CD Review: A Christmas Story

Composers: Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer
Suggested Retail Price: $17.99
Grade: B+

Ok. We’re already well into the New Year. So why am I writing about the soundtrack for a Christmas film, let alone one from 1983 that takes place in the early1940’s? To answer that question, you should ask why watching another little Xmas movie with Jimmy Stewart turns any occasion into the happiest day of the year.

While it might not be knocking IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE off the top of that cinematic tree, Bob Clark’s A CHRISTMAS STORY is right up there among the yuletide films that indelibly capture the holiday spirit, especially its warmth and humor that symbolized one boy’s Black Friday in his relentless quest for a Red Ryder B.B. Gun. Thousands of fans of this Christmas cult film have already extolled this its hilarious virtues, from receiving a leg lamp to the dangers of sticking one’s tongue to an icy flagpole. But among the film’s countless DVD special editions, the one thing that diehard fans have been trying to obtain with Ralphie-like determination has been the merry score by the late director’s longtime musical collaborators Paul Zaza and Carl Zittrer. Thankfully, Santa finally arrived last year with a 25th anniversary edition of this rollicking Christmas score, the perfect way to relive this enduring TALE every day of the year without having to shoot your eye out.

In their separate, and combined musical efforts for the dearly-missed Clark, Zaza and Zittrer would contribute such scores as POPCORN, PORKY’S, FROM THE HIP, BABY GENIUSES, BLACK CHRISTMAS, MURDER BY DECREEE, DERANGED and TURK 182!- an energetic mix of horror, comedy and suspense stylings that reflected the memorable variety of Clark’s work. And while many of these soundtracks will be long remembered, A CHRISTMAS STORY’s score will likely be the one that fans are still listening to in a thousand year’s time. That’s because Zaza and Zittrer captured the eternal sound of Xmas with their music- a festively glistening sound that’s awash with joy and innocence- yet one that doesn’t clog the ears like sticky-sweet eggnog.

Skillfully weaving their score around such caroling chestnuts as “Deck the Halls,” “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” Zaza and Zittrer give a fun, Carl Stalling-like cartoon quality to it’s hero’s desperate schemes to possess the gun, a gift that he thinks will transform him from an awkward school kid into a varmint-shooting hero. There’s a clip-clop, home-on-the range exuberance to “Black Bart Bites the Dust,” complete with horse whinnies, clanking spurs and gunshots for Ralphie’s transformation into western superhero. Yet the hee-haw brass statements always bring Ralphie down to earth.

If STORY’s comedy cues didn’t already have a Looney Tunes quality to them, then their instantly recognizable “Hawaiian” guitar sound even shows up in “Ralphie’s Brilliant Idea.” But while lesser, antic “cartoon” scores can make this sort of plucked string and tuba pokiness as annoying as a department store elf, the approach is completely charming here as it captures the characters’ collective eccentricity. For not only do these cues serve as “funny” music, but they also capture A CHRISTMAS STORY’s way of making inconsequential childhood antics into the stuff of adult melodrama, overstuffed absurdity that beautifully plays how the simplest stuff can mean everything to a kid in pursuit of the toy he’s gotta have. Zaza and Zittrer go from a broken-hearted lope to a burst of orchestral optimism as the next scheme enters Ralphie’s bundled-up head. When his younger brother Flick takes an unfortunate “Truth or (Triple Dog) Dare,” military percussion and dangerous sustains make the meeting of tongue and steel into something akin to crossing enemy lines. Likewise the ominous brass strains of the bully Scut Farkas in “He Had Yellow Eyes.” And when Ralphie utters “The “F’ Word, the music rises with Shakespearean tragedy. It’s all of the musical charm, without a note of condescension about how little things become epic in a child’s imagination.

Longtime fans of A CHRISTMAS STORY will delight in finally being able to unwrap the come-hither “Sleigh Bells” of Higbee’s department stores, not to mention the whacked-out “Turkey in the Straw” dog barks of “The Bumpus Hounds Make Their Rounds, with the barking and crashing dishes serving as the musical punctuation. And for those who thought they knew STORY’s music backwards and forwards, there are unexpected gifts to be had here, especially in the heroic strains of “Ming the Merciless,” a cue written for a scene I’d love to watch where Ralphie saves Flash Gordon’s butt from his most nefarious villain.

By the time that a comical “Glorious, Beautiful Christmas” and the King’s Choir version of “Silent Night” send Ralphie off to happy B.B. Gun trails, Zaza and Zittrer’s winning collaboration has assumed its place with film scoring’s most evocative visions of Christmas. It’s a warm and jolly musical place where every adult filmgoer becomes a gift-hungry kid again, basking in the light of a leg lamp. For with A CHRISTMAS STORY, Zaza and Zittrer find a sweet, knowingly goofy tone that captures everything that’s warm, witty and absurd about America’s favorite movie holiday- no more so than the gift that will be Bob Clark’s legacy to one and all.

Get your Red Ryder BB gun here.

1 Comment

  • Jim Paris
    January 13, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

    Great column I’ve got to go out and get a copy of this.
    Ill also let Paul know that I’ve read this review.


    Jim Paris

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