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_October 2007 _

It’s a real pity that this series never pushed further beyond separate bios of Bernard Herrmann, Toru Takemitsu, and Georges Delerue, as each hour-long Music for the Movies episode was larded with many composers and historians talking quite concisely about the artistry of each subject. Put another way: how else can you enjoy a full hour of words, music, and images intelligently devoted to your favourite composer?

The best of the lot is arguably the Herrmann doc, directed by Joshua Waletzky, who also wrote The Hollywood Sound, the first in the series released on DVD by Kultur, and reviewed in our prior DVD column..

More or less a straightforward bio sketch, the doc’s narrator makes no bones from the beginning that many film fans might recognize the music this man wrote, but likely don’t know his name, nor understand what specific aspects he brought to the craft of film scoring.

Coming from a classical and later radio drama background, Herrmann’s association with Orson Welles ultimately plopped him into Hollywood, a creative community that nourished his career yet personally annoyed him to no end; he didn’t like cliques, wasn’t fond of the social scene, and had his own views on what made good music.

Marginalized by his infamous temper, Herrmann nevertheless enjoyed the respect of filmmakers and colleagues, and when bridges had been burned and orchestral writing was no longer in vogue by the late sixties, he was poised for a second coming until a heart attack killed him in 1975. He died on the eve of completing the recording for Taxi Driver, and few would argue his brilliance would’ve been courted by more filmmakers after that film’s release, perhaps keeping the composer busy for another decade.

Herrmann’s psychological makeup is somewhat detailed through anecdotes – a man with an ego, a warm heart, and a voice that could easily and inexplicably bad-mouth a colleague (as recalled by David Raksin in one of several hysterical interview segments) – and a composer who frequently used simple, repetitive themes that more often then not matched their respective characters to a T.

The best illustration of Herrmann’s gift comes from Elmer Bernstein, who plays Herrmann’s chilling Cape Fear theme on piano, and demonstrates how the composer rendered four notes into a portrait of unstoppable evil by restricting himself to specific chords, and constructing a theme that never allowed a soothing resolution.

North by Northwest similarly benefited from Herrmann’s exacting orchestrations that added rich colour and depth to the fandango, particularly in the Mount Rushmore finale, where Herrmann reshaped the theme with increasingly dramatic intensity through variations in instrumentation, and rich tonal colours.

Like The Hollywood Sound, we’re treated to many interviews that include former musicians, associates, colleagues, historians, and it’s doubly delightful to see the faces of writers that got older film music fans hooked on film scores (such as Royal S. Brown, and the late Christopher Palmer), and composers talking concisely about their craft beyond an educational environment.

Both Bernstein and Raksin taught university courses, and while they don’t get technical, it’s rewarding to hear thoughts from people who knew Herrmann, and understood what elements of his personal style and musical tastes influenced his work, made his scores work so well, and why his music remains an important reference point in film scoring.

The doc obviously uses the composer’s top film scores (including Psycho, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Taxi Driver), and also delves into his relationship with director Alfred Hitchcock, right up to their falling out, mid-way through the recording of Herrmann’s rejected Torn Curtain score.

Before the Universal DVD of the film, this doc marked the first time Herrmann’s rejected murder cue for the death of Gromek was applied to the scene (which remained unscored in the film), and it’s also a treat to hear the original recording to a score Universal still won’t release on CD.

(There was the Hip-O CD that featured a handful of cuts, but given how many unreleased Hitchcock scores are sitting in the vaults – Herrmann’s Torn Curtain, the rejected and replacement scores for Frenzy by Henry Mancini and Ron Goodwin, respectively; and John Williams’ repetitive but thematically memorable Family Plot – it’s sinful Herrmann’s complete original recordings remain unreleased. The Universal DVD did apply cues to select scenes in a separate scenes gallery, but they were mixed down to flat mono.)

Also of note in Waletzky’s doc are some excepts of filmed interviews with Herrmann, plus scenes from the recording sessions for The Bride Who Wore Black, with Herrmann conducting the orchestra while director Francois Truffaut watches patiently from the sidelines. Waletzky also mines that unique resource by briefly applying what’s apparently a rejected cue Herrmann was conducting in the clip to part of a scene that was ultimately underscored by a Vivaldi piece: Jeanne Moreau’s scarf being carried away by the wind after a murder in a modern apartment building. Both the behind-the-scenes footage and the alternate music were not included on MGM’s bare bones DVD.

For avid Herrmann fans and novitiates, Waletzky’s doc is an extremely satisfying addition to one’s personal reference library, and demonstrates how one can stitch together a compelling bio on a film composer for the masses.

On a related note, Herrmann’s influence is also given a small showcase by Christopher Young in a new interview featurette on the Hellraiser 20th Anniversary Edition DVD from Starz Home Entertainment/Anchor Bay. Upgrading the prior Region 1 THX DVD with new interviews and extras, Young is basically given 18 mins. to recall his involvement with the film, how the project boosted his career, and the sound design he applied to specific cues in both the first and second Hellraiser films. Young adds an amusing anecdote about finding Herrmann’s classic London Phase 4 album of fantasy film score suites, and how Herrmann’s arresting title music for Journey to the Center of the Earth was the eureka moment that made Young choose his career.

Coming next: Music for the Movies: Georges Delerue, from Kultur.


Mark R. Hasan (2007)

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