Wednesday 28 October 2009

Grand Canyon Suite - Grofe's orchestral masterpiece

Composed in 1928-31 by Ferde Grofé, Grand Canyon Suite is an orchestral piece depicting aspects of the titular Colorado landmark. In 1958, it provided the soundtrack for Walt Disney's breathtakingly beautiful short nature feature, The Grand Canyon.

American pianist, arranger and composer Ferd Grofé began his musical career proper playing jazz piano with the Paul Whiteman orchestra and was the orchestra's chief arranger from 1920-1932. His most memorable arrangement for Whiteman was of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. In addition, Grofé also composed original film music, including the scores to Early to Bed (1928), Minstrel Man (1944), Time Out of Mind (1947), Rocketship X-M (1950) and The Return of Jesse James (1950).

It is however, The Grand Canyon Suite, an unashamed slice of evocative Americana, that Grofé  is perhaps best known. Grand Canyon Suite is divided into five highly individual movements entitled "Sunrise", "Painted Desert", "On the Trail", "Sunset" and "Cloudburst".

Wikipedia describes Grand Canyon Suite thus:

Sunrise opens with a representation of the moment of dawn in the canyon. The feeling of peace is present, a sense of still air, of a place owned by nature. Gradually we hear the sun mount the sky until the joyous proclamations of the full orchestra announce the arrival of another splendid and radiant day. Two main musical themes are presented: the first, announced by the piccolo, opens with a four-note motive (B-C#-G#-B) which will reappear later in the work in different guises; the second theme appears in the strings. After the trill by the piccolo, the descending notes that follow reflect the call of the canyon wren, a widespread but not frequently seen songbird common in the canyon country and desert southwest.

The Painted Desert is a watercolor of impressive delicacy and subtlety. Grofé manages to suggest the presence of some ageless, unchanging life still present in the arid and apparently lifeless desert, in the brilliant, sometimes startling colors of the rock formations, the geologic artwork of prehistory. Ingenious usage of chords and orchestral tone abound.

On the Trail is the best-known of the movements of the Grand Canyon Suite, the aural report of the day riding on the back of a pack donkey (imitating its clip-clop), beginning and ending with a great "hee-haw". A violin cadenza is used to wonderful effect. The principal theme of this movement, which is presented by the horns, and later, trombones, serves as the central motif of the suite. NB The "On the Trail" segment of Grand Canyon Suite was used for many years as the "musical signature" for radio programs sponsored by Philip Morris cigarettes, beginning with their 1933 program featuring Grofé and his orchestra.

Sunset is a nostalgic and pleasantly sentimental rendering of the most glorious of Grand Canyon moments, when the sky is alive with vibrant colors above the deepening shadows in the great gorge.

Cloudburst opens with a sleepy recollection of the theme from "On the Trail" in the upper strings. Then we enter a summation, a kind of panoramic view of the vastness of this Western scene, with brief references to other themes in the work. On to this scene suddenly come dark, scudding clouds and a rising wind. A lone cello solo suggests a mood of apprehension. The evening air is filled with fine sand and bits of tumbleweed, in the form of eerie slow violin glissandi. The storm breaks, with lightning, thunder and pelting rain. Then even more quickly, it is gone, with a last crash of lightning and peal of thunder. The moon emerges from behind the clouds and the earth rejoices in refreshed pleasure in a climactic rousing finish.
I have to confess I knew nothing of Grand Canyon Suite or its composer until a few years ago. It was only after I heard extracts on some classical compilations of American composers that I became hooked. I was struck by the epic, filmic quality of the music especially the airy Sunset, the explosive Cloudburst and the otherworldliness of the The Painted Desert - the latter would have made a great soundtrack for a 50's Sci-Fi movie! It also reminded me of the music from those wonderful old Walt Disney live action nature films that would support some Disney main feature like Blackbeard's Ghost or The Love Bug. It was therefore no big surprise to discover, that Disney had indeed used it to underscore The Grand Canyon short from 1958. The featurette is currently available as an extra on Disney's Sleeping Beauty Special Edition DVD. Don't take my word for it check out this stunning music for yourself.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Flight of the Navigator - Compliance!

One of the most fondly remembered movies of the last two decades is Disney's 1986 science fiction fantasy, Flight of The Navigator, directed by Randall Kleiser. Ironically the movie tanked when originally released, grossing only around $18 million. It was only after  TV screenings and video rentals and sales that it became a cult classic.

Flight of The Navigator concerns David played with great charm by Joey Cramer, a 12-year old boy who is abducted by an alien space craft in 1978. When he is returned to Earth, it is eight years later in 1986 though everyone else on Earth has aged eight years, while David is still physically twelve years old. On his return, he is taken to a NASA facility to be examined.

At the same time a silver, acorn-shaped vessel has been discovered and is taken to the same NASA base as David. It turns out that the alien spacecraft, a Trimaxion Drone Ship nicknamed Max, voiced by a manic Paul "PeeWee Herman" Reubens, is responsible for David's predicament. It calls to David and with the help of an intern, played by a very young Sarah Jessica Parker, David manages to access the alien spaceship and escape the complex. Thus begins a thoroughly enjoyable adventure in time and space for David and the audience.

What distinguishes Flight of the Navigator from other sci-fi movies of that era is the pace, an intellingent well crafted script full of warmth and humour and the fine ensemble acting. Continuity fans will snigger at the sight of Joey Cramer's hair changing from shortish to shoulder length mid scene. Presumably Joey was brought back for some re-shoots or reaction shots during post production and either the continuity person had taken a vacation or no one could convince Joey to get his hair cut. (At least it's not as awful as the wig that Ewan McGregor had to wear in certain scenes in The Phantom Menace!). Above all director Randall Kleiser, the man who brought us Grease, doesn't pad the film out and lets it say what it has to say and then leaves. For me it's up there with Back to The Future for fun, charm and intelligence.

Alan Silvestri provides a warm though very 80's-style electronic score for Flight of The Navigator that is closer to his work on Cat's Eye than his later orchestral work on Back To The Future, especially on the mysterious, David in the Woods and  The Ship Beckons cues. It's a short soundtrack but like the film it's an enjoyable ride.

The latest news is that Flight of The Navigator is to be remade, which for a new audience who find the special effects less than affective and the 80 isms a bit lame, it may seen a good thing. But in my opinion, no matter how many dollars are thrown at it, the new version will have a very hard job competing with the near flawless original.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Four Minus One - Andy Quin

Several years ago I was browsing round a charity shop and found a hoard of Library Music CDs. Amongst the usual cheesy synthesiser fare was Four Minus One, an expertly executed collection of jazz instrumentals by composer and jazz pianist Andy Quin.

Released in 1988 Four Minus One features Andy Quin's Tatum/Peterson/Evans style piano, supported by Tony Woods on Tenor and Alto Sax, Brian Hurst on stand up and fretless Bass, and Pete Cotterill on Drums.  Normally library music by its very nature is simply required to create a mood or provide succinct unobtrusive background. On certain tracks Four Minus One, adheres to these rules, however on the frenetic Bossa Da Company, the band get a chance to really let go.  The saxes are sublime and the rhythm section is electifying. Quin in particular, allows himself to display his enviable skills on the 88, transforming a rambling latin flavoured cue into something altogether wonderful, which to my ears sounds like a syncopated outtake from Richard Rodney Bennett's Billion Dollar Brain

Elsewhere, the hermetically tight quartet take care of business with the smokey jazz club style Eldidarap, the shades 'n' sharkskin suit sophisticition of Calculation and Backstreet, the title track Four Minus One and the perky Take Off  which sounds like a cross between a theme for a game show or a late night chat show and allows Tony Wood's sizzling reed work to shine through. It's a fitting closer for the group session and in my mind's eye I can imagine a good natured but slightly exhausted band packing their gear away in the back of estate cars, exchanging jokes, jackets over their shoulders, while Andy Quin chills out on the old Joanna for the five remaining solo tracks.

Born in London in 1960, Andy Quin has played with some of the UK's leading jazz musicians such as Stan Sulzmann, Don Lusher, Guy Barker, Steve Sidwell, John Patrick, Roy Williams and many more, as well as appearing as a soloist at numerous concert venues and jazz festivals.

Andy Quin's jazz music has featured on numerous TV programmes and adverts as well as film productions including George A. Romero's 1991 Horror, The Dark Half and Brian Dennehy's 1997 drama, A Father's Betrayal which includes Four Minus One's opening track Eldiderap.

Four Minus One has become something of a collector's item, with the vinyl version commanding some £50 for a decent copy. That aside, anyone who has enjoyed earlier postings about Dudley Moore and Gordon Beck, should find plenty to tap a toe to with the Mighty Quin.

Monday 5 October 2009

Wild Things - Nothing is what it seems....(REPOST)

Guillaume Canet's acclaimed Gallic thriller "Tell No One" gained plaudits for its complex plot full of twists and turns right up to the last minute. One movie that trod a similar, if swampy, path was the noirish 1998 erotic crime thriller Wild Things.

Directed by John McNaughton in  fine "Hitchcockian" style, Wild Things is densely plotted, with an attractive and impressive cast of 80's meet 90's stars including, Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon, Denise Richards, Neve Campbell, Teresa Russell and a scene stealing performance by Bill Murray.

Wild Things is probably more famous for its notorious sex scenes but don't let that wrong foot you, Wild Things is a deceptive movie from the outset. The opening alone, lulls the viewer into thinking they are watching some high school teen melodrama - there lies the beauty of this movie. After this misleading beginning, things soon move up a gear and suddenly nothing is what it seems. Enemies become co-conspiritors, people you think are dead suddenly reappear - the ending is brilliant with revelations even during the end titles. I won't spoil the experience of seeing this film and allowing its sultry charms to take you in. Beg steal or borrow it and see for yourself and check out the fascinating Director's commentary.

Wild Things' soundtrack is provided by George S Clinton (not to be confused with the funk legend George Clinton) and echoes Hitchcock standby Bernard Herrmann and aspects of John Barry's creepy Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Aided and abetted by members of Morphine, K's Choice and Smashmouth, Clinton produces a very listenable soundtrack that manages to maintain its own identity and conjurs up suspense, steamy clinches and Floridan swamps.

In addition to Clinton's excellent score, the soundtrack also includes little musical gems including, Third Eye Blind's poppy Semi Charmed Life,  Smashmouth's ska punk version of War's Why Can't We Be Friends?; Johnny Rivers' soulful Poor Side of Town and K's Choice's angsty I'm Not An Addict to name but a few.

Check out the excellent fansite After Tonight for more information on this classic movie

Sunday 4 October 2009

L'appartement - obsession, lies and deceit

Released in 1996, L'appartement is a stylish and sophisticated noir thriller directed by Gilles Mimouni and starring Vincent Cassel, Monica Bellucci and Romane Bohringer.

Not to be mistaken for Billy Wilder's bittersweet classic, L’Appartement follows the exploits of Max played by Vincent Cassel, a successful businessman living in Paris, soon to be married to his fiance Muriel and about to leave on a business trip to Tokyo.

Over a lunch meeting in a restaurant, Max has to make a phone call only to find the only phone available is in use by a woman concealed behind a frosted glass partition. Max hears the woman, and believes it is his long lost love Lisa played by Monica Bellucci. Max misses the girl as she leaves the restaurant, prompting him to skip his flight to Tokyo and attempt to track Lisa down. Through a series of flashbacks we discover more about Max and Lisa and gradually through his investigations into her disappearance, Max encounters the emotionally damaged Alice, played by Romane Bohringer, and becomes drawn into a web of obsession, lies and deceit.

With a plot reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Barbet Schroeder's Single White Female, L’Appartement's non-linear plot takes the viewer through numerous twists and turns and keeps you guessing right up to its bittersweet conclusion.

The Hitchcockian vibe of L’Appartement is excentuated by Peter Chase's gorgeous melancholic and romantic score which recalls Bernard Herrmann's work with Hitchcock and Howard Shore's A History of Violence. Sadly, an officially released score is not available but a short DVD rip of the soundtrack is a great listen.

If the plot of L'appartement seems familiar, it was was remade in the US by Paul McGuigan as Wicker Park in 2004 and starred Josh Hartnett. I've not seen it it so I can't comment.

For me, Gilles Mimouni's artfully directed L’Appartement is a thing of beauty, stunningly framed by Thierry Arbogast, with a stylish and intelligent plot and great performances by an excellent cast. A cool and sexy film to be savoured.