Soundtrack Picks: “IT” is the top soundtrack to own for September, 2017
Also worth picking up: GOOK, THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD, HONEY I BLEW UP THE KID, MIRACLE MILE, UNREST, WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY? and many more!
To Purchase the soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover
THE TOP PICKS
What is it?: This year has provided a virtual renaissance of great independent filmmaking, small-scale movies that have born similarly resourceful scores from budgetary resourcefulness. Perhaps none is more uniquely powerful than “Gook,” Roger Suen’s abstract city symphony, which plays in searing service of triple-threat writer, director and star Justin Chon. With a profanely in-your-face balance of humor and tragedy, that returns us to 1992, the year that LA’s ethnic enclaves were set upon during the city’s riots. Singled out were the stores belonging to Korean immigrants, strangers in a strange land trying to make a hardscrabble life from a financially devastated hood, the more vengeful members of whom use the titular slur for their perceived exploitators. “Gook’s” impactful emotion derives from the relationship between a black girl who hangs out at the truancy-enable shoe store owned by argumentative Korean brothers, a hilariously good-humored relationship that you’d expect to see in “Clerks” but ultimately turns to the far darker impact of “Do the Right Thing.” But thanks to Suen’s provocatively creative score, “Gook” manages to sample both films and their urban vibe to far better effect than either.
Why should you buy it?: With work as a programmer on “The Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” and “X-Men Days of Future Past,” Suen’s additional composing is more in the superhero realm of “Daredevil” and “The Defenders,” with sole credits on the dramas “Sacrifice” and “Lady Bug.” Taking an alternately realistic and surreal approach here. With a malleable, intimate theme that varies from poignant piano to plucked bass, Suen captivates with his urban tone poem. He constructs an isolated store from melancholy guitar and lonely jazz trumpet, while giving its sneaker-hungry clientele oddball pep with a tango. Sometimes using retro synth beats straight outta Casio alongside free form jazz riffs, Suen casts an oddball mood for its unlikely cross-cultural friendship, charting the film’s course from humor to anger and reconciliation, then all out madness as a fire-lit night descends upon the area.
Extra Special: Suen handles the tonal shift of “Gook” with devastating results, while creating near unbearable tension for characters on a tragic collision course. He ends on a note of somber self-reflection that makes “Gook’s” can’t-we-all-just-get-along message all the more impactful as a female singer providing a heavenly elegy. In a movie where characters are constantly screaming at one another to hilarious and gut punch effect, Suen is a real voice to watch out for.
2) THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD
What Is it?: Since making his first Hollywood splash with the kinetic conspiracy score to 2008’s “Vantage Point,” Icelandic composer Atli Orvarsson’s action stylings have mainly veered to swords and crossbows with the entertaining likes of “The Eagle” “Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters” and “The Mortal Instruments.” Now he comes roaring back to the present with “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” a gleeful R-rated cavalcade of car chases, shootings, stabbings and barroom brawling.
Why Should You Buy It?: Given a virtual checklist of multiplex action mayhem, both score and film invest a welcome screw-this attitude that thankfully makes this “Bodyguard” a bit more than going through the usual motions. One big reason is that a Sam Jackson is holding a gun in one hand and a harmonica in the other as he belts out the F-bomb blues. Similarly, this is a score that gloriously doesn’t give a shit as it’s pouring on a comic world of hurt. Orvarsson goes for a sound that’s way more caper than crime from its opening theme title track with voice, organ, funk guitar and orchestra, setting up a mighty fun ride. Like a descendent to Danny Elfman’s “Midnight Run” score on steroids, Orvarsson’s score is all badass attitude at embodying Jackson’s too cool for school assassin. It’s antic energy versus facepalm exasperation in how groovily “Hitman” gets its funk on, the fact that it’s playing in international locations making the approach all the more fun. A bit of sadness almost turns into a gospel lament, while “Kincaid’s Gospel” gets an Eric Clapton-style guitar theme that “Lethal Weapon’s” Martin Riggs would be proud to call his own (the theme even getting a sweet accordion and Hammond organ spin later on). Gary Oldman doing his scene-munching villain thang gets an evil Eastern European cimbalom, because who can musically call himself a tyrant from the region without one? Yet it’s a cliché that gets a big boost when a metal guitar roars in with an orchestra. Composer Dimitri Golovko is also on hand to abet this craziness with the retro flutes and guitar for a boat chase. It’s all part of the truly fun, subversive quality that makes Orvarsson’s score, and the film, so much more enjoyable than the kind of action sampling we’d usually get for this kind of stuff, let alone filmmaking.
Extra Special: When you’ve got the kind of smirking, blood-covered humor of “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” you’d better count songs being used to obvious, yet impactfully ironic effect. You can be sure that Sam Jackson’s got the blues soul with “Nobody Gets Out Alive,” preaching it with a hand-clapping ending. Authentic, harmonica-blowing hangdog grooves are provided by Junior Wells Chicago Blues Band, with retro R&B by Chucky Berry giving the soundtrack its soul power, Other iconic, now gooey love songs play out against ultra violence to obviously knowing effect, from Lion Richie’s “Hello” to Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is” and King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight,” while Spiderbait does a cool heavy metal spin on “Black Betty.” The end result is a song-score soundtrack that’s a blast on both ends, killing clichés, while indulging in them with delightful vengeance.
What is it?: Having last musically terrorized a bunch of kids with “Annabelle Creation,” Benjamin Wallfisch gets perhaps the ultimate evil play pal to work his dark magic on with Pennywise. Indeed, the possessed doll and dancing clown could be kissing cousins given the lush, melodic approach that the composer applies to the idea of bonding against the cackling face of childhood-friendly evil. But if “Annabelle” is a quite good spin from Blumhouse’s “Conjuring” franchise with all of the expected shocks, Stephen King’s iconic creation definitely gives Wallfisch’s music a bit more young meat to chew on.
Why should you buy it?: Perhaps it’s Wallfisch’s English background that’s given him an unusually classy approach to horror scoring with such ghostly works as “The Thirteenth Tale” the criminally underrated insanity of “A Cure for Wellness” – while also showing he could go for the scare-a-minute approach of “Lights Out.” But with a generation-spanning story “It” Wallfisch gets a horror epic on an small scale It’s fertile storm drain ground from which to weave a mythic fairy score. Given how many horror soundtracks are now are all dissonant shock and awe, Wallfisch’s generally symphonic approach comes across as a welcome, lush throwback to the days when composers like Bruce Broughton and James Horner created the nightmare fuel of a geek generation brought up on the likes of “The Monster Squad” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” But make no mistake here that twisted, raging impressionism is lurking around in doorways, basements and drain pipes amongst the evil carnival music, waiting to spring while hypnotizing us inside with bells and whispered voices. It’s the rare score that really does scare the shit out of you, no more so than in Wallfisch’s sampling of screaming kids. But if Pennywise were just Jason in white makeup as opposed to a hockey mask, it’s likely no one would care about the film. For it’s that we’re rooting for these kids to triumph not only against ancient fiend, but real-world bullies and parents alike that make the film and score particularly affecting. Wallfisch’s empathetic score helps make us truly care this Loser’s Club, creating a feeling of camaraderie even within the darkest cues, all while giving a cosmic sense of the much bigger bright light dimension from which Pennywise hails.
Extra Special: Horror films seem to demand as much music as comedies, and Wallfisch’s hypnotic score is spread over two generous CD’s, never becoming tiring amidst the tension. Better yet amidst a veritable amusement park of musical evil, we get a delicious bit of calliope for Pennywise doing his happy dance. It’s an evil organ that to send us off salivating for what Wallfisch will be doing for the next even more tormented, grown-up chapter of “It.” In the meantime, there’s much to savor from this rare example of a horror score being as moving as it is terrifying.
4) MIRACLE MILE
What is it?: There was a cool futurism to the Tangerine Dream scores that distinguished their 80’s heyday, a moodily electrified sound that made fantasy all the more beautifully strange in such soundtracks as “Legend” and “Firestarter.” The German collective gave a surreal atmosphere to such distinctly American locales as upscale Chicago (“Risky Business”) and the southwest (“Flashpoint,” “Near Dark”). But TD was no more beautifully chilling, or percussively suspenseful than when thinned to two members with group founder Edgar Froese, whom along with Paul Haslinger was awakened in the middle of the LA night, answering a phone call that signaled the end of the world for 1989’s “Miracle Mile.”
Why should you buy it?: Though dealing with the nuclear end of the earth, filmmaker Steve De Jarnatt’s powerful conceit was to make “Miracle Mile” an intimately scaled love story, beginning as a tar pit museum meet-cute between a musician and a waitress. The score accompanies their dream date with ethereal voice and melody, creating a saintly glow about the adorable couple. But the minute night falls, time becomes the score’s essence, especially as the seemingly milquetoast sax player turns into a warrior for true love, risking everything and everyone around him for the impossible goal of saving the instant meaning of his life from Armageddon. Tangerine Dream’s percussive clock starts running out from the moment its hero takes a fateful phone call outside of a diner, gloomy, sizzling sustains sinking in the shock of the missiles flying. Much like anyone’s perceptions at some ungodly hour, Dream’s music makes Harry’s race all the more surreal, their thematic rhythms winding into breakneck, rock and roll pace with a driving electric guitar. Dream’s talent was to layer in elements while keeping a straight line, a trademarked groove that keeps the music frantic, yet in melodic control. All roads lead inevitably to the heartbreaking rhythm of doomsday clock, music that’s all the more devastating as any sense of hope drains amidst its relentlessness, making “Miracle Mile’s” elegiac ending all the more devastating as its music is stripped back to a singular, tragic theme.
Extra Special: “Miracle Mile” was first released on an out-of-print soundtrack on Private Music, it’s soundtrack essentially different from the films with remixes, something Dream often did with their official releases, But now Dragon’s Domain Records reveals the full, rhythmic scope of this more relevant than ever cult film in a two-CD edition. The first contains the entire score and its especially unsettling washes of nuclear dread, as well as several ambient and rhythmic tracks, making its unwinnable race against time all the more suspenseful and emotional. The second disc reprises the original soundtrack that stands as its own conceptual album, with Randall D. Larson providing informative liner notes on a movie that’s sadly, and scarily more relevant than ever, even as the rhythmically inimitable sound of Tangerine Dream sound has found new retro favor amidst the likes of “Stranger Things” and “It Follows.”
What is it?: As one of the most notable composers to rise from the post-John Williams generation, James Newton Howard has often been called upon to unleash his massive orchestral skills under apocalyptic scheduling situations – emerging with a masterworks that sound like he’s had years to develop their wealth of themes. One big case in point is 1995’s “Waterworld,” a much-maligned Hollywood “disaster” that was actually nothing of the sort for the kind of press that would later try to sink “Titanic.” Though awash in the usual creative differences, longtime Kevin Costner-centric director Kevin Reynolds (“Fandango”) essentially turned his star into Namor the Sub Mariner (even given that last name) in a globally warmed and flooded-over earth. The result, which Costner ended up taking over with his “Wyatt Earp” composer on deck, was an entertainingly lavish film whose zillions of dollar were on the screen, and hugely abetted by Howard’s veritable tsunami of symphonic forces.
Why should you buy it?: Having delivered vast, yet atmospheric scores with “Flatliners,” “The Fugitive” and “Outbreak,” “Waterworld” balances a haunting, synth-inflected world music portrait of a drowned earth with cliffhanging heroics that might take place had the planet been covered by Sherwood Forest. With humanity collected into armadas of rusty ships, Howard brings in tribal percussion with exotic percussion and wind instruments, as complimented with rhythmic keyboards that show Howard’s own musical origins arranging in the pop world. A biblical chorus impresses as it bestows judgment upon the sunken ruins of civilization, while the evil “smokers” are given brash, brassy imperiousness – no less than the positively Nazi-esque Sturm und Drang march of Dennis Hopper’s oil tanker pirate commander. The Deacon’s,” foe is at first a surly Gillman only out for himself a la Mad Max, an attitude conveyed with apprehensive strings. But give The Mariner a ragtag woman and a kid to soften him up, and Howard is happy to oblige with rousingly noble music that explodes with old-school swashbuckling excitement, often as Costner is swinging like Robin Hood over fireballs. While at times beautifully languid for its water ballets, Howard invests furious pace into “Waterworld,” especially in The Mariner’s climactic assault on “The Deez, the music’s thundering momentum positively western. But then given that Howard was awarded “Waterworld” based on his epic score for Costner’s “Wyatt Earp,” it should come as no surprise that his hellbent-for-dry earth approach plays like that sheriff is back in town.
Extra Special: “Waterworld” is filled with enough music to make two-CD’s worth, fluidly connected by Howard’s inter-weaving of any number of striking themes. Having done similarly terrific jobs with such copious scores from the composer as “Wyatt Earp” and “The Fugitive,” La La Land’s reveals this complete “Waterworld” as a masterwork of take-no-prisoners action scoring, complete with demo versions of several cues that show just how good that Howard’s orchestral emulation was. The composer also offers unusually candid thoughts on the unbridled zest that he threw himself into with this awesome “orchestral violence,” as spoken within Tim Grieving’s entertaining liner notes. But perhaps most touchingly on a label known for its end-of-album treats is six minutes of sincere humbleness as Howard gives his appreciation for the orchestra’s yeoman work, followed by Costner’s own sincere tribute to what the composer pulled off under the gun.
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
. BATTLE OF THE SEXES
“The Battle of the Sexes” may have been tennis version of a grudge wrestling match, but it had the very real effect in showing people that professional tennis wasn’t a boy’s club. Still, one might have expected the fateful game between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King to have been played with the wacky spirit of “Dodgeball” and scored as a sports comedy by way of Bill Conti. However, viewers will likely be surprised to find that the team between “Little Miss Sunshine” have made an unusually meditative movie that at first concentrates far more on Jean’s discovery of her sexual identity. So it’s no surprise that they’ve brought in the Oscar-nominated composer of “Moonlight” to play Jean’s awakening with that same muted sensitivity, giving a hairdresser’s touch a beautiful, translucently echoing approach for piano and synth that typifies the movie’s psychological approach to the match of that century between women’s libber and chauvinist pig, whose antics betray an ironic, circus-like emptiness in Britell’s hands. It’s an interesting, interior way of playing the expected the demands of a “sports” score that highlights the difference between a loveable, talented yahoo who’s putting on act for the world to see, and the interior tenseness of strings and percussion for a woman out to win a personal struggle as much as she is to prove her brethren’s worth. Yet that doesn’t mean that Britell can’t have some traditional sense of excitement, as a swirling, rhythmic orchestra carries inspiration that could fit a Rocky training montage. As we get to the big day, Britell creates a sense of introspective apprehension with organ and piano, finally landing on the thunderdome with a sound so mighty you’d think that Billie Jean was about to enter an alien’s space rift. It’s an unexpected, impactful way of translating the awe of just what she’s gotten herself into. But even the most alternative sports film or score has got to pay off for the big game, which Britell does in style as he brings his orchestra to the fore with thematic back and forth, taking a singular melodic idea and terrific varying it about for nearly ten minutes that conveys both the breathless excitement, and suspense of two competitors stripped of their soundbytes, with their eye on the bigger picture ball. It’s a bit like hearing a poetic bookworm suddenly run for a touchdown, and Britell’s always-intriguing approach shows just how well-crafted his building thematic strategy is. Equally empowering is the concluding song “If I Dare” by Sarah Bareilles, her powerful voice over Britell’s melody soaring with a pride that shows the way bigger picture of a game its composer wins with unexpected, cerebral serves, game, set and match.
. BODY DOUBLE (Reissue)
When Bernard Herrmann passed away before he could continue an association begun with Brian De Palma on “Sisters” and “Obsession,” the filmmaker came up with a solution worthy of “Vertigo” in finding an Italian composer who spoke the same grand guignol language, then having him dress in operatically thrilling, if sensitive garb. But to say that “Don’t Look Now’s” Pino Donaggio was just some Herrmann imitator is to miss how wonderfully he gave it his own deeply personal style with the likes of “Dressed To Kill” and “Blow Out.” But no film in the Donaggio-De Palma collaboration reached the bombastically lurid awesomeness of 1984’s “Body Double,” which almost broke some kind of film scoring fifth wall in having Donaggio sex up Herrmann into a porn star’s leather and lingerie outfit. Had Herrmann been given more years, he just might have picked up on the Reagan era’s pop groove in the same, cooingly delicious way as Donaggio does here. Right from the shrieking, shivering strains of a cheesy B vampire movie that finds its rather pathetic hero unable to act his way out of a coffin, Donaggio of his score’s insane and romantic wares hang out. And that’s part of this deliriously thematic score’s delicious, bat-flapping, power-tool penetrating humor, as well as its far more demure passages for silken pantie suspense. As its protagonist is lured into an impossibly labyrinthine plot of deception, Donaggio one-ups his suspenseful music-only passage from “Dressed to Kill’s” Museum of Modern Art spying, convey a pseudo-stalker’s desperate yearning that’s certain to end in bloody disaster. In other sequences, wonderfully cheesy synth work captures a groove that would fit easily into porn as much as 80’s horror, while wet synth rhythm and hypnotic female cooing leads us into a self-exploratory silhouette dance. But it’s a measure of Donaggio’s score of how he transfer it’s melody into shimmering sensuality, of course to be interrupted by the roaring brass of an ominous “Indian” stalker that embodies camera-swinging claustrophobia. Listening to “Body Double” now not only makes us hear how much we miss Herrmann, but just how well Donaggio suited the twisted Hitchcockian auteur at his most insanely devoted. As we pine for Donaggio to really give up the ghost for De Palma again, it’s certainly great to have the long out-of-print “Body Double” back on Intrada with even better sound, with the trailer music by Jonathan Elias to boot for this edition that we like to watch.
. FEUD; BETTE AND JOAN / MR. ROBOT VOL. 3
Television has yielded any number of dramatic contrasts for Mac Quayle (“American Crime Story,” “American Horror Story”), especially when it comes to two women fiercely in the pubic eye and a male computer hack struggling to stay off the grid. While “Feud” may have sadly taken home no gold in an Emmy ceremony awash in suburban white privilege as opposed to retro Hollywood’s, Ryan Murphy’s miniseries about the legendary rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford will likely stand the test of time as a wondrous tribute to tinsel town’s glamour and its sad, if not vicious underbelly. Beautifully done from start to miniseries finish, a real gem in “Feud’s” Emmys that should’ have been was the gorgeous, spot-on soundtrack by Quayle. Given lush strings worthy of the golden scoring age, Quayle channels the spirit of every composer from “Vertigo’s” Bernard Herrmann to Henry Mancini a la “Charade,” if not Robert Aldrich’s favored Frank De Vol and the raging strains of “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane” and “Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte.” What made “Feud” so good was that Murphy let the story’s camp value speak for itself, having some catty fun with the material without ever treating it without condescension. Quayle’s alternately sleek and operatic sound works in the same way. With an ironic noir theme, he captures two grand dames whose movie personas rule their real lives, while also hearing the scared souls inside of their PR personas. Wounded violins interplay with the glamorous high life of cha-cha’s and big band jazz, while a smoky trumpet positively calls Jake Gittes romping ground. But Quayle isn’t after period pastiche, let along a Louella Parsons-worthy poison pen at these fallen idols trying to claw their way back up top over each other. It’s swooning, sympathetic work that’s way more big screen than small in capturing movie magic, and the façade behind it.
Things are considerably colder for hacktivist Elliot Aldersson as “Mr. Robot” enters its third season, which is a particularly good time for Lakeshore Records to release a third volume of Quayle’s electronically intensive scoring – cleverly packaged yet again with the soundtrack’s “let’s play a game” instructions. Where retro Tangerine Dream scoring is now in vogue, especially when it comes to computer-intensive shows, Quayle’s antihero is too quirky for even that cool, rhythmic sheen. Instead. “Mr. Robot’s” latest musical hacks are far more foreboding and unique. You’re not about to hear an ersatz “Tron” game grid on this lonely, often harsh soundscape as Quayle conjures string ghosts in the machine, weaving them with isolated piano, child-like bells and crafty percussion. The result is ever-mutating, hypnotic rhythms and gnarled samples that resound with the threat of shadow government data. It’s suspense served in droning, bubbling and synthetically growling style, as frightening and hypnotic a musical approximation of being sucked into circuitry and a topsy-turvy conspiracy world as you’re likely to hear. All the while, Quayle doesn’t forget to digitize the haunted, human factor whose musical virus only continues to be consumed in the dawning age of Skynet.
. HONEY I BLEW UP THE KID (Expanded)
There’s a special magic to Bruce Broughton’s music when it comes to capturing the pure, child-like innocence of so many beloved kid-friendly genre films like “The Boy Who Could Fly,” “Harry and the Hendersons” and even the perhaps not-so adolescent “Monster Squad.” Yet it’s that fear factor that Broughton delightfully subverted as he leveled up the cheerfully destructive antics of “Honey I Blew Up The Kid.” On the film’s 25th anniversary, Intrada unleashes what’s arguably Broughton’s most thoroughly fun genre matinee score in its full, outsized form. With James Horner taking a Nino Rota-esque circus approach for the original “Honey I Shrunk the Kids,” Broughton gives the sequel more of 40’s-style big top sound that salutes the classic toon stylings of both Bugs Bunny’s Carl Stalling and Tom and Jerry’s Scott Bradley. Indeed, Broughton’s main theme sounds like mad science itself as personified by Rick Moranis’ lovably dweebish inventor dad, baby bells and big brass. But that’s only a small part of the enormous wealth of melodies that fill up the score that show’s Broughton’s range with a full orchestra, The often woozy brass is used at its lowest register to impress us with a toddler behemoth on the march, his rhythms bouncing about like “Peter and the Wolf” while familial bonding is conveyed through sweet electric keyboards. “Honey” is no more delightful then when its kid takes on Vegas, as Broughton turns the rampaging music of so many 1950’s giant monsters-on-the-loose scores on their juvenile head. He delightfully infantilizes them with a pounding lullaby melody and ice cream truck bells, yet doesn’t forget truly adventurous chase music that gets across the danger at giant hand, if not exactly its threat. Even pausing to play a western hoedown at the sight of Vegas’ famed neon cowboy, Broughton turns the outsized son treating The Strip as a toy into a whirling, dance-like number. Intrada’s new release of “Honey” sounds bigger, and better than before, offering numerous alternate takes, as well as Broughton’s delightful music for the “Honey”-accompanying animated short “Off His Rockers,” where he applies the Americana western sound of his majestic scores to “Silverado” and “Tombstone” to turn on a rocking hose dime.
. PAST LIFE
Crafting a score for a movie where music itself is an essential part of the story can be as challenging as it is a wealth of opportunity, no more so than when seeking to embody an Israeli composer haunted by her parents’ Holocaust past. But composer Cyrille Aufort makes the Hitchcockian most of it with “Past Life” as an Israeli musician and her scandal-reporting sister gradually discover an especially troubling act that enabled their existence. Aufort, whose credits include the richly emotional costume drama “A Royal Affair” (alongside Gabriel Yared) and the murderously sensual genetic creation of “Splice” is clearly someone who can get into a womens’ emotional skin, especially when given a journey of personal discovery. While he recalls the dark romance of “Basic Instinct” in his score’s sensually foreboding use of strings and piano, Avi Nesher’s powerful, truth-based film is about uncovering the devastation caused by love, both romantic and familial under unimaginable circumstances. Aufort’s lush, melancholy score makes effective use of haunted, female voices, the score at once subtly tragic and dangerous as it wavers between innocence and collective guilt. Particularly impactful is “The Concert,” a crazily modernistic piece written by Avner Dorfman for chorus, electric guitar and orchestra that are suspensefully used to counterpoint its performance alongside a desperate medical episode. Giving “Past Life” its deeply moving conclusion is The Time Will Come.” As composed by Ella Milch- Sheriff, on whose life the movie is partly based, the choral concert work brings together a haunted past with a plea for healing, making “Past Life” an especially resonant soundtrack in a powerful repertoire that hinges upon the emotional devastation wreaked by The Holocaust.
. POPEYE (Deluxe Edition)
Robert Altman was a director who marched to his own drummer, and any studio brass that might have expected a remotely traditional musical from him would be woefully mistaken. Yet the chance to have the superstar comic madman Robin Williams apply his stream-of-consciousness hilarity to an iconic one-eyed, freakishly muscular sailor, was to good to be true, leading Walt Disney and Paramount to threw the big budget dice on 1980’s “Popeye.” Altman and his eccentric repertory company built the surreal town of Sweetwater off the coast of Malta, with a script by famed playwright and fan Jules Feiffer creating one of the most visually faithful comic strip adaptations ever, while losing none of Altman’s own absurdity in the bargain. But even if the non-sequitur dialogue overlapped as always, the lyrics of Harry Nilsson shined through to similarly oddball, if sweetly poignant effect. That the distinctively voiced, and singularly named musician hailed from Swedish circus performers, creating a an often whimsical, if not regretful view of life in any number of hit movie and TV songs like “Midnight Cowboy’s” “Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me,” the tune-filled cartoon “The Point” and “All That Jazz’s” beautifully woeful “A Perfect Day.” For all of its scope, “Popeye” would be no less personal, with characters poignantly pining for true love, or hamburgers. Often using a Tinpan Alley approach that was well-suited to a turn-of-the-century look (even as the opening anthem “Sweet Haven” almost turns into the American one), “Popeye’s” tunes were all the more charming for seemingly not having a trained musical theater voice among the cast outside of “Damn Yankees” veteran Ray Walston, who does a hilarious proto-rap about every reason why he hates “Kids,” The brutishly typecast Paul L. Smith exclaims the joys of bullying with “I’m Mean,” Paul Dooley rationalizes that “Everything is Food,” Robin Williams proudly proclaims “I Yam What I Yam.” and Shelly Duvall deliciously gives reasons for adoring the oversized with “He’s Large,” Some lyrics are ear-catchingly adult, as when the town drunk number “Din’ We” reminisces about lost love in New York City. Varese Sarabande’s lovingly assembled two-CD edition of “Popeye” with excellent liner notes from Jerry McCulley, gather a number of unreleased tunes, along with a cliffhanging underscore by Tom Pierson (who scored Altman’s “Quintet” and “A Perfect Couple” that sounds like Wagner as crossed with the music of an old Republic serial. But better yet is the second CD that features Nilsson himself demo’ing the songs in his inimitably soulful and whimsical voice. It doesn’t get better than a ten minute take of the musician working with Shelly Duval to achieve the right, yearning tone to sing along with the pump-organ of “He Needs Me,” his sympathetic accompaniment making for the magical take that not only got her the part, but ended up much later in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love,” which likely will remain the lasting legacy of “Popeye.” It’s funny how a beanpole wallflower pining for a squinty, punchy sailor worked so well as the theme song between an occasionally violent, bipolar pudding lid collector and a lovelorn bank worker. And you’re not likely to have an insight into Nilsson’s magic, let alone the creative process of songwriting itself, as wonderfully lovelorn as that song might be.
Anyone expecting a heartwarming exemplification of the can-do “Boston Strong” spirit won’t find any sugarcoating on this unsparingly powerful film about the a man who was thrust into embodied the resilient phrase, but was anything but that. After losing most of his legs in the marathon bombing, Jeff Bauman (excellent played by Jake Gyllenhaal) sinks into a morass of anger and infantilism that makes recovery seems impossible despite the efforts of a more-than-understanding girlfriend and an overbearing mom. It’s a situation that’s dramatic enough without having a score manipulate uplift. Thankfully, composer Michael Brook only has to subtly push to let the full emotional weight of the film sink in. Having shown a talent for ethereal scores that convey young people cut adrift from life and struggling to find meaning with “Into the Wild” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (not to mention scoring the swear-filled Boston townie spirit of “The Fighter”), Brook creates a score that’s truly light on its feet. With only a cheerful cue to begin the film on a note of way happier and ambulatory times, Brook plunges Jeff into the smoky haze of the terrorist attack’s aftermath with somber, almost transparent melody for strings, piano and synth. It’s music that’s as much about atmosphere as mood, creating a dispiritng sense of loss without being depressing about it. Through his poignant, transfixing approach, we can hear both the resilience of tender guitar and shell-shock of dark electronics. Judiciously using his orchestra, Brook’s lyrical score elevates his hero slowly, but steadily, the striving music finally triumphant with an organ and march rhythm that becomes a saying that’s frequently bandied about by every well-meaning person in the film, but one infinitely harder to reach than any patriotic feel-good reporting might have it. For a movie that wears its realism with gritty, unforced pride, Michael Brook’s powerfully subtle, poetic score knows the true meaning of what it really takes to be Boston Strong.
. THUNDER ROAD: THE FILM MUSIC OF JACK MARSHALL (1,200 edition)
It’s rare when a soundtrack oldie compilation hits you like a bolt from the blue, especially given a composer you’ve likely never heard of (though you’ve certainly heard of his piano session player John Williams, whose praises open the album booklet). Yet such is the hillbilly excitement that Jack Marshall unleashes in La La Land’s totally unexpected, but greatly welcome release top-lined by the composer’s “Thunder Road.” Imagine a finger pickin’ country guitar doing swing time excitement as Robert Mitchum runs moonshine past smokies and mobsters, and you’ll instantly light up with the delirious inventiveness of a composer who really brought the guitar into orchestral scoring. With stringed instruments in his blood from “a banjo-playing oilman” dad, Marshall is best known for his groovy fuzz guitar theme for “The Munsters.” But it’s Marshall’s harmonica-blowing, guitar pickin’ score for this 1958 actioner that set him in good course to score such seminal western TV shows as “Have Gun – Will Travel,” Wagon Train” and “Laredo.” Marshall certainly knew how to drive a great theme through the score in this drive in classic precursor to “White Lightning,” with swooning symphonic romance and two-fisted melodrama to spare. But it’s when his score hits the gas that “Thunder Road” achieves a crazy “orchestral rockabilly” nirvana in a good ol’ boy symphonic jam session, an unlikely dance between upscale sophistication and lowdown energy that’s positively inspired. “Thunder Road” also includes numbers from jazz chanteuse and co-star Keely Smith, with “The Ballad of Thunder Road” and “Whippoorwill” both co-written by Mitchum. Less crazy, but no less effective is Marshal’s score for 1959’s “Take A Giant Step,” a quite daring film about a black teenager finding his way in the white suburbs. Marshall takes a dynamic symphonic approach here, his strings giving sympathy to a rebel with a cause. “Giant” is also full of 50’s pop-jazz goodness, from big band swing to ice cream parlor jive to accordion beat burlesque. Filling out the album is Marshall’s score to 1959’s “The Rabbit Trap,” with “Marty’s” Ernest Borgnine as a more upscale working class schlub who can’t take a vacation for the life of him, leaving a caged rabbit in his distraught son’s wake. With harmonica and more jazz inflection, Marshall draws a line from the harmonica great outdoors to the big city workplace, giving a charming, upbeat tenderness to the score. As nice a discovery as a vintage release can be, “The Film Music of Jack Marshall” has ace TV music journalist Jon Burlingame filling us in on this unsung composer for a nicely designed booklet, that also features a touching appreciation from Jack’s famed producer son Frank. If anything, I can only salivate for a release of Marshall’s hot rodding score to “The Giant Gila Monster” and of course Elvis’ “Stay Away, Joe” score after these delights.
Matching his beyond-prolific output with continually interesting and inventive scores. Bear McCreary has often dealt with horror from the full-blooded orchestral fear of “Ten Cloverfield Lane” to the rustic eeriness of “The Walking Dead” and the southern-fried suspense of “Rest Stop.” But somehow he’s ever dealt with the awfulness of a seemingly inexplicable, real-life zombification of chronic fatigue syndrome, where once-healthy and vivacious people have the life sapped from them. Such was the disease that befell Harvard PHD student Jennifer Brea. But as opposed to letting bedridden exhaustion consume her body and soul, she decided to document her struggle to get back her life, while finding kindred spirits in this acclaimed film. It’s a still mis-diagnosed condition that creates an eerily spellbound vibe to McCreary’s work, with a chamber-like intimacy that fans of his Philip Glass-ian work for the revamped “Battlestar Galactica,” as well as the more eerily meditative music within “The Walking Dead” will appreciate listening to. Beginning with a rhythmic violin and string melody, McCreary’s perky music suggests something is off, his approach becoming more troubling as the beat of an MRI machine fills the soundtrack, a quite dreadful feeling that anyone who’s been inside of one these consuming metal beast can attest to. Yet McCreary somehow makes it remotely musical with the cello to cut through the white noise. Brea’s isolation is conveyed with piano and electric guitar as samples whip about her, the score’s consciousness descending into piercing, metallic sounds. Yet humor isn’t lost as mock theremin and lurching percussion convey “mysterious green stuff.” The essentially unplugged, subtly thematic nature of “Unrest” does much to convey his subject’s difficult switch from depression to activism, as the exotic Gamelan bells of “Joyful Tears” and sustained poignancy of CSD victims get across a muted sense of hop, but one that’s very much there. It’s a finally reassuring attitude powerfully voiced in the alt. folk of Ren Gill’s “Patience” and McKian’s “And After All.” McCreary does exceptionally well within the intimate range of documentary scoring with “Unrest,” a truly interesting score that takes us through the inner world of a heroine, and her internet-connected world of fellow sufferers, conveying the psychological power to take command of life against a spirit-against-body affliction.
. WHAT HAPPENED TO MONDAY?
After twice resurrecting Nazi zombies for fellow Norwegian Tommy Wirkola, composer Christian Wibe gets to indulge times seven in the director’s most excitingly twisted picture yet by asking the question “What Happened To Monday?” Though made under the Netflix prestige of dystopian respectability this time out, Wirkola is no less insane, or fun as hidden septuplets brave a one-child law to diminishing, if exciting effect. But what’s new for Wirkola is the real emotional investment that comes with the twinning effects and “Bourne”-worthy chases, especially given the distinctive performances by original Libeth Salander Noomi Rapace. Unleashing dense, propulsive rhythms for a succession of near escapes and being brutally by Glenn Close’s evil minions, Wibe’s score is terrific, throttling stuff that might speak the same alt. orchestral sample language of many action scores of its type. Yet he manages to give his propulsive energy its own identity, especially with electronics that get across an overpopulated near future that gets trimmed a bit here. But what’s particularly special about the desperately suspenseful pulse of “Monday” is the thematic feeling that Wibe gives the score, conveying the loneliness of seven sisters who’ve spent their always threatened lives in service of becoming one person for the good of the many. It’s a yearning to be free that’s reflected through a powerful, beautifully melancholy theme that invests no small amount of emotion in “Monday” as Wirkola makes the film way more than the sum of what could have been clichéd future shock Eastern Euro-shot parts. It’s a suspenseful, fun score with feminine heart, as adept at unleashing foot chases and ingenious evasions as it is making you melodically care about its singularly multiple heroines. Hopefully at the least, “Monday” will let Wibe make a deserved mad dash into a Hollywood action-scoring scene that needs all of the unique composers it can get.
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