Soundtrack Picks: ‘JAWS‘ is the top soundtrack to own for December, 2015
Also worth picking up THE 33, BACK TO THE FUTURE II and III, COOL WORLD, GIANT, THE GOOD DINOSAUR, SPOTLIGHT, STARCRAFT II, THIRST and many more!
To Purchase the soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover
THE TOP PICKS
1) BACK TO THE FUTURE II / BACK TO THE FUTURE III – Special Editions
What is it?: Thirty years ago when Marty McFly and Doc Brown jetted back, forward, and then doubleback to the future, it was unimaginable that we’d get utterly complete presentations of all three of Alan Silvestri’s soaringly symphonic scores. And while not many of the second movie’s prophecies have come true (excepting bullying mega-millionaire Biff Tannen’s quest for absolute power), we now sees the release of all three “Future’s,” first with a reissue of Intrada’s initial “Back” release, along with the label’s new edition of “Back to the Future II,” the musical saga then jumping to Varese Sarabande with a “Back to the Future III” that expands their original edition to new heights. It’s a soundtrack triptych that’s the definition of time travelling from nostalgic optimism to a nightmarish suspenseful future and a wistfully exciting western past.
Why should you buy it?: Given how joyfully sweet “Back to the Future” was in its novel premise of a gee-golly teen helping his nerd dad hook up with his mom to be, “Back to the Future II” came off as a bitter pill to swallow as it put its characters in life-or-death danger in a plot that was over-complicated to say the least. But if there was a bright spot amidst the film’s menace, then it was that “II’s” bleak tone allowed Silvestri to bring a new range of dramatic depth, and sometimes tragedy, to the saga. Sure, the sparkling magic of wish fulfillment was still very much part of his scoring, but it’s an ominous, queasy tone for a Sports Almanac butterfly effect, a lurching orchestra of outrage and impending doom, as given the history changing suspense of military timpani, makes “II” far closer in tone to Silvestri’s “Predator” music – even if the monster here is a homicidal meathead. Only Marty’s Americana nobility can save the day as Silvestri significantly raises the stakes, his themes old and new keyed to riveting, brassily muscular suspense and impending doom that definitely turns the emotional clock back on what many audiences had expected to be a carefree, escapist ride, though one certainly not without the twinkling humor of Hill Valley.
Extra Special: The magic was back with “Future III,” especially as it offered what was arguably Silvestri’s best score for the series. Not only had his beloved themes from “Back” returned, but the sequel’s darker motifs were also on hand to be put to far more optimistic use. More importantly, the movie’s setting allowed Silvestri to make his first, tall strides into the old west, offering the kind of harmonica-topped, town square showdown arena he’d continue to venture into for “Yong Guns II” and “The Quick and the Dead.” Given that oft-trod musical genre, Silvestri didn’t miss a wonderful trick in going for a rollicking, Jerome Moross Big Country sound, from a rambunctious stagecoach chases to capturing the ever-escalating rhythm of a steam train chase. But perhaps most wonderful about “III’s” thankfully slimmed-down plotting and far warmer tone was Silvestri’s ability to turn Doc from a madcap comic character into a real human being, capturing the poignancy of a seemingly doomed lover affair, with a fairy tale magic that’s the composer’s answer to “When You Wish Upon A Star.” Trilogy score re-masterer Mike Matessino does a great job on both sequel scores, rounding up numerous alternates and a saloon’s worth of player piano tunes for “Future III’s” Zz-top’d second disc. Accompanied by Tim Grieving’s exceptional and appreciative liner notes, these are two long-awaited albums that the final capper on a musical saga driven by a symphonically singular and wondrous voice, whose iconic themes are heard in all of their multiplex myth-making power for an all-Americana teen’s worst nightmares, and wish fulfillment of playing cowboy and (briefly) Indians.
2) GIANT: Limited Edition
What is it?: La La Land Records certainly has announced some epically expanded, Oscar winning and nominated soundtracks to ring the year out with John Barry’s “Dances With Wolves” and James Horner’s “Braveheart,” but perhaps none is so long deserved as Dimitri Tiomkin’s Oscar nominated music for 1956’s “Giant.” Creating a score nearly as big as Texas itself, Dmitri Tiomkin’s masterwork also holds its place in history for being the final music to grace James Dean. Finally, a vast reserve of symphonic, and rustic grandeur has been struck.
Why should you buy it?: It seemed fitting that such a brash, untamable talent as James Dean got brilliantly modernistic scoring by his piano teacher Leonard Rosenman for “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without A Cause.” But given the type of swaggering, decades-spanning picture that would pair Dean with the far more conventionally appealing Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, a melodically straight-ahead soundtrack was in the offing. So this saga of battling, chauvinistic oilmen and their surprisingly independent women received a royal approach from the Russian –born Tiomkin, a no less swaggering figure with the talent to back his ego up, especially when it came to such rousing western scores as “Duel in the Sun,” “Red River” and the Oscar winning “High Noon.” Given his ability to capture the brawling and lyrical spirit of our nation’s still-untamed lands, one might have assumed that Tiomkin was as American as sagebrush apple pie with his ability to reach into musical regionalism via all of the lush orchestral forces that unabashed Hollywood scoring could provide. That’s no truer than with “Giant,” which is mainly told from the perspective of Taylor’s dreamy society woman who’s captured by Hudson’s manly charms, and taken to unfamiliar, dusty territory. Tiomkin’s score similarly shifts from magic, star-crossed attraction to evoking the range with all of its guitar strumming, harmonica blowing charm, replete with folk songs to give a grandly thematic sense of character and place that seamlessly fit into Tiomkin’s own summation of Texas. His score’s often tender heart is always set on the story’s dramatic center of a woman finding her place, battling against prejudice and the rowdy, rebellious brass balls charms of Dean’s ranch hand-turned-oil baron Jett Brink, whose ladykilling charisma also gets a boozily humorous jazz approach. Given the majestic direction of George Stevens, there’s much for Tiomkin’s sweeping melodies to lavish on in addition to its gorgeous love themes, the music itself proudly singing with a larger-than-life love of the land.
Extra Special: A ten-gallon hat can be tipped to La La Land for the auspicious occasion of “Giant’s premiere and the care lavished on it. With Jim Titus’ beautifully designed booklet offering captivating notes from classic score specialist Frank K. de Wald, “Giant” not only provides nearly all of the theme-filled two hour-plus score with ravishing sound that belies the music’s years, as well as the original album presentation, alternates and unique source music from an organ version of “Claire de Lune,” a square dance of “Little Brown Jug” and the powerfully ironic use of a cheery marching band version of “The Yellow Rose of Texas” for this unusually socially progressive epic. Not only is this release of “Giant” a dream come true for James Dean musical completists, but it also represents grandly thematic scoring and its most American of all composers at their best.
3) THE GOOD DINOSAUR
What is it?: As two composers, Mychael and Jeff Danna stylistically couldn’t be further apart with the likes of “Life of Pi” and “The Boondock Saints.” But when they put their two Canadian heads together, the results couldn’t have more musical synchronicity, as can be heard from the suspense of “Fracture” and the Gilliam-esque eccentricity of “Tideland” to their Emmy-nominated work on the majesty of “Camelot” and the oil madness of “Empire.” But no joint effort has reached the size, or playful creativity of Pixar and Disney’s “The Good Dinosaur,” which proves two elongated heads are indeed better than one in composing the best American Western score the way-post Jurassic era has beheld.
Why should you buy it?: Having skillfully blended ethnic instruments with the orchestra for a tiny, tiger-holding rowboat in “Life of Pi,” as well as given way more of a mystical Celtic spin to the knights of the round table, it’s easy to see the ancient-sounding credentials that the Dannas have brought to the Mouse House that could evoke the “real” music of the prehistoric era. And sure enough, “The Good Dinosaur” starts out with primitive, sweetly pokey percussion and wind instruments that are all about the cute. It’s an approach that only highlights the film’s effective contrast between its photorealistic animation and backgrounds with the toy store-ready cave kid and brontosaurus. But just a bit jarringly in the mix are fiddles that might accompany Kevin Costner on the range, an approach that becomes all the more ingenious when the talking dad dino speaks in a southern drawl, revealing this as a tale that could pretty much happen to any fearful, scrawny rancher’s son, minus the big lizards. As the score progresses through its charming, by-the-notes bonding between the two kids as they must make their way home from the untamed wilderness, the Dannas conjure effective, if not quite-savage orchestral suspense and action to give “The Good Dinosaur” dramatic weight. But even better, the brothers magnificently expand on their guitar and fiddle western-Americana ideas in a way that Alfred Newman would approve of, a rollicking “How the West Was Won” approach that wonderfully pays off when our pair joins a bunch of Tyrannosaurus cowpokes on a round up of their herd. But “The Good Dinosaur” is also a score that functions on far more levels, giving an ethereal sense of wonder for a world where the big lizards never died, as well as a mystical bond between its orphaned heroes – giving their bonded heart an emotional payoff that’s as tear inducing as any Pixar music before it.
Extra Special: Given the awesomeness of Sam Elliot’s tyrannosaurus and his clan of mammal herders, the western possibilities of a near-given “Good Dinosaur” spin off are boundless for the Danna brothers. Personally, I can’t wait to hear a “Magnificent Seven” ride of dino-avengers, or a “Good, Bad and the Ugly” spaghetti western showdown for the genre-spanning musical world that’s been so wonderfully set up on the ranch here.
4) JAWS / JAWS 2
What Is it?: In a near 50 year career, John Williams has used many, many notes in creating a distinctively lush sound that’s made him the most popular film composer of all time, a reputation cemented by one movie with the most famous two-note theme of all time. It’s a score that shows how utter simplicity can speak volumes when it comes to conjuring the devil itself. Or that’s what a certain seaman labeled a great white shark, its species brilliantly vilified in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” the summer blockbuster that created multiplex mass consumption, setting the tone for Williams’ embodiments of terror from the depths with water-like strings, percussion and ominous, chopping brass. Now having completely released every other score in the seemingly extinguished franchise with Alan Parsons’ “Jaws 3-D” and Michael Small’s “Jaws: The Revenge,” Intrada Records finally brings us the head, the tail and the whole damn musical thing with Williams’ “Jaws” and “Jaws 2,” the first revealed for its sinister elegance and seafaring joy, while its arguably more complex sequel score rears its teeth as a chum-gnashing, truly terrifying specimen.
Why Should You Buy It?: Beyond its iconic opening, few cues have embodied beauty and the beast, or made such good cinematic use of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” like the gossamer, floating harps that give way to the angry, sacrificial dance rhythm of Williams’ shark theme, full of ferocious percussive effects that rip away at a swimmer’s flesh. But if “Jaws” seems far more explicit in terms of gore, or seeing Bruce the breaking down mechanical shark, then that effect goes to Williams’ brilliant score. It’s about what’s going on under the surface and out of camera range, always lurking with sinister presence to make the audience well aware that death is ever-present, even if his pleasantly oblivious, classical cheer deludes the Amity beachgoers that they’re safe as day. But beyond the eerily suspenseful orchestra and fearsome excitement that made “Jaws” the height of the 70s man vs. nature craze, Williams’ score also serves as a jaunty seafaring adventure, flutes having the wistfulness of an old shark-killing salt, with successively flying barrels full of swashbuckling joy, the Korngoldian “Captain Blood”-esque thrill of the chase turning to panicked, shrill strings and the lower, percussive depths of the piano, with John “Tommy” Johnson’s tuba standing in for the low, sinister determination of the shark. Yet just as effective for the expansiveness of Williams’ score is the emotional, quirky moments, with a harp becoming the funny face game between distraught sheriff and adolescent son, or the glistening beyond-creepy string sustains that tell the awful tale of the U.S.S. Indianapolis.
Extra Special: If “Jaws” represented Williams ability to be as melodically sleek as he could be terrifying, then “Jaws 2” took his shark scoring to a new, horrifyingly level. Much like Alan Silvestri on “Back to the Future II,” Williams was faced with a far darker sequel that, if anything, gave him even more musical opportunities in the bargain. While of course his “Jaws” themes would be back, the essentially new score’s speed was even more furious, its brass-filled action turning cunning into outright rage on a par with the composer’s similarly pessimistic score for “The Fury” that year. With just a bit of fun, nautical adventure to spare for a yacht regatta full of teens going to fill the mouth of a serial killer, Williams conveys an epic, swirling sense of doom and pleading desperation, music that could just as well be set in the primitive, monster filled landscape that the composer tackled for “Lost in Space” especially when serving up a helicopter as a bombastic between meal snack for Bruce’s mate. If not having the kind of overall, melodic pleasure that made “Jaws” a favorite, it can arguably said that “Jaws 2” is even more daring in its blunt force excitement. But in both cases, Williams scores are more vital than ever before, thanks to Mike Matessino’s once-again spectacular re-mastering (a painstaking whale of a tale that he explains to audiophile perspective on the “Jaws” liners). For nearly forty years, it was an outrage that one of the greatest scores of all time was one of its worst-sounding ones on CD, a problem now soundingly rectified in this astonishing release, especially given all of its musical glory, complete with all of the Amity Island marching band (whose amateurishness was enhanced by Steven Spielberg’s clarinet playing). “Jaws 2” is also just as fearsome in its sonic presence, with both two-disc soundtracks containing copious alternates as well as the remastered editions of their original soundtrack issues. With Joe Sikoryak’s glossy design and Scott Betancourt’s anecdote-filled loner notes to boot, Williams fans can consider these Williams masterworks now properly crossed off of their chum bucket list.
5) SPOTLIGHT / TRUTH
Price: $13.98 / $11.99
What is it?: The power of the press has the ability to make composers stop the presses with notable scores, no more so than when it’s Howard Shore and Brian Tyler engaging in righteous exposes, one subdued in its sense of righteousness, while the other ironically trumpets its failure to the billowing American flag of business-controlled journalism.
Why should you buy it?: Having last scored the Catholic church’s inappropriate behavior towards its most vulnerable members with 2008’s “Doubt,” Howard Shore further clears up any suspicion towards frock-wearing child predators with a rhythmic “Spotlight” that bubbles with increasing outrage. Where “Doubt” took a religious tone for an investigation within cloistered confines, Shore’s energy is in the Boston Globe newsroom for its determined expose. But as opposed to making its revelations with a heavy hand, Shore takes a somewhat jazzy approach, the music’s percolating drive coming across as a groovier variation on the 70s conspiratorial tone of such scores as “The Parallax View.” But for this film’s twisted “corporation” Shore’s gripping, sadly energetic approach gets across the point of how victims can be bought off, and reporter’s efforts silenced through money and political power. It’s music that’s about growing outrage and determination, suspense that get to the emotional center of the story that lets us know that murder itself isn’t exactly being committed. That’s left to the after affects of molestation, angry guitar chords, poignant piano and even organ buckling against a wall of silence as it determinedly captures the big city newsbeat as well as the victims. Shore’s “Spotlight” is a righteous rhythmic crusade if there ever was one.
Extra Special: Brian Tyler gives “Truth,” given a rousing, do-gooder patriotism that could easily fit the cape of his co-score for this year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” But perhaps the salute-worthy bombast that fills some of this score is meant to be more than a bit ironic, as Mary Mapes’ team for “60 Minutes II” is no Spotlight newspaper team despite their far more illustrious pedigree, bungling their fact-checking in a rush to meet a TV deadline. It’s a career-ending screw-up in spite of good intentions all around in taking down a lackadaisical good ole’ boy President. Brian Tyler’s powerhouse score gets across the chase to meet that air time with an especially desperate and righteous tempo, as usually given portentous strings to signal that what they’re actually rushing to is a sacrificial cliff dive for the network business suits. As a composer best known for adrenalin pumping action scores for any number of franchises from “Fast and Furious” to “Rambo” and “The Expendables,” Tyler knows how to build suspense with the finesse of David Niven’s demolitions expert in “The Guns of Navarone,” pacing his rhythm to the point of the big bang – which in this case is the deflating sense of one source collapsing after the next. That drive is the big “Truth” to this score, which draws far more on the craft of Tyler’s mainstream fare as opposed to the composer’s just as powerful, if more uncommonly scored artsier thrillers like “Columbus Circle” and “The Lazarus Project.” What are especially interesting are Tyler’s ideas of embodying Mapes with a wailing female voice and a tender piano to show her past psychological damage. Yet the ever-escalating, flag-waving tone of “Truth” is a good fit for a program, and producer that defined themselves on showing their way more exploitative competitors how it was done – only be unmasked as flawed crusaders for The American Way. That Dan Rather exits stage with all the bombast of a star-spangled Captain might be the biggest ironic thumbing of the nose in any soldier-saluting scoring heard this year.
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
. THE 33
With “The 33,” James Horner gives his unintended swan song to over 150 scores written to picture (his final soundtrack to an upcoming remake of “The Magnificent Seven” was composed with only the script in hand). It makes the humanistic, Andean-inflected spirituality that fills this score all the more touching, while capturing the never-say-die spirit that helped these marooned miners survive an unimaginable ordeal in the bowels of the earth. It’s caverns, and the desert where loved ones wait above is filled with the kind of ancient wind instruments, guitar and drum percussion that made Horner a sort of ethnomusicologist in numerous scores from “House of Cards” to “Apocalypto” and “Where the River Runs Black” (the latter just re-issued as a Varese Sarabande limited edition). With the only dark action played for the terrifying cave-in, Horner’s score is mostly of a chamber variety, intimate and emotional as it treks the unimaginable wait for a rescue, the music kept at a tense, but hopeful echo as it hears the characters’ heartfelt reckonings with fate, as well as their ethereal, sparking dreams of escape. But Horner never pushes his tenderly thematic emotion over the top, only bringing on a joyous, moving orchestra for the long-awaited ascent. The inescapable sadness of listening to “The 33” is knowing that Horner’s own spirit is now soaring in the skies he loved so much with his final testament about a group of men’s desire to see the sunlight once again. Their triumph of the spirit is made all of the more evocative by a composer who could bring out the full power of an orchestra like few others of his generation, signing off with a lyrical, solo guitar and muted strings in a way that captures the almost impossible enormity of “The 33’s” happy ending.
. AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL: Limited Edition
One can imagine the surprise of many an O.G. “Battlestar Galactica” fans when Stu Phillips’ theme swooped towards them straight off the “Airplane II” main titles. But hey, this funnier-than-expected sequel from “Modern Problems’” Ken Finkleman had a space liner after all, so one can see the connection. Elmer Bernstein’s deliberately dramatic themes from the first “Airplane!” are also plentifully on hand to give audiences a sense of musical déjà vu, as re-configured by Richard Hazzard, who provided actual, original music for this picture (along with future “Simpsons” composer Alf Clausen), as he did to nicely unsung effect on such TV series as “Mission: Impossible,” “Mannix” and the features “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” and “Nickelodeon.” No doubt it’s riding shotgun with Bernstein’s work that’s insured the first, feature soundtrack release from the late composer. But if you’re expecting an adaptation sequel score a la Ken Thorne’s “Superman II,” this sequel offers some nice surprises as Hazzard dexterously maneuvers his own, mockingly suspenseful, ticking-bomb work between the seats of Stu and Elmer. Like the latter, Hazard isn’t trying to be “funny” as he plays the increasingly panicked passengers, but to be as over-dramatically real as he can given the ceaseless sight gags. While not at the stratospheric level of “Airplane!” Hazzard’s work is thoroughly fun and pleasant, with a tingling, star-faring, reduced budget cheesiness that makes the score come off more like an episode of “Buck Rogers” than “Battlestar Galactica.” It’s a fun compliment to the “Airplane!” experience, ending with the typical disco funk and an absurdist take on “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” for an especially funny dead space waltz. Props to Brian Satterwhite’s clever liner notes, though I’d love to know how the heck Admiral Adam’s music ended up in this film.
. BY THE SEA
While he teamed before with filmmaker Angelina Jolie to play the Bosnian Civil War with devastating tragedy “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” “By the Sea’s” oceanside location in the composer’s French homeland is an opportunity for Gabriel Yared to capture a slightly less weighty environment of artistic ennui. Given that the crisis here is the dissolving marriage between Jolie’s ex-dancer and Brad Pitt’s Hemingway-esque writer, Yared very nicely indulges in the kind of poetic melody that’s distinguished his far bigger approach on such other tormented expat scores as “The English Patient” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” It’s a sea of orchestral longing, lonely pianos dreamily aching violins and glass-like percussion. It’s an inward bedroom world for sad, besotted emotions to desperately cling to each other, though in an effective, laid back manner that casts a spell of the empty good life. There’s far more visible romance when it comes to “By the Sea’s” choice cuts from such artists from Jane Birkin, Charles Aznavour and Serge Gainsbourg, whose songs are as eternally alluring as the French coast is to watch love wash away.
. CHRISTOPHER SLASKI FILM WORKS
Composer compilations can be a wonderful chance to discover new talent that can be well off the American scoring radar while being more than worthy of it, as is now the case for British musician Christopher Slaski. Spain’s Quartet Records certainly knows excellent work when they hear it in their impressive release of many highlights from Slaski’s ongoing career that shows off a formidable array of styles in this 80-minute album. Beginning with a beautiful, Morricone-esque talent for rapid-fire pianos and anguished strings with the main title of “Rue Huvelin” and the borderline dissonant, overlapping melodies of “Tenere Sulle Spine,” Slaski’s themes show off an affinity for melodic and classical lyricism (“La Veuenza”), pastoral longing (“Un Jour De Printemps”). But Slaski shows himself equally capable of more modern rhythms, from the humming, harpsichord retro Euro jazz of “Tu O Yo” to the brassy, bouncy continental comedy and peppy tango of “Seman Una Historia De Amour.” Slaski’s interesting percussion enlivens “The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes” and the film noir tension of “I Anna” (even turning a phone busy signal to music), while answering, “Who is Florinda Balkan” with a cool Italian Giallo vocalese stylings. The most familiar title when it comes to American audiences is Slaski’s score for Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic “Beyond the Sea,” which glides on lush, dramatic waves. But then, listening to Slaski’s “Film Works” is a constantly engaging voyage for a composer of note, now given an exceptional album to shine on.
. COOL WORLD / KISS THE GIRLS (1,000 edition)
Cool World” might have been a bomb that ended the studio feature career of the otherwise brilliant animator Ralph Bakshi. But a big reason to give thanks for its existence was in allowing a score that could cross from animated to live action life from Mark Isham’s. It’s not only a highlight of originality in a prodigious career, but also one of the craziest and coolest scores of the 1990’s at that. Given a movie patterned as a way more adult spin on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” as it segued between a toon town and real-life Las Vegas, Isham was no doubt inspired by Bakshi’s vision of a Max Fleischer retro world dancing in the midst of an ecstasy-fueled techno rave. Hence an inspired combo of the 40s style big band jazz that Isham had begun swinging with in such scores as “Love at Large” and “Little Man Tate” as glued together with hip electronic rhythms and an impressive orchestral sound. Yet if that musical culture clash caused “Cool World” to become unglued as a film, Isham’s fever dream of a score is thematically cohesive in spite of its audaciousness. At one moment it might as be as cartoony as Carl Stalling on speed, then at the other have one of the most beguilingly beautiful, sax melodies given to a femme fatale of ink or flesh, the music building to trumpeting, Wagnerian heroics and mock monster music as the toons invade Las Vegas like a Glenn Miller big band explosion. “Cool World” may not have been “Roger Rabbit,” but it certainly marked a new, epic phase in Isham’s career. Thanks to Quartet, Isham’s cult score gets its full due on a two CD set, offering up the full score along with John Dickson’s even cartoonier tracks, with Jeff Bond’s always incisive liner notes detailing a musical cross between animated insanity and hallucinogenic, hipped-up gumshoe music that makes Isham’s music a colorful one-of-a-kind.
Also of note from Quartet is their limited edition release of Mark Isham’s score for the superb 1997 serial killer thriller “Kiss the Girls.” Given a harem of victims for a violin-serenading maniac who calls himself “Casanova,” Isham briefly employs the instrument to eerily unbalanced and beautiful effect. But for the great part, it’s a wall of alternatively blasting, or skin-crawling sound that makes his serial killer score for “The Hitcher” seem positively charming in comparison. Drawing in particular from the terrifying alien kidnap music of his “Fire in the Sky,” Isham’s throws on manic percussion, howling voices, guitar feedback and undulating orchestrations to create a frenzy akin to clawing itself out of a cave, straddling the razor sharp line between melody and dissonance. The nerve-wracking score is perfect accompaniment for a post “Se7en” Morgan Freeman as he falls into a rabbit hole of bent psychology, while also not forgetting the empathetic girl power of Ashley Judd’s victim no more. It’s a powerhouse, literally thrown-in-the-kitchen sink (or more particularly an oven) approach that’s pummeling in its effectiveness, but no less mesmerizing for over two hours, given Isham’s talent for creating eerie, transfixing atmospheres. Of particular interest on this three-CD set is the presentation of Carter Burwell’s score, which likely wasn’t used for taking a way less visceral approach, drawing more on the rustic instrumentation of the film’s North Carolina setting, along with tribal percussion and meditative chills that make this unused music a cousin to his still-unreleased score for the Mark Wahlberg-as-menace picture “Fear.” Together, they’re two provocative tastes of how composers choose to enter an assured and decidedly un-romantic maniac’s musical headspace.
. OUR BRAND IS CRISIS
Scathingly satirical director David Gordon Green riffs on the similarly titled 2005 documentary about ugly gringo political spin doctors gaming the election in Bolivia, a country best known for its powdered exports. But leave it to composer David Wingo to help get emotionally beneath the facile nature of its characters. Having worked with Green to more rustically effect in such scores as “Joe,” “Snow Angels” and “The Sitter,” Wingo doesn’t take the more overt path of ethnically scoring the South American location as Marcelo Zarvos did for the original version of events. Instead, Wingo effectively gets the message of laying a western, pseudo-democracy on the region with an all-language get-out-the-vote message of rhythmic urgency, beating the military drums of rival candidate campaigns that delight in flirting with deception. Wingo’s alt. rock leanings come through in this brand of orchestra and samples for the high-tech political gamesmanship in a distinctly low-tech country. Most importantly, Wingo’s nicely melodic approach has an effecting, introspective sense of just how full of b.s., its musical machinations are, emotion that’s particularly well realized in the bravura ten-minute end cue “What Are You Doing Jane?” The string and piano somberness of an empty victory builds to a rousingly symphonic moral epiphany as the score finally hears the truth behind the façade of false promises. It’s a skillfully constructed, cleansing realization that rains down upon its merchant of deception as it segues from inside the character’s head as the musical truth finally wins out.
. STARCRAFT II: LEGACY OF THE VOID
Blizzard’s sci-fi spin on “World of Warcraft’s” monster-busting team spirit marks its climactic real time strategy chapter as the wizened Protoss are pitted against the “Starship Troopers”-esque swarm, bug ugly alien invaders that give rise to a terrific multi-composer score by “Warcraft” vets Neal Acree, Glenn Stafford, Jason Hayes and “League of Legends’” Michael Patti. Given that the tiny, constantly blazing figures of the RTS genre might not create the kind of vision-enveloping landscapes of the first-person shooter format, it’s all the more important for their score to give dimension to the cosmos-changing fight, of which this gorgeously performed soundtrack delivers in a way that would befit any flesh and blood space opera, let alone bug attack. Driven by an awe-inspiring sense of melody that combines the magical sweep of John Williams with the percussive, brassily heroic muscle of Basil Poledouris, the “Void” flows from one musical setpiece to the other, alternately blasting in the heat of battle, or painting a wizened picture of beings who sewed the seeds of life. It’s a blend of majestic, bell-ringing action, alien exotica and militaristic heroism that isn’t “sci-fi” music as such, but certainly taps into a common wellspring of fantastical imagination, especially in its spectacular cinematics where the music’s armor truly gets to shine. Vocals also impress here from a full chorus to the haunting intimacy of Laurie Ann Haus as the Queen of Blades. “StarCraft II” can certainly be enjoyed well beyond the game in the purest, musical sense, especially with a soundtrack that shows how epically melodic video game music is singing louder than ever as a prime challenger to proper film scores. Rico and the troopers could certainly jump into battle with this bug busting, yet also surprisingly spiritual scoring company at that.
. STEVE McQUEEN: THE MAN & LE MANS
Drive is what it’s all about for the hot Hollywood leading men who get to the front of the pack, which is perhaps why they love the live-fast potentially die-young world of car racing off of the Hollywood track – something that can evidenced in Tom Cruise and Paul Newman making car racing films from “Winning” to “Days of Thunder.” But none burned the match at both ends like Steve McQueen with 1971’s “Le Mans,” a fairly disastrous production that would later be acclaimed as one of the most realistic racing films, and the subject of this documentary. First off the CD track in Varese Sarabande’s novel CD presentation is the non-fiction score by English composer Jim Copperthwaite, whose solid documentary scoring background no doubt landed him pole position here after his work on “Sports Life Stories.” Don’t expect movie star flair from his guitar gritty, sample-propelled score, which sounds more like music for a gritty spy drama. Plunging deep into McQueen’s self-destructive quest to make the racing film to end all racing films (while nearly becoming the end of him). Copperthwaite’s score is dark moodily melodic going, and compelling all of the way, hearing the pained human being beyond his mask of cool. Yet for all of the score’s moodiness, there’s a sense of spiritual triumph, the sense that it was all worth it by the final lap. Following is Michel Legrand’s jazzy, charismatic score from the resulting film. Having added immeasurably to the sexy charisma of the star with his music for “The Thomas Crown Affair,” Legrand’s score shows how far ahead he was at the top of the Hollywood curve back in the day, winning the town as a romantic Frenchman incorporating jazz expressionism with traditional orchestral drama, Yet Legrand’s “Le Mans” also goes deeper than expected in getting inside the determined head of McQueen’s ladykilling driver. Using the “Thomas Crown” fuel mix of classically lush rhythmic strings, mod harpsichords, choral vocalese and swinging big band brass, Legrand’s music captures speed itself, as well as the neuroses that make these daredevils step all the harder on the gas. If one wants to understand just what makes these men risk it all, then all they need to hear is the pure, angered sexiness and dark grooviness of Legrand’s dangerous romance between man, car and the adoring public to understand it all, where Copperthwaite’s impressive work is all about what’s happening on the other side of the wheel, and movie camera.
Best known to American viewers for his thunderous work on the first two “Mad Max” films, the late Brian May’s bloodily lush orchestral sound was just as effective down under given the often eccentric Aussie twist to such horror scoring stalwarts as psychokinesis (“Patrick”) and serial killers (“Road Games”) before finding redder Hollywood pastures with the maniacs of “Freddy’s Dead” and “Doctor Giggles.” One of May’s most effectively chilling Aussie scores was for 1979’s “Thirst,” one of the crazier international productions down under that saw a descendant of Countess Dracula herself being asked to give her sanguine stamp of approval to a cult of well-healed blood farmers who view corpuscle-draining technology as way more chic than fang biting. But for as modern as these nouveau riche vampires are, May’s sometimes funky, wonderfully thematic scoring is of the delicious old-school, Gothically bombastic variety, given a richly thematic, and romantic theme for The Brotherhood’s hopeful seduction of their very reluctant prey, with brassy melodies shrieking alarm as the she’s caressed with violins and pianos. It’s music that’s as unnerving as it is a fun, full-blooded salute to the Dracula scores of yore. Done the same year as “Mad Max,” “Thirst” is also replete with full of some terrifically throttling action and echoing horn motifs that wouldn’t be out of place in a post-apocalyptic car chase. “Thirst” further escalates with the inclusion of choral vampire ceremony and demonic voices singing the Latin translation of “Blood forever!,” ultimately blasting out an ersatz version of “Carmina Burana.” There’s a delicious energy and invention to May’s “Thirst” that makes this one of the best vampire scores you’ve never heard of, at least until Dragon’s Domain’s welcome release that shows off May’s undead forcefulness, with horror music expert Randall D. Larson paying tribute to a composer who helped put Australian horror scoring on the map.
. UNTIL DAWN
When it comes to game interactivity, few titles are more ingenious than “Until Dawn,” a spin on the “choose your own adventure” genre – or more likely “choose your own horrible death,” given the near-impossibility of players to altar the butterfly effect fates of characters whose multiple bad decisions you guide. A strong, unifying factor in “Until Dawn’s” deadly winter wonderland is the surprisingly lush score by Jason Graves, especially given the aptly named composer’s way more dissonantly terrifying scores for the “Dead Space” franchise. Sure, there’s are plenty of nerve-jangling attacks of percussion, screaming brass and the chopping strings as the fresh meat characters poke about the cannibal creature infested forests, shine searchlights in mine shafts or ruffle through the debris-filled rooms of an abandoned lunatic asylum. But for the most part, Grave’s impressive work is about conjuring a melodic environment of vast menace, musical chills that are about old school fear. The game gets an imposing theme and surprising emotional tenderness that helps give depth to obnoxious people you might not want to see get killed after all, As the mystery comes together, Grave’s music grows to give “Until Dawn” an feel of almost-romantic grand guignol, if only it weren’t for the eerie samples and angry, animalistic percussion of an army of flesh-eating Wendigos. Like the wonderfully repeating experience of “Until Dawn,” you never quite know where the score will take you, which is part of its over-arching effectiveness that calls upon the ghosts of classic horror scoring in the context of game and music technology at its bloody cutting edge.
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