SOUNDTRACK CDs - February 2002

[See also A. I. and Dances with Wolves, both reviewed in the Hi-Res section this month.]

A BEAUTIFUL MIND - Composed and conducted by James Horner - Decca 440 016 191-2:

Now this is top-flight package: Worthwhile music from a great film with a unique communicative approach to the subject of mental illness, and an Enhanced CD with CD-ROM features that are more lavish than some of the extras provided on full-fledged DVD videos. Plus it's cross-platform - thank you! Included are the complete full-motion theatrical trailer for the film, a short video interview with composer Horner, a printed conversation with Horner, a printed conversation with director Ron Howard, and a Photo Gallery of about a dozen shots. The classically oriented soundtrack music is varied and listenable even if you haven't seen the film. Again there is the commercially-required vocal number in there - at least the vocalist is fine (Charlotte Church). But that track is best ignored.

CHARLOTTE GRAY - Music composed by Stephen Warbeck - Sony Soundtrack SK 89829:

Another rather classical score, this one featuring some attractive violin and piano solos. Starring Cate Blanchett as a Scottish nurse, the story is set in WW II period France and efforts of the French underground fighting the Nazis. The 15 cues are programmatic in nature but not overly obvious. Nice orchestrations and full, rich sonics. Unless one is getting the original mono optical track off a historical film, soundtrack albums today have just as high fidelity as most other CDs.

- John Sunier

THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE - Music composed by Carter Burwell - Decca 440 016 019-2:

The latest from the Coen brothers bears most of their unexpected twists and turns of fate in a black and white homage to film noir of the 40s. What makes the soundtrack truly unique to this type of film is the choice of Beethoven piano sonatas - of all things - as an important element. There are five excerpts from the sonatas plus one from a Beethoven piano trio and an aria from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. The last is probably intended to tie in with the lead character (Joe Bob Briggs) being a barber. The piano tie-in is with a young girl who exposes the barber to Beethoven sonatas and about whom the barber has a fantasy of managing her career as a concert pianist. The original music is completely different of course, nothing earth-shaking, but it does work well with the Beethoven. Having slaved over some of these sonatas in my youth, it was a freeing experience to hear them freshly in this particular context - it pointed up the tremendous emotional wallop some of them can communicate. They also seem to fit the dated black and white imagery better than symphonic music would. You might forever relate differently to these sonatas when you hear them, as many of us do for example when hearing The Blue Danube - since 2001 Space Odyssey.

K-PAX - Music composed and conducted by Edward Shearmur - Decca 440 016 192-2:

The Kevin Spacey vehicle about a spacey man in an asylum who insists he is an alien from outer space got mixed reviews. The soundtrack doesn't stand on its own terribly well but the very atmospheric, often minimalist cues set a fascinating mood that makes me want the see the film after all. Electronic drones, synth percussion and tinkling piano themes abound. There are a dozen cues. It would have been nice if Decca had done an Enhanced version on this one and provided the theatrical trailer.

- John Sunier


BLACK HAWK DOWN - Music composed and conducted by Hans Zimmer - Decca 440 017 012-2:

The current feature about the abortive Magadishu Somalia battle is a gritty and violent portrayal of the actual events. Zimmer thought of the battle as being between two tribes, one representing technology (America, of course) and the other the simple ethnic tribe of the locals. African music is the overall musical area in which Zimmer created his score. He mixed many ethnic instruments and vocals with synth effects and synth percussion. The rock sensibilities of the American soldiers are portrayed with occasional stinging electric guitar blasts. A feeling of unbearable tension is maintained though much of it.

SPY GAME - Music composed and conducted by Harry Gregson Williams - Decca 440 016 190-2:

Another military movie, with Robert Redford as an experienced spy, struggling to bring back his protegee Brad Pitt from a seemingly hopeless situation in a foreign country. Again, lots of high-tension music and scene-setting for big explosions and pandemonium. Some good tunes in spite of all that. Probably only required purchase if you saw/see the movie.

- John Sunier


IRIS - Music composed and conducted by James Horner; Joshua Bell, solo violin - Sony Music Soundtrax SK 89806:

Yet another Alzheimer's story...I forget how many I've seen now. Switches between youth and old age of a couple. Well, with Judi Dench as the old Iris and Kate Winslet as the young Iris it can't be all bad, and the music - often a sort of low-budget violin concerto - is very lovely. If you haven't seen the film you won't get much of the story from looking at the eight tracks offered here - they are simply numbered Part 1 thru 8.

GOSFORD PARK - Music composed by Patrick Doyle - Decca 289 470 387-2:

Robert Altman's current film combining an Upstairs/Downstairs British upper class situation with a murder mystery has been widely acclaimed. Doyle is one of the best of the current crop of film composers, and his two dozen very short cues here mix music of the period with atmospheric scene-setting. A central thread thru the film (heard in six of the tracks here) is the songs of singer Ivor Novello, who was as popular in Britain at the time as, say, Bing Crosby was in the U.S. Some reminded me of Noel Coward songs, and the actor in the film actually sings all of them onscreen himself. Jolly good show, the lot of it.

- John Sunier

[Yes, we reviewed this in our November 2001 issue but here is a different take on my review that warrants your attention if you're a Glass fan. -  Ed.]

PHILIP GLASS: Philip on Film - Kronos String Quartet, et al. - Nonesuch 79660-2 (5 Cds):

Last spring I attended a live performance of Philip Glass' re-orchestration of the film Dracula (1931). The composer sat in back of the screen playing piano and directing the Kronos String Quartet in a mesmerizing performance. You could barely see them through the haze of clever lighting effects, but during dramatic moments they'd appear, accented by swatches of red light. The music is like a rhapsody for string quartet, more moody than suspenseful, uncharacteristically constant throughout, and tinged with fin de siècle melancholia. Creepy, but not scary. Lyrical, but not sentimental. Dracula was not just background film music, but a performance event, a fact that eluded some of the local critics. Composers like Shostakovich, Schnittke, Korngold, and Herriman saw their film music as mostly work-for-hire, artfully executed but not always at the level of their concert and chamber pieces. However, Philip Glass' film music may be his best music.

The current collection contains works of astounding eclecticism. Although composed earlier than Dracula, Glass' orchestration of La Belle et la Bête is more adventurous, because it creates an opera for Cocteau's film. It is for the most part an aria-less opera, with its characters exchanging brief sprechtstimme passages with one another, but intense vocal effects abound. Glass' music here (oddly reminiscent of Janaçek's) coats the film with dense layers of urgency and thematic propulsion. Since this La Belle et la Bête does not exist as a DVD (yet), listeners can try synching it up with the available DVD, turning the original sound off. What a shame this collection doesn't have a libretto for the work. Other CDs in this set include Glass' callow first film, Koyaanisqatsi, a meditative work featuring mantras and a full glass of Glass' quivering arpeggios. While not as successful as the later pieces, the work provides context for the composer's development. The second work in the proposed trilogy, Powaqqatsi uses entirely different effects. Glass mines the vast pampas and valleys of world music, blending his work with South American, African, and Asian dance rhythms. Here he learns how to employ unusual dramatic effects, such as the marriage of percussion with vocalise choruses and the sudden introduction of a new theme before the current one has spent itself.

The final CD features compilations from his later films such as Kundun (in which the Eastern themes are only suggested), Mishima (in which Japanese themes don't even occur), and The Thin Blue Line. This last work is a documentary about a man unjustly accused of murdering a highway patrol officer. Glass' music for the end credits, with its nostalgic dying falls and repetitive counterpoint, relaxes you, seduces you even, until you hear a car door slam and five shots blasting on the soundtrack. This is quintessential Philip Glass. His sonic intrusions into the real world stay with you long after the deceptively pretty music dies off.

--Peter Bates

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