Score Season #50
Below are more soundtrack reviews of recent and archival releases.
Batman (Danny Elfman, 1989) **** I have given this a lot of thought, and Danny Elfman’s rip-roaring score for Batman cannot compete against the world’s greatest superhero symphony: Superman by John Williams. Therefore, a star must be deducted. Williams’ effort was matched only by Sammy Timberg, who worked on the Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s. On the plus side, Elfman does extremely well, creating a musical identity for the Dark Knight which felt enigmatic, imposing and theatrical. As director Tim Burton once said, “he came up with a good one.” Of course, it gets knocked down because Williams gave us the stars, while Elfman merely illustrated a silhouette in front of the moon.
Creep Van (Dennis Dreith, 2012) ** As of this writing, composer Dennis Dreith boasts approximately nineteen scoring credits, about the same as maestro Erich Wolfgang Korngold. According to the Internet Movie Database, his last recorded film score was 2012’s Creep Van. Right away, “Opening – Main Title” establishes the twin moods of serenity and evil. Dreith even works in some catchy rock guitar, heavy on the metal. He’s working synthetically and doing very little to hide it. I was reminded of the cheesy genre efforts headlined by Chuck Cirino and Richard Band. It’s wise to temper expectations as any listeners desiring the orchestral punch of Dreith’s The Punisher will be left wanting. Although not a detriment by itself, he seems like the type of composer most comfortable leading an orchestra rather than settling for keyboards. For the most part, Creep Van veers between relative unease and suspense, while country and rock provides the filler. It’s as generic as they come, lacking a sensible reason to return.
Defense de savoir (Bruno Nicolai, 1973) **** Bruno Nicolai’s fearless mood setting for the crime drama Defense de savoir represents an extra notch on the belt of success. Having impressed me greatly with his 1970 score Count Dracula, I was curious to know what he might bring to an entirely different genre. There are grand gestures enhanced by a haunting love theme, ample dissonance and a classical aesthetic. Prior to the brooding middle section, the score opens brightly, reflecting a little melancholy and nostalgia for added spice. True to form, Nicolai allows minimalist counterpoint and Transylvania levels of Gothic ambience to propel “Le pouvoir.” What follows proves stylish, hypnotic and indelible.
Dial M for Murder (Dimitri Tiomkin, 1954) **** Danger carries the weight and urgency of the hanging judge’s clock. Combined with peerless romanticism, it’s clear that Dial M for Murder pitches a fast ball nobody can hit. A master of reverb, composer Dimitri Tiomkin allows notes to hang in the air for seamless emotional resonance.
The Good German (Thomas Newman, 2006) *** Although Thomas Newman’s The Good German might seem a casual by-product of the Golden Age melodrama, such bombastic and romantic fireworks gain a fresh spin. Ears will be immediately drawn to musical references inspired by Franz Waxman, Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa. However, Newman bears his own idiosyncrasies, and these elements raise the quality of the soundtrack. In particular, the brass, strings and woodwinds felt invigorating. While it dwells on the moody side, the melancholy offered by the love theme in “Unrecht Oder Recht (Main Title),” “A Good Dose” and “The Big Three” proves adequate to lure listeners back. The variation in tempo and instrumentation from one composition to the next can be most gratifying. While the score for The Good German might have weighed down the film, there’s undeniable grace to the solo listening experience. As such, this was an unexpected gem.
Memoirs of a Geisha (John Williams, 2005) *** If we are to indulge John Williams on this occasion, then Memoirs of a Geisha represents a beautiful leaf fallen from a dead tree. Pacing ends up hampered the most by a central theme which plays as a nice side dish, though memories of better scores predominate. Although I appreciate Williams adopting a more sedate style attuned to a sensitive story, the fact remains: Memoirs of a Geisha cannot compete with the likes of Always or Empire of the Sun. Calling upon his previous collaborators cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman means that at least one will be left holding the shortest string. In this case, Perlman became unlucky. Behold the agonized solo in “The Chairman’s Waltz,” which ignores Japan and planted me straight back in Auschwitz. To say that Perlman worked such material to death for Schindler’s List would be an understatement. Ultimately, some judicious pruning will yield around twenty minutes of fine listening material. If little else, this guarantees a passable three star rating.
A Passage to India (Maurice Jarre, 1984) **** A fascinating score, Maurice Jarre’s A Passage to India creatively eschews traditional Indian musical expression resulting in a flame grilled Oscar winner. Passion seeps from every note. Big among the highlights, the bass flute evokes the darkest contours of the human condition. In a year of exemplary work, it’s comforting to know a worthy score took home the gold.
Cool Hand Luke (Lalo Schifrin, 1967) **** A poem:
Some desire a charade.
A hip parade.
For Lalo it was cadence
which justified our patience.
A little bit of action
to cause a chain reaction.
It goes even higher.
Others are left holding a flat tire.
Such effortless cool
like Paul Newman playing pool.
Fair to say Cool Hand Luke
was no fluke.
Jane Eyre (Bernard Herrmann, 1943) ** Time to rhyme:
Music rather quiet.
No danger of starting a riot.
Bernard Herrmann’s style can be brisk
Less so here, give it a whisk.
Extended lethargy follows
Trapped in the hollows.
Although the playing was fine,
My emotions were let down, that’s a sign.
Left spent by Jane Eyre
which was less than fair.
A term of perdition we serve
Austere and dark, the nerve!
SCORE OF THE MOMENT
Jaws (John Williams, 1975) ***** John Williams stole the show in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws because he had to. The mechanical shark proved inoperative throughout the shoot on Martha’s Vineyard. This afforded Williams the opportunity to create a distinctive leitmotif for a non-speaking character, Bruce the Shark. Following a dark screen and unnerving sub-aquatic ambiences, the orchestra gets going. Applying bassoon, contrabassoon, cello and bass, Williams struck at the heart of the imagination. As Harp II ignites the downbeat “E,” the offbeat “F” gets taken up by Harp I. This two-note motif has earned global recognition. Parodies have occurred in everything from television commercials to feature films and more. Simplicity made it catchy. Tone made it unforgettable. Remarkably, this idea has undergone numerous thematic transformations. Simply compare the opening titles from each Jaws picture, and you’ll notice how Williams along with his contemporaries Alan Parker (Jaws 3-D) and Michael Small (Jaws The Revenge) have captivated audiences. Admittedly, there’s more to Jaws than this theme. Special moments include: the subtle yet eerie “The Pier Incident,” the harp glissandi mimicking panic bubbles when a “Shark Hits the Cage” and the final send-off. In 2015, Jaws was released in a complete edition by Intrada. This label did the same for the three sequels.
Because a great shark needs a poem:
Three men and a shark
Could have ended up a lark.
Not so with John Williams at the helm.
The latter established a new realm.
Two notes chill to the marrow
Beyond the seemingly narrow.
We know the shark is there
The music tells us to beware.