CD Review: Blazing Saddles

Composer: John Morris
Label: La La Land
Suggested Retail Price: $19.98
Grade: A

There was a time when even the crudest satires could be treated with elegance, where a composer could treat flatulence, cuss words and sexual innuendo with lush, sing-along melody instead of a crescendo over every fart. And in the history of hilarious vulgarity, few scores stand out in that way like BLAZING SADDLES, a rip-roaring salute to everything that was filthy about Hollywood’s whitewashed Old West.

SADDLES stands out as one of the classic collaborations between composer John Morris and comedic hyphenate Mel Brooks, a partnership that began on Broadway when both haplessly tried to save an Eartha Kitt show called SHINBONE ALLEY. While their initial meeting might have seemed inauspicious at the time, Brooks would ask Morris to compose a ditty called “Springtime for Hitler” to accompany the worst play of all time. It just happened to be part of a bigger picture for Brooks’ 1968 directorial debut THE PRODUCERS. And Morris’ instantly catchy, and oh-so-wrong song would join with his frisky underscore to help create one of the funniest comedies of all time. THE PRODUCERS marked the greatest comedic composer-filmmaker collaboration since Blake Edwards thought that Henry Mancini could carry a tune. And over nine films for Brooks, Morris would provide the Eastern European stylings of THE TWELVE CHAIRS, help the Universal horror sound do The Ritz in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, make Bernard Herrmann spin in his grave with HIGH ANXIETY, and give the STAR WARS sound a raspberry for SPACEBALLS. Morris’ other scores for the Melsian likes of HISTORY OF THE WORLD: PART ONE, LIFE STINKS and TO BE OR NOT TO BE isn’t counting the uncharacteristically chilling scores that he’d provided for the Brooks-produced DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS and THE ELEPHANT MAN.

Yet the soundtrack that most resembled a bawdy musical revue for Morris and Brooks was 1974’s BLAZING SADDLES, beginning with Frankie Laine’s whip-cracking tune. If the earnestness that this country star put into SADDLES’ makes us think we’ll be watching the “real” thing, then we can thank Brooks for hiding the actual film from the crooner to get a performance that would fit any John Wayne flick. But this ain’t that oater, as hapless settlers lament how their town has turned to shit in “The Ballad of Rock Ridge. Then Madeline Kahn arrives to do her brilliant, sexed-up Marlene Dietrich shtick for “I’m Tired.” And in the climactic “French Mistake,” a 1930’s dance number gets rudely interrupted by brawling varmints (and gets a hilarious alternate take at album’s end). Even Count Basie gets to swing with “April in Paris” as his band salutes a brother with a badge.

With such instantly catchy numbers, Brooks and Morris proved themselves to be the comedy-musical answer to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Listening to these showpieces now, it seems that the only reason a Broadway version of BLAZING SADDLES didn’t hit right after THE PRODUCERS, was probably because Brooks had an easier time figuring out YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN for the Great White Way than deciding how to knock a horse out on it. Until that day happens (which it hopefully will soon), you can sing along with this cd’s instrumental-only tracks for a BLAZING SADDLES Karaoke night, where you can belt out such lyrics as “There’s no avoiding this conclusion, our town is turning into shit” or “I’ve had my fill of love, from below and above!”

Morris’ underscore for BLAZING SADDLES would feature all the western bells and whistles, including saloon piano, banjos, a harmonica and a heroic orchestra. And while the fifteen or so minutes that got used might seem a bit short in the britches (not counting this cd’s copious bonus tracks), it’s certainly quality that reigns over quantity in Morris’ astute placement of score. The SADDLES and “Ballad” themes accompanies most of the rousing western-isms, including the wild drums of a Hebrew Indian. When it comes to the inimitable Mongo, plodding brass signifies his entrance on steer. Things even get mildly misty as its black sheriff overcomes the racist salt of the earth in “Bart Returns,” while Hedley Lamarr rounds his scummy posse with military drums and Indian (as in India) percussion. And after excerpting Carl Stalling’s Looney Tunes logo, Morris engages in a jazzy cartoon knockout for “The Studio Fight,” switching between boisterous “French Mistake” swish to snarling villainy and trumpeting heroics as Hedley gets his comeuppance at the Graumann’s Chinese Theater.

Yet as goofy and foul as BLAZING SADDLES might be onscreen, Morris always lets you hear the fond heart behind Brooks’ western jabs, especially as the composer’s lilting music sends Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder off to the sunset (and their limousines) with chorus and orchestra. Heck, it’s a salute that John Wayne would have appreciated if he could just have loosened up a bit.

Like Henry Mancini, it’s amazing how under-represented John Morris is on cd, especially when you consider his equally wonderful non-Brooks comedy scores like THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER and THE IN-LAWS. Thankfully, La La Land is doing their part to rectify this unsung composer’s catalogue by following their release of SPACEBALLS with BLAZING SADDLES. Both limited editions benefiting from amazing sound quality and Dan Goldwasser’s entertainingly informative liner notes, which take Morris and Brooks’ work as seriously as possible. Now here’s hoping that a score-centric release of Morris’ masterpiece YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN isn’t too far off- not to mention an onstage SADDLES. In the meantime, this terrific cd will let us do “The French Mistake” in style.

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