Born Free (1966)

April 29, 2008

Based on Joy Adamson’s bestselling book, Born Free chronicles Joy (Virginia McKenna) and her husband George’s (Bill Travers) adventures in Africa, including bringing up a lioness cub. Because of the film’s episodic nature, it lacks much of a dramatic drive. But John Barry’s Oscar-winning song and score enrich the African vistas.

Barry’s childlike and innocent approach to the score was far different than director James Hill’s more grandiose hopes. Thankfully producer Carl Foreman backed the composer in his decision. What emerged was an instantly classic main theme and title song and a fine score that supports the rather tepid film much better than it deserves.

Barry composed and orchestrated over an hour’s worth of music. He augmented the orchestra with African percussion and prominently featured two marimbas, which provide much of the “African” feel to the score.

Once Barry had his famous theme, he stated, “It was theme-and-variation taken to the nth degree. It brings all of the film together.” The two-note motif (the words “born free” in the title song) in the brass makes a grand, simple statement backed up by the log drum and marimbas. The waltz and variations that accompany Elsa at play is one of the musical highpoints of the score.

But not everything revolved around the famous theme. There is danger surrounding the hunting motif. And a somber theme in the strings and oboe accompany the death of the hyrax, Pati.

To add to Barry’s unpleasant experience with the project, the score recording sessions went poorly and mistakes were made. When Barry pointed this out to producer Carl Foreman, he was told not to worry about it: “Don’t worry, there will be a lion roaring over it.”

With a soundtrack LP in the works, Barry rerecorded the score which is the now the beloved soundtrack album. “I remember when I finished that score,” he said, “it was like the happiest day of my life. I was delighted to be away from it.” In fact, when he was awakened in England after winning his two Oscars, “I was amazed to have won two for something about which I’d been so unhappy.” The tune has been so popular over the last forty years that it has since been recorded by more than 600 artists.


A Double Life (1947)

April 26, 2008

Ronald Colman stars in A Double Life as an actor whose latest role as the jealous, murderous Othello begins to take over his psyche, blurring reality. George Cukor’s direction is tight and Colman gives the performance of a lifetime. Because of the blurred lines between sanity and madness, Miklos Rozsa faced the challenge of composing two distinct styles that must blend together as Colman moves further and further into madness.

Cukor suggested that the brass music of Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrielli would be the perfect springboard for the onstage Shakespeare scenes. Instead Rozsa wrote quasi-Baroque music in concerto grosso style featuring the harpsichord. This can be heard over the main titles, characterized by what Christopher Palmer called a “bustling energy, muscular textures, throbbing rhythms, in terms of Rozsa’s own contemporary idiom.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Rozsa composed gritty, film noir music for the paranoid scenes. To help him score these scenes, Rozsa interviewed psychiatrists for information about the sounds the mentally sick are predisposed toward. The pounding, dissonant music perfectly captures Colman’s deepening madness.

At the opening night party, the stage music echoes and undulates in Tony’s (Colman) mind as he hears lines from the play repeated over and over in his head. Broken up by background cocktail piano, the music becomes more maniacal. He slaps his hands to his ears to stop the incessant buzzing inside his head, until (through wonderful sound effects) the lounge piano comes back into the foreground and “real life” returns.

Critics were impressed with Rozsa’s efforts. The New York Times raved: “Filmusic [sic] comes of age in A Double Life.” Page Cook wrote in Films In Review: “Rozsa’s phrases ring with conviction….In fact, A Double Life elicits Rozsa an obviously deeply felt empathy even casual viewers are bound to be affected by. His skill in elucidating the dramatic insights is consummate. There is no trace of prettiness in this score, yet much is striking and beautiful.”

There is very little music in the film and what there is is spotted judiciously. Even though the score may not be as well known as some of the composer’s other work, this does not diminish the power and the impact of Rozsa’s music on the film. The score was justly deserving of its Oscar, final praise for a score shows the breadth and range of one of film music’s greatest composers.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

April 25, 2008

The sleeper hit of 1981, Chariots of Fire picked up speed in the final laps of awards season. Bolstered by its hit soundtrack, the film emerged victorious, surprisingly winning the Oscar for Best Picture. Based on a true story, Ben Cross and Ian Charleson star as two runners competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics. More a study of the British class system, the film is vedy British, keeping the audience at a stride’s length.

What did emerge from the film was Vangelis’ popular score. Composed entirely for piano-based synthesizer, the hypnotic main title theme propelled the album to the top of the charts, where it remained for four weeks.

Early on, the filmmakers decided that the score would be used as counterpoint to Gilbert & Sullivan and other British music that served as source cues. “I wanted somebody with whom I could work in a workshop,” director Hugh Hudson said. Bringing in Vangelis early in the process was a crucial one. Instead of a sixty-piece orchestra, Vangelis, as composer, arranger, and performer, had the luxury of changing and adapting the music to fit the moods of the film.

Earlier Vangelis music was used as temp tracks while the film was being edited. Producer David Puttnam wanted to keep the temp track used for the main title and Vangelis would compose the rest of the score. However, when Vangelis’ pulsating new theme was combined with the images of the runners on the beach, there was no denying the mood it created.

The memorable, pulsating main title theme, accompanying the images of the runners on the beach, became one of the most popular film score melodies of the 1980’s. The “Five Circles” theme for the Olympics has a hint of sadness. A slow and pensive theme, coupled in groups of two notes, is heard memorably as Abrahams (Cross) quietly and methodically prepares for his race.

Eric’s theme is more rousing, with a hint of religiosity to it, benefitting a character who runs for God’s pleasure. In one memorable sequence, the cinematographer lights up the middle lane on the track and the music provides atmosphere rather than melody, bringing the runner’s focus into view both visually and musically.

The constraints of the score, and Vangelis’ slight experience as a film composer, can be heard as Abrahams trains. While the synthesizer beat provide an excellent accompaniment to Harold’s steps, the score relied on the sound editor to “dip” it down so that dialogue could be heard.

Critics and film music fans were (and still are) divided over the merits of the score, with some praising the unique sound while others derided the score’s anachronistic quality. Variety praised the music as “richly orchestrated with uplifting cadences [that] suits the action with a lingering quality.” On the other end of the spectrum, Page Cook in Films In Review called it “trendy, but trashy.”

“Perhaps the single most important element which blends totally…is the music,” said Puttnam. And screenwriter Colin Weland confirmed that “forty-percent of the film’s success was the music.” Whatever the opinion, Chariots of Fire catapulted Vangelis into the limelight.

Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

April 24, 2008

Around the World in 80 Days was the big winner at the 29th Academy Awards. And I do mean BIG. Based on the Jules Verne novel, this is a film that does not subscribe to the theory that “less is more.”

Prim, punctual, Victorian gentleman Phileas Fogg (David Niven) bets his cronies that a man can travel around the world in eighty days. Accompanied by his new manservant, Passepartout (Cantinflas), a rescued Indian Princess (Shirley MacLaine), and pursued by a Scotland Yard detective (Reginald Denny), Fogg and company span the globe.

Producer Michael Todd took Verne’s slight story, then hired three writers to fashion an even slighter screenplay. The result is a bloated, earthbound three-hour travelogue that might have been fun for audiences in the mid-1950s, However, Everytime Fogg checks his watch (which is often), you may find yourself doing the same.

Still, there are pleasures to be found in the film. Celebrity cameos flit across the screen, including John Gielgud, Cesar Romero, Charles Boyer, Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, Peter Lorre, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, John Carradine, Andy Devine, Victor McLaglen, Red Skelton, and George Raft. And Lionel Lindon’s cinematography, making use of the new Todd-AO process, is excellent, as it should be for a picture like this.

It is up to Victor Young to provide aural interest in the long stretches of scenery viewed from a train or a boat. And he does so with wit, ease, and his typical slick professionalism.

Composing music for multiple locales from London, Paris, and San Francisco, to Spain, India, and Japan, Young’s score is awash with melody, infusing the picture with a desperately-need energy. However, his limitations as a dramatic composer occasionally show, especially in the Western sequences.

For the most part, though, the score is a delight. There is a rousing Spanish bullfight fanfare, a lonely monk choir accompanying the Jpanese sequence, and the strings swirl like prairie dust as the sail car rushes along the Western plain. Passepartout’s theme is charming and non-threatening, with the use of xylophone and a quote from “La Cucaracha” signaling his detours at the sight of a pretty woman.

No matter the pros and cons of Young’s score, there can be no faulting the title tune, one of the most popular melodies of the 1950s. The gentle waltz carries Fogg and Passepartout aloft in the hot air balloon at the beginning of their journey, and the memorable tune soars through the sky with them.

Young incorporated a plethora of borrowed tunes for the score, mostly for comic effect. “Rule Brittania” represents the stiff, uppercrust Fogg and conspicuous use of “Yankee Doodle,” “Shoo Fly,” and Rossini’s William Tell Overture, to name a few, can also be heard. But the pre-existing tunes do not detract from his accomplishment, especially when so cleverly woven into the fabric of the score.

Unfortunately, Young died of a heart attack a month before Around the World in 80 Days premiered in December 1956. Though he was not able to enjoy the film’s astonishing (and inexplicable) success, the score is a fitting tribute to one of Hollywood’s most gifted melodists. His posthumous Oscar is well-deserved.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

April 22, 2008

In 1982, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was everywhere. E.T. dolls and books, lamps and lunchboxes. And the sale of Reese’s Pieces skyrocketed. The film became the number one box office winner of all-time until Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park in 1993.

Director Steven Spielberg’s magical film tells the story of a young boy (Henry Thomas) who befriends an alien mistakenly left behind on earth. Just as magical is John Williams’ classic score.

You never forget your first time you see Elliot and E.T. hurtle precariously on a bicycle toward the cliff as movie and music magic take over, propelling them above the canyon and over the moon to the sounds of Williams’ soaring strings.

Williams gives us every human emotion in the score. French horns and trumpets stab terror into the heart of E.T. as he is chased through the forest by unseen strangers who impede him getting back to his ship. These same brass announce the lift off of E.T.’s ship, stranding E.T. on Earth.

Harps tenderly accompany the tentative beginnings of Elliot and E.T.’s friendship. And later a plaintive clarinet gives voice to the pain and loss of the entire audience as Elliot says goodbye to a dying E.T.

Williams composed the last fifteen minutes to coincide precisely with various images on the screen. Once he assembled the orchestra and had the film in front of him, he couldn’t get the “mathematics” of the composition to work out accurately so Spielberg told Williams to record the music without watching the film as if he were performing it at a concert. Once the recording was completed, Spielberg went back and re-edited the finale to coordinate with Williams’ music. Those final fifteen minutes are a rush of emotions, exactly as Williams planned it to be.

E.T. entered the Oscar race with nine nominations and an unfortunate backlash against the film resulting from its huge box office success and the massive marketing and merchandising that blitzed the country. Williams’ win was a foregone conclusion. It had already won a Golden Globe and would go on to win a BAFTA award and numerous Grammys including one for Best Soundtrack Album.

Over the years, the soundtrack has been released in three different versions. You’ll need all three to have every note of the score.

The music is one of those rare scores that can bring back every emotion you felt when you first saw the film. At the twentieth anniversary screening of the film in Los Angeles, Williams conducted a live orchestra as the movie played on a fifty-foot screen above him. He received a much deserved standing ovation as he does in our hearts every time we hear his classic score.

All That Money Can Buy (1941)

April 21, 2008

The innocuously-titled All That Money Can Buy is based on Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story, The Devil and Daniel Webster, about a poor New Hampshire farmer, Jabez Stone (James Craig), who sells his soul to the devil, “Mr. Scratch” (a devilishy good Walter Huston), for seven years of good luck and “all that money can buy.” When it comes time for payment, Stone calls on the powers of legendary orator Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) to get him out of his contract.

Today the film is known by Benet’s title but distributors in the South in 1941 were reluctant to put the word “Devil” on a marquee. Still, audiences weren’t quite sure what to make of it and the picture failed at the box office. Over the years the film has been shaved by five minutes here, five minutes there until the original 107-minute running was cut to 85 minutes.

The Criterion Collection’s DVD finally restored the film to its original length and, believe me, it makes a big difference. Director William Dieterle’s unique vision, cinematographer Joseph August’s use of light and shadows, and Bernard Herrmann’s inventive score are beautifully showcased in the restored print.

Fans of the composer’s work will note a much more playful Herrmann in this film. Inspired by the compositions of Charles Ives, Herrmann weaves American folk melodies with experimental electronic effects.

For Scratch’s first appearance in the barn, sound editor James G. Stewart went to San Fernando in the middle of the night to record humming telephone wires. Herrmann then painted the overtones of the musical note C on the film negative. When the film was run through the projector, a “phantom fundamental” (a sustained tone) was heard which, to the human ear, comes through as nothing more than a subliminal sound. The effect is subtle and eerie.

Herrmann was involved in the project from the start and believed the orchestration was as important as the music itself. For the harvest dance, Herrmann “had to have a fiddle reel that no one else could play. So I had an idea. I simply imposed a series of tracks on top of each other. We had a violinist who played a version of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ then he played another version, another one, another one, and another one. Then these were all combined to make one violin playing the most impossible things that no one violinist could play.”

Folk themes such as “The Devil’s Dream” and “Lady McLeod’s Reel” are used to devilish effect over the main titles and during the sleighride. Another folksong, “Springfield Mountain,” accompanies a beautiful montage of sowing seeds and waving fields of crops and later underscores the noble words of Webster as he defends Stone against Mr. Scratch. Herrmann reportedly charged Aaron Copland with plagiarism when he used the folktune in Lincoln Portrait. However, according to Copland’s biographer, Howard Pollack, the two versions differ considerably, not least in the fact that Herrmann rewrote the tune in a minor mode.

Herrmann’s favorite cue is the Miser’s Waltz which accompanies Miser Stevens’ (John Qualen) dance to the death. Another unusual cue is heard as Stone pursues his wife on horseback. Going against the traditional Hollywood grain, the sound effects were cut out to let the percussion and brass propel the scene.

When award season came around, Herrmann was up against himself for his first two films: the classic Citizen Kane and this film. Owing to the controversy surrounding Kane, the Academy basically snubbed Welle’s film. Herrmann was awarded for the much more palatable (to a general audience), yet no less inventive, All That Money Can Buy.

In 1942, Herrmann arranged the score into a twenty-minute, five-movement suite under the title of “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” The suite went on to become one of the composer’s most popular concert works. On recordings it is often paired with “Welles Raises Kane,” a suite of themes from Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

If you only know Herrmann from Citizen Kane or his justifiably famous Hitchcock scores, All That Money Can Buy is a wonderful look at a true film score pioneer bursting onto the Hollywood scene.

Dances With Wolves (1990)

April 20, 2008

Probably no 1990 film was a bigger gamble than Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. In his directorial debut, Costner also produced and starred as John Dunbar, a Union Army lieutenant who forges a bond with the Sioux Indians, eventually joining the tribe.

Even though the film clocked in at three hours and all of the Indian scenes were spoken in the Lakota Sioux dialect with subtitles, the movie was a surprise hit at the box office. Beautifully written and photographed, the film’s epic tone is matched by John Barry’s reverential score.

“Because the look of the picture involved such a feeling of space,” Barry said, “[I] envisioned a score that would be large and romantic.” Performed by a 95-piece orchestra and 12-voice contralto choir, the musical forces (heavy on the strings) are as expansive as the Western frontier they embody.

Over a dozen themes play out over the hundred minutes of music. “Although it’s a big score, and a long score, in a strange way it had to be very simple. That was the most difficult thing, keeping that simplicity for most of the music.”

First heard on solo trumpet, Dunbar’s theme conveys a man that Barry called “noble, simple and dedicated…who had a kind of purity in everything he did.” When Dunbar befriends Two Socks, the wolf’s gentle flute melody tells us that the animal poses no threat. Another main theme accompanies the blossoming love between Dunbar and Stands With a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman found by the Indians as a child and raised in the tribe.

As Dunbar arrives at Fort Hayes, sustained brass and arpeggiated strings accompany the first of two traveling melodies in the strings. More sustained brass chords underneath another majestic string melody and French horn fanfare escort Dunbar across the plains to abandoned Fort Sedgewick.

Barry listened to a lot of American Indian music that was recorded while the film was being shot on location but decided not to incorporate it. “For me the score had to be seen through the eyes of its protagonist. Though it has Indian themes, they were my interpretation of what those would be.”

Given its strong box office showing and critical reception, it was no surprise that Dances With Wolves was the frontrunner at the Oscars, and voting for the film was the politically correct thing to do, given the Native American factor. Though the score contains a sameness after a while, it’s difficult to complain when the music is this attractive.