Monday, April 3, 2023

As It's 'National Film Score Day', My Soundtrack Story

When I work on projects at home I will listen to music, or, if my task requires little concentration, interviews and discussions or narrated pieces. Yesterday while looking for stuff to download from the wonderful BBC radio podcast site I noticed that British film reviewer/writer Mark Kermode had recorded a four-part series called "The Soundtrack of My Life". I listened to the first part last night.

Titled, simply enough, "Soundtrack Albums", the piece involved Kermode's memories of discovering film scores and soundtracks. He talks of his first acquisitions, then goes on to interview several filmmakers and composers.

I remember my first soundtrack album. It was from a film I had seen just months before, in 1975, at the Terra Theatre at CFB Borden: Rollerball.

Later, as I perused the LP record bin at Borden's PX (Post Exchange), I happened across the Rollerball soundtrack and learned then that there was a tie-in record. I bought it on the spot. This LP was not an original soundtrack in the traditional sense, but a compilation of music: A mix of Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky, Bach, and two more-contemporary pieces by Andre Previn composed specifically for the film. One of the catches for me was Tomaso Albinoni's "Adagio"; I remembered that it was used quite effectively in the Space: 1999 television series episode "Dragon's Domain", which I had also seen just a few months earlier. Now that I think about it, I played the Rollerball record a lot. It was not my introduction to recorded classical music ― my parents had a good selection from that domain ― but the choices, no doubt by the film's director, Norman Jewison, seemed to be a perfect blend for this then young listener.

My next album was the music to Space: 1999, which I was a little disappointed in, and a couple of years after that was Battlestar Galactica. (What's with all the sci-fi TV crap? Oh yeah, I was young.) A side note to the latter score: When I listened to it again, many years later, I couldn't help but notice the William Walton influence. This really comes through on one piece in particular.

No, I did not get the soundtrack to Star Wars in 1977. What turned me off of buying it, I think, was my honest and raw reaction after a friend of mine lent me the two-LP set a few weeks before we saw the movie. (The album was actually available before the movie release itself in some markets.) As I had discovered Miklos Rosza's Ben Hur music the summer before ― courtesy of my dad's original 1959 "Stereophonic" pressing of that album ― the Star Wars music on its own sounded rather lame to me. When I returned the album to my friend I mentioned that I found the music to be "watery" and didn't even bother moving on to "side 2". (He too was not impressed. After all, this was the guy who got me into the German band, Kraftwerk.) Of course, as I discovered when I saw the film, the music plays wonderfully well with picture and is a classic film score. Film scores, as composer Gerald Fried noted in an interview years ago, generally don't stand on their own as music. This is not a failing, of course, since they are designed, quite designed in fact, to play with picture and other audio elements. Those audio tracks can get quite crowded. Some scores do work on their own; it doesn't mean they are better scores, just that they can be listened to away from the movie. I've since acquired the Star Wars CD and I like the background music much better now as a standalone... the few times I've given it a spin. Oh, I bought the LP version in 1982.

The first 'original music' film score soundtrack LP that I remember getting was for Alien. I was very impressed, even though I had not yet seen the film. Speaking of film composer Jerry Goldsmith, for that's who I was speaking of in that case, later in 1979 he would produce his brilliant music accompaniment for Star Trek - The Motion Picture. (It's the best part of that slightly underrated film, I think. The theme tune, in particular, is one of the greatest of movie anthems.)

What's with all the sci-fi movie scores? Well, for starters, there's the LP to Patton.

I'm a fan of the late composer Jerry Goldsmith. His effect was best summed up recently by producer/writer Seth MacFarlane on a BBC radio show: "(Goldsmith) was an insanely talented guy."

There are others whose work I admire: (the great) Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Elmer Bernstein, John Williams, David Shire, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Ron Goodwin....

Decades ago I stopped collecting film scores. The odd one would trickle down onto my shelf. I enjoy film scores best when they are with the actual film. Also, scoring today, 'the state of', is pretty pathetic. I'm speaking more of the Hollywood product. While smaller films are getting some fine work in that area, most "tent pole" pictures are tracked with overwrought orchestral parts of nothing (but noise). It's been this way for years. It's hardly a requirement that a film theme should consist of a memorable 'song', it really depends on the show, but, as film director Edgar Wright asks in the Mark Kermode program I listened to last night: "What's the most recent film score that you can really hum?"

Ahh... ahh... ahh.....

Okay, I'll cheat and play The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. That just might be the soundtrack of most of our lives.


Simon St. Laurent said...

Trivia: In the piece I mention CFB Borden's "PX"; it has since been renamed "Canex", as have all Canadian Armed Forces community stores.

A friend of mine who's a bit of a Star Wars fan ― he was ten years of age in 1977 ― could not accept my story about me not liking the LP album when I first popped it on the turntable. As I reminded him, I played it, part of it, before I saw the film (a couple of weeks later). The music was therefore devoid of context. Also: I had to hear the theme tune a few times before I remembered it... hard to believe now, I know, but this was before SW became a part of our culture. (Since I played just Side 1 of the soundtrack album the first time around, as I note in my piece, I didn't exactly hum the "Star Wars Theme" after listening no further.)

Those personal stories....

Greg Woods said...

Lovely post, Simon. Not sure why I didn't see it till now, but time is an unweeded garden.

I saw Star Wars when it hit Birdtown in 1977, but never did get the LP until about 1982-83 ish, when I saw it at a yard sale for 50 cents! (Minus the collectible poster, of course.) Star Wars nut that I still was at that age, I was kinda underwhelmed by the album - excepting the title track and the Cantina band of course - partially because the music needs the images! For instance, the 11-minute "Attacking the Death Star" track is kinda lame without seeing X-wing fighters and laser beams.

Other than that, I think the first soundtrack I bought with my own money was The Good The Bad and the Ugly. (Sergio Leone was my gateway to cinema in many direct or indirect ways.) And the difference: Morricone's music is cinematic on its own. Even if you don't know the film it was composed for, it creates a movie in your mind. Morricone's music for the Dollars trilogy was so popular that other musicians covered it. Around the same time, I had found yard sale LPs of Leroy Holmes and Hugo Montenegro doing their own interpretations of the music.

(Post script: No! Predating the GBU purchase, was Keith Emerson's soundtrack for Nighthawks in the Woolworth's delete bin for a whopping 99 cents.)

Respectfully yours,
The G Man