Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Long live the new flesh

Strange, erotic, hallucinatory, visionary, hypnotic, and just plain insanely brilliant—those of just a  few the words that come to mind when trying to describe David Cronenberg’s 1983 masterpiece “Videodrome”.  Quite simply it is an addictive work art, shockingly prophetic when you watch it today, and more affecting than ever. This is a movie that foresaw virtual reality, the internet, reality TV, video blogging (vlogging) and YouTube—back in 1983!

While it is impossible for a novelization to capture Cronenberg’s relentlessly harrowing atmosphere of paranoia, James Woods killer performance, and Debra Harry’s haunting presence—Dennis Etchison (writing as Jack Martin) comes about as close as possible in this crisp, fast-moving, very readable and mostly faithful adaption of a revolutionary avant-garde piece of cinema. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Powerful 'JFK' is John William’s at his dramatic best

Steven Spielberg will always be the primary director associated with John Williams and his enormous contributions to the success of so many Spielberg films and to his auteur mystique cannot be overestimated. If you had to pick a director who would come in second place in the John Williams cannon of film music, it might be Oliver Stone and the Stone/Williams historical trilogy of “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), “JFK” (1991), and “Nixon” (1995).

Oliver Stone brings out the serious side of Williams—all three of these scores are filled with emotionally powerful, gut-wrenching moments. But given that this week is the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of President John F. Kennedy, this review will focus on William’s soundtrack for Oliver Stone’s masterfully stylish debunking of the preposterous pack of lies known as The Warren Commission, “JFK” (1991).

The early 90s were an interesting phase of the ever developing style of William’s—a period when he was beginning to leave behind his blockbuster style and develop new techniques of layered rhythms and structural complexities. It was a rich and creatively productive period resulting in several varied and classic scores including “Home Alone” (1990), “Hook” (1991), “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List” (both for Spielberg in 1993), and of course, “JFK” (1991).

“JFK” is also unique in the approach Williams took. The film is scored with stand-alone set pieces, rather than the cohesive symphony approach the maestro usually employs. Whether this was Stone’s edict or William’s idea does not matter—only the end result does—and the music in the film is staggering in its effectiveness—both in support of the on-screen drama and as stand-alone album that engages the listener on a whole new level of electric excitement and bold emotion.

“Prologue” is vintage Americana John Williams at his most elegant as the cue introduces the powerful and mournfully moving nostalgic “JFK” theme. There is even a wonderful, whimsical, spirited “B” theme that segues into an emotionally powerful finale. What a track—4:01 of pure musical bliss for any fan of film music.

Track two is the ultra-intense, riveting suspense cue, “The Motorcade” used to underscore the horror of that fateful day in Dallas. This is Williams at his most masterful, artfully—and seamlessly—weaving atonal material and frenzied action motifs with undercurrents of the main theme; exciting stuff.

Next up is “Theme From JFK” an exquisite, touching piano based rendition of the main theme that finishes up in an atonal motif hinting at the darkness lurking in the shadows of the conspiracy. “Eternal Father, Strong To Save” is the music used to score some of the “business of government” post-assassination vintage news stories and clips used in the movie. “Garrison’s Obsessions” is a superb, spooky suspense action cue that could have come out of horror film—wonderful, aggressive, scary stuff.

Then there is perhaps the ultimate signature cue from “JFK”—certainly the most popular and influential—“The Conspirators”—a wickedly exciting Morricone-esque action/suspense cue that is chilling and irresistible.  Things get even scarier with the haunting “The Death of David Ferrie”.  This really is horror film scoring at its most artful and effective. “JFK” is John William’s “X-File” score.

But this is also the story of a family—and a man losing his to an all-consuming obsession. “The Garrison Family Theme” showcases the composer’s unparalleled ability to compose gorgeous themes that instantly generate sentiment and latch on to the ear—and the heart—of the listener.

Then it is back to the brooding paranoia of a dark web of conspiracy in the creative suspense cue “The Witnesses” before taking us into the dramatic “Arlington”, the best track on the album. “Arlington” is the music that plays during the outstanding scene where Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison goes to Washington D.C. to meet with the mysterious Mister X played by the great Donald Sutherland followed by Garrison’s visit to Arlington. This is the maestro at his absolute best—an incredible piece of music.

Williams takes us home by putting the final touches on his dramatic masterwork by giving the listener a glorious emotional crescendo in “Finale (JFK)” followed by “Theme From JFK (Reprise)”.

Keep in mind six of the 18 tracks are non-score songs that will shatter the mood. Unlike “Born of the Fourth of July” which had “Moon River”, none of the songs add anything to the listening experience so best to program them out and allow this landmark score to wash over you.

Bottom line: John Williams has just proven once again with “The Book Thief” that his astonishing skills are as sharp as ever and this week’s 50th anniversary of JFK’s murder is a perfect chance to go back and experience of William’s best scores.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

‘Three Wishes’ music channels a maestro

“Three Wishes” is a lost gem of magical storytelling from 1995 starring the late, great Patrick Swayze and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.  Set in 1955, it is a suburban fairy tale reworking of the Western “man with no name” formula and it works far beyond anything you might expect from a quiet, under-the-radar family drama that has been lost in the corridors of time and long forgotten by almost everyone except this reviewer.

The always commanding Patrick Swayze brings his usual gravitas to the picture and delivers a touching and memorable performance as the mysterious drifter Jack. The underrated Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio inhabits the character of Jane Holman with a delicate balance of sadness and warmth and the chemistry between her and Swayze is terrific. Martha Coolidge’s direction is wonderfully understated and she gets great work from the young Joseph Mazzello who played one of the children in “Jurassic Park”.

But what makes “Three Wishes” truly standout is the soaring, melodic, dramatic score by Cynthia Millar. Inexplicably this is the only major feature film scoring assignment Millar was given. This absurdity only strengthens the argument that women composers are not given a fair shake in the industry. This is a soundtrack brimming with sensational and fully explored musical ideas that will captivate any film music fan.

Cynthia Millar was a protégé of the late, legendary composer Elmer Bernstein and the influence of her mentor can be felt right away in track one of the soundtrack album, “The Magic Begins”—a rich, varied cue with great emotional color. Millar composes with vertical movement and melodic purpose—classic Bernstein trademarks—as are her clean, crisp orchestrations. “Three Wishes” is the perfect antidote for soundtrack fans tiring of the wall and sound/ambient noise style of scoring so prevalent today.

“Tom Remembers” introduces a mystery motif used throughout the score to represent the families past tragedy. “The Highway” is a sense of wonder theme used for Patrick Swayze’s enigmatic drifter character and is further developed in the outstanding dramatic cues “Jack” and “Jack’s Life”.  “Hide and Seek” is bouncy, playful cue that ends on a melancholy note—pure Bernstein.

The “Three Wishes Album” is sequenced with thirty tracks—every one of them packed with lush, melodic film music. The emotional tension sentiment continues to build in each sequential cue highlighted by “Explorers”, the wonderfully dramatic “Father’s Day”, the foreboding “Bad News”.

At 3:30 “Love” is one of the longer cues on the album—and what a beautiful piece of music it is—haunting, moving, melancholy—and in a few spots—achingly sad before it ends on a soaring sentimental surge that will move anyone with a beating pulse who did not get an emotional bypass at birth.

“Coach” is a glorious brief cue dripping with sentiment that opens the way for the moving “Gunny’s Wish” and a bold statement of “Jack’s Theme” in “Jack’s Wish”.  Then Millar ups the emotional ante for the tear-inducing “Jack and Jean”, a cue that ranks up there with some of Bernstein’s brilliant work on “Far From Heaven”. “Gunny Flies” is an absolute treat, a soaring piece of wonder and magic reminiscent of Bruce Broughton’s “The Boy Who Could Fly”.

Millar shows complete mastery of her emotional material as she takes us into the home stretch  with the final three cues, “The Homecoming”, “Tom Gets His Wish”, and wonderful summary of the main thematic material in “End Credits”.

Bottom line: Cynthia Millar writes gorgeous music packed with mood, color, melody, and emotion. If you liked Elmer Bernstein’s “Far From Heaven” soundtrack and the sentimental scores of Bruce Broughton and James Horner from the 80s, then you will love “Three Wishes”.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Soundtracks for books

Sometimes a film score will take on a life of its own as a stand-alone listen. It will take me on a sonic journey of imagination and emotion. It will take me to new places—introduce me to new people and new adventures. It will create action and sentiment and dramatic situations beyond anything I could have dreamed of. Sometimes music—be it song or score—can serve not only as the soundtrack for a book of fiction—it can act as an inspiration for it.

Here a few of my books and the soundtracks playing on my iPod, in my car, and my imagination as I wrote them.

I was deep into the trenches of writing “Caitlin Star” when “The Dark Knight Rises” premiered and Hans Zimmer’s score for that film is the perfect soundtrack for ‘Caitlin Star”—especially “Gotham’s Reckoning”.

There are many more musical influences on the creation of “Caitlin Star”—enough to put out several “music from and inspired by” albums in addition to the score soundtrack. The music would include “General Grevious” by John Wiliams from “Revenge of the Sith”, the famous “Star Trek” fight music by Gerald Fried, and the alternative rock/pop bands Garbage, Paramore, and Imagine Dragons.

“Action Figure”  has been described as “24” meets “Falling Down” and the fast paced fatalistic adventures of Wes Jackson can only be scored with one type of music—action!

The musical muse for “Action Figure” was “The Lost World”, the underrated John William’s propulsive and percussive score to Steven Spielberg’s disappointing sequel to “Jurassic Park”. The film may have a ton of problems, but the score is nothing short of a masterwork. “The Lost World” contains some of the most exciting, aggressive, intricate, complex, and relentless action music of the maestro’s career.  The brooding main theme may lack the majestic wonder of William’s “Jurassic Park” classic, but it is an addictive listen and a perfect fit for the nihilistic tone of “Action Figure”.

Video Noir

For the virtual reality techo-thriller the initial musical inspiration was not a score but a song—“Here With Me” by Dido. The dreamy lyrics and hypnotic melody make this the perfect song to encapsulate the video based romance blossoming between Caitlin Blue and Rick Blazer.

Of course there is a score soundtrack that I immersed in as I created the world of “Video Noir”, John William’s action noir “Minority Report”.

When my lifelong obsession with “She” began to crystalize in novel form, the musical embodiment of the mysterious journey into the past was Jerry Goldsmith’s “Basic Instinct”.

“Basic Instinct’s” score is structured around a swirling, spooky, hypnotic main theme introduced in track one, “Main Theme”. It is a haunting, fluid musical texture that immediately draws the listener in to experience a symphony of dark wonders. The theme is layered in and out of the score at multiple points and on various cues at different tempos of urgency, reminding us of the forbidden femme fatale character who J.C. Pezzini has spent his life searching for.

Gunner Star is a unique case in “scoring” the book—because the title character is a self-professed Jerry Goldsmith fan (“the best composer since Beethoven”) and listens to soundtracks throughout the story. So the novel is essentially scored with source music including the soundtracks to “Planet of the Apes”, “Rambo: First Blood Part II”, “Total Recall” and “The 13the Warrior”.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Music for a Norse God

Unfortunately composer Patrick Doyle was not brought back for the "Thor" sequel opening this Friday. Here is a look back at his outstanding score for the highly enjoyable 2011 blockbuster film.

When Marvel began to execute its elaborate setup for the event blockbuster movie “The Avengers”, perhaps the most challenging character to adapt was Thor. Not only was the challenge met, “Thor” (2011) is arguably the best of “The Avengers” prequel character films.
Cinematic Shakespearean guru Kenneth Branagh was the perfect choice to helm what is essentially a Shakespeare drama told in the entertaining and colorful trappings of a comic book opera. The astute Branagh assured the success of the Norse god’s big screen transformation by casting the charismatic Chris Hemsworth as the title character and fan favorite Natalie Portman as his love interest.

To create the musical voice of the film Branagh brought along his long time composer Patrick Doyle. The result is a majestic score, full of soaring themes and heartfelt wonder that elevates the film to an entire new level and is a fully engaging listening experience on its own.
It is impossible to talk about Patrick Doyle’s score to“Thor” without mentioning the composer’s other outstanding soundtrack in 2011, “Rise of the Planets of Apes”. As is the case when a composer creates two scores around the same time and in related genres, there is a similar feel, texture, and tempo shared by the two soundtracks as well as similar motifs.
Given the fantastical nature of “Thor”, (we are talking about a Viking god with a magical hammer after all) it called on Doyle to help carry the film much more so than in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, which is really an intimate coming of age story. In both movies the composer succeeds beyond all expectations and creates memorable music that stays with the listener.

The soundtrack album to “Thor” begins with “Chasing the Storm”, a foreshadowing cue that hints at that the lurking danger and drama ahead. In Track two, “Prologue”, we are introduced to the main theme, a buoyant musical blast of royal optimism that captures the mythological world of Asgard in pitch perfect fashion.
In tracks three and four, “Sons of Odin” and “A New King”, the confident composer ups the ante by giving us bold and fully developed statements of his themes. These two wondrous cues lay the emotional groundwork for the material that will anchor the entire score. The excitement and drama continue to build throughout the next several tracks highlighted by the exciting action piece “Frost Giant Battle” and the dramatic “Crisis in Angard”.

“Thor” has plenty of emotional material, all of it fully developed and spot on. Track 19, the deeply moving “Forgive Me”, and track 22, “Letting Go”, are among the best cues on any soundtracks from any new releases over the last couple of years. Just like Doyle’s other 2011 work, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, “Thor” is a score with heart.

Patrick Doyle had a banner year in 2011 and proved once again he is a composer who can create deeply affecting music. “Thor” is a knockout soundtrack that engages the listener with every note on every track from start to finish. It represents intelligent, exciting blockbuster scoring at its absolute best and ranks alongside Doyle’s “Rise of the Planets of the Apes” and John William’s two Oscar nominated scores (“War Horse”“The Adventures of Tintin”) as the best scores of 2011.

Soundtrack for a ‘Revolution’

The bar was set high when ‘Revolution’ premiered in the fall of 2012 on NBC. Expectations ran white hot—not only for the show itself, but for the original music of the series. Bad Robot—under the leadership of creator-extraordinaire J.J. Abrams—had established itself asa  film oriented production company via “Alias”, “Lost” and “Fringe” as well as the Abrams directed features “M III” (2006), “Star Trek” (2009) and “Super 8” (2011).

The producers of “Revolution” turned to the fertile composer recruiting ground from where Michael Giachinno  had launched his stellar career—the world of gaming.  Christopher Lennertz was the composer chosen and the approach taken would be old school orchestral muscle.

Just like the series itself, Christopher Lennert’z music took a while to find its groove and initially suffered from a poor mix that dialed down the score to nearly inaudible levels. But by the end of the first season, both the show and the music were hitting stride and the “Revolution” year one soundtrack is now commercially available from WaterTowerMusic.

As was the case with “Fringe”, J.J. Abrams himself turns composer for the “Revolution Opening Theme”, a brief but effective musical statement that sets the tone for the show. Christopher Lennertz follows in track two with what has become one of the thematic pillars of the series music, “Charlie’s Theme”, a straightforward, rich melody introduced with a flute solo before morphing into a flurry of Zimmer-style Americana flavored percussion.

“Ben’s Death” is one of the standout tracks on the album, a 4:02 cue where Lennertz gets a chance to show his talent. The music effectively builds into a wickedly suspenseful cue featuring “Lost” style stabbing strings and trombone blasts before exploding into a pulse-pounding orchestral orgy of exciting action music. Finally the cue wraps up with a moving statement of “Charlie’s Theme”. Overall, an outstanding track—one of the best cues from a television soundtrack in recent years.

“Life After iPhones” is another well executed and varied cue featuring a stylistic color and instrumentation choices reminiscent of some of the great work done by Maribeth Solomon and Micky Erbe for “Earth: The Final Conflict”.

“The Plane Gang” is light cue representing the open road aspect of the show meshed with a sense of wonder. “Road to Wrigley” begins a series of tracks where the drama and suspense begin to build. This is a beautifully sequenced album that musically—and emotionally—does a great job telling the story of “Revolution” year one.

“Showdown” sounds like it could have been from a Marvel feature film, in particular it has the flair of Patrick Doyle’s outstanding score for “Thor” (2011). “Reflection – Randall’s Visit” is a crisp, moving, dramatic statement of Charlie’s Theme than ends in a quick action flurry.

Some of the other album highlights include the explosive “Rachel Kills Strausser”, the propulsive action cue “The Lighthouse”, the delicate “Maggie Dies”, another brief variation of “Charlie’s Theme” in “Family Reunited”, and more “Lost” style suspense in “Helicopter”.

The final third of the album is filled with great stuff.  The full-bodied “Charlie Thanks Miles”, high drama and the wonder of it all in “Revelation”, the outstanding emotional suspense cue “Fly Away”, and the exciting action-packed finale “Genesis of Power”.

It is impossible not to bring up “Lost”—and to a certain extant “Fringe” when discussing the music of “Revolution”. The now firmly established tradition of great television scoring in Bad Robot productions is well represented by “Revolution” and Christopher Lennertz is a talent on the rise. The music of “Revolution” does not have the depth of thematic material Michael Giacchino brought to the “Lost” nor the unique flavor and deep emotional timber of Chris Tilton’s music for “Fringe”. 

Bottom Line : Although it may not (as of yet anyway) resonate up there with the soundtracks of past Abrams classics—make no mistake—the music of “Revolution” is top-notch television scoring, makes for an entertaining and exciting stand-alone listen, and is a must own for fans of the show and soundtrack collectors who like an old school orchestral vibe to their music.