Soundtrack Picks: ‘GRABBERS’ and ‘ROBOT OVERLORDS‘ are the top soundtracks to own for April, 2015
Also worth picking up 3:!0 TO YUMA, CHUCK, DEBUG, EX MACHINA, GOING APE, SOAPDISH, STORMY WEATHER, WOLF HALL and many more!
To Purchase the soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover
THE TOP PICKS
1) 3:10 TO YUMA / THE GUNMAN
Prices: $19.98 / 16.95
What is it?: With the NRA-approved likes of “Terminator 3,” “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Mesrine: Public Enemy #1,” Marco Beltrami has shown his certain set of skills when it comes to using firearms, at least musically when it comes to a soft-spoken composer whose scores often make particularly loud bangs – no more so then with a fully loaded re-issue of his ode to spaghetti westerns, or his recent score that effectively turns the similarly circumspect Sean Penn into a weapon-blazing action hero.
Why should you buy it?: When hearing how Beltrami created a unique, and gnarly sound for James Mangold’s mighty good 2007 reboot of 1957’s “3:10 To Yuma,” one might look back to his untraditional take on the modern western for the psychological, south of the border “revenge” movie “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” which twisted about its Mexican rhythms to paint a hard-bitten, “real” portrait of weathered frontier men (a feet he most recently pulled off again with the even crazier “Homesman”). As translated to the frequently emulated territory of Ennio Morricone, Beltrami’s Oscar nominated take on tack pianos, mouth harps, spur-hitting metal percussion and twanging nylon and steel string guitars has an impact that’s as vibrant as ever in La La Land’s newly expanded soundtrack. Tasking a desperate rancher to take a perhaps not-so villainous gunslinger to the train that will transport him to the hanging hoosegow, Beltrami creates a menacing, exciting landscape, full of eerie, blistering samples, furious action rhythms and shivering tension. The whole effect is unsettling and dangerous, playing the west as a place where conventional, black hat / white hat scoring nobility is in short supply, using the orchestra in a way that seems completely authentic to the period while re-inventing it at the same time. But “3:10” is also quite a lot of fun when Beltrami tips his ten-gallon to Morricone with aplomb, especially as clopping percussion plays the climactic race to the train, complete with a soaring, fateful Mexican-style trumpet. It’s a score that does a lot of make Russell Crowe’s gunslinger one of the more memorable bad-asses since The Man With No Name, while imparting heroic vulnerability to Christian Bale’s rancher.
Extra Special: Having last handled a rogue agent with Pearce Brosnan’s “November Man,” Beltrami take quite a bit of a less explosive approach for Sean Penn’s “The Gunman.” Not that there isn’t percussive excitement to spare, but the big difference is that Penn has never been perceived as James Bond – something that makes this largely successful attempt to “Taken”-ize the beyond-serious actor so interesting. While way better cinematically than Penn’s last film in that realm with “The Interpreter,” “The Gunman” shares its setting of Africa as a jumping off point for overseas mayhem that stretches from London to Barcelona. While not specifically doing a Dark Continent score as such, Beltrami’s truly interesting percussion conveys the violent, tragic land within as Penn seeks redemption for the sins of his past. It’s the character’s haunted quality that gives an often weird, interesting soulfulness to “The Gunman” introspective approach. The music has quite a bit of ethereal space for a genre score, conjuring the dread feeling of being surrounded by the many ghosts he’s put in the grave for right, or mostly wrong causes. But this is a chase thriller after all, which Beltrami recognizes in his tense, heartbeat percussion, especially in the dynamic finale that lets the bulls out, along with the kind of pulsating electronics, menacing brass and rampaging percussion that first made Beltrami’s bones in the horror genre – here used for multinational corporate payback at its best Beltrami also gets to write that one, romantically resplendent all-is-going-to-be-well climactic cue that proves the one sunny spot for every body count movie, You might even detect an unintentional flavor of “Born Free” in “The Gunman’s” return to a hopefully better Africa.
2) GOING APE
What is it?: Though he’d never stopped scoring dramatic subjects like “The Great Santini” and “Zulu Dawn” (not to mention “Saturn 3’s” hulking robot), the 1980s proved to be a three ring circus that proclaimed Elmer Bernstein as a king of comedy. He was certainly on a roll after the hijinks of “Animal House, “Meatballs” and “Airplane!” scores that famously played their screwball humor “straight.” But definitely not so with the monkeyshines of 1981’s “Going Ape,” which teamed TV’s “Taxi” stars Tony Danza and Danny DeVito with three mugging orangutans. While definitely not the most sophisticated comedy that Bernstein would ever score, the sheer delight that he put into this fairly obscure soundtrack makes his monkeyshines into an unexpected delight.
Why should you buy it?: Apes and screwball comedy have always gone together like Cheetah and bananas, plots revolving around how to deal with a barrel of monkeys that have shown up from “Every Which Way But Loose” to “Dunston Checks In,” in this case sending the loveable furry trio into a schlub’s apartment after his circus-owning dad passes. Of course there’s a massive inheritance to go with it if his son can deal with the primates and their equally hairy, and diminutive human handler. It’s a high concept shtick that Bernstein announces straight up with his rollicking circus music. And while there’s plenty of calliope stylings at hand, what makes “Going Ape” particularly fun for Bernstein fans is its pokey jazz comedy. One can sense how much fun Bernstein has subverting the jazz rhythms that truly made his bones in the 50s, a soft-shuffle here that also brings to mind “Animal House’s” hilarious scoring as Flounder is hustled to the stable to take revenge on a fascist white stallion. “Going Ape” plays like the next generation to that particular score in many ways, as the loopy carnival rhythms orchestrally lope about with comically suspenseful, sneaky pizzicato brass. It’s an ungainly, and very funny way of embodying orangutan movement. The fact that the themes come across as being as menacing as they are goofy also show off “Going Ape” as the ancient ancestor of “Ghostbusters” in its mockingly dangerous way of setting up scary characters as nothing worse than ungainly kids.
Extra Special: But then, pretty much every style is in target range of Bernstein’s cartoonish cage when it comes to this delightfully unapologetic score, from aping Mozart opera to doing a very credible riff on “The Godfather” theme for two mob goons, or using heavenly voices and sparkling strings. Almost as astounding as seeing this forgotten, but very worthwhile score get a release is that it’s come in at 77 minutes. Intrada’s completest presentation not only offers numerous alternates but also a number of catchy pop songs, from the driving R & B rhythm of “It Ain’t Who’s Right, It’s What’s Right” to the romping country-western “One Way Street.” The tune-packed “Apes” even has the love ballad “Suddenly” and the winsomely poetic, self-reflective “Grim Brother Grimm,” which has both female and male vocalist versions. Consider “Going Ape!” as Bernstein comedy at its scruffiest, unkempt in its loopy, -four-knuckle lurking way whose deliberate, jazzy absurdity showed that Bernstein could indeed be in on the goofy musical joke, as much as he otherwise tried to avoid that particular banana peel. The liner notes by Jeff Bond (who just finished his own “Planet of the Apes” tome) are likely funnier than the film itself as they come up with every primate metaphor in the book.
3) GRABBERS / ROBOT OVERLORDS
What Is It?: Since throwing an executive team-building trip into a bunch of merc serial killers in “Severance,” Christian Henson has proven to be one of the more notably rising British composers with his particular talent for the genre, exploring an eerily time-trapping Bermuda “Triangle,” then adding to the Sean Bean body count in the lethally atmospheric “Black Death” before playing one of history’s monsters for Saddam Hussein’s “The Devil’s Double.” Movie Score Media has been a big proponent of this gifted and prolific composer, recently with “Malice in Wonderland,” “The Secret of Moonacre,” “Storage 24” and his music for a new TV spin on “Sinbad.” But Henson has been no more impressive than with the label’s new, evil double whammy of “Grabbers” and “Robot Overlords,” one score offering a sly Irish-flavored spin on “Tremors,” while the other impressively fuses old school scoring and the high-tech for an imperious army of mechanoids.
Why Should You Buy It?: There’s a monstrously delicate balance to any comedy-horror score. One light tip too much, and the music will encourage one to laugh at a pitiful, toothless creature. A swing the darker way, and the musical jokes will be scared away as the tone goes on a mis-matched rampage. Henson can be congratulated for navigating between both ends, especially given that he’s got to be drunk as a skunk to combat fang-mouthed , tentacled creatures that would give the Graboids a run for their money. But before hilariously slurred brass enter this ingenious, relatively small picture, Henson’s score sets an ominous, rhythmically gnashing tone, with a reverberated motif that no doubt conjures up a bit of “Alien” for these creatures’ space-bound origins. “Grabbers’” Gaelic setting adds much scenic mirth to the score, bringing out the usual suspects of an accordion and fiddle to join the orchestra. But it’s a whole other level of inventiveness as Henson breaks into jig-like action theme to battle the beasties, with woozy horns piling on the beers. You could just as well assume this is the best score ever written for a “Leprechaun” movie with how well Henson develops the score, deliberately building from slow, suspenseful atmosphere to the point where all roly-poly hell loose. Henson embodies the Irish fighting spirit as a mad, desperate dance, effortlessly switching partners between slasher dissonance, desperate chases and a gigantically heroic climax that neatly ties his themes together. Delightfully stumbling about like a kraken OD’ing on whiskey before getting its melodic act together, “Grabbers” (now watchable on Netflix Instant) is the height of cleverness, music that succeeds as making one laugh before gobbling for the throat.
Extra Special: Electronic synthesis is all the rage these days in conjuring post-apocalyptic young adult sci-fiction driven scenarios – scores that at once have a touch of 8-bit retro while hitting the glowstick floor with trance /hip hop club beats. What’s especially welcome is when composers have the orchestral muscle to back up that tween approach, especially if that might is carried in the claws of the “Robot Overlords.” But don’t let an even sillier title than “Grabbers” dissuade you from Henson’s next, ambitious teaming with director Jon Wright, whose cinematic scope this time encompasses all of the United Kingdom, and the world when it comes to a mechanoid invasion that makes “Red Dawn”-ish resistance fighters out of a group of valiant kids. What comes as no surprise is just how smart and intricately constructed Henson’s score is in giving blockbuster scope to his music. Sure you’ve got the gnarly, pulsating synths to herald the invasion, their whooshing, rocket engine circuitry sound given energized symphonic back-up that’s no stranger to a multiplex world reshaped by the Hans Zimmer sound. But what’s particularly cool is how Henson twists, and distorts the grinding, beeping digitized pulsations about to create truly unique, and creepy metallic vibes, conveying how its heroes avoiding brain-sucking alien wavelengths. But surprisingly, it’s the more organic components of the score that are even more impressive, especially in Henson’s manipulation of the human voice. A lonely female sings a lullaby theme for childhood lost, while an imposing wall of male voices are chopped up and reverberated as a rhythmic device, or finally used for soothing, heavenly deliverance. Rock guitar gets across the youthful determination to wipe out the robot bastards, with a swaggering, swirling orchestral theme dealing the heroic blows for humanity. As big as “Robot Overlords” does get, it’s the more intimate instruments like bell percussion and piano that really sock home the underlying subtext of childhood lost to the metal men. All are impressive components of Henson’s unique, involving work that pushes the sound of the YA genre into new musical realms that are at once futuristic while thankfully being as emotionally old as the symphonic hills for this soundtrack that truly rules.
4) SOAPDISH (1,000 edition)
What Is it?: Having cut his very early musical chops traveling with a neighborhood Cuban band, it was destiny itself that Alan Silvestri would get to mix that island’s boisterous rhythms with a very American brand of hilariously bombastic orchestral drama for this all-star 1991 send-up. But then again, Silvestri did start his major scoring career with the adventurous Latin beat of “Romancing the Stone” before playing the deliciously melodramatic cat fight of “Death Becomes Her,” all of which made him a perfect over-actor to accompany “Soapdish” with this winning plethora of snappy mambo energy and exuberant orchestrations for a cult comedy score that finally gets the sappily hilarious soundtrack treatment it deserves.
Why Should You Buy It?: Whether it’s “Back to the Future” or “Predator,” Alan Silvestri’s music has always been marked with an emotionally heightened sense of melody, especially when dealing with straight-up seriousness in the Oscar-nominated likes of “Forrest Gump.” “Soapdish” slides effortlessly between the worlds of more conventional comedy stylings and the Latin big band world. One can only pity Silvestri for the viewing time he put in to nail the daytime TV drama suspects of woeful violin sympathy, grandiose award ceremony fanfares and pokey snooping about, all the better to nail the arch scheming in front of, and behind the camera. And when it comes to brain surgery in a world of impossible-to-kill characters, Silvestri milks every ounce of obvious suspense with a hilarious lack of restraint with his telltale shivering strings, lurking piano percussion and exclamatory crescendos that could easily play a lurking Predator if one didn’t know better. Yet there’s real, emotional feeling for these hams as well in the sincerely beautiful love theme, whose lilting violin and piano comprise but one of “Soapdish’s” many exceptional melodies. While Silvestri had used 1940s jazz swing for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” it was truly “Soapdish” that unleashed his inner Henry Mancini, as crossed by the brass of such Cuban bandleaders as Perez Prado, using tangos, mambos and cha cha’s as the stuff of high comedy. Latin rhythms race to the next shocking, swooning revelation, or do a deliciously slow tango to milk the unexpected revelations, with a classical violin brining an air of snootiness to the distinctly populist entertainment that “Soapdish” is cleverly making hay of.
Extra Special: While it could be easy to be condescending, what’s made “Soapdish” endure is the obvious endearment that’s gone into the film and its boisterously lush music. “Soapdish” brims over with high energy fun and delight as it effortless switches tango partners from traditional scoring to Latin jazz, his career’s cultural roots finally singing out with breezy, brassy energy (with the truly Cuban score “The Perez Family” to follow). Now Quartet Records follows up their Silvestri double-header of “Summer Rental” and “Critical Condition” with this jewel in the composer’s comedy crown. Hearing the full extent of Silvestri’s warm romance and Cruella De Ville-worthy villainy is the equivalent of going binge listening to a whole season of “The Young and the Restless,” with numerous further alternates expanding on the score and its tropical rhythms, as well as some knowingly kitschy Muzak tunes.
5) A SOUND OF THUNDER
What Is it?: You’d be hard pressed to hear Ray Bradbury when this wannabe epic showed the time-wave shock of what happens when errant dino-hunters from the future happen to step on a hapless butterfly. Certainly filmmaker Peter Hyams was used to bagging bigger cinematic game when he took on the project for cash-strapped Franchise Pictures. But if the company’s fall made the real havoc here into the unrealized ambition of effects that seemed like a chicken in Jurassic Park, that didn’t stop Hyams from delivering an unexpectedly entertaining, and at times quite suspenseful film, the vision of what it’s production should have been truly realized in the impressive score by Nick Glennie-Smith. An OG member of Hans Zimmer’s posse since their days playing for Stanley Meyers, Smith was part of Zimmer’s game-changing team from Remote Control to Media Ventures, journeying from the propulsive likes of “The Rock” to “Drop Zone,” and “King Arthur” before mainly continuing on as a top-rank score conductor. Glennie-Smith was well versed in his own propulsive scores like “Fire Down Below,” “The Man in the Iron Mask” and “We Were Soldiers” when “Sound” came calling. Even in the movie might be buried in history for its few admirers (of which I count myself a non-guilty pleasure one), having Dragon’s Domain Records excavate his score after a decade is certainly better late than never.
Why Should You Buy It?: “Thunder” really roars as an unsung, incredibly dynamic score that makes full use of Smith’s knowledge honed in the multiplex-adrenalin trenches of Team Zimmer. Like Brian Tyler’s “Timeline,” Smith relies on a near-constant sense of rhythm to connote future machines propelling foolhardy scientists (and in this case idiot great white hunters) across the millennium-stream. Percolating danger hangs over a score that always seems to be in motion, creating an incredibly suspenseful feeling of world-changing devastation in the offing at any second. The themes are here in abundance, yet Smith keeps them subtly in the string-heavy background, much like the danger brewing about the increasingly affected future. You can certainly sense how Smith’s programming and orchestrational skills (of course with his writing at the forefront) are really saving the day from what could have ended up sounding like a budgetarily-drained score, giving angry, reptilian flesh and blood to the sampled elements. Ethnic flute emulation also helps with the score’s sense of pre-history rampaging into the present, “A Sound of Thunder” has a breathless, thrilling quality to it that knows when to run, or hide as the time-hybrid creatures stalk within arm’s reach, its sturdily melodic construction building to a slam-bang race-to-save-the-butterfly finish. It’s all certainly as exciting as any music Glennie-Smith wrote for the far better received “Rock,” with the added bonus of its sci-fi score elements that make this ever-accelerating score anything but a time capsule.
Extra Special: Dragon’s Domain makes an auspicious, Tyrannosaurus-sized imprint with their first release, sporting enveloping sound, and a nicely designed fold-out booklet with comprehensive notes by genre score archeologist Randall D. Larson. Here’s hoping this label will continue to unearth such worthy scores that relatively recent time forgot, even as its composer continues to conduct such action blockbusters as “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” It’s an arena that “Thunder” shows he should be stomping around far more in as a composer as well.
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
. BATTLEFIELD: HARDLINE
As you play the “episodes” of “Battlefield: HArdline”that take a straight-shooting cop from the pride of the force to a vigilante looking to take the force down, you might feel like you’ve been drop-kicked into an R-rated version of “CSI: Miami,” or more likely old-school “Miami Vice” given the thrumming rock soundtrack by Paul Leonard-Morgan. Having impressed with his energetic, often electricity-fueled scores for such rapid-fire films as “Limitless,” “The Numbers Station” and “Dredd,” Morgan goes for a rawer, rock guitar guitar groove that not only brings to mind Jan Hammer, but also such late 80s Tangerine Dream scores as “Near Dark” and “Miracle Mile” – scores that used propulsive, often country-flavored power chords, thrashing drum percussion and eerie, ambient synths to go for a pedal-to-the-medal groove as opposed to hitting specific action. It’s a grungy, raw power that effectively provides exciting, and menacing music beds for the game’s various gun battles, car chases and way more boring fact finding, giving the impression of the player up against some very bad guys. There’s a neon energy to Morgan’s work as he gets the first person shooting groove down, making it hard to believe that “Hardline” is his first entry into that arena. But then, Morgan’s had plenty of practice with bad-ass heroes and villains, characters whose music tells you they’re entering the scene packing both sunglasses and machine guns. This is pure adrenalin with some thankfully moody down time that conveys an angry world of cops and kingpins, energized attitude that never gets tiring as Morgan finds one electrifying, bad-ass rhythm after the other that ups “Battlefied Hardline’s” ante of copshow-as-videogame.
With geeks inheriting the television earth, it was only natural that a computer nerd named “Chuck” would get his own cult NBC show, where he proved himself to be a more-than capable super-spy over the course of 91 episodes and five seasons. That’s quite a lot of time to make a musical impression with his ceaseless, CIA-embedded skills. But darn if composer Tim Jones’ brain didn’t stop cooking as he came up with one clever stylistic touch after the other, the best of which have now been collected to create a very strong musical impression on this titular CD. Of course you’re going to get that swaggering, James Bond sound that every satirical agent from Austin Powers to Cody Banks and the Kingsmen can’t do without. And while Jones accomplishes that smooth, jazzily dangerous symphonic fuzz guitar mission with attitude to spare, it’s the electro-jolted sensation of Willams-esque adventure, bang-up percussion and rocking guitars that flood the ear with energized information, the sensation of one idea neatly segueing from the other that makes this album so much fun. You’ve got “Tron”-esque synth organs tango’ing about, cocktail percussion serving another hammering round of percussion as groovy surf chords hang ten. Delightful in whichever stream-of-spy consciousness path its neurons are firing with, “Chuck” has a slam-bang sense of energy that recalls the kind of crazed, yet sophisticated energy that John Powell gave to the likes of “Agent Cody Banks” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” yet with ultra-homage music that is very much of Jones’ own creation. But within “Chuck’s” craziness, there’s real honest heart to be had, as Jones shows his thematic talent with piano themes that play a man-child who’s looking for love in all the dangerous places. Sending the album out on a goofy high note are delightfully cheesy Karaoke takes on the kind of retro tracks that are these geek show’s self-referential stock in trade. Needless to say, I don’t think A-Ha, Creedence Clearwater, or Queen will have to worry about Jeffster’s enthusiastically warbled versions of “Take On Me,” “Fortunate Son” or “Fat Bottom Girls.”
While he’s impressed with the jet-fueled thrills of “Red Sky” and the massively symphonic historical scope of “Walking with the Enemy,” some of Timothy Williams most blazing work has appeared under the company of Tyler Bates’ “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a score that he also conducted. It’s a sci-fi energy that puts Jones in particularly good solo stead to head into space with a bunch of juvenile delinquent hackers, who discover a particularly devilish mainframe who doesn’t want to be deleted in “Debug.” Though it might not have “Guardians’” budget, filmmaker David Hewlett (most familiar as an actor in the likes of “Splice”) has done an ingeniously resourceful, and clever job in creating the shiny sets, outrageous bursts of gore and unexpected ninja plot twists that bring to mind such late 80s ghost-in-the-machine sci-fi thrillers as “Nightflyers.” While the synth technology has grown a bit since Doug Timm’s exceptional work on that haunted spaceship, Timothy Williams brings a cool, throbbing retro flavor to the combination of electronics and orchestra that thrillingly power “Debug.” It’s often hard to tell where the twisted circuitry and actual instruments trade off, especially given the composer’s novel way of recording the orchestra in “reverse” to fill in this super-elongated craft. Williams uses creepy atmospheres, chopping rhythms and ominous suspense to create a fun musical interface between the HUD-equipped, ill-fated computer kids and future Aquaman Jason Moma’s well-coiffed tormentor, his percussion-heavy music effectively jumping between the real and circuitry worlds. For as sparkling clean as “Debug’s” impressive sets are, Williams gives a nasty, rock and roll grunginess to the score that conveys a punk team spirit facing off against a fiendish circuitry man, also conveying a spirit of sacrifice in his more emotional moments of camaraderie that use unexpectedly poetic piano, voice and melancholy strings to contrast with the more angrily energized music at hand. While even Rocket Raccoon might not be able to survive in this darker musical atmosphere, “Debug” once again shows that Williams is able to suit up for far bigger genre fare, especially when his character-centered score helps give “Debug” electrified, big budget resonance.
. THE DEVIL’S HAND
There’s nothing creepier than black-garbed, bible quoting religious cultists dwelling in the rural hinterlands, as the genre of pseudo-Amish horror has proven with such brethren as “Deadly Blessing” and infinite entries of the “Children of the Corn” series. But when you’ve got an assortment of string and percussion instruments ripping your spinal chord out with the finesse of a rusty wood chipper, then that congregant’s screaming, shivering voice achieves a whole other level of musical fright. On that note, Anton Sanko’s score for “The Devil’s Hand” can be welcomed as the most insidious member of a musical congregation that includes James Horner and Jonathan Elias. A composer who’s proven he can swing from indie dramas and comedies like “Rabbit Hole” and “Delirious” into full-out terror with “The Possession,” “Jessabelle” and “Ouija,” Sanko goes for grim, rustic blood like never before as he tries to ferret out which one of five, nice sweet sect girls will turn out to be the Anti-Christ, who’s of course due by prophecy to fully take over the survivor’s body in New Bethlehem at the stroke of midnight. The rapidly dying digits of the decent “Devil’s Hand” give Sanko a powerful opportunity to mix the profane and the sacred in the form of shrieking sound masses and melodic empathy for the pre-cursed. Twisting about rural instruments so they’re far more part of hell than ersatz upstate New York, Sanko creates a chilling, slowly drawn string quintet sense of isolated, feminine vulnerability, not only going up against a seeming supernatural force, but also the pain of family abandonment – a very real emotion that cult kids go through when they’re ostracized from their unbending communities. Piano and a ghostly female voice play nice homage to the likes of “Rosemary’s Baby,” while slowly plucked, hit and otherwise tortured dulcimers, autoharps and zithers merge into razor sharp dissonance. The result is real nightmare stuff, the kind of music that should most definitely not be listened to at night for fear of conjuring monsters in the mind. Yet there’s enough thematic, and thankfully melodic content here to keep pulling the listener towards the darkness in which extremism dresses in body and sprit for all of his sanctimony.
. EX MACHINA
“28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” writer Alex Garland makes a gradually impressive directing debut in front of the lens with this beautifully appointed, but at-first sterile adult sci-fi picture that gradually builds to end on a memorable high note. And it’s exactly the film’s overwhelming, creepy blankness that co-composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury are effectively playing to. It’s an interesting, and impressive dynamic, with Barrow essentially making his scoring debut here after writing tunes that have appeared in such films as “Tank Girl,” “The Craft” and “Lord of War,” while Salisbury is the more seasoned component with his copious work heard in such nature documentaries as “Ocean Giants,” and “Life In Cold Blood.” That is what seemingly comprises the circuitry of the femme bot that a hapless computer geek is sent to explore, a process of emotional discovery that starts off with hypnotic, unfeeling ambience. As with Hans Zimmer’s way more active pro-mechanoid score “Chappie,” Barrow and Salisbury use gentle bell percussion to play the child-like aspect of the forbiddingly sensual “Ava,” a war more attractive Pinocchio figure who wants to be a real woman in every way possible. Yet this is pretty much a haunted house score, as bizarre, bubbling electronic effects gradually intrude amidst the minimal atmospheres to tell us that something very wrong is afoot, if purposefully hidden behind the closed doors of icily appealing sound masses. It’s a throbbing, thematic ambience, with a flight into guitar rhythm, that recalls the more surreal work that composer John Murphy gave to Garland’s rage zombies and burnt madman, as stripped and slowed down to completely hypnotic effect. This is pure, state of the art computer music with a bit of a taste for buzzing retro synthesis, capable of both fear and religious transcendence, much like the film’s erotic test subject. “Ex Machina” a musical Tabula Rasa if you will that asks the listener to invest feeling into the music instead of it giving away deliberate emotion the other way around. And much like a computer dork who may be as big a sap as any detective who fell for the wrong dame, Barrow and Salisbury’s “Ex-Machina” completely sucks the adventurous listener in to its high tech, and at times alarming, seduction.
. FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD
The beautiful, slow-moving string melodies of English composer Craig Armstrong have made him a favorite when it comes to the many shades of romance. And while he’s had his share of cheerful, kiss-filled endings with “Love, Actually” and “Fever Pitch,” most often it’s his poignant talent for melody that has ripped romance asunder, most often in the company of Baz Luhrmann for “Moulin Rouge!” and “The Great Gatsby.” Armstrong’s beautiful melancholy couldn’t be better suited than for this latest cinematic trip to Thomas Hardy’s countryside with “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the story of a woman torn asunder between an earthy sheep farmer, dashing soldier and stuck-up land owner. It’s a story as old as the green rolling hills, made most famous by the 1967 love triangle between Julie Christie, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch in John Schlesinger’s excellent adaptation, which featured sumptuous Oscar nominated score by Richard Rodney Bennett – arguably one of the finest written for the cinema. While Armstrong doesn’t quite have the musical showcase of Stamp showing off his cavalry skills here, he does quite well in making his own imprint on the tale. Just as that composer took inspiration from the master of bucolic English music William Walton, Armstrong is mesmerizingly at home in nature with a score that features violin and harp amidst his strings, creating a lush, yet subtle paean to both nature and a woman’s conflicted heart. The classical effect is nothing less than gorgeous in a well-trod land of costume drama scores, quietly singing with its own poetic presence as it delicately sets the stage for tragedy. Victorian-era tunes also prove to be an essential part of the “Crowd,” from the church hymns of The Dorset Singers and Yeovil Chamber choir to the energetic folk dances, performed with joyous energy for fiddle and accordion by the Eliza Carthy Band and Saul Rose. But when it comes to enchantment starlet Cary Mulligan provides a poignant warning about menfolk with “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” – nor would they dare to from her.
. KANGAROO: THE AUSTRALIAN STORY
Definitely the silliest title to grace a beyond-manly score, 1952’s “Kangaroo” was the first Hollywood film to be shot down under, even if its plot of two swindlers after an old coot’s money was a western that could have just as well taken place in Texas (of course minus a few shots of said creatures). Creating a massive orchestral soundtrack that was certainly as big as that state, not to mention a continent, was Sol Kaplan. Best known for his memorably shrill, epically dangerous music for the great “Star Trek” episode “The Doomsday Machine,” Kaplan was an especially adventures composer in the early 50s with such oaters as “Red Skies of Montana,” “Return of the Texan” and “Rawhide,” all of which put him in good blockbuster stead to accompany ne’er do-wells Richard Boone and Peter Lawford as they fight over Maureen O’Hara. The great thing about golden age scores of this sort was how completely uninhibited they were in virtually playing through the entire film, wearing their drama and lilting violin romance directly on their sleeves. “Kangaroo’s” smashing action, quivering suspense and overall brooding atmosphere is up there with the most boisterous of the lot, with Kaplan’s especially dark opening recalling the work of Bernard Herrmann. Things do lighten up a tad with quotes of English-Irish Irish folks songs before returning to the struggle of men trying to tame the outback, with the dynamic 12-minute cue “The Dry Land” an especially dramatic piece in brassily conveying the physical, and emotional struggle that was the Hollywood homesteader experience. And when it comes to cues that buck like a bronco, the relentless, furious rhythms of “The Stampede” threaten to throw the listener out of their seat. Once can hear the presence of music director Alfred Newman in Kaplan’s massive, and always melodic score, which serves as a thrilling discovery in the pantheon of classic Hollywood scores whose power bowed down to no man. Having done exceptional jobs releasing such classically robust scores as Dmitri Tiomkin’s “Champion” and Franz Waxman’s “Sunset Boulevard,” Counterpoint Records does another smashing job with a soundtrack from the era in making the music play with minimal “archival” age, chronicling its story in an exceptionally well-designed booklet, whose honestly engaging liners by James Doherty take a look at “Kangaroo’s” trouble-fraught production that goes beyond its unfortunate choice of a name for a score that comes roaring at the listener like a brahma bull.
. OLD BOYFRIENDS
In one of the more ironic scoring assignments, David Shire was put in the position of scoring his then-wife Talia as a character who sorts her romantic love life out on screen, here playing a psychiatrist who flees her husband, bounding about the county to do some serious self-therapy with a rogues gallery of exes that include the acting likes of Richard Jordan, Keith Carradine and even John Belushi. With the actress capitalizing on her “Rocky” role as Adrian to show she had far more range in this and her other star vehicle “Windows,” one might expect a somewhat treacly romantic score given the subject of a woman pursuing self-worth through her old romantic adventures. But what Shire delivers is a score full of suspenseful passion, unexpected high drama that’s way more along the strong, dramatically orchestral lines of his classic women’s score to “Norma Rae” than the frothier, jazzy likes of “Bed and Breakfast” (scored for Shire long after he’d found new love with “Grease’s” Didi Conn). “Old Boyfriends” is full of thematic, self-discovering gestalt, angst embodied in rhythmic strings, tender guitars and poignant flutes that convey a voyage of inner discovery, buffeting its heroine in highly emotional winds – with all paths leading back to poetic self-reflection. It’s truly gorgeous, heartbreakingly thematic work that ranks among the best instances of a male composer touching a feminine sound, and feeling. It’s a thematic power that’s especially tearful and devastating via violin during its big “Love Scene,” and poundingly horrific return to the scene of attempted suicide. It’s a power that no doubt owes itself to the fact that Shire intimately knew his star at the time. The return to “Old Boyfriends” 35 years later has lost none of its impactful feeling, musical emotion that’s well psychoanalyzed by Tim Grieving’s liner notes. It’s a soundtrack that definitely makes me want to go on a hunt to watch this essentially lost movie itself.
. STORMY WEATHER
After their terrific release of Patrick Williams’ Italian-flavored underscore for “Breaking Away” that coincided with Twilight Time’s blu ray movie edition, Kritzerland once again works in conjunction with the label to put out a truly historical, two-CD of one of mainstream Hollywood’s few forays into black entertainment. But beyond the song made eternal by Lena Horne for this 1943 20th Century Fox production, “Stormy Weather” also stands as one of the great American songbook scores when it came to showing black culture’s big splash on the nation’s music songbook. Done in the all-star cavalcade style made popular from the advent of musical sound, this heavily fictionalized biography of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was as wonderful a reason as ever for getting together the best all-colored talent of the day, many of whom played themselves. With Bojangles making a brassily raucous entrance with “Walkin’ the Dog,” “Stormy Weather” hits numerous styles and tempos with delightfully warm sound. Horne’s bluesy romantic lead vamps with the sax and strings as she moons “There’s No Two Ways About Love,” Fats Waller and Ada Brown have a comically bluesy interplay for “That Ain’t Right” (complete with his great realization of “One Never Knows, Do One?”), with Waller next on the piano for a relaxed interpretation of “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” Cab Calloway is at his boogying, scat-singing, wolf-call best for the bawdy “Geechy Joe” and “The Jumpin’ Jive,” showing off a near-yodeling tone that would become famous for a whole new generation when he took the stage before the Blues Brothers. But it’s big band jazz that’s the name of the game here, whether its roaring hot or playing with sultry romance in one classic, swinging tune after the other. Given Twilight Time’s penchant for isolated music tracks, Kritzerland’s “Stormy Weather” goes well beyond the vocal numbers to include extended underscore as well (given exceptional vibrancy by Neil S. Bulk and Mike Matessino), which show off a range from patriotic military timpani to such southern favorites as “De Camptown Races.” It’s a glorious album that’s all about they heyday of classic black music, given the rare chance not to be in the back of the big screen bus. The album also offers a whole second cd of bonus tracks, from a sultry six-plus minute instrumental of “Body and Soul” to Lena Horne’s beautifully despondent “Good for Nothin’ Joe” and Bojangles telling the bible story of “Shadrack.” But the highlight is the Fox orchestra riffing on “Alfred the Moocher” as Cab Calloway belts out the “boy wonder” story of studio music head Alfred Newman in what’s likely most gloriously personalized and affectionate rhyming-verse tribute given to any composer on the studio stage. As such, “Stormy Weather” is a succession of landmark wonders that’s pure sunshine.
. WOLF HALL
It’s understandable that the BBC (let alone America) can’t get enough of the wildest member of England’s Royal Family and his entourage, who helped the lusty Henry VIII break from the Roman Catholic Church. The chief architect in his court who enabled is wife-laden plans was Thomas Cromwell, not exactly a babe magnet himself, but serpentine in his machinations that changed the fate of Britain. Given this interior, oft-villainized figure who spawned Hilary Mantle’s novels and this six-episode adaptation, it’s understood that a big, robust orchestral score might not be the way to go, or either the kind of contemporiazed take that Trevor Morris gave to Showtime’s “Tudors.” So it’s a particular pleasure to have Debbie Wiseman arrive in the king’s confidence for the lovely, intimate score that graces “Wolf Hall.” A composer who’s proven herself in the historical arena with the robust, sympathetic scores for the likes of Oscar Wilde, and T.S. Elliot as well as such fictional icons as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Henry Jekyll, Wiseman has always been a composer who’s equated melody with aristocracy, both in terms of creative distinction and English society. Here she’s essentially dealing with a working class schemer who made very, very good, but likely at the cost of his humanity. “Wolf Hall” is subsequently “unplugged” in its sparseness, yet vast in emotional tone as her mostly string quintet approach (richly performed by the Locrian Ensemble of London) creates a gripping sense of rhythmic intrigue, conveying the constant back-stabbing and ear-whispering that rises one to the top of the political game next to a figure with a fondness for decapitation. Using a repeating, string theme that gives a Glass-ian touch to “Wolf Hall,” Wiseman creates a haunted, elegant sense of loneliness for a man who’s survival meant hiding in the moral shadows. Combining a period-specific sounds with the flute, harpsichord and drums, as well as such emotive instruments as the piano and chorus Wiseman creates a rich, lovely thematic tapestry in the almost poignant sound of a loner looking in and yearning for acceptance even as he helps shape the course of a country to its ruler’s whims. When so many bigger entertainments now trying to find good within iconic, seemingly villainous characters as “Maleficent,” Wiseman accomplishes the historical version with a calm, darkly melancholy whisper, much like the life-altering words that Cromwell sent into a King’s ear.
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