Sunday 27 January 2008

A Whale of a Tale from Disney

Released in 1954, Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, based on Jules Verne's futuristic novel, was directed by Richard Fleischer, the son of Disney's cartoon rival Max Fleischer. Filmed in Cinemascope with a stereo soundtrack, it featured a top notch cast including Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas; plus cinema's coolest submarine - the Nautilus.

Distinguished British actor, James Mason gives a sympathetic portrayal of the tormented Captain Nemo while a pumped-up Kirk Douglas fills out the red-striped teeshirt of Ned Land, the hot-headed, harpoon hurling hero. Many of the potent images from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea have understandably become iconic, from the distinctive diving suits to the nuclear powered Nautilus and its attack by a giant squid. The thrilling opening sequence showing a sea-borne assault on a battleship, with the Nautilus' glowing green 'eye' powering through the waves is particularly effective. Another stunning scene frames the Nautilus passing gracefully through undersea caverns accompanied by Bach's Toccata and Fugue, played by Captain Nemo.

Established Disney regular, Paul J. Smith (1906 - 1985) composed the stirring score for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. A novelty song was included for Kirk Douglas' character to croon called "A Whale of A Tale" composed by, but uncredited to Al Hoffman and Norman Gimbel. The song is repeated throughout Smith's score as a leitmotif for Ned.

Over 50 years after its initial release, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea still remains a great adventure story and one of Disney's most mature and accomplished live action features.

Saturday 26 January 2008

Ofelas - a long time ago, in a country far far away

Ofelas or Pathfinder, to use its English title, was Norwegian writer / director Nils Gaup's 1987 beautifully filmed adaptation of an old legend set in 10th-century Lapland.

Oscar nominated for best foreign film of 1987, Ofelas tells the story of Aigin, a 16 year old Lapp, played by Gaup's son Mikkel, whose family is slaughtered by a tribe of crossbow toting, bloodthirsty black-clad bandits called the Tchude. Despite being wounded, Aigin escapes and attempts to warn another Lapp camp of the Tchude's imminent arrival. When the camp flees for the coast, Aigin decides to make a stand against the Tchude. After a failed standoff, Aigin, with the help of the Shaman-like tribal Pathfinder Raste, through bravery and cunning finally overcomes the Tchude and saves the Lapp tribe.

The expansion of the warlike Tchude can be seen as analogous with change especially to the traditional Lapp way of life. With their almost uniform black leather garb, the Tchude look different to the fur-clad Lapps; they are armed with crossbows compared to the others' longbows and they advance through acquisition by conquest. The awesome power and technology of the Tchude and their relentless expansionism is surely a sign that the idyllic life led by the Lapps as they know it is ultimately ending.

Finnish Sami poet and artist Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, (1943 - 2001) composed the majestic score for Ofelas using traditional Sami jojk styling and sweeping synthesisers which at times sounds like Icelandic musicians Sigur Ros and Vangelis. Although Valkeapää's score was nominated for an Oscar, no official soundtrack exists other than the Opening and Closing credits extracted from the DVD, unless anyone knows otherwise.

Ofelas was recently remade as Pathfinder a big budget, beards, bows and broadswords epic starring Lord of The Rings' Karl Urban where Native Americans replace Lapps and Vikings take the place of the Tchude. As slam-bang as the remake may be, it pales when compared to the relative simplicity and purity of Ofelas, which reveals as much about the Lapp lifestyle as the nature of heroes.

Wednesday 23 January 2008

It's trash compactor night at Meco's galactic disco!

In a 1977 movie review, The New Musical Express, described Star Wars as "Disco for the Eyes". Therefore it was no surprise to many of us in the UK that the first Star Wars music we heard was Meco's thunderous 'four on the floor' disco version of the movie's theme.

Meco's Star Wars theme/Cantina Band was a single edit full of R2D2 bleeps, zooms and whooshes (which meant nothing to those of us who hadn't seen the movie) of a longer album track taken from Meco Monardo's breakthrough album Music Inspired by Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk. By today's standards the original vinyl album was more like a 12" single with two tracks, Star Wars running at 15.46 and Other Galactic Funk, a funky percussive workout clocking in at 12.28. (The CD version has the single mix plus a rather good 12"Disco 45 mix added). The album and single were smash hits in 1977 and became synonymous with the era and the movie. The album with its distinctive retro disco bumping spacers cover art was even promoted at the early screenings of Star Wars.

Prior to Star Wars, Meco was a jobbing musician, arranger and producer who brought Gloria Gaynor's gallumphing version of 'Never Can Say Goodbye' to the dancefloors and countless 70's Disco compilations. After watching Star Wars on its opening day he felt that "the music was great but not very commercial" and decided that the world should not only watch but also dance to Star Wars. So with a little help from Neil Bogart at Casablanca Records and a 75 piece orchestra, Star Wars and Other Galactic Funk was born (prompting disturbing visions of Darth Vader doing the Hustle with Tony Manero).

Not one to miss out on a commercial opportunity Meco followed up with a series of disco versions of film themes including CE3K, Superman, The Wizard of Oz (the latter two emanate a strong aroma of gorgonzola) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (which owes more than a nod to Emerson Lake and Palmer's prog-rock arrangement of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare For The Common Man"). Returning to the world of Star Wars in 1980, a 10 inch EP called The Empire Strikes Back was issued which featured a guitar heavy, bronchially menacing Darth Vader / Yoda's Theme, The Battle In The Snow, The Force Theme and Asteroid Field/ Finale, liberally littered with actual sound effects from the movie.

A bit cheesey, but great fun nevertheless, Meco's interpretations have rightly become part of the Star Wars universe. After retiring from the music business in the 80's, Meco recently returned to the fray with a batch of new Star Wars inspired music, though to be honest the more recent songs lack the punch and fun of the disco material - plus they haved been released in a rather distorted bottom heavy mix.

An entertaining selection of his work including Star Wars, CE3K, Star Trek and other film related works is collected on a greatest hits package. The first half contains the original single mix of Star Wars / Cantina Band while the second half features the full album length version of Star Wars. Well worth getting hold of if you don't mind the rather high price tag it commands these days.

Sunday 20 January 2008

John Carpenter - the one-stop movie shop

John Carpenter's early film career is a classic example of the film auteur. Not satisfied with writing the screen play of a movie, he would direct it and then compose and perform the soundtrack, often with his long time musical collaborator Alan Howarth using banks of analog synths and primitive drum machines.

Born in Carthage, New York, John Howard Carpenter's first major film as director and (co) writer was the sci-fi black comedy Dark Star released in 1974 in which he also composed and performed the electronic soundtrack. This approach formed the blueprint for many of his movies that followed including Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981) and the genre defining Halloween (1978) - a frenetic score as familiar to film fans as the themes from Jaws, Star Wars, 2001: A Space Odyssey, James Bond et al.

A typical Carpenter composed soundtrack would utilize heavy and drawn out sombre tones that rarely occupied the upper tonal registers of the synthesiser except to emphasise a shocking scene. Classic examples of Carpenter's very individual and distinctive work feature on a sadly deleted compilation which provides a satisfying introduction to one of Hollywood's great originals.

The Thing: - Who Goes There?

John Carpenter's visceral 1982 remake of Howard Hawks' 1951 classic The Thing From Another World, was a masterful piece of reimagining and much closer to the source novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell.

While Hawks' movie followed a traditional 'monster on the loose' format, Carpenter's version focussed on 'the beast within' motif. Using stunning visual effects; created by Rob Bottin a mentor of monster makeup maestro Rick Baker; Carpenter conveyed, (until Terminator 2 came to town), moviedom's most memorable shape shifter.

Wanting a European sound to the music, Carpenter brought in Ennio Morricone to supply the chilling soundtrack. Perhaps it was Carpenter's habit of providing his own synth based soundtracks that rendered virtually all of Morricone's material to be excised from the final cut and replaced in part by the director's own compositions. What remains of Morricone's score for The Thing is dark, disturbing and atmospheric especially during the opening sequence (Humanity Part 1), where the 'alien' husky is being pursued by a helicopter. The most easily recognisable cue from the movie, the glacial "Humanity Part ll" is ironically the least like Morricone and actually resembles Carpenter's own work.

The out of print soundtrack for The Thing, eschews Carpenter's own material and focuses entirely on Morricone's score and includes material not used in the final cut. One can only muse how these unused cues would have fitted in Carpenter's icy masterpiece.

Saturday 12 January 2008

John Barry goes deep and finds treasure

The Deep, directed by Peter Yates and released in 1977 was adapted from Jaws author Peter Benchley's novel about Haitian high jinx, sub-aquatic swag, dodgy drug dealers and death-defying dives. Despite Peter Yates' best directorial efforts, some stunnning underwater photography and Jacqueline Bisset's underwater underwear, The Deep did not repeat the success of Jaws.

While the film may have sprung a leak and capsized, John Barry's evocative soundtrack is pure gold. It seems to mark a transitional period for Barry with lush and romantic orchestration recalling The Girl With Sun In Her Hair and suspenseful elements of his work on the Deadfall (1968) and Jagged Edge (1985) soundtracks.

In a reflection of the times, Barry's sinuous theme for The Deep is given the disco treatment during the end titles and in vocal form by Donna Summer which is pleasant enough and gives the saucy minx the opportunity to add a more earthy meaning to the words Down Deep Inside!

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Batman Beyond - The Joker goes back to the future

Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker was a direct to video feature length animation from 2000 based on the TV series Batman Beyond aka Batman of the Future. With dazzling manga style animation, the movie presented a dark plot involving Batman's arch nemesis, The Joker and in the process revealed what really happened to Robin.

Batman Beyond was Warners' next generation Batman. One that had previously been thrillingly brought to life by the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series which starred the vocal talents of Kevin Conroy as arguably the best Batman ever. In Batman Beyond, Conroy reprised his role in a future where Bruce Wayne has retired from crimefighting and handed the mantle, though not the cape, of Batman to high school student Terry McGinnis. Also repeating his role was animated Batman veteran and former Tatooine farmboy cum Jedi master, Mark Hamill as the Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker.

Apart from its sophisticated animation, plots and voice work, Batman: The Animated Series had the kind of orchestral scores normally associated with big budget features. The late great Shirley Walker provided the music along with her team of talented composers including Lolita Ritmaris, Michael McCuistion, Gabriel Moses and Kristopher Carter.

To reflect its futuristic setting and a decidedly youthful hero, the Batman Beyond TV series utilized a predominantly techno sound. Kristopher Carter's soundtrack for the movie however reveals more light and shade with dramatic orchestral passages that recall the influence of his mentor Shirley Walker and adrenalin packed techno-metal wig-outs with drums like kango hammers on steroids, bowel-destroying bass and chunky chainsaw guitar. Carter's keening mournful theme for the movie is further enhanced during the end titles by some nifty bluesy fret play from Kenny Wayne Shepherd.

At a whisker over half an hour, this soundtrack only represents a brief glimpse into the future, and while not all the tracks are for the fainthearted, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker represents a rock solid modern soundtrack with some occasional moments of sheer brilliance that sound fantastic when played very loud.

Monday 7 January 2008

Raising temperatures with Body Heat

Lawrence Kasdan's 1981 directorial debut, Body Heat is a sexed-up modern film noir tale of seduction, murder and deception. It made stars of Kathleen Turner and William Hurt and allowed John Barry to compose one of his most sexy and sultry scores.

Kathleen Turner plays a rich and lonely housewife who uses her "womanly wiles" to entice a sleazy lawyer played by William Hurt into a plot to kill her husband. Unfortunately for Hurt's character, all is not what it seems, and like a moth who gets too close to the flame, he gets well and truly burned.

Harking back to Barry's jazzy roots Body Heat is stylistically similar to his own Playing By Heart and Jerry Goldsmith's acclaimed score for Chinatown. You can almost feel the sultry heat coming from the grooves. Perhaps it's some kind of harmonic trick but during the main title theme you can almost hear the police siren during the opening of the movie. As an aside, if you watch the opening of the IPCRESS file, you may notice that the coffee grinder in the opening scene seems to be in the same key as the music!

The original soundtrack for Body Heat was issued in a limited edition of 2,000 printed copies for Southern Cross, however in 1998 Joel McNeely re-recorded the score for a Varese Sarabande release. Twenty seven years after its release Body Heat remains a popular concert favourite and a much loved soundtrack among Barry and film score fans alike.