Composer: Elmer Bernstein
Label: Film Score Monthly
Suggested Retail Price: $19.95
For a cult movie that’s stood the test of adolescent fantasy time, Heavy Metal got perhaps its biggest pop culture sanctification when Kenny accompanied the film’s barbarian vixen Taarna to Boobland in a recent episode of South Park – a journey of course accompanied by the rocking strains of Don Felder and Sammy Hagar. But for the true soundtrack geeks among us, the coolest resurgence of Heavy Metal mania has got to be Film Score Monthly’s new release of the complete Elmer Bernstein score, a symphonic lollapalooza that showed the old man could play buxom barbarians, 2-D sex and cartoon ultra violence with the gusto of any long-haired thrasher.
If Elmer Bernstein helped create all that was musically holy in The Ten Commandments, his Heavy Metal score equals that kind of musical spectacle – even if his epic melodies were being used for far more twisted ends. By the time of Metal’s release in 1981, Bernstein had weathered Hollywood tastes from scoring adult dramas like The Sweet Smell Of Success to becoming the king of youth comedy with Animal House, Stripes and Airplane – his approach funny for making jokes “serious” with their orchestral weight. Now Heavy Metal was offering Bernstein the chance to return to his grandly lush sound, one that Stripe’s producer Ivan Reitman made sure would play equal billing with the cool rock tunes at hand. Another mighty challenge was that Metal encompassed multiple stories, ranging from sword and sorcery to zombie WW2 action and sci-fi noir.
Yet Elmer Bernstein brought a musical coherence to Heavy Metal that’s a testament to his incomparable thematic chops, even if hearing these mighty strains over Metal’s wonderfully tawdry animation was as unintentionally goofy as anything Bernstein’s music brought to Faber University or Bill Murray’s commando troops. Here Metal’s linking device is the glow, green Loc-Nar, which Bernstein accompanies with a witches brew of cooing female voices. It’s a neat sorcerous warm-up to Metal’s first segment “Den,” where a John Candy-voiced Adonis macks on Neverwhere. But for all of the militaristic heroism on hand, Bernstein’s sound also has a pleasant lightness to it, even becoming Bolero-like at times. And as the music canters about, it achieves a neat throwback to no less a Bernstein classic than The Magnificent Seven. With Hanover Fist’s only cue being an ominous build for a character’s Hulk-out, Bernstein then handled B-17 with more galloping and chariot-race trumpeting, a Saturday matinee thrill groove that almost belies that the segment’s about ghouls on a bomber (orchestrator David Spears would write most of this section’s music from Bernstein’s material).
Though Heavy Metal’s “So Beautiful, So Dangerous” segment is arguably the film’s weakest, Bernstein got the joke of a hot topless chick in bed with a robot by playing it with all the romantic gusto of Max Steiner’s Summer Place. Then with Harry Canyon, Bernstein returned to the jazz-noir roots of such great scores as The Man With The Golden Arm, playing a sultry sax over a futuristic cabbie in an ersatz Maltese Falcon chase for the Loc-Nar. Bernstein’s music reeks of cigar smoke and suspenseful romance in this melodically neat segment.
But it’s truly the Taarna story where the composer lets it all hang out, as the shots of the buxom barbarian and her flying steed give Bernstein the chance to luxuriate in wide open melodic spaces. It’s easily some of the biggest music that Bernstein wrote for film, and the rollicking themes of Taarna’s flight over rotoscoped canyons are awe-inspiring. Then when he scores Taarna (barely) suiting up, the chorus of erotic female voices and booming percussion is gloriously over-the-top. Yet it’s the kind of rampaging melody that fantasies are made of, let alone warrior-goddesses. And at its biggest strains, Bernstein transforms Heavy Metal with his musically epic stock and trade, one that he was able to bring to so many classics, let alone a cool cult movie like this one.
The Taarna segment would also introduce the sound of the ondes Martenot to Bernstein’s work, a Theremin-like ooo-wee-oooo sound that would seemingly show up in just about every score he’d do from this point, perhaps most successfully in Ghostbusters (just don’t get me started on how it made Bo Derek’s humping in Bolero sound like she was getting it on with the Bernstein-scored Robot Monster). In any case, Heavy Metal’s CD sounds amazing, making it one of the many sci-fi score Holy Grails we’ve gotten recently with Intrada’s Alien, Buck Rogers and the FSM multiple-grail edition of every Christopher Reeve Superman score. Kudos here as well to the detailed liner notes by Paul Andrew MacLean and Alexander Kaplan, who’ve musically dissected Heavy Metal with the kind of scholarly passion you’d give to Gone With The Wind.
But then, Heavy Metal is on a musical scale for so many of us whose geek bones were made during the golden days of 80’s science fiction, as Elmer Bernstein wowed a whole new generation of film score fans. Heavy Metal is back like never before. And as fun as it was to see Kenny ride that winged thing with Taarna’s cleavage for his saddle, it would’ve been even cooler if South Park had gone with the Bernstein score that was actually in the scene. Elmer would definitely have appreciated it.
Get your one way ticket to Bernstein midnight here.