Soundtrack Picks: ‘GREMLINS‘ IS ONE OF THE TOP SOUNDTRACKS TO OWN FOR NOVEMBER, 2011
Also worth picking up: THE CORE, DEUS EX, DIRTY GIRL, THE GREATEST MIRACLE, THE MUPPETS, REAL STEEL and TRADING PLACES
To purchase the soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover
What is it?: If you were among the generation that saw one great genre film after the other in the early 80’s, perhaps no signature theme signaled these pictures’ often seditious spin on kid-friendly formulas than the sweet whistling of Gizmo and the cackling, rambunctious jazz rag of what would pop out of that furry little fella if you fed him after midnight. It’s taken nearly three decades for those little devils’ music to fully metamorphose, but at long last, Jerry Goldsmith’s full score to “Gremlins” is finally here to create hilariously menacing havoc.
Why should you buy it?: While Goldsmith was famed for scoring the far more visceral horrors of “The Omen” and Alien,” it took Joe Dante to really bring out the big, goofy geek in the seriously esteemed composer. “Gremlins” combined Goldsmith’s comforting touch for lush orchestral melody with outright synth absurdity and the malefic use the fiddle- a nutty formula which first served these collaborators well when Goldsmith applied it to Dante’s “It’s A Good Life” segment from the “Twilight Zone” movie. “Gremlins” took that mix to even more twisted extremes for this musical battle royale between Christmas-style warmth and holly-jolly evil. Given synth raspberries and the cries of cats in heat, as stroked to destructive frenzy by Old Scratch’s favorite instrument, Stripe and his gang rampage through the hearth and home of Kingston Falls to the composer’s brilliant brand of string suspense and staccato action. It’s a satirical blend of the musical sweet and sour that Goldsmith relishes like no other score, with some of the best material on this unleashed “Gremlins” heard in its climactic department store chase. Pitting the swashbuckling heroism of the toy-car driving Gizmo against the fearsome brass menace and synth mewls of a chainsaw-wielding Stripe, “Gremlins”’ music turns the battle between two cleverly used puppets into a suspenseful race to save the world, as filtered through the sensibility of Bugs Bunny on a particularly nasty prank day.
Extra Special: For fans, it’ll be all about dancing to the Gremlin Rag, easily Goldsmith’s most infectious main theme. But I’ve always been partial to Michael Sembello’s “Gremlins… Mega Madness,” the disco-pop song that accompanied the film’s brilliant shark-jumping dance scene. This tune that was part of “Gremlins” original mini-EP (along with such other 80’s soundtrack stalwarts as Quarterflash and Peter Gabriel) makes up the second CD on this terrific release, with the first disc’s bonus section offering such gems as the ultra-cool bar “Blues” piece, a creepy “Silent Night” to accompany the film’s anti-Xmas spirit, and the film’s height of Looney Tune brilliance with an excerpt of Milt Franklyn’s “Rabbit Rampage.” Thanks to Film Score Monthly, the rules no longer apply as the label goes out with a bang for Goldsmith’s brilliantly goofy grail to rule them all.
2) THE GREATEST MIRACLE (EL GRAN MILAGRO)
What is it?: Though he may have started out with such sinfully good scores as “Son of Darkness,” “Warlock: The Armageddon” and “Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde,” Mark McKenzie has seen the light to become one of the best faith-based composers in Hollywood with such films as “The Ultimate Gift” and “Saving Sarah Cain,” not to mention saving Christmas with Santa’s reindeer in “Blizzard.” But perhaps the most enlightening thing about McKenzie’s new calling is that you don’t have to be a believer to appreciate his God-given talents, which now goes South of the border to convey the animated Christian awakening of “The Greatest Miracle.”
Why should you buy it?: Where many scores of this type tend to exude syrupy spirituality, what distinguishes McKenzie’s work is that it works first and foremost as smart, beautifully crafted orchestral music, singing with a grace honed from his years as a top orchestrator for the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, Marc Shaiman, Danny Elfman and John Powell. “The Greatest Miracle” is another gorgeous Hosanna for McKenzie, full of the holy musical spirit that’s touched any number of biblical epics, complete with Latin choral hosannahs (some stirringly performed by the London boys choir Libera) and soaring symphonic gestures- De Mille-ian moments that are nicely balanced with subtler, dramatic music to convey its characters crises in faith. The fact that you might mistake much of “The Greatest Miracle” as a score for a non-violent fantasy, or science fiction spectacle says much about how well McKenzie conveys the sense of a greater, transformative power in his work, a sound that goes beyond any genre to touch on the Force that binds the power of melodically unabashed symphonic writing.
Extra Special: As always, the lush orchestral performance of McKenzie’s score matches the composer’s writing, making “The Greatest Miracle” a good purchase for anyone looking for a majestic listening experience that hearkens back to the days when Charlton Heston was king. And while it would be grand to have McKenzie turn back to more worldly scores, the composer continues to excel in a genre that’s inspired some of his best music.
3) THE MUPPETS
What is it?: It’s time to play to play the music, and light the lights after way too long a spell without Muppets tunes to delight. Now innocent kids, old coot fans and spoof-loving hipsters will find equal fun in the fresh approach taken by the “Flight of the Concords” directing-songwriting team of James Bobin and Bret McKenzie, who treat “The Muppets” with equal parts joyful, un-ironic fun and gentle in-jokes- winningly re-creating a tuneful formula that first helped Jim Henson’s creations find an audience way outside of a children’s puppet show. Now that recipe is likely do the same for this sweet revamp that brings the band back together, along with a couple of clucking chickens.
Why should you buy it?: It’s fitting that Mickey Rooney shows up for a sec in the Muppet’s first number “Life’s a Happy Song,” whose ultra-happy metaphors sum up a “Let’s put on a show” energy straight out of a 1940’s production number. This proves a delicious contrast to Chris Cooper, who does a priceless gangsta rap on being filthy rich for “Let’s Talk About Me.” Human star Jason Segel gets his moment to belt out a soulful number while looking into the mirror for “Man or Muppet,” while love interest Amy Adams engages in a disco duet of self-affirmation with Miss Piggy for “Me Party.” Where classic numbers by Paul Simon and Jefferson Starship embody the Muppets’ can-do energy, McKenzie’s captures their knack for spoofs with Fozzie Bear selling a motel’s Reno amenities to a “Moopet” mangling of “The Rainbow Connection,” while the Muppet Barbershop Quartet does a priceless a Capella version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But even though nearly every song from a whistling classical pastiche to chicken clucking has a satirical element, there’s true emotion that makes you feel, as well as laugh with these iconic characters, whether it’s Kermit doing a hilariously heartfelt look at past friends for “Pictures in My Head,” or giving a soulful banjo rendition of Kenny Acher and Paul Williams’ classic song “The Rainbow Connection.” It’s a performance guaranteed to make Muppets acolytes misty-eyed, all while they tap their toes to a spot-on take on Jim Henson and Samuel Pottle’s “The Muppet Show Theme.”
Extra Special: Where some of these numbers might seem a bit clipped in the film, their full versions are wonderfully present in the Disney Records album. Taking a “storybook” approach to the songs, “The Muppets” incorporates a lavishly laid-out booklet of lyrics and pictures along with the film’s best sound bytes, the witty asides of puppets and their human enablers making you feel like you’re taking a fun road trip with them back to the Muppet big time.
4) REAL STEEL
What is it?: If there was one film whose high concept promised a TKO, then it was having the director of the disastrous “Pink Panther” redo make the movie version of the old Hasbro toy Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots- as channeled through the father-son corniness of “The Champ.” But like its junkyard automaton, “Real Steel” shouldn’t have been counted out, as this Hugh Jackman effects vehicle has not only proven to be one of this year’s most entertaining box office winners, but has also delivered a truly unique Danny Elfman genre score that’s all about the musical rope-a-dope as opposed to a flurry of punches.
Why Should you buy it?: Don’t expect Elfman’s enraged approach to “Hellboy 2” here, let alone “The Incredible Hulk,” as the composer envisions these behemoths with NASCAR-ready country-western-rock. And that turns out to be just the right, inspired choice for a dad driving his ‘bot from one American rust bowl to the other. While “Steel” starts off with raw, strumming simplicity, Elfman gradually brings in his more recognizable strings lines, heavenly choirs (with a particularly angelic voice provided by Poe) and fighting mad orchestra, with thumping, metal grunge leading to the big moment in the robot ring.
Extra Special: In any Hollywood music fight where an underdog’s pitted against a pulverizing heavyweight, a composer’s going to be punching back for all he’s thematically worth with those big, Americana roundhouses that practically cry “Adrian!” Elfman fits very well into those Bill Conti shoes to pull out the expected stops in the “Final Round” providing a rousing emotional count for the film’s nicely fleshed-out human characters. It’s about as sentimental an ending that Elfman’s delivered for one of these visually spectacular vehicles, delivering adrenalin and emotion that puts true heart into “Real Steel.”
5) TRADING PLACES (2,000 edition)
What is it?: An old fogey named Elmer Bernstein became the new (and perhaps unwitting) king of youth comedy scores when filmmaker John Landis had the idea that the composer’s straight-laced, old Hollywood approach would be ideal to play the classically pompous academia who did their best to make sure Faber College had no fun of any kind. The keg smash of 1978’s “Animal House” made Bernstein into The Man in more ways than one, tuning his often brassy approach to the height of wealth-spoofing irony- an approach that would pay huge dividends for both men ten years later with “Trading Places.”
Why should you buy it?: Of their five subsequent pictures together, 1987’s “Trading Places” best allowed Bernstein to wade in his snooty sound, pulling out an Original Score Oscar nomination that’s so far stood as the only recognition one of Landis’ films has gotten from the Academy snobs. With their nod also encompassing musical adaptation it’s easy to see how Bernstein was accepted into their private club by lavishly decorating two of Wall Street’s most infamous 1per-cent’ing brothers with the delicious faux elegant spirit of Rossini and Elgar, while also seamlessly incorporating the real classical deal into his music with Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” This robber-baron pomp and circumstance gives way to Bernstein’s own, inimitably lush symphonic style for the brash spirit of Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, whose can-do determination exacts revenge on Duke & Duke with patriotic fife and drum marches, a romping western-style orchestra and an overall, undeniable sweetness that made “Trading Places”’ its millions.
Extra Special: La La Land gives us the whole of Bernstein’s score, while also offering a wealth of source music, from the composer’s own rocking blues and Jamaican kettle drums to a number of Christmas chestnuts that capture the duplicitous height of joy for the film’s prince and the pauper switch. Giving “Places” limited edition added value are Jeff Bond’s liner notes, which feature a fun recounting of the movie’s production (including a priceless tidbit about an old star way too classy to say the F bomb), as well as new interviews with Landis and Peter Bernstein, who ruminate on the composer with a comedic Midas touch.
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
. CALL OF DUTY: MODERN WARFARE 3
When it comes to blowing shit up real good, Brian Tyler is the musical demolitionist for you, whether it’s blasting aliens on the big screen for “Battle Los Angeles” and “The Expendables” or waging World “Warfare” 3 for a videogame that’s already out-grossed any theatrical picture this year. Tyler knows how to set the bomb, lighting the fuse with an escalating thematic beat, fueling the fire with orchestra, voices, metal guitars and sampled beats, then standing back as adrenalin hell is unleashed. Taking up the “Call of Duty” from Hans Zimmer, Tyler spreads his equally exciting conflict over 20 cues and 87 minutes, with each piece playing like its own rhythmic campaign. While “Modern Warfare” provides exactly the kind of Tyler insanity you’d expect, it’s thankfully not one gigantically percussive strafing run after the next. Tyler offers some musical down time as well, his orchestra capturing the imposing biblical scope of “Warfare”’s destruction, Russian stylings for the duped country of the terrorist Makarov, and an determined sense of patriotism for our hero “Soap” MacTavish. Exhausting in a cool way, “Modern Warfare 3” stays on target by offering Tyler’s action stylings at their most primally effective thrill-kill fireballs.
. THE CORE
If it’s going to be the end of our globe as we know it, leave it to Christopher Young to be damn sure to try and save it with a big bang instead of a whimper. After doing many ferocious scores about the depths of hell, Young actually got to go to the pseudo-scientific thing with this journey to the musically raging center of the Earth, its hugely entertaining disaster-movie mission to re-ignite of our planet’s very “Core.” Sensing the monumental burrowing task at hand, Young responded with more notes than a Mahler symphony for what stands as one of the most balls-out orchestral scores of the last decade. Yet “The Core” is far more than a collection of raging string and brass movement, as Young’s distinctive themes track the terranauts with a brawny sense of the human spirit. Voices soar with spectacle of a diamond chamber, stirringly patriotic melodies never surrender in the face of sacrifice, and relentlessly excited percussion lands the space shuttle in the most stunning of the soundtrack’s many long action set pieces. All this is more than enough melodic spectacle to merit two CD’s from Intrada, with the composer re-arranging the score order for optimum impressiveness, as well as describing his epic game plan for Brian Satterwhite’s entertaining liner notes. Big in the best sense, Young’s got the Irwin Allen spirit within him for this bravura display of unleashed musical energy.
. DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION
If you dug the techno sheen of “Tron Legacy,” then you’ll likely love the vibe of “Deus Ex: Human Revolution,” an impressively atmospheric score that also paints its game grid in hypnotic, neon-sounding colors. But before you cry foul on composer Michael McCann for trying some unfair light cycle move on Daft Punk, know that “Deux Ex: Human Revolution” was generated even further back, making McCann’s to-the-second technological wash of eerily pulsating samples and electronics that much more futuristically impressive. Having composed the ruthless spy suspense for “Splinter Cell: Double Agent,” McCann gives “Revolution”’s industrial operative a propulsive sense of mission as he infiltrates the conspiracy of a biomechanical human revolution. While McCann’s action algorithms are certainly ear catching, it’s his eerie, ethereal stealth abilities that truly give “Deux Ex” impact. Haunted voices and chants turn its percolating world into a techno church, whose music worships at the altar of Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. And like his fellow electronic acolytes Daft Punk, McCann’s prayers are answered in style for the thoroughly mesmerizing score of “Deux Ex: Human Revolution,” a soundtrack that truly makes the listener feel like they’re part of the ghost in the machine.
. DIRTY GIRL
It’s been a long time since the glory song-soundtrack days of “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” and “The Breakfast Club,” LP’s so full of instantly great, eternally listenable FM hits that you were guaranteed to wear their vinyl out. Set in 1987 “Dirty Girl” has that awesome pop-rock flashback power, with an accent on Grlll Power that makes its heroine anything but a hussy. With Tanya Tucker’s “Delta Dawn” standing for the boring Oklahoma digs she flees from in search of her biological dad n Fresno, “Dirty Girl” brings on a fun road trip with the proto-punk likes of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy,” the hair guitar balladeering of The Outfield’s “Your Love,” Sheena Easton’s jazzy “Strut,” and the bubble gum bop of Teena Marie’s “Lover Girl.” All have sass, but when it comes to “Dirty Girl”’s heart and soul, no artist speaks for the misunderstood, and mislabeled teen like Melissa Manchester, whose self-affirming songs (especially for “Girl”’s gay friend and co-escapee) range from the uptempo hits “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” to the yearning “Midnight Blue” and “Still Myself.” And of course, there’s Manchester’s most famed anthem “Don’t Cry Out Loud”,” where a circus coming to town. Of special Manchester interest is “Rainbird,” a particularly lovely song written by co-star Mary Steenburgen, who’s now making a name for herself as a lyricist- and with good, soulful reason. Full of classic hits with an emotional voice that speaks to today’s nutty kids, “Dirty Girl” has a great vinyl vibe to it.
. THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE
When it comes to hailing the emperors of classic film scores, few producers have sent out the chariots like James Fitzpatrick, who’s given new resonance to such epics as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Exodus” and “Taras Bulba.” Now after overseeing the rousing re-performances of Miklos Rozsa’s “El Cid” and Dmitri Tiomkin’s “The Alamo,” Fitzpatrick resurrects the latter’s score for Prometheus’ release of a full “Fall of the Roman Empire.” Though this picture might have also been the fall of Samuel Bronston massive pictures, the Russian producer couldn’t have hoped for a more dynamic composer than his fellow countryman Tiomkin to represent the glory that was Rome, let alone the Hollywood mega-production. But whether Tiomkin was dealing with the ancient empire or Texas’ most famous last stand, his work sang with a dance-like swagger, its grand passion standing for all that was manly heroism. His “Rome” is chock full of fanfares, marches, heated romance and rhythmic battles, with Italian flavor coming through with Mandolins and ethnic percussion. With this joyfully balletic approach, Tiomkin doesn’t so much signal the end of Rome as much as communicating a full-blast orgy or orchestral tempestuousness, complete with an organ to defiantly state its prideful theme to the gods. Conductor Nic Raine once again commands the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra to reach new, passionate heights for Fitzpatrick, capturing Tiomkin’s old-school wall of sound with blood and thunder to spare. Hearing this “Empire” played with such force over two CD’s, you’d think it had never left.
. PRINCESS KA’IULANI
If you’ve got a soft-spoken, but determined historical heroine, one composer who certainly knows the right musical fabric to dress them in is Englishman Stephen Warbeck, whose rack of historical dramas includes “Charlotte Gray,” “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” “Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown” and an Oscar scoring win for “Shakespeare in Love.” Warbeck’s outfitting of regal, flowing melodies is very well suited for “Princess Ka’Iulani.” An heir to the native Hawaiian throne, Ka’Iulani fought a diplomatic battle for her people’s rights, all taken away by the American government that had overthrown her peoples’ rule. It’s a noble, ultimately doomed struggled that makes for an elegantly noble score. Eschewing any tropical music, Warbeck’s classically styled approach for strings, violin and piano reflects Ka’Iulani’s half-European heritage, making her a center of virtuous, English-educated calm against the brass and drumbeats of an immovable, far larger land mass. Where some of Warbeck’s period scoring has ended up being a bit overemphatic, “Princess Ka’Iulani” proves to be one of his strongest works in years by emphasizing his heroine’s quiet morality and native pride that fits her royal rank.
In the early 1960’s, Georges Delerue was well established in Europe for his delicately classical, and distinctly French approach to such dramas as “The Soft Skin” and “Contempt.” It was this poetic sound that finally took him to Hollywood by mid-decade, with one of his first English language scores ironically accompanying the French setting of 1965’s “Rapture.” No longer obscure thanks to Intrada’s soundtrack release and the film’s accompanying DVD debut on Twilight Time, “Rapture” is a true revelation in Delerue’s resume of early masterworks. The composer’s voice is immediately recognizable in his use of harps, dulcimers and languid string melodies, music that might make one think they’re listening to a long-lost Bach chamber piece. But “Rapture”’s weirder elements for a repressed Brittany girl who’s fallen head over heels for a scarecrow-come-to-life (actually Dean Stockwell’s escaped convict in scarecrow cloths) reveal themselves in eerie female voices and truly menacing orchestrations that signal the height of her lethal passion. It’s music caught between true love and total psychosis, an unsettling atmosphere far more in tone with a period Euro-horror soundtrack than anything you’d expect from Francois Truffaut’s favored romanticist. In that entrancing regard, “Rapture” stands as one of Delerue’s most unique scores on either side of the pond, its equal footing in first love and creeping insanity distinctly described in Julie Kirgo’s liner notes.
Composer Nicholas Errera (“Sleepless Night”) might hail from modern Paris as opposed to feudal China, but you’d think he was musically trained by Master Po himself, given the gentle sweep of “Shaolin.” Where many Hong Kong period action films rely on fancy percussive footwork, Errara delivers both the requisite drum hits and an unexpectedly gentle Zen spirit that’s got more than fancy rhythmic footwork on its mind. Credit that to a story centered on personal transformation instead of gaining mad fighting skills, as “Shaolin”’s warlord undergoes a spiritual conversion in the company of the famed martial arts monks, As he meditates in their company, Errara makes thematically evocative use of the Erhu, a string instrument that’s China’s answer to the violin. Its emotional voice gently resonates with a lush orchestra for Errara’s West-meets-East musical approach, whose cues range from delicate, Asian-style piano and a lilting female voice to battle-ready symphonic brass and ethnic bell and bamboo hits. Dangerous when it needs to be, but mostly as beautifully sedate and flowing as water in an Oriental rock garden, “Shaolin” is as distinctive, and poetic as chopsocky scores get.
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