Soundtrack Picks: ‘WAR OF THE WORLDS / WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE‘ IS ONE OF THE TOP SOUNDTRACKS TO OWN FOR AUGUST 2012
Also worth picking up BORA BORA, THE BOURNE LEGACY, COMPLIANCE, THE EXPENDABLES 2, SAMSARA, TOTAL RECALL and USED CARS
To Purchase the soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover
THE TOP PICKS
1) BORA BORA
What Is It?: The hedonistic waters of the South Seas were a particularly enticing travel destination for Euro-skin filmmakers, who descended on the islands with an amour worthy of Paul Gaugin, especially when it came to ogling the barely clad (if at all) tropical babes. But even if these pictures’ composers weren’t lucky enough to get a plane ticket to paradise, the music they evoked transported listeners to a wondrously lush dreamland of tropical rhythms. While those kitschily saucy scores might be long gone now, Quartet Records Records (a label known for its pin-up worthy booklets) takes us back to the glory days of softcore exotica with two bountiful releases.
Why You Should Buy It?: First up on Quartet’s journey are multiple stops to “Bora Bora,” wherein a Frenchman chases his wife to the titular island, only to have both of them go native. Leading off the two-CD set is the soundtrack album by Piero Piccioni, an Italian maestro of jazz-pop-psychedelia whose masterwork stands firm with Radley Metzger’s “Camille 2000.” While there are lilting ukuleles and percussion, “Camille” fans will be on familiar ground in “Bora Bora” with Piccioni’s dreamy organs, cooing voices, and sensual percussion, especially when hearing the original score cuts. They offer a wealth of slow-groove acid eroticism, shimmering strings and romantic themes that combine to cast an uninhibited spell. When “Bora Bora” was bought for U.S. distribution, Piccioni’s music was replaced by Les Baxter, a composer who’d been doing the task for every Italo import from “Black Sunday” to “Goliath and the Barbarians.” But beyond his musical re-dubbing, what made Baxter so right for an unnecessary job was his innovation of bachelor pad Tiki music. Curiously, Baxter’s music doesn’t have quite the tropical oomph, or eccentricity one might expect given the material, going for a more typically lush orchestral approach, whose more interesting native spirit comes out on the score’s original cuts (a la Piccioni’s work) alternating between the feel of an incense-filled bongo den and an effusive Malibu beach mansion party- minus the blanket bingo.
Extra Special: Quartet rounds out their exotica for the balmy moth of August with Piero Umiliani lounging about on “Le Isole Dell’Amore.” Better known on this side of the pacific for “Big Deal on Madonna Street” and a segment of “Boccaccio ’70” (not to mention his sexploitation song “Mah Na Mah Na” that somehow ended up in the new “Muppets” movie). Umiliani’s slightly less eccentric accompaniment for this parade of topless tropical girls is once again replete with Lei-serenading vocalese, native percussion, electric organs and hippy banjos. It’s a grab bag of catchy themes that would be right at home at a Trader Vic’s where everyone’s been slipped a Mickey in their Mai Thai. Bonus bachelor pad points for Gergely Hubai’s liner notes on both albums, which diligently dig for the meaning behind these scores with the persistence of a western explorer who’s crashed a Tahitian love-in.
What is it?: Watching the agonizing, completely unnecessary and true-life prank call-caused debasement of a fast food worker might be the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, a hair-raising experience that can only be taken once, if even that much. However, the same can’t be said for the intriguing, insidious score by Heather McIntosh, music whose ironic lesson in the abuse of power grows with each listen.
Why you should buy it?: Hailing from an indie rock background in Athens, George, McIntosh quickly swings out of what you think might be all music concrete land to create a captivating, thematic elegy for a woman’s debasement, her melodies understandably reaching the lowest pitches of mental endurance. It’s a horror score as written for human weakness and gullibility, conveying a how-much-worse-can-this-get chamber music quality that brings to mind Clint Mansell’s work with the Kronos Quartet on “Requiem For A Dream.” The difference is that “Compliance” is literally a chamber-closet room drama where the most appalling abuse is mostly implied, Yet McIntosh’s judiciously placed music does far more than just lie there to mesmerizingly dour effect. Incorporating the rhythms of electric guitar and marimba, McIntosh creates a feel of anguished suspense as to when, or if, someone will have the smarts to stop this terrible farce. But here’s also welcome sense of black humor that she hears in the audience’s continual amazement of how far this hostage situation will go, especially in a portly manager’s lock-step string march as she dutifully follows the orders of an “officer” who claims her worker is ripping off the chain establishment.
Extra Special: One of the year’s most interesting and unsettling soundtracks, “Compliance” commands attention for Heather McIntosh, though hopefully she’ll get a chance to lighten up the next time outside, even if it’s particularly spellbinding when placed in an ersatz McDonald’s locker room.
What is it?: Where filmmaker Godfrey Reggio’s magical mystery tours through global cultures employ an all-encompassing, “scored” approach by Phillip Glass for any number of pictures ending in “Qatsi,” his image-reliant counterpart (and former cinematographer) Ron Fricke instead had a lighter, and equally transfixing musical vision for his first film “Baraka,” a similarly-themed metaphysical travelogue that used indigenous tunes and a meditative score by Michael Stearns to convey a world out of balance. Stearns is back for Fricke’s second feature after twelve years, with Marcello De Francisci and Lisa Gerrard added to the transfixing world music mix tape called “Samsara,” one way smarter and more beautiful than any east-meets-west grab bag that could be classified as “new age music.”
Why should you buy it?: As visuals that reflect millennia-old wisdom are counterpointed with visions of worker ants in our cold-hearted technological society, a sense of infinite calm is brought forth with Tibetan horns, rhythmic drums, chanting voices and the sound of gently colliding brass, as conjured by instruments and missives to the gods that were likely created when mankind first felt the need to express its feelings through sound. And it’s exactly that urge which drives Fricke’s non-linear “story” as it were here, with the trio of tribally-minded composers using an altogether eerily peaceful blend of samples, percussion and prayer-like, undulating voice for music that tells us how far backward we’ve gone for all of our modern advances. “Samsara” comes across as a hypnotic mantra to turn reach back to our earth spirits, using just a little bit of trance hip-hop for a groovy culture clash.
Extra Special: With Varese’s issue of “Samsara” and their forthcoming, complete anniversary edition of “Baraka,” Fricke’s soundtracks make for a timeless, haunting tone poems that meditate on the human condition, as swept up into a beautiful trance state.
4) USED CARS (2,000 edition)
What is it?: It’s a movie that’s anything but a lemon, even if the picture got treated like an Edsel upon its initial release. But with the director-writer team of Robert Zemeckis and Ed Gale (“I Wanna Hold Your Hand”) in the drivers’ seats, “Used Cars” has endured as a cult comedy classic, one whose case of musical buyers’ remorse is now revealed in a limo-quality La La Land release that not only offers Patrick Williams’ funkily energetic score, but its first, puttering (if well-intended) ignition by Ernest Gold.
Why you should buy it?: The idea of getting the composer behind the greatest cinematic demolition derby of all time with “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World” seemed like a no-brainer at first for Zemeckis and Gale, even if they wanted a far more “serious” sound. However, Gold gave them “a great score for the wrong movie,” as Gale explained. While Gold’s collection of national anthems, disco numbers and a Mexican guitar would make it into the film as source, one can immediately tell that his rapturous, “Ten Commandments”-like tone for a comically desperate race to the finish line wasn’t the way to go, though it certainly ranks as one of Gold’s best pieces when divorced from the picture. With much of his score carrying the kind of weight where it seemed bodily injury would actually befall someone, Gold’s otherwise fine music stepped over a fine line from playing comedy “seriously,” and weighing the movie down, one that Elmer Bernstein so dexterously walked with his brassily portentous orchestral sound with stuff like “Airplane.” However, that’s not the case with every Gold cue, some of which play with the rollicking pace of a silent movie chase to The Big W, and at others. like some old-time jazzy vaudeville routine or operetta. Even if this didn’t work for the movie at hand, it’s certainly a pleasure to have Ernest Gold’s own, epically cartoonish sensibilities available here for the first time.
Extra Special: Coming to the rescue to firmly add up that mile of cars was Patrick Williams. A master of both pop underscore and arrangements for the likes of Barbara Streisand, Mary Tyler Moore and Peter Falk, Williams made a fast deal that Zemeckis and Gale couldn’t refuse with a fun, down n’ dirty country funk / disco sound that captured “Cars’” Arizona desert setting and its huckstering desert rats, as heard through a warped sense of patriotic American consumerism in its patriotic marching band theme. Ingeniously giving mirror-ball rhythm to “Hail to the Chief” as a Presidential address is commercially hijacked, as well as playful bump and grind to David Rose’s famed stripper melody, Williams’ score has a delicious, then-contemporary sleazy keyboard and wah-wah energy to it, with the orchestra really coming into play for the final car-cattle drive. Capturing the rambunctious energy that Gold didn’t get, Williams’ makes the spectacle sound like Alfred Newman’s “How the West Was Won” as crossed with “Ben-Hur’s” trumpeting chariot race, it’s theme that revs through the film’s breathtakingly hilarious stunt set pieces, while telling us that it’s all good, hazard-free fun. More than just slapping a fresh coat of musical paint onto this baby, Patrick Williams’ score is a fun re-build, taking up many of Gold’s thematic ideas without ever listening to where they went “wrong” in the first place. Extra air gets put in “Cars’” album with Bobby Bland’s roadhouse-style theme song that should have been a top 40 contender, along with Randall L. Larson’s appreciative notes and eye-catching album design by Mark Banning, who had the distinction of actually driving in the car fleet that comes to the rescue.
5) WAR OF THE WORLDS / WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE
What Is It?: Perhaps the finest purveyor of sci-fi and fantasy entertainment during the genre’s boomtown days of the 50’s and 60’s, George Pal’s films were just as distinguished for their epic visuals of proto-Bay destruction as they were for their musical grandeur, none more so than his apocalyptic classics “War of the Worlds” and “When Worlds Collide.” So it’s fitting that these two scores lead off a terrific Intrada compilation of early Pal-produced soundtracks, making for one of the most old school geek-tastic releases to be mined from the opening of the Paramount mountain.
Why You Should Buy It?: Where many of the era’s sci-fi scores are wonderfully recognizable for a surfeit of rampaging, over-the-top notes and fairly indistinguishable sound, what immediately personalizes Leith Stevens’ work for these “Worlds” is how thematically thoughtful they are, especially for a “War” that doesn’t so much play the danger of the oncoming, piano wire-held Martian war machines as his music does a sense of pleading melancholy, the basic human need to be held in a loved one’s grasp as death relentlessly marches forward. There’s a real melodic tenderness here that’s one of the many reasons that “War of the Worlds” remains an unsurpassed classic, tense emotion that’s unabashedly religious in its reveal that only God (and his smallest creatures) offer the characters’ salvation amidst the brooding, dirge-like score. Though remarkably compact at 16 minutes, the soundtrack’s emotional breadth feels all encompassing in its evocation of global destruction by an unknowable menace. However, there’d be no stopping Earth’s shattering fate by the even more formidable force of a planet called Bellus in “When Worlds Collide.” Understandably busier, and more Christian in his approach than “War,” Stevens’ goes from dread to alarm, his music accompanying still-impressive images of destruction with brass fury, while the orchestra works at a fever pitch to complete the ship that will carry its all-white cargo to salvation on the neighboring planet of Zyra. Playing like a mix-n-match of the five stages of acceptance, “When Worlds Collide’s” swirling orchestrations are full of white-knuckle excitement, all while compassionate strings and violins pray desperately for a winning lottery ticket on the mountain-sledding silver craft. And of course when they land, choral hosannahs and church bells are there to meet them under the glorious matte painting of a new world. Now the complete release of Stevens’ scores (of course with Martian sound effects and Paul Fries’ breathless opening narration) gives voice to this terrific, unsung composer who started the Pal space craze with “Destination Moon,” and would go on to work with his far kitschier counterpart Irwin Allen for the more frenetic musical thrills for TV’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and “Land of the Giants.”
Extra Special: The set’s second disc offers two of the Hungarian producer’s lesser-known, if worthy movie efforts, beginning with Russian composer Daniele Amfitheatrof’s score to “The Naked Jungle.” Here, the disastrous threat was downsized to no-less terrifying multitudes of South American army ants, all thirsting for the flesh of plantation owner Charlton Heston. Given a film that’s at once a he-man romantic potboiler and an exotic nature horror movie, Amfitheatrof hits all of the bases with thrilling gusto. The furious drums of a native dance lead to passionately lush orchestral drama (complete with piano runs) of a blustering man-child trying to win over a reluctant new wife, the music building to a smashing climax for the big ant attack, with the score’s military percussion, brass shrieks and Wagnerian orchestra cleverly turning the insects into savagely unrelenting “marabunta” soldiers. Equally boisterous work can be heard in (Nathan) Van Cleave’s score for Pal’s far more optimistic opus “Conquest of Space.” Set to blaze a notable musical path in sci-fi with “The Colossus of New York” and “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” Van Cleave’s first step into the unknown has plenty of grandeur, suspense and more typical tropes like a haunting female chorus, though playing the Christmas Carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” over a Martian snow fall offers a clever touch of the unexpected. Cleave’s “Conquest” conveys space exploration as a pursuit both noble and dangerous, again with a sense of religiosity that often infused Pal’s work. With all of these scores sounding very good indeed for material a half-century old, Intrada’s Pal collection is a wonderful blast from the genre past that fans of his wondrous output have fantasized about hearing for seeming eons.
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
. BATMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES: VOLUME 2 (3,500 edition)
Shirley Walker was a woman who shattered the stereotype that no female composer could assume the musical costume of a male superhero, let alone a major Hollywood action score. Walker’s dynamic orchestral sound proved them wrong from “The Flash” to “Turbulence.” But if there’s one identity that she’ll likely be remembered for assuming, then it’s the darkly heroic music of the animated Batman, a lavish, film noir sound that embodied the WB network’s retro vision of the Caped Crusader, one that many fans still view as the finest representation of their DC icon. Walker’s work wasn’t simply “cartoon” music that leaped with carefree abandon across dozens of 30 minute episodes, but a succession of mini-movie scores, each cohesively linked to the other with recurring themes and a rousing sense of melody. She’d also expertly capture each episode’s tone, whether it be Indiana Jones-like adventure, satirical Saturday matinee thrills or a delicious throwback to Neil Hefti’s swinging 60’s jazz for Adam West’s live action Bat cartoon. Walker’s musical arch becomes even more apparent now that La La Land has followed up their first two-CD volume of her B-TAS scores (thankfully back in circulation) with a four-disc set that collects over five hours of Walker’s best work. Arranged into suites, the second volume’s numerous classic highlights range from Mr. Freeze’s tragic tenderness in “Heart of Ice” and the malleable psychosis of Clayface in “Feet of Clay” to sweeping Lawrence of Arabia adventure (via Ra’s Al Ghul) in “The Demon’s Quest” and the theatrical villainy of “Fire From Olympus.” Rarely have characters been so well personified in animated music, from the Joker’s maniacal tune to Batman’s Wagnerian motif. The breadth of her accomplishment is more astounding than ever through this collection’s well-chosen suites (completed by often jazzy “source” tunes), with John Takis’ exceptional liner notes detailing the approach of Walker and her own musical crusaders in creating a scoring scope that’s as lavishly impressive as any flesh and blood-ed representation of Bruce Wayne’s alter ego.
. THE BOURNE LEGACY
James Newton Howard takes the baton from John Powell to run a more straightforward, beat-driven marathon. In much the same way that new writer-director Tony Gilroy has thankfully wiped out Paul Greengrass’ crazy-cam movement, Howard’s keeps the ethnic, thematic rhythms of Powell’s three previous scores to a minimum to make his “Legacy” to “Bourne”s seminal action sound a combo between that composer’s lean, mean fighting machine and his own breathless, powerhouse suspense for another guy on the run he scored called “The Fugitive.” That Oscar nominated touch is a bit more hipped up here, and with significantly less orchestra, which only increases the symphony’s impact when strings crash the sample-heavy party. You can also hear the kind of ice-cold horror of Howard’s work for the immense guilty pleasure of “Dreamcatcher,” whose DNA abets a super solider born in a CIA laboratory. Yet there’s also a bit of empathy that reveals this operative as having a moral compass when he isn’t wantonly slaughtering hapless security guards who get in the way. “Legacy”’s breathlessly grinding samples and shredding guitar chords toe-tappingly suggest this agent’s drug-enhanced abilities, and desperately need to get his next fix. Thankfully, Howard also knows when to give the music invisible, a la his beyond-subtle approach for Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton” (which also netted an Oscar nom). Where it’s difficult to hear much of this rhythmic stuff above the movie’s gunfire and roaring motorcycles, “Bourne”s music definitely cuts through far more impressively as a solo soundtrack. Smart enough not to deviate too much from Powell’s seminal action sound while declaring its own identity (right down to replaying Moby’s “Extreme Ways” for the end title with even more orchestral oomph), Howard does a capable job in a relay. Here’s hoping the addition of the real Damon deal next time out opens up new alleyways for Howard to parkour about.
. DARKSIDERS II
Having made a musical killing for such button-mashing slay-a-thons as “Assassin’s Creed,” “Borderlands” and “Hitman,” Jesper Kyd gets one of his most intriguingly violent soundscapes for his first entry into “Darksiders,” a game which now marks its second venture into post-apocalyptic territory. It’s a world wiped of humanity, where a horseman named Death battles a horde of angels and demons to bring back mortals to reap. It’s a clever conceit that straddles sci-fi, fantasy and horror, and Kyd pretty much hits every note, all while remaining remarkably light on his feet. Not nearly as cruel in its approach as the action would seem to dictate, Kyd’s “Darksiders II” is a strikingly beautiful miasma of female vocals, vaguely medieval percussion, emotional orchestrations and ethereal doom. Rarely has the End of video game Days had such a poetic atmosphere, one that could often function just as well inside a Tron game as a home entertainment center. Never failing to take an interestingly melodic character path, as opposed to engaging in wantonly barbaric action, Kyd manages to deliver the metal-banging goods while going for surreal atmosphere. Spread across two discs, “Darksiders II” conjures a captivating mood that’s all things to all players, and certainly the most interesting and unique stab this composer has taken in his penchant for death-dealing, the clash of blade against demon skin almost existential in its impact.
. THE EXPENDABLES 2
At this point, Brian Tyler has been on target at scoring so many testosterone fiestas that one feels he’d be just as capable of trading in his keyboard for an Uzi. But until Tyler actually becomes a trigger-happy merc, muscle music fans can happily get their freak on for the composer’s return to The Team. “The Expendables 2” is all happily what they’d expect, with urgently dire blasts of rhythm and building orchestras, relentlessly climbing towards those big explosions of flame and flying insta-corpses. If the last movie’s problem was that absolute no character was actually expendable, Tyler’s graver, even more suspenseful tone lets us know that bodies are actually going to hit the floor. It’s a growlingly metallic, darker tone that brings throttling threat to the score. With a sweat-dripping orchestra anchoring the rhythmic patter, “Expendables 2” has a militaristic, neo-patriotic sound that gets across a brotherhood of war as opposed to political allegiance, a feel of honor in the midst of the kind of exciting musical carnage that this composer can blast forth without blinking an eye. It’s an assurance that Sly is certainly happy with at this point in the game- as there’s no composer who’s continued to put an action spring into his step like Brian Tyler, whose frenetic pomp more than ever seems like a series of exhilaratingly destructive tangos for a movie dance that’s way better the second time out.
. MIEL DE NARANJAS
Portuguese composer Nuno Malo powerfully takes on the post Spanish Civil War, with its battle between freedom and fascist oppression continuing to take place in the region of Andalusia. It’s there in the 50s that a green recruit to Franco’s army thinks he’s set to do easy time, before finding himself in a crisis of conscience that’s both political and romantic- twin emotional poles that Malo evocatively conveys. His beautifully performed score is full of delicate foreboding, with lush strings and piano textures bringing to ear such dark Thomas Newman period scores as “Road To Perdition” and “Cinderella Man.” It’s music that tells us that there’s nothing sweet about the translated title of “Orange Honey,” as hypnotic orchestral music conveys an era that’s thankfully lone gone for Spain, while incorporating shivering electronic textures to make the approach musically relevant. Like characters who know that demanding freedom will bring death, Malo’s haunting work mostly keeps to the shadows, its bigger symphonic passages getting across an impressive sense of the story’s tragic scope, as well as the expanse of Malo’s talents in music’s socio-political arena.
. THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN
For what could be described as the kinder, gentler Disney version of “Pet Sematary,” a couple longing for a child bury their wishes in a box, only to have a magical kid pop out to teach them some invaluable life lessons, as opposed to rampaging through the neighborhood. And there’s certainly no reason to fear otherwise in Geoff Zanelli’s sweetly magical score. But while heavily adorned with bells, voices, accordions and unstrung guitars, Zanelli’s deft emotional touch makes the music lyrical as opposed to being cloying. Though an orchestra is there for the necessary handkerchief heartstrings, Zanelli’s approach is mostly fun, indie intimate stuff that’s full of promise, a spirit that plays well with a Disney family film vibe. Call this supernatural folk whimsy if you will (with just a touch of darkness and Blue Man group worthy wackiness), but “Timothy” ends up being a real charmer, conveying a joyful, bouncy spirit that’s too good to be true, but certainly pleasant to hear while he lasts.
. TOTAL RECALL
If an old school score fan visited Rekall, it’s likely their fantasy would be to go back to the days when Jerry Goldsmith plied a roaringly thematic score for Arnie’s trip to Mars. But then, you can’t go home again to that kind of unabashedly melodic action sound. And to be fair, this isn’t your generation’s “Total Recall,” a time that Hollywood’s effects capabilities, and musical tastes have long since surpassed, for better and worse. Yet while there’s no surpassing the original film in every category (red cheesiness and all), this revisionist “Recall” turns out to be a way more entertaining surprise on all counts than the reviews and box office have given it credit for. And considering its visual overload, it’s doubtful that Goldsmith’s approach would have worked here in any case. So what we of course get is Harry Gregson-Williams blasting out the kind of non-motivic beat-pulse score that’s de rigueur now. But if that’s what a composer’s got to do, then Williams accomplishes the mission with throbbing effectiveness with a sound that’s not so much like be thrown into the future world as it grooving in a particularly dangerous rave. Like James Newton Howard’s “Bourne Legacy,” the percussive thrust here is to move things along at a breakneck pace, with an orchestral grounding the deep techno with a solid melodic framework. And when you think about how much electronic percussion there was in Jerry Goldsmith’s score to begin with, Williams’ “Recall” isn’t so much a different animal as it is a bizarro evolution of where Jerry might have gone with his own love of tech toys (an affair that would have been a bit more memorably thematic though). A score and film that are every bit a product of the 22nd century, “Total Recall” Harry Gregson-Williams delivers the expected goods in style.
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