Composer: Alex North
Label: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Price: $109.98
For an epic about the common gladiator-man battling the legions of well-to-do Rome for the simple, free life, there’s something ironic about the gilded presentation of SPARTACUS. For the 1,000th CD he’s done as a producer, Varese Sarabande head Robert Townson has constructed a tribute to composer Alex North just somewhat less towering than the Colossus of Rhodes. It’s a mammoth 6 CD / DVD set (with two CD’s alone re-iterating the love theme) costing just north of a hundred sesterciis, all held within a proudly anointed box. Sure the lavishness is jaw dropping, especially in these financial times. But then, we are talking about what is arguably the greatest movie score of all time. And Townson’s labor of love pays off in glorious spades if you’re a SPARTACUS mega-fan like myself. And this is a presentation that silences any doubts about the magnitude of Alex North’s accomplishment in shaking up the hallowed, lush halls of the epic scoring that had come before it.
Not that there’s anything remotely wrong with the biblical-sounding brilliance that Miklós Rózsa has given to BEN HUR the year earlier in 1959. But the difference of the Stanley Kubrick-directed (let alone photographed) SPARTACUS was that this was an epic where man had to rely on his less-than-holy spirit to make things right against the might of pagan Rome. The fact that Kirk Douglas and his legions failed so valiantly in their ultimate victory also gave this film a particularly stirring emotional resonance towards seeing a man on the cross.
SPARTACUS was revolutionary from its then-daring sexual mores and graphic violence to the way that Douglas used his star power to help break the Hollywood blacklist by listing Dalton Trumbo as its screenwriter. Yet perhaps its most daring facet is Alex North’s score. As a composer who spent time in Russia learning his craft, there’s a true Bolshevik spirit running through North’s music. His avant-garde use of symphonic jazz shattered the European elegance that had ruled film music before 1951’s A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. And by the time that North hit SPARTACUS in time for his 50th birthday, he was given a year to write a gloriously barbaric affront to the music one expected from the sword, sandal and scripture genre.
Right from the trumpeting heraldry of Saul Bass’ opening titles that metaphorically depict the fall of Rome, North combined jagged, near-dissonant rhythms with beautifully lush themes, mixing near-futuristic takes on exotic “ethnic” music with guttural brass marches and battle music. Old-style scoring had finally met the concert hall in a mad, clashing rush that somehow resulted in a score at once melodically pleasing and percussively radical. While North’s magnum opus was inspired by Sergei Prokofiev’s score for ALEXANDER NEVSKY, SPARTACUS could just as easily be described as film music’s answer to Igor Stravinksy’s “Rite of Spring,” a work singing with beautiful delicacy at one moment, then bashing into the listener’s head at the next with its savage dances. The unusually long period that North had to write the score allowed him to make its breathtaking mood swings as tightly, and elegantly constructed as the most neatly appointed Roman edifice. Nearly every cue tied into a character theme, with a poignant humanity always at the center of its character’s’ battle for noble freedom, or the pompous fate of an empire.
Needless to say, no one had heard a score like SPARTACUS before, which has made the desire to get all of the two hours-plus of North’s score released a quest that has lasted decades, spawning rumors of surviving stereo masters along the way, and a hoped-for re-performance by Jerry Goldsmith (who’d ultimately replay North’s legendarily unused score to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY for Varese). In the end, what Townson has unleashed here certainly puts to shame the relatively scant MCA album that accompanied SPARTACUS’ restoration in 1991 (we’re still waiting for a blu ray of the movie worth its salt). The first CD in the box set offers the surviving stereo mixes of North’s score, which fill up 72 glorious minutes. And while the full score on CD’s two and three are in mono, the flat sound that usually accompanies that dreaded word is pretty relative, if not very discernable at all in terms of sound quality.
The truly “rough” stuff, as it relatively is, can be heard on the fourth 43-minute CD of alternates. And it’s just as much of a treasure trove, offering North’s demos for piano and percussion, more orient-centric ethnic music, and a “Desolation Elegy” that would have accompanied the awful aftermath of Spartacus’ wrenching defeat. While interesting, the choice to go with an instrumental in the film was definitely the wiser one- in my opinion, if certainly not North’s.
With original SPARTACUS material exhausted at this point, Townson defies any cries of “No mas!” with the fifth and sixth CD’s that solely contain variations of North’s love theme. With interpreters ranging from jazz superstars like Bill Evans, Regina Carter and Dave Grusin to guitar god Carlos Santana and the more film-centric Alexandre Desplat, John Debney and Brian Tyler, the results are mostly over the map enough to keep nearly two hours of the same melody quite interesting. Certainly, the man who revolutionized the use of jazz in film would find the predominantly small-scale nature of these variations more than worthy. It’s a jazz bar vibe for piano, winds, guitar and brass that has a true improvisatory, if not smoke-filled feel that’s also played to the hilt by Lalo Schifrin, with the stand-out on that note belonging to Mark Isham’s eleven-minute electro-jazz take. But perhaps the most groundbreaking variations belong to Nathan Barr and Lisbeth Scott’s eerie cello and voice (a sound that wouldn’t be out of place on his TRUE BLOOD gig), Diego Navarro’s tango and Brian Tyler’s suspensefully eerie film noir stylings,
Putting the capper on SPARTACUS is what might be Varese’s first foray into video documentary, which positions such notable North fans as John Williams, Christopher Young, David Newman, Mark Isham and Townson himself on screen left or right, with naught but a black background in place of any film clips or photographs. It’s pure talking heads stuff. But where less interesting people might make these 95 minutes of genuflecting a bit of a slog, the fact is that every interviewee is genuinely enthralling in their love for North’s accomplishment. Shuttling between guests in numerous, “theme” segments, the SPARTACUS documentary goes by very fast indeed, getting across its intent of placing the viewer in the catbird’s seat for the various interviews. Rounding out the DVD is another segment wherein Townson views Isham and Navarro recording their SPARTACUS variations.
If the saying goes that there’s a lot of love in the room, then its Townson’s unabashed enthusiasm that pervades all of SPARTACUS, a determination begun with his friendship with North, who connected with the young producer at the sunset of his years. Now given the keys to the Varese kingdom, Townson’s determination to lavish everything on SPARTACUS might remind you of Charles Foster Kane’s doting of his opera “singing” wife Susan. Except Alex North ain’t her. What Townson’s worked with this set is Xanadu in CD form, a wave of unabashed, exceptionally-produced enthusiasm that comes together in the excellent 168 page mini-book. Beyond rapturously describing the history of SPARTACUS, its music and North’s equally epic life, there’s a love that finally becomes touching as it reaches the finale of North’s career. Of his dozens of remarkable scores, SPARTACUS is likely the pinnacle. Years in the making, let alone the release we’ve long been awaiting, the legend of North’s masterwork sings with renewed life, and passion that truly makes us all SPARTACUS.
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Composer: Alex North