Reviews by John Sunier
S O U N D T R A C K C D s
Angels in America – Music from the HBO Film composed and conducted by Thomas Newman – Nonesuch 79837-2:
The successful Broadway play on the AIDS crisis by Tony Kushner was made into a well-received six-hour-long movie version for HBO with Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson, directed by Mike Nichols. It indicts AIDS politics during the Reagan era and tells of a group of people trying to make sense of a world that values human life and decency less and less. Film composer (the son of Alfred Newman and cousin of Randy) Newman has been nominated for five Academy Awards and recently did both Finding Nemo and Six Feet Under. The music stands on its own quite well – a lovely mostly symphonic score by Newman with vocal soloists and a number of unusual sounds, including manipulated violin, prepared guitar, prepared piano, contra-alto clarinet, high-string guitar, kantele, EWI, and some other probably electronic gadgets which I’ve never heard of. There are 31 cues here. The unusual instrumentation helps Newman’s score to reflect the sometimes dream-like or drug-induced scenes in the film. The orchestral and vocal sections are spiced up with an original Ellington piano solo on Solitude, and the George Lewis New Orleans band in A Closer Walk With Thee. With so much going on and such unusual instrumental timbres, this would be a good bet for multichannel SACD when Nonesuch finally gets around to the new format.
– John Sunier
Two Philip Glass film scores…
The Fog of War – a Film by Errol Morris; Music by Philip Glass – Conducted by Michael Riesman – Orange Mountain Music omm-0010:
The latest documentary by the masterful filmmaker Morris is basically an extended apology by former Secretary of State Robert S. McNamara about the administration’s misguided involvement in the Vietnam War. Some of the titles of the 34 short cues will give an idea of the film: The War to End All Wars, Damned If I Don’t, Dominoes, Gulf of Tonkin, Why Are We Here?, Body Count. This is the third Morris film with original music by Glass. The filmmaker told the composer he created a feeling of existential dread better than anyone, and this movie is filling with it.
The Music of Candyman – Philip Glass – Ens. conducted by Michael Reisman – Orange Mountain Music omm-0003:
Over a decade ago a pair of films appeared based on stories by Clive Barker – Candyman and its sequel Candyman II. Glass accepted the soundtrack work for this contemporary tale of horror and myth and wrote one of his most gothic scores, including pipe organ and chorus. Somewhere during production Barker and the producers replaced the original director because he wasn’t including enough overt gore and horror. Glass felt he had been misled, but when the studio called for a sequel he agreed to their using parts of his original score for the second film. This compilation presents seven cues from the original in a suite plus six cues from the sequel. This is the first commercial CD release of the soundtrack material. Though there are some interestingly dark sounds here, it is probably of more interest to dyed-in-the-black Glass-fans and fans of the horror genre than to the average music lover with an interest in new music. There are some pretty silly syllables repeated by the chorus if you listen closely.
– John Sunier
O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Original Film Soundtrack – Lost Highway/Mercury Enhanced CD 088 170-069-2 DG02:
I’ve been waiting for a very long time to receive the SACD version of this disc, but since it has never arrived, let’s get on with the standard CD which did arrive. The Coen Brothers film which greatly increased interest in American roots music starred George Clooney, John Turturro and John Goodman. Almost every scene includes either a performance of some old time music or has it on the soundtrack. The story is a sort-of-modern adaptation of the story of Ulysses. Goodman plays the one-eyed Cyclops – a bible salesman. When the trio of escaped convicts comes upon a small local radio station they quickly pass themselves off as a vocal trio. All 19 tracks here are old time vocals, some featuring such names as Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, John Hartford and The Stanley Bros. Among the songs are In the Jailhouse Now, I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow, You Are My Sunshine, and Keep on the Sunny Side. Great fun with or without the flick but you gotta see it. (The Enhanced part is not the trailer for the film but only a screensaver and some web links.)
Music for two big films with scrappy leads who scowl a lot…
Master and Commander – The Far Side of the World – Original music composed by Iva Davies, Christopher Gordon & Richard Tognetti – Decca B0001574-02:
Interesting that the three above get credit for this score while Bach, Mozart, Corelli, Boccherini and Vaughan Williams – who are heard at length on the soundtrack – are only mentioned on the list of the 15 cues on the CD. Didn’t they create a bit of “original music?” Not being a big Russell Crowe fan I skipped this one, but the score is certainly a big time symphonic statement – if a bit patchy in the transitions from the newly composed material to the classical selections. We’ve even got Yo-Yo Ma in the Prelude from the first of the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites. The sound is rich and full – no reduced-size film orchestra on this project.
The Last Samurai – Original score composed and arranged by Hans Zimmer; The Hollywood Studio Symphony conducted by Blake Neely – Elektra 62932-2:
The Tom Cruise epic is a well-made adventure with considerable depth, if a bit heavy on the slice-and-dice battle scenes. It brings light to an interesting historical period, and while some native Japanese instruments are featured in the score it makes no attempt at musical authenticity. This is Zimmer’s 100th film score, so he should know what he is doing by now. He gives us a lush and very symphonic score that moves the story along beautifully without taking center spotlight – much as he did in his music for Gladiator. In this case the cue titles do seem to give a feeling for the music, so here they are: A Way of Life, Spectres in the Fog, Taken, A Hard Teacher, To Know My Enemy, Idyll’s End, Safe Passage, Ronin, Red Warrior, The Way of the Sword, A Small Measure of Peace.
– John Sunier
A pair of films about taking from the rich to give to the poor, plus the reverse of that…
The Cooler – Original music by Mark Isham and vocals by Diana Krall, Joey Fatone, Paul Sorvino and others – Koch Records KOC CD5707:
The director and co-writer of this new film used scratch tracks of earlier film music by Isham before he actually talked to the composer about creating an original sexy/jazzy score for his film about the unluckiest guy in Las Vegas. William H. Macy plays a “cooler” who the casino management sends around to tables where somebody is winning too much because people always lose around him. Isham leads a nice little 15-piece big band with Sid Page on violin, and his cues are heard in between the vocal tracks which obviously tie in with the story – tunes such as Candy, Luck Be a Lady, and You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me. This one would probably be most worthwhile to those who have seen the film, but Isham is a composer of great taste and skill.
The Adventures of Robin Hood – Music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold for the 1938 Film – Moscow Symphony Orch./William Stromberg – Marco Polo 8.225268:
Film musicologist John Morgan labored to restore missing portions of Korngold’s original score for this first complete digital recording of the music. It’s the latest in a series of over two dozen soundtrack CDs on Marco Polo from Morgan and Stromberg. This definitive Robin Hood is one of the ten most popular movies shown by U.S TV stations. It is full of hummable Korngold melodies, and one of the booklet note writers notes that back in the 30s there weren’t recordings of soundtrack music available, so film music buffs were limited to only hearing their favorite scores in a movie theater. The acclaimed Charles Gerhardt series of Classic Film Scores for RCA in the 70s included a bit over 12-minutes worth of Robin Hood, and Varese Sarabande released a version by the Utah Symphony in l983. However, that one was only 43 minutes worth because it was designed originally for LP release. (I have the Varese CD and the new disc shows how much sonic improvement standard CDs have shown in recent years.) This new version is the entire 73-minute score, and is released in tandem with the Warner Bros. DVD special edition of the film, marking its 65th anniversary.
– John Sunier
Varèse Sarabande – A 25th Anniversary Celebration, 25 Years of Great Film Music – (Various) – Varèse Sarabande 4CD boxed set 302 066 460 2:
The Varese Sarabande label was founded by Tom Null in l978 as a classical label for the rescue of some of the more obscure works by both great and little-known composers. (As a collector of prerecorded open reel tapes I was occasionally on the lookout for obscure tapes for possible reissue by Tom’s label.) A few soundtrack discs found their way into the VS catalog and eventually their sales overshadowed the classical music, which by then included original recording sessions in the audiophile class. Tom preferred the classical genre and so left and started Citadel Records for that purpose.
Varese Sarabande now has a catalog of nearly 900 film score albums and averages one new soundtrack release every week. They were the first record label to specialize entirely in soundtracks – making it possible for the best of film music to lead another life apart from the film for which it was composed. Current Varese CEO Robert Townson decries the fact that many great film scores are ignored because the film they are associated with was a flop. From the looks of the 84 different film score excerpts presented in this massive compilation, there are few flops (though there were a few I had never heard of). Even if there were – with composers such as Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Georges Delerue, Alex North, Miklos Rozsa, Mark Isham, Hans Zimmer, John Barry and John Williams – the music would probably be well worth hearing apart from the film. There’s no room to list all 84 themes in the collection, but suffice it to say even you are a collector of soundtrack albums it is unlikely you will end up with many duplications in this terrific set. It could also provide a fun evening of Name The Movie among a group of film score fans. I should warn you that on Disc 4 they slipped in a few drum-n’-bass and “remix” themes which may have been appropriate in combination with some gritty deconstructionist images up on the screen, but I can’t image a sane adult music lover not diving for the track advance button.
– John Sunier
Little Shop of Horrors – New Broadway Cast Recording – the music of Alan Menken – DRG Theater12998:
The saga of Little Shop began with the Roger Corman low-budget horror movie that was Jack Nicholson’s first film. It next appeared in l982 as a popular off-Broadway musical version of the story of the alien plant that ate people. This new Broadway production sports a score heavy in genre rock tunes – do-wop, soul, blues, girl-group Motown style and even pop klezmer. Its stridency got on my nerves a bit but fans such music should love it. The spiffing-up of the original story lines are clever. The Nicholson character in the film was a masochist who loved to visit the dentist; now the dentist is a sadist (and nitrous addict) who decided on that profession as a way to carry out his obsession plus get money for it. He explains it in the song “I Found a Hobby.” The masochist is now hero Seymour’s girl-friend Audrey. The plant – the amazing Audrey II – is operated onstage by three puppeteers, and its singing/speaking voice is a male blues shouter. Raucous good fun all ‘round.
– John Henry