages and shock cuts. His audio design also included the use of layered ambience tracks and sound effects, giving November, an exceptionally photographed DV (digital video) film, a very rich Dolby 5.1 experience. Baldwin's alternate Main Titles sequence (with original score) is archived separately on Sony's loaded DVD, and the featurette covers his visual work, and some minor details on the score proper.
The Ghosts of Edendale is another DV film, and Warner Bros.' DVD includes a lot of extras. Written and directed by Stefan Avalos (co-creator of the indie breakthrough film, The Last Broadcast), the story of a couple victimized by neighbouring ghosts in an exclusive hilltop community is a narrative jumble, but the film's aided by an effectively moody synth score from Vincent Gillioz. The composer provides sporadic, if not erratic comments between cues on an isolated Dolby 5.1 music track, which also contains source cues (by Sasha Ivanov), and some unused material by Gillioz. It's a less-than noteworthy commentary, hastily prepared, and hampered by Avalos' poorly miked questions when the director realizes not much is being said between music cues.
Since newcomer NoShame Films entered the DVD market, the label has released what seems to be an odd mix of personal favourites from Italy. Besides an appreciation for the giallo genre, sex comedies, and action films, the label also assembled a 2-disc edition of Pietro Germi's little-seen gem, The Railroad Man.
Essentially a social drama, the bittersweet tale follows the disintegration and ultimate reunion of a family when the ferocious patriarch (played by Germi) is affected by a tragedy while on the job. Writer/director/actor Germi chose Carlo Rustichelli to compose the score, and the result is a pair of dominant themes that, while maniacally repetitive, convey potent tragedy and tension.
The late Rustichelli appears several times in the documentary on Disc 2, in which Germi's film and career are analyzed by a hefty assembly of co-workers and colleagues, including actors, producers, directors, editors, and cinematographers. The core focus is really Germi the troubled but gifted artist, and Rustichelli describes their working relationship, which covered all of Germi's films (1946-1972). Because the scope of the doc is sharply fixed, there's limited material on Rustichelli's own career, if not his other scores for Germi, but the doc is one of the last interviews with the composer before his death in 2004.
After years of high-strung urging from devoted fans, Universal finally released a special edition of Peter Jackson's The Frighteners, porting over extras that came with the extremely limited laserdisc release. Alongside writer/director James Cameron's own laserdisc boxed set of T2, Jackson's monstrous documentary - almost 4 hours in edited form - was, at the time, the most retentive attempt to convey the true making of a movie to film fans.
Pretty much every pre-, production, and post-production facet is given its own section, and included in the last third is an extended interview with Danny Elman. As he describes from the beginning of his Q&A session, "Heavenly Creatures was my favourite film when it came out, and in fact it became one of those benchmark things...If you're talking with people and you want to judge their tastes," he recounts, a immediate dismissal following the mention of Jackson's breakthrough film meant you were a cultural rube.
Elfman subsequently told his agent to pursue any future Jackson projects, which became a moot issue when the director sought out the composer, then fresh from scoring a trio of atypical action, suspense, and satirical films - Dead Presidents, Dolores Claiborne, and To Die For (all 1995).
Running above twenty minutes, the scoring section of the doc intercuts comments from Elfman and Jackson with a few film clips, and includes one scene played with the only cue that was dropped from the final mix. Jackson also talks about the relationship between music and sound effects, and uses the film's kinetic opening - repeated thrice, with dialogue and sound effects, music and effects, and final film mix - to illustrate his points. James Cameron was more efficient in his 1993 leather-bound T2 laserdisc set by using selectable audio tracks, but as Jackson's on-camera comments bookend the film clips, the doc's presentation and structure wasn't altered for Universal's DVD.
Showcased in a more standard featurette (assembled by director Steven Spielberg) is John Williams, in "Scoring War of the Worlds." A typically concise summary of Who the Composer Is, the featurette uses film clips to illustrate some of Williams' finer effects (surges of a women's chorus as people are zapped by the aliens, "humanizing the experience, so to speak," and the use of low-register, male vocals when the aliens enter Tim Robbins' farmhouse) and the doc states that War of the Worlds is the first time Williams composed a score before seeing Spielberg's finished film.
The composer also observes how War is different from Spielberg's "warm and welcoming" space visitors, and how Williams relished writing music in the style of classic monster films, employing propulsive music once Cruise and his noxious, shrilling family flee from the city (and miraculously find a navigable path on a car-stalled and congested highway); and the use of grand, orchestral gestures for the deadly conflagration of mobile, Martian tripods. The composer also notes how Spielberg grafted music from the Epilogue to the sequence when Cruise finds a crash airliner beside the ruined house of his bitchy ex-wife.
Human-designed war toys played a more escapist role in one of 2005's biggest duds, Stealth. Realizing the Fast and Furious franchise was dead after a lame, effects-ridden sequel, Columbia re-teamed Fast director Rob Cohen with that film's high concept - buffed pretty people playing with dangerous toys - and a greater CGI budget to create the ultimate robotic assault plane in need of a stronger toddler harness.
Cohen tends to approach his action or disaster films with grievous sincerity, and to some critics, Stealth came off as a live-action version of the Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Jerry Bruckheimer satire, Team America: World Police. One does sense that, somewhere during the re-write stage, W.D. Richter's script (which, like Charles Beaumont's Queen of Outer Space, may have been a deliberate genre satire) morphed into a serious combat film - making Stealth a unique kind of idiocy that's also a bit of a guilty pleasure.
Cohen's straight approach is also mirrored by BT's bombastic score, which follows the same potent mix of big orchestra sounds integrated with electronic sweetening and enhancement effects. "When you analyze the elements that make a movie, music is so important. It's so fundamental," says Cohen in the 20+ minute featurette devoted to the film's score and songs. Continues Supervising Sound Editor Bruce Stamber, "Rob picks music that literally works in concert with the dialogue, and the jets, and the rest of the sound effects."
In concert with the residual satirical subtext of Stealth, the creators of the music featurette also poke fun at Cohen's ultra-serious approach (which, like Stealth, wasn't sensed by studio brass) by juxtaposing his comments with montages of Cohen looking very silly in his state of post-production gravitas.
"When I was analyzing the musical [realm] of Stealth," recalls the director, "I really wanted to go somewhere where the music that was beyond the normal orchestral stuff... I want this film to sound new - but I don't want it to sound too new - so I told [BT] my half-step theory. When you're Schoenberg, Bartok, or Stravinsky, these composers take these full steps; you're hearing music, but you think it sounds like dissonance and doesn't have the structure you're used to. It's only later with explanation and familiarity that a Rite of Spring becomes something you can listen to and go 'Wow, this is as great as Mozart or Beethoven or any of the easier, accessible composers to us.' But when you read about the composers in their time, they also were moving at full steps from what was traditional or understood, and therefore misunderstood in their own time. Well, I don't want to be misunderstood in my own time; I want to be understood in my own time, but I want to try and do it with something new. I said [to BT], 'We need to get a half-step forward.'"
Cohen's lumpy theorizing is purposely counter-pointed by ersatz shots of the director-in action: thinking profoundly beside a mixing console, getting the right embouchure as he puffs into a magical didgeridoo, or ridiculous moments of hand-waving and head-nodding from on-set footage unrelated to the recording sessions which the featurette is supposed to capture.
Unlike the film which was (partially) made with straight-faced convictions, the featurette's first third begins as a cheeky parody of the sincere, creative minds responsible for an emerging cinematic mess, and almost betrays the real focus: the music (showcased in the middle section), and songs (focused in the final third).
BT's score is a perfect marriage to the film: it captures the emotional threads demanded by Cohen, steps away from the dominant techno theatrics BT admits most filmmakers expect from him, and not unlike Fast and the Furious, exploits the power a large orchestra to create some marvelously kinetic action passages. Under Suspicion shows the composer's ability to score with subtlety, and evoke emotions and conflicts deliberately withheld by that film's secretive characters; the dilemma of Stealth is that BT's perfect encapsulation means chunks of the score are as bombastic and bathetic as the film's worst (and therefore funniest) moments.
The emotionally facile elements in Top Gun and Flight of the Intruder (or in particular, the parachute demise in Drop Zone) were similarly reflected in their respective sledgehammer scores, and the grand orchestral upsurges in Stealth crisply recall the unbridled energy of Hans Zimmer's overzealous writing during the 1980s; those vintage emphatics employed by BT may ultimately suffer the fate of the aforementioned scores, and render the music of Stealth, like the film, into time capsule of outmoded, high concept escapism.
Before that may happen, however, BT's music - particularly for fans of action bombast - is a major treat. The soundtrack album (which re-orders some material and contains a few unused cues) faithfully evokes Stealth's moments of Tragedy, Betrayal, Awful Loss, and Puppy Luv (by a sprawling waterfall). In the featurette's second half, moments from the recording sessions in Seattle include performance snippets from the sharp French horns, string playing with pens, percussion effects, and scenes of director Cohen in a calmer state, as he enjoys what to many filmmakers is the icing on a film's cake: watching a movie come alive as the music pours into the recording booth and smoothens many worrisome rough spots.
Music Mixer Alan Meyerson also adds some frank comments on the last-minute editorial tweaking that can affect a film score during the recording stage, adding "there's no such thing as a locked picture anymore... The music has to... compensate for [these changes]. It becomes this snowball effect where nothing is ever done." Movies run out of time, remain unfinished, "and then get released" with too many flaws.
Another Columbia DVD (for a perfectly acceptable piece of cinematic fluff) is Hitch, which includes George Fenton's unused opening cue (itself quite long) mixed with dialogue and sound effects in a separate gallery. Dropped in favour of a commercial song, Fenton's original intro music is a likeable pop-jazz confection, and starts the film with a lighthearted version of the movie's theme, including a romantic variation by full orchestra.
Romance of a more vintage variety happens when Joan Crawford tells ace violinist John Garfield, "I'm tired of playing second fiddle to Beethoven." So begins the conflict between art and luv in the classic Humoresque (1946). Warner Bros.' DVD includes an informative featurette (9:00) about the origins of the famous piece, and its interpolation by Franz Waxman. Gathering a handful of musicians and historians (including John Waxman, and Rudy Behlmer), the featurette also dissects the illusion of Garfield's violin performances, which were comprised of a non-musical Garfield, the dexterous hands of Isaac Stern and a colleague up front, plus clever editing to make it all seem natural.
Previously available on budget labels because of its public domain status, The Man with the Golden Arm was released in a 2-disc edition by Hart Sharp Video. Long a regular staple on TV, the Golden Arm prints in circulation never looked particularly good, and the mono sound mix was pretty coarse, bristling with distortion. While Hart Sharp's transfer is taken from a clean print, it suffers from moments of overt video compression that frequently distracts from one of Otto Preminger's best films, and a pseudo Dolby 5.1 mix and a 2.0 mono mix have audible compression
Transfer issues aside, the 2-disc set comes with an excellent collection of extras, including a running commentary by British film historian Ken Barnes. The real goodies for filmmusic fans are on Disc 2, which has a still montage set to the rare mono single (3:45) performed by star Frank Sinatra. (The big band tune was composed by Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen)
Also on Disc 2 is what may be Elmer Bernstein's longest taped interview. Conducted by Barnes in May of 2001, "Music on Film: A Conversation with Elmer Bernstein" (42:40) is a straightforward Q&A with the composer seated comfortably beside a mixing board, recalling in extended anecdotes his early years in Hollywood, and his career-making score for Golden Arm.
Even better are further recollections of the Ten Commandments (which are far more detailed than the interview segment on Paramount's 2-dsic set), the lean years during the vicious Red scare, scoring the dopey Robot Monster, and his three major career phases: the jazz films, the westerns, and the comedies.
Towards the final third, Barnes' questions meander and generalize on Bernstein's Magnificent Seven and Great Escape scores - it's a section badly padded with trailer extracts - but the composer's recollection of his comedy phase, beginning with the gross-out Animal House, is very funny. Bernstein's appearances in DVD featurettes are generally edited sound-bytes, and hearing the eloquent composer unfurl historical moments in film history with his smooth accent and generous smile make this special interview a treat, and a fitting tribute to the late innovator.
Available in a new 2-disc edition from standard-bearer Criterion is Francois Truffaut's noir film Shoot the Piano Player, which includes a 16 min. tribute to Georges Delerue's score written by Jeff Smith. Using selected film clips, narrator T. Ryder Smith highlights Delerue's themes for humbled pianist Charlie Kohler and devoted babe Léna, and Delerue's clever theme variations within the colourful score. Also noted are the film's bizarre, satirical songs, and some brief descriptions of Delerue's hugely successful collaboration with Truffaut on a subsequent ten films.
Another title given a new life on DVD with more extras is Blue Underground's excellent 2-disc set for Dario Argento's feature film debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Previously released by VCI, the new version comes with a vastly superior transfer and audio mix, and among the generous extras is a nine minute featurette on Ennio Morricone's score. Like prior Blue Underground and Anchor Bay interviews, a seated Morricone discusses the first of his numerous collaborations with Argento, and he elaborates on the eerie music written for the seminal giallo film. Using simplistic melodies, Morricone's Crystal Bird score combines strange atonal passages, trilling female voices, and close-miked bass and percussion - a style the composer chose to abandon for Argento's later films - such as The Stendhal Syndrome, and The Phantom of the Opera (1998) - because of the director's own stylistic changes.
The featurette closes with Morricone describing his love of music, and he draws a parallel between the commercially commissioned scores for movies, and the royal commissions executed by the old masters, such as Bach.
VCI's own DVD of Bird with the Crystal Plumage is unique for including music an audio-only gallery, though the cues are identical to CAM's remastered CD, from 1998.
Bonus audio materials are also present on a pair of Mario Bava releases from VCI. The most notable is the new 2-disc edition of Blood and Black Lace, featuring one of Carlo Rustichelli's best scores. Evoking the jazz sensibilities of Henry Mancini's music for Touch of Evil (with a close similarity to Alex North's Misfits theme), the new Blood DVD replicates the four theme variations renditions that were released on two 45 rpm records, and appeared on VCI's single-disc Blood DVD.
Collectors should be aware, however, that VCI's revised set, which retains the extras from the single disc release, now uses pseudo English and Italian Dolby 5.1 mixes in place of their original mono tracks. The new film transfer, while properly framed, now has erratic English subtitles, and the English audio has drifting sync problems.
(Note: For Bavaphiles. VCI's other Bava release, The Whip and the Body, also contains bonus audio singles: two variations of the "Windsor Concerto" taken from LP sources. Both are heavily affected by excessive compression and clumsy noise reduction, and the cues, in addition to the aforementioned Blood tracks, are available on DigitMovies' new 2-disc Mario Bava set.)
In the thriller/sci-fi vein is The Fly 2, the messy and hugely disappointing sequel to David Cronenberg's mainstream hit. Directed by Chris Walas, Fly's chief makeup whiz, the sequel was partially saved by Christopher Young's massive orchestral score, which itself is given generous time in the DVD's making-of featurette.
Much like Fox' 2-disc set for Alien 3, the failure of Fly 2 is given a frank and informative documentary, charting the rush to produce a sequel, and Walas being picked to direct his first film when a screenplay was still unrefined. Composer Young appears in the doc, and his wry, self-effacing appraisal of his then romantic style is counter-balanced with Walas' glee, when a composer he had long admired agreed to score his debut film.
The horror and ultimate pathos audiences felt for Kong in the original 1933 production of King Kong still resonates in Max Steiner's ground-breaking score, and the composer gets some decent attention in the length making-of documentary on Warner Bros.' 2-disc edition of King Kong, which arrived just in time for Christmas.
Typical of the studios' economical pricing, for a few dollars more, one can have Kong in a boxed set plus the film's hasty sequel, Son of Kong, and the cult favourite Mighty Joe Young. Atypical of the studio, however, is the additional repackaging of the elder Kong in a shiny tin, with art, a send-away poster offer, and reproductions of the original promo booklets. The tin is generally the same price as the boxed set, and while shiny and heavy, it's a bit of a shame the vintage promo materials didn't come with the standard set (which was the case with Warner Bros.' superb multi-disc sets for The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind, and Ben-Hur).
In the making-of doc, Steiner shares time wit the film's sound effects editor, Murray Spivack. Perhaps one of the few surviving crew members of the Kong production team, Spivack offers a delightful anecdote of Steiner's sense of doubt as the studio and budget over-runs made the composer believe his music was a disaster in the making. A lot of attention is also given to the special collaboration between composer and Spivack's pioneer role as sound designer - creating a monstrous library of effects that still sound convincing, and are intricately (and appreciably) mixed with Steiner's music.
Veteran sound designer Ben Burtt, composer John Morgan, film historian Rudy Behlmer, and directors Peter Jackson and Joe Dante, among others, describe the revolutionary ideas Steiner and Spivack employed in what remains a standard in blockbuster filmmaking for the action/fantasy genre. The new transfer looks very lovely, and Steiner's music - with a restored Overture - still packs a punch.
Also of note for Steiner fans is a superb documentary on producer/adventurer Merian C. Cooper, with a concluding segment on Cooper's involvement with Cinerama, Using clips from This Is Cinerama (presented in SmileBox process, as showcased in David Strohmaier's new doc, A Cinerama Adventure), the clips are accompanied by samples of the crisp stereophonic music, some of which was composed by Steiner (and was released on CD by Label X).
Fans of Steiner's Kong music have plenty of sources, which include Rhino's 1999 CD (with surviving music tracks from the original recording, plus music with dialogue and sound effects); Southern Cross' 1976 re-recording, conducted by Fred Steiner; and the Marco Polo re-recording (co-produced by John Morgan, and followed by the sequel album of music from Son of Kong and The Most Dangerous Game).
As for the 1975 Leroy Holmes LP, the less said, the better....
In the upcoming print edition of MFTM's DVD column, we'll examine Elmer Bernstein's music in Image Entertainment's series The Films of Charles and Ray Eames (now expanded with a sixth volume of shorts), and a new documentary on the life of Dimitri Shostakovich under Stalin's tyrannical reign, Shostakovich Against Stalin.
Mark R. Hasan (2006)
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