July Soundtrack Picks
Soundtrack Picks: ‘MALEFICENT‘ is one of the top soundtracks to own for July, 2014
Also worth picking up EMPIRE OF THE SUN, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, GOLDEN NEEDLES, THE GOOD WIFE, IN YOUR EYES, OVERLORD, THE RIVER MURDERS, SHIVER, THE SIGNAL, TEST, TARZAN, THE WEDDING DATE and many more!
To Purchase the soundtracks from this list, click on the CD Cover
THE TOP PICKS
1) EMPIRE OF THE SUN: LIMITED EDITION
What is it?: Steven Spielberg has had any number of blockbuster dramas to go along with his list of sci-fi and fantasy hits. Yet just as “Jurassic Park” might not hold a candle to more personal efforts like “A.I.,” Oscar-bait pictures like “Lincoln” and “Saving Private Ryan” are no match for far more underseen historical films like “Amistad” and “War Horse.” Chief among these character-driven, unheralded masterpieces is 1987s “Empire of the Sun,” an adaptation of “Crash” author J.G. Ballard’s youthful “adventures” in Japan-occupied Shanghai during WW2. Perhaps one reason this movie dive bombed like a kamikaze was that it may have made audiences feel complicit in admiring The Enemy, a worshipful feeling of majesty beautifully conveyed by John Williams – Spielberg’s partner in both the critically venerated and unjustly ignored. Now the full power of “Empire” comes through with sweeping, symphonic spectacle on this two-CD special edition.
Why should you buy it?: While Williams was already a war score veteran with “Midway,” “Empire of the Sun” marked Spielberg’s first serious entry into the genre after the hilariously bombastic “1941.” Yet while it dealt with the Asian front, “Empire” had the unusual, effective approach of seeing events through the periphery of the pampered British school kid Jim (played by Christian Bale in one of the best adolescent performances to grace the screen). It’s a sense of wonder towards the awfulness of humanity, a rose-colored vision that Williams plays for all of its ironic magic through his telltale lullaby bells, lush strings and emotive melodies, all signifiers of a happy Spielberg childhood. When Williams soars with a toy airplane in the face of a Zero for an “Imaginary Air Battle,” its choral hosannas and graceful strings are the stuff of touching heaven itself – though to be fair the music is just as magnificent for as an Allied “Cadillac of the Skies” takes out a Japanese airstrip. A dash through the civilian prison camp he’s put into has all the sweet, gamboling horn energy of a romp through a playground. And when the destruction of Hiroshima flashes in the distance, it’s like an angelic epiphany – a subtle sense of religious salvation for the choir boy that’s also conveyed through the children’s choir performance of the Welsh hymn “Suo Gan,” with Latin providing joyous hallelujah deliverance in the “Exultate Justi” end titles. However, Williams doesn’t shirk for the very real danger at hand that alternately threatens to shoot or starve Jim, whether it’s the terrifying, surging brass and pitiless military percussion of “Lost in the Crowd” and “The Streets of Shanghai” (music more ferocious than any dinosaur attack at that) and the low Asian winds of “The Pheasant Hunt.” The tremendous, moving power of the film, and score is how it opens Jim’s eyes as to what’s really going on around him, doing so with a mournful tenderness that should be rightfully afforded to any child in unimaginable circumstances, delivering Jim’s emotional growth with the remarkable thematic tapestry that’s a given in this famed composer-director collaboration.
Extra Special: La La Land Records marks their 300th release with the stupendous production quality one would expect, of course rewarding fans of the label with just about every note of “Empire,” as well as numerous alternates. Hearing this greatly expanded score truly opens up the psychological, and often-spectacular depth of this remarkable score, which has been exceptionally remastered by Mike Matessino, who does a similarly fine, and psychologically incisive job on the liner notes for the always well-designed graphic layout of Jim Titus. The “Sun” has truly risen here for a work of a self-implicating cinematic art, one that’s sure to bring re-discovery through this limited edition.
What is it?: Genre films have always held a rewarding spell for James Newton Howard, an astonishingly adept, and prolific composer who from his first supernatural score to 1990s “Flatliners” has taken to the thematic majesty of a chorally-powered, symphonic orchestra to both horrifically dark and soaringly heroic effect – both emotional ends of which meet like never before in his magnificent “Maleficent.” For one of the best villain apologist fantasies in many a moon, Howard becomes a sorcerer’s apprentice as he unleashes Disney’s most infamous she-devil in all of her unexpectedly moving might.
What is it?: While he’s accompanied lost civilizations (“Atlantis”), talking thunder lizards (“Dinosaur”) and modern day legends (“Lady in the Water”), it’s obvious that Howard’s similarly revisionist fairy tale take on “Snow White and the Huntsman” landed him this gig. But while that movie’s godmother stayed evil, “Maleficent’s” far multi-dimensional nature allows Howard way more colors to play with, especially in a movie that isn’t so damn dour all of the time. For while “Maleficent” is just about as spectacularly set designed as “Snow White,” there’s a big, beating heart at work in it that really spruces up Howard’s inspiration – not that his “Huntsman” score didn’t bring home the epic fantasy music bacon. Sympathy is the key to opening “Maleficent’s” hardened heart, as Howard does a marvelous job of musical storytelling, pouring on the rushing winds of joyful flight and a gossamer sense of pure innocence to set up a nice faerie girl’s fall from innocence – taken advantage of by romantically seductive music, and then outrightly savaged by kingly, pounding military might. These are bastards who deserve payback, and Howard delightfully goes the tote at the big coronation sequence, unexpectedly plunging into his pop background for a delicious montage of Maleficent assuming all of her iconically evil affectations. Pitting her droll, sinister music against the angelic purity of the film’s ersatz Cinderella, Howard achieves an often delightfully humorous contrast between unknowing, near-irritating happiness with a fearsomeness that would like to blast it out of the good girl. But damned if it can’t help but love her as well. Not only does Howard achieve tearfully moving affect with a solo piano as Maleficent finally shows herself as a big softie, but also pounds out some of his most terrifically massive and exciting action music as the film ingeniously spins its variation on the climactic dragon battle, choral voices and brass ablaze for a virtuosic demonstration in mythic grrll power.
In an age when Hollywood seems a bit afraid to go for the sumptuous full-blast symphonic gusto, hearing Maleficent’s swing to The Force in all of her conflicted glory is a pure rush for fans who want to hear big, and boldly unapologetic music with a soft spot – much like the grand dame herself. The fact that we’re always on this faerie’s side for all of her mis-steps is a testament to just how much feeling a score of this dual nature can convey, its magic complemented with a tip of the flying crow to the 1959s signature villain theme – secure in the ironic glee that Howard has helped make her nothing of the sort, all while making us fall in love with fantastical scoring at its most deliciously brazen. Complementing his score’s wicked revisionism is Lana Del Rey’s near channeling of Diamanda Galas for “Once Upon A Dream,” giving beautifully creepy weight to a once carefree song. How I’d love to hear her take on “It’s a Small World After All” after hearing this.
What Is It?: While reveling in such mainstream classics and well-known composers as Alfred Newman’s “How Green Was My Valley” and Dmitri Tiomkin’s “It’s A Wonderful Life,” Kritzerland has also shown a penchant for such artier composers as Toru Takemitsu (“Rising Sun”) and Richard Einhorn (“When A Stranger Calls”). But of all the unknown gems they’ve put out so far, perhaps none is better timed, or shines amore beautifully than Paul Glass’ “Overlord,” an alternately modernistic and classical score composed for Stuart Cooper’s truly revolutionary war movie about the D-Day invasion, an amazing film which has also now received a blu ray debut from the cinematheque Criterion label to mark the invasion’s 70th anniversary. Made under the auspices of The Imperial War Museum, Cooper had the groundbreaking idea of seamlessly integrating a “new” black and white film with WW2 archival footage with the heart-rending story of an ordinary bloke in the attack’s first wave. It was an approach that needed an equally unique musical voice, one that Cooper found in American composer Paul Glass.
Why Should You Buy It?: Probably best remembered among hardcore scorephiles for the thrillers “Lady In A Cage” and “Bunny Lake is Missing,” Glass’ “Overlord” stands as one of the best 70s scores you’ve never heard of until now. Combining Avant garde dissonant strings with lyricism worthy of such great bucolic Brit composers as Edward Elgar and William Walton, Glass conveys the sad sense of a soldier’s future that could have been. The music of “Overlord’s” everyman protagonist is fearfully contrasted with music for footage the troops build up and immense war machines, giving a sense of hopelessness and sacrifice to a still-necessary endeavor, as well as immensity that goes beyond its character’s understanding. “Overlord” is at once poetically soothing and harshly demanding, its lush orchestral approach also given nostalgic 40s tunes to complement a country at its most valorous, and vulnerable – an aching tenderness that makes the movie’s shock ending all the more impactful. Though the human toll of D-Day remains unimaginable, Glass’ excellent score makes us feel for the sad destiny of an individual among thousands, a score frozen in time with an eye’s last vision.
Extra Special: If one might think that Glass’ style might be stuck in the 40s, a second disc offers Glass’ woozy film noir score for Stuart Cooper’s “Hustle.” You can positively feel the sexual heat and cigarette smoke brimming from Glass’ atmospheric work that hits the notes you’d want from the genre. Yet like “Overlord,” Glass shows a talent for impressionistic music, here with impressionistic strings and percussion to dance with the sweating brass and Hammond organ. It’s the kind of nervy orchestrations that make “Hustle” dangerously abstract and memorable while delivering the grifter goods. Also featured on this Cooper-centric album is Robert Farnon’s score for the director’s “The Disappearance.” Best known for hiply scoring the cult Brit show “The Prisoner,” Farnon’s work for this murderously re-cut Donald Sutherland assassin mystery (now on Twilight Time DVD) receives an interesting, impressionistic score that notably incorporates Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G Major” to show just how well a solo, classical keyboard can signal murderous intent when accompanied by piercing strings and ominous percussion.
4) THE RIVER MURDERS
What Is It?: After their impressive initial releases of Guy Farley’s “Secret Sharer” and Johan Soderqvist’s “King of Devil’s Island,” Caldera Records continues to show excellent taste in finding subtle, yet powerful scores from composers of creative note – especially when it comes to their work for movies that might have flown under the radar. Now Pinar Toprak’s “The River Murders” sounds off with such tragic, heavenly resonance that you could easily have imagined this as the score for “Mystic River.” But it’s a testament to her music’s melodic production value that you wouldn’t expect this score as belonging to a 2011 straight-to-DVD murder mystery about a cop whose lovers keep dropping dead. The detective’s conscience gets a gorgeous dose of Catholic guilt via this Turkish programming protégé of Hans Zimmer who’s steadily making her own, impressive way up the Hollywood ladder.
Why You Should Buy It?: While “The River Murders” marks Toprak’s second CD release after her lyrical soundtrack to “The Lightkeepers” (on Movie Score Media), the composer has actually been quite prolific in smaller film and TV features like “Behind Enemy Lines II” and “Breaking Point” (with Dean Devlin’s big budget disaster movie “Geostorm” to come). The richly melodic quality that marks Toprak’s work is especially easy to hear in “The River Murders,” as she invests the score with one gorgeously tormented cue after the other. Mournful solos for the cello (played with haunting beauty by Tina Guo) and the piano are complemented by a superbly sampled orchestra. With lullaby bells to boot, Toprak’s thematic work begs comparison to such seminal Christopher Young scores as “Copycat” and “Jennifer 8,” both playing feminine perspectives on body count suspense. However, Toprak’s point of view here is through Christian Slater’s FBI agent as he tries to unravel the professed innocence of Ray Liotta’s homicide detective as to the floating pile of past amours. Toprak has a skillful way of balancing these womens’ ghostly voices with a religioso sense of contrition, using creeping strings and outrightly violent musical action for outright horror score shocks. But whatever Toprak’s method of generating dread, “The River Murders” are certainly the work of killing the listener softly, and with an eerie reverence for its victims that a serial killer would admire.
Extra Special: Sex, carnal transgression and old time religion also play a heavy role in Toprak’s score to the 2007 drama “Sinner,” which pits an old-school priest against an upstart rival with a femme fatale in the middle. This equally beautiful score is a good companion piece to “The River Murders,” with Pinar again going for a string-driven approach that aches with mournfulness and more than a bit of lust. In addition to the CD’s well-designed booklet and always thoughtful liner notes by Gergely Hubai (a writer who really knows how to give upcoming composers their props), the soundtrack also offers Toprak in her own words in a seven-minute “audio commentary,” a nice bonus feature that many soundtracks could benefit from.
5) TARZAN / BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE
Price: $12.99 / $19.99
What is it?: Tarzan” shows off David Newman as a composer who’s as muscular as ever when it comes to heroically swinging action. After last taking a trip into western space for the genre with “Serenity,” Newman returns to the jungle that gave birth to one of his most sumptuously exciting scores with “The Phantom.” Now the drums hit a fever African beat as he trades in comic strip blue tights for an earlier white savior’s loincloth. “Tarzan” stands tall as one of Newman’s most lavishly melodic scores, music that nobly never seems to sit still for a second. A mighty chorus powers “Tarzan’s” bold melodies as he swings from trees to stop a giant magic meteor in 3D, the music particularly impressing for its brass jungle hollers and native percussion. Just about every cue here suffices for any other score’s climactic moment in Newman’s colorful adrenalin rush, scaling peaks of unabashedly lavish melody that comes naturally given his own legendary bloodline – though not without bits of pop drive, metal guitar or comedy. Here’s hoping Newman gets more chance to swing in the realm ersatz superhero scores, one he knows how to climb the peaks of like no one’s business.
Why should you buy it?: David Newman’s rocking, rambunctious voice for electronics and the orchestra provided the beat for two cult teen movies from the late 80s – one involving a bitchy clique of “Heathers,” and the other pairing the far more lovable, dunderheaded duo of Ted “Theodore” Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esquire. While the first picture got a snarky, country-flavored synth beat, the clever, time travelling conceit for “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” afforded Newman the opportunity to energetically combine a full-blast, history-spanning symphony with a rock-pop beat for the Wyld Stallyns’ first quest. It was indeed a truly ingenious stylistic combo as Newman gives a playfully serious instrumental weight to such iconic figures as Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Frood and So-Crates (while recalling just a bit of his dad Alfred’s “How the West Was Won” for Billy the Kid). The orchestral era hopping also allows references to Ye Old England as well as Asian percussion for Attila the Hun and Beethoven for well, Beethoven. Jamming them all into a phone booth is Newman’s antic talent for trumpeting, neo-Americana symphonic adventure (complete with “America the Beautiful”), as glued together with delightfully oh-so 80s neon synth keyboard percussion and guitar licks that play Bill and Ted as the two mentally harmless, lovable metal heads with IQ’s slightly about Beavis and Butthead. It’s a wonderful sense of innocence and uncondescending fun that helped make the movie into a classic of its kind, with Tim Grieving’s most excellent liner notes featuring new interview with Newman and
Extra Special: Intrada does a bit of time hopping with this totally awesome release, as they first put out Newman’s even more epic score for “Bogus Adventure” years before this. But with Bill and Ted, it’s always better late than never, especially with this deluxe edition that offers such nice bonuses as a western saloon’s tack piano, a bit of Claude Debussy and the William Tell Overture to boot.
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
. D.A.R.Y.L.: Limited Edition
At first, it might have seemed an odd choice to have the Oscar-winning composer of “The Way We Were” score a movie about a kid cyborg. But when you consider what a beautifully melodic sentimentalist that Marvin Hamlisch was, hiring him for this sweetly unique 1985 kid’s adventure made perfect sense. Young star Barret Oliver seemed to be doing next to every memorable genre movie from the period (“Frankenweenie,” “Cocooon” and “The Neverending Story” among them), and brought much warmth to this robotic spin on E.T. as a super-smart twelve year-old who finds shelter from government baddies with a nice suburban family. Hamlisch uses all of his naturally programmed orchestral poignancy to give a “boy’s life” feeling to this likeable film, coming up with a memorable theme that creates a heartland warmth with guitar, harmonica and strings – along with outright synthesizers for what’s beneath Daryl’s skin. But perhaps the score’s most effective moments are when the said feel-good music of hearth and home gives way to the outright menace of the military. Having contributed one of the best, if unsung Bond scores for “The Spy Who Loved Me,” Hamlisch revels in the big, charging brass and drum timpani that makes for some terrific action music, the score practically whirring like an alarm as the theme takes on soaring heroism during the memorable sequence of Daryl’s escape on a stealth plane. It’s about as close to a Superman score as Hamlisch got, and one can only imagine the comic book possibilities he might have played if the movie took off further than its 80s cult appeal. As is, “Daryl” is a musical gem that impresses as much for its emotion as its action, with Hamlisch showing off his touch for a great theme-based song as Teddy Pendergrass performs “Somewhere I Belong.” Thanks to La La Land Records, “Daryl” has finally been located to still stand tall as a prime example of Marvin Hamlisch’s remarkable versatility to play both derring do and yearning emotion, as heard through a superkid who just wants a real family.
. THE GOOD WIFE (The Official TV Score)
If the religiously-minded Antonio Vivaldi was a television composer writing music for a less-than holy heroine, than his work might sound akin to the wittily dramatic music that David Buckley has been up to with the last several (and continuing) seasons of CBS’s hit “The Good Wife.” While Buckley might be busy on suspenseful feature scores like “ATM,” “Gone” and “Parker” while simultaneously blowing away a couple thousand mercenaries in the videogame arena of “Call of Duty: Ghosts,” “The Good Wife” gives his defendants a chance to hear a far warmer, and more emotional side from the composer – one that also couldn’t be further from the cold, rhythmic music that accompanies most courtroom shows. But even if you haven’t joined the program’s cult following, Buckley’s thoroughly engaging album is well worth having for its spot-on way of replicating a classical style, as crossed with more dramatically suspenseful cues – a listening experience that’s a bit like having one’s gambol through the European countryside interrupted by the orchestra doing a dramatic left turn to a world of heavy-duty strings, electric guitars, pensive pianos and sample grooves. It’s one way of effectively segueing between humor and malice aforethought for a season that upended its heroine’s life with the death of a beloved character. Buckley’s certainly spiffed up his music’s symphonic impact by having it replayed by the Hungarian Studio Orchestra, whose lush performance is classy in the best sense of the word, journeying from the height of costumed elegance to the big, important-sounding strains of the show’s ripped-from-the-headlines appeal. It’s a niftily offbeat and nicely thematic conceit where 17th century harpsichords and hold equal musical enjoyment with the scoring demands of today’s legally working women. And that’s not even counting the album’s bonus track of a hilariously salacious song tribute to “The Good Wife’s” no-good hubby that’s distinctly 21st century in origin.
. GOLDEN NEEDLES / THE FOURTH PROTOCOL (1,000 Edition)
From spies to a certain magnum-blasting cop, Lalo Schifrin can be certified as one of Hollywood’s most versatile men of musical action – though it’s likely to be his lightning fists of Chopsocky jazz-Fu which will go down as his most popular score (along with Bruce Lee’s most popular film) for 1973s “Enter the Dragon.” But perhaps an even cooler contender would be the soundtrack for director Robert Clouse’s 1974 follow up “Golden Needles,” which had seven treasure hunters of various moral shadings pursuing an idol whose “seven forbidden acupuncture points” all kick ass with Schifrin’s distinctive take on exotic East meeting pop west. With a piercing, Theremin-like effect worth a thousand Lee “kill” faces, Schifrin’s funky dulcimer theme dances about with Oriental percussion and jive bongos. Hip flutes groove with guitars and lush romance, while such oddball touches as a player piano meets in a Hong Kong alley with fuzz guitars. And when it comes to pure adrenalin the Schifrin foot-fist way, a nearly ten minute “Harbor Chase,” is an exhilaratingly virtuoso exercise in keeping a thematically breakneck combo of horns, rhythm sections and sizzling electronics veering between tingling synth suspense and 70s jazz beat-downs. It’s the next best thing to attending a jazz duel at Dr. Han’s forbidden island, and even better in many clever respects for “Needles’” CD debut that really nails Music Box’s 50th release.
Schifrin couldn’t have sounded more suspensefully different when he got to score one of his best thrillers with 1987s “The Fourth Protocol.” This crackling Frederick Forsyth adaptation pitted Pierce Brosnan’s super KGB assassin against Michael Caine’s alarmed British agent, both in a atomic-fueled Cold War race that Schifrin marks with a very serious, full-bore symphonic approach that masks his more typically jazzy musical identity as well as its identity-changing villain. You know The Reds are up to no good when Schifrin’s dark Russian melodies show its face, a droll Slavic identity that inflects this crafty score with no small amount of black humor in its devilishly handsome villain’s murderous, and calculated proficiency – all as a his opponent’s noble horn tries to stop him. Schifrin also does a powerful job of conveying a sense of momentum for the antagonists to the bomb countdown finish line – with piano percussion an especially valuable asset to lead us to a thrilling orchestral explosion for the movie’s “Day of the Jackal”-esque showdown (for a story not so coincidentally credited to “Protocol” author Frederick Forsyth). Long an out-of-print CD (as well as the first soundtracks put out in that format), Buysoundtrax has done a nice job of re-releasing this Schifrin collector’s prize, with always-exceptional liner notes by Randall D. Larson that gives a thorough dossier of one of Schifrin’s most straight-laced action scores.
. THE HILLS HAVE EYES / KNIGHT RIDER – Volumes 1 and 2
Don Peake is one of the musicians who’ve jumped on board of Perseverance’s new “composer distribution series,” which allows artists to use the label as a proxy for titles they’ve always wanted to release. Among the titles to spring from the former Everly Brothers guitarist are “Frankie and Johnny Are Married” and two volumes of “Knight Rider.” But horror cultists will most certainly get their primitive fill for Peake’s run through the cannibal-infested desert of Wes Craven during the director’s way grittier days, a grindhouse talent that had memorable brute force in 1977s “The Hills Have Eyes.” This since way more brutally remade thriller pitted a suburban nuclear family against a freakish clan inhabiting America’s atomic wasteland, a no-frills camping trip from hell that embodied the kind of raw, pre-“Halloween” synth and small instrumental ensemble horror scores that really got under one’s skin. That primitive power is on hand here in guttural spades (for the most part in ultra-short cuts) as Peake announces bursts of progressive jazz percussion and gnarled, lurking electronics. It’s the kind of twisted energy that one can imagine being banged out in the time it takes to listen to this 39-minute album, and is no less effective for its brutal, budget-necessitated efficiency. Peake’s “Hills” are alive in a way that many way smoother horror scores (and films) aren’t. Then a student of “Overlord’s” Paul Glass, Peake fills his score with provocative, blackboard-screeching anger, razor ringing glass, skittering bones and slithering weirdness, employed by such musicians as “I, The Jury” pianist Mike Lang and “blaster beam” player Craig Hundley. One can even hear echoes of David Hasselhoff’s talking car in the album’s jazzier chases as the album turns from the experience of dropping in on a horror jam session to grooving to slightly longer pieces. It’s a sound that marked an untamed era in horror scoring that might send those used to the more refined dissonance of todays’ genre soundtracks screaming from the “Hills” hodge-podge of barbaric cues, But Craven admirers who don’t like their listening particularly easy should dig the release of the small, bizarre wonder of genre expressionism, the aural equivalent of a bald, leering mutant hungering for flesh if there ever was one.
Giving a much more jazzily elegant ride is Peake’s other, even bigger cult favorite, as he assembles two volumes of his music from NBC’s “Knight Rider.” Taking the wheel for the computerized K.I.T.T. alongside David Hasselhoff for 72 episodes between 1983 – 1986 (Morton Stevens and Stu Phillips earlier contributions can be found on a Film Score Monthly compilation), Peake differentiated his music from what Alan Silvestri was grooving to for NBC’s other rubber-driven 80s hit “CHiPs” by putting over 30 musicians on top of his jazz-dance disco riffs. The result is a truly fun orchestral quality that plays more like cop jazz superhero music than what you might imagine as action for a high-tech car, whose suave Edward Mulhare computer chip is captured by pulsating synths. It’s a symphonic glitter ball swagger as delicious as David Hasselhoff’s hair that makes for a truly enjoyable listen as Peake veers between exciting variations of the show’s iconic theme to string sentiment and creeping criminal suspense. The songs are also particularly delightful here, speeding from Mexican music to 60s-ish guitar folksiness a la Joan Baez and Motels-esque 80s rock, with the biggest surprise being a cool take of Re-Flex’s hit “The Politics of Dancing” – exactly the kind of rhythmic decade-defining song you can imagine on Michael Knight’s stereo system – as well as the K.I.T.T. mobile these albums will turn any car into.
IN YOUR EYES
A guitarist and arranger for such composers as Brian Tyler and Harry Gregson-Williams, Tony Morales has been impressing with his suspenseful, action-heavy scores for “The Bag Man” and “Enemies Closer,” while also netting an Emmy nomination for co-scoring the hellbilly hootenany of the “Hatfields & McCoys” along with John Debney. Perhaps that’s why Morales’ romantic score for “In Your Eyes” sounds like it could be taking place during a Van Damme face-off, as well as a mesmerizing mind-eye bridge where boy meets girl via psychic connection. Morales’ programming chops, not to mention melodic talent, add much musical atmosphere to this well-reviewed Joss Whedon-written film that has the distinction of debuting on Vimeo for 5 semolians a shot. But Morales’ score definitely has the production, and melodic quality of a theatrical film as he uses guitar licks, piano and rhythmic samples to conjure the kind of indie sound that attracts hip younger audience (not to mention Whedon-ites). But there’s also a strong orchestral backdrop that really gives the score emotional depth, along while a haunting female voice that gives dramatic urgency to the romantic suspense. The other side of this often beautiful, otherworldly spell is a strongly propulsive, drum-heavy drive that could easily be dropped into a “Bourne”-ish spy chase, an element that makes this score work just as well for action groove fans. Given this involving, exciting and nicely emotional soundtrack that still fits the fantasy bill, the sky continues to be the limit for Morales’ “Eyes,” and ears.
It might be said that David Wingo’s winning, southern-fried soundtrack for “Mud” was akin to an artily existential take on Charles Bernstein’s South-ploitation score for “White Lightning.” But now Wingo ventures once again into the land of valiant, and villainous rednecks with nary a rustic instrumentation in earshot for “Joe.” Joined by director David Gordon Green’s frequent composer Jeff McIlwain (“Snow Angels,” “The Sitter”), this duo instead hear the dark brew of ambient trouble growing to a boil inside of Nicholas Cage’s ex-con turned reluctant hero. It’s a palpable, unsetting atmosphere of dread that could just as easily serve as underscore for a serial killer film, which might just be the point of creating storm clouds of ambience, metallic scraping and piano to get across the character’s vulnerability. Wingo and McIlwain contribute an understated, mesmerizing tension to “Joe,” helping Green’s filmmaking and Cage’s performance to achieve a real sense that violence could break out at any moment during this supreme struggle of anger management. The alt. rock sound of “Friday Night Lights” composers (and Sonic Youth successors) Explosions in the Sky are also on hand to give “Joe” a elegiac sense that all will somehow be right in this sad world, the dark vibe of its rustic, wood shack surroundings powerfully acknowledged in tone, as opposed to an outright musical drawl.
. LE PROFESSIONEL / LE MARGINAL
Somehow, unlike the latter Jean Reno who’d play the Eric Serra scored “Professional,” the original, ultimate French tough guy named Jean-Paul Belmondo never quite caught on as an English language star, despite his savoir faire with guns, girls and cigarettes – qualities he’d practice in abundance with 1981s “Le Professionel” and 1983s “Le Marginal.” But beyond their Gallic leading man, what would truly connect the first movie’s revenge-seeking agent and the second’s drug-busting commissioner were two uniformly superb scores by Italian composer Ennio Morricone, now remastered and given complete releases by France’s Music Box Records. Adept at every conceivable genre though a few hundred scores, Morricone wasn’t quite known in America as being a composer as capable of spy thrillers and policiers as much as he was known as a master practitioner of Spaghetti westerns – a cop movie talent that he’d really sock over a few years later with “The Untouchables.” Though contemporarily set, you can certainly hear just how well Morricone could play good guys who didn’t play by the government handbook, with nearly every cue a variation on a memorable main theme. “Le Professional’s” occupation as an assassin definitely gives this score the harder edge of the duo, with Morricone finding as many ways to make the brooding, ever-amplifying menace for piano and strings, as well as a classical, harpsichord create the sense of a stylish man very much in control of his particular set of skills. The “Professionel” melody changes identifiable guises with the zest of reaching for a new weapon with every appearance, yet capturing the lonely solemnity of a morally destructive line of work. Military percussion just as swiftly becomes romance, with an ethnically percussive quality capturing an African dictator who’s the hero’s marked man. Morricone’s way with suspense is also in top form, carrying the absolute assurance in a melody that the composer knows is gold.
Morricone provides a jazzier, two-fisted theme that gives a somewhat smoother touch to “Le Marginal’s” daredevil cop as he makes mincemeat of the Marseille drug trade. Like Belmondo’s charisma, Morricone’s music is all about attitude, going for classical pop and detective rock guitar funk, the score’s sex appeal again coming across for winds and flute. Brassy, staccato builds are the clearest indication yet for “The Untouchables” groove, along with dark, slithering strings building for a killer’s bullet. While this score might not be as instantly recognizable as “Le Professionel’s” inclusion of the hit single Chi mai,” (which did a hit on much that film’s actual score), “ “Le Marginal” is arguably the soundtrack that gives even more suave impact to Belmondo way, with an “urban western” sound that would soon translate to 1920s Chicago for with a trademarked bang.
. MILLION DOLLAR ARM
When A.R. Rahman first gained Oscar-winning attention in the western world for “Slumdog Millionaire,” it was as if some musical pitch hitter had arrived from nowhere, able to capture the exotic rhythms of his heritage via a pop beat as fresh as any album-spinning club kid (despite the fact that this relatively youthful composer-producer had been updating ancient Indian beats for quite some time). It’s a situation that couldn’t have made Rahman a better composer to play the sweet culture clash of a bunch of cricket players from the continent being potentially thrust into major league baseball for this Disney movie – a true winner in terms of quality even if it was a box office underdog. What’s more interesting is that “Million Dollar Arm” marks a Hollywood return for Rahman to his homeland after “Elizabeth The Golden Age,” “127 Hours” and “People Like Us,” scores mostly devoid of hip Indian music – a comeback that Rahman makes with a winningly sweet vengeance. While the songs that start “Million Dollar Arm” might not be another “Jai Ho,” the mixture of Rahman produced and performed songs have a cool groove that mixes raga with a hip-hop rhythm (and even a few industrial ones) in a way that’s accessible while honoring its musical ancestors, His nice score mixes voice, ethnic percussion and lush orchestral strings that convey the wonder of a desperate American sports agent thrust into a loudly colorful culture – and then the dramatic apprehension, and hope of the players he brings back to be reborn as baseball stars. It’s an effective emotional trip with the humorous percussion of a westerner’s get-rich plan mixing with glistening bells, orchestral sentiment and a truly gorgeous female vocal phrasings that hit a poignant chord in any musical language, not to mention capturing the suspense of a familiar “sports” score for the big end pitch – here given a transcendentally operatic tension as perhaps only an Indian could make the play. “Million Dollar Arm” rounds the bases between East and West with a contemporarily ancient style to award A.R. another big win.
. MY NIKIFOR
If you enjoyed the eccentric cimbalom approach of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” then you’ll likely want to take a musical room in the addled, artistic mind of this Polish painter. For the stay proves a real, whimsical delight, as heard through composing concierge Bartek Gliniak. Having gotten recognition in his native Poland, this talented musical artist now gets some international soundtrack exposure with the release of his work for this award-winning 2004 film. Embodying a disabled, yet visionary painter who could barely communicate, Gliniak comes up with a memorable, waltzing theme that’s expresses itself through both wry humor and emotion in a quirkily subtle way that Wes Anderson would no doubt appreciate, not only getting across a witty Eastern European atmosphere but also the quirky personality of an “outsider” artist. With a circus-like sound that echoes both Nino Rota and the intrigue of “The Third Man” composer Anton Karas, Gliniak has both sympathetic fun with the grizzled old man (played onscreen by a woman no less), while also realizing a sense of heartfelt poignancy beyond the seeming craziness. It’s the kind of hat trick that made “Budapest” so memorable as a score and film, and pays off here nicely as a droll, charming listen that plays both a classical old country and a visionary in his own whimsically misunderstood world of color. For Gliniak, “My Nikifor” couldn’t be more colorful signpost to Hollywood at signaling his talent.
“Re-Animator’s” Richard Band really got put on the horror map with his big thing for decapitated noggins, which tells you all you need to know about how he ended up in the company of “Shiver’s” headhunting serial killer. Gone is any of that aforementioned film’s Herrmann-esque comedy for this straight-up thriller, to which Band contributes a grimly exciting score. Where budgetary necessity has resulted in many such low-budget horror movies employing a sampled orchestra, Band has certainly turned that sound into a charm that signifies he’s in the eerie house. Twisted bell percussion blends with efficiently emulated strings to give the murderer a sense of childish glee, while shaker percussion and weirdly distorted brass bring “Shiver” a tone that will certainly delight fans of the composer’s “Puppetmaster” scores. But perhaps the coolest thing about the musician’s nastily effective work is how well he’s jumped onto the rhythmic cop procedural suspense bandwagon as cops desperately hunt for a kidnapped victim, creating a pulsing, nerve-tensing sound that proves Band is equally adept with contemporary, all-too human monsters, smartly blending dissonance with empathy as he contrasts seemingly unstoppable, love-struck evil with empathy for victims who fight back. And on top of it, who’d have expected to hear cool 40s jazz tunes and a Bossa Nova love song on a Richard Band soundtrack? “Shiver’s performances by Laura Weinbach and Cheryl Conley only add to the album’s unexpected, twisted pleasures.
. THE SIGNAL
While I’m dying to hear (let alone see) what composer Nima Fakhrara did for Japan’s live action version of “Gatchaman” (aka “Battle of the Planets”), I can only imagine that it must have caught the attention of “The Signal” – with the result being an eerily pulsing sci-fi score with a strong electric undercurrent. In this paranoid tale, three college students get far worse than they bargained for while chasing down a hacker. As they’re propelled into a sterile, claustrophobic nightmare of mad science where things gone from bad to mind and body-bendingly worse, Fakhara’s score tunes strongly into the Trent Reznor / Atticus Ross / Cliff Martinez vibe – yet in much the same way that this impressive, gripping movie warps about any number of cult sci-fi movie ideas (with one film’s in particular) into its own mutant animal. Fakhrara nudges all sorts of chopping, tolling and chiming percussion from the oodles of no-doubt futuristic gear that it took to create this intoxicatingly multi-layered score, creating an overall hypnotic tone with a growing sense of dread and wonder, as if some other culture’s idea of a wondrous gift was being thrust into panicked human form. Better yet, “The Signal” carries with it a surprisingly strong tone of thematic melody in its future music tech, the score gradually opening up new layers of synth-sample complexity along with its ever-amping plot. Fakhrara definitely proves himself as a musician to watch in the burgeoning genre of alt. sci-fi scoring for a soundtrack that effectively conveys “The Signal’s” point of origin is definitely not of this earth, with a mesmerizing, sterile clarity that’s the envy of any ice-cold scientist taking digital-pulse notes of his human lab rats. A terrific, out-of-the-lab payoff gives Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem” a Theremin-rific tone of worthy of a 50s alien invasion flick, as topped off with a trip hop 8-bit beat. It’s as brilliantly batshit a climactic cue that you’ll hear in a score this decade.
A gay dancer in early 1985 San Francisco deals with relationships and the beginning of the AIDS pandemic in this well-reviewed drama that not only throws back to an era that marked the end of sexual innocence, but also a musical time that marked the highpoint of a specific movie scoring synth sound best embodied by the likes of Tangerine Dream. And for many fans of that progressive German group, the decade also marked a high point with the propulsive sheen of scores that embodied the stylish LA gloss of “Heartbreakers” and “Miracle Mile.” Welsh composer Ceiri Torjussen (“Big-Ass Spider”) might be a one-man band, but you’d swear by just how well he replicates the Dream’s rocking computerized sound that you’re in the primo TD line-up of Edgar Froese, Paul Haslinger and company. “Test” is a high mark for a spot-on soundtrack replication that not only entices Dream admirers, but also builds on their trademarked vibe for a bleeping, haunted sound, at once enticing while also getting across a subtle, haunted resonance of carefree days about to end in a big way. Torjussen varies the score’s soothing quality with a strong percussive attitude that also works as then-modern dance music. It’s a notable soundtrack debut for a composer who’s been steadily racking up stylistically impressive scores, a cool blast from the synth-glo past when robotic-rock electronic attitude was all the rage – a time that “Test” will make any admirer of the era miss with new appreciation.
. THE CASE AGAINST 8 / THE WEDDING DATE: The Reception Edition
Now best known for putting propulsive arrows in the Green “Arrow’s” quiver, Blake Neely seeks musical justice in a far more subdued, but equally powerful manner when it comes to overturning America’s legal prejudice against gay marriage. Marking another dramatically effective documentary score after chronicling The Challenger’s “Mission of Hope,” Neely once again conveys a poignant, human face on landmark events. His “Case Against 8” takes on an ethereal, subtly Americana tone as heard for rhythmic beds of guitars, piano, strings and poignantly sampled atmospheres. This score isn’t about winning the fight against voter and government-mandated prejudice with fist-waving, but rather a soft spoken, gracefully melodic sense of conviction, his emotional drive growing from despair to a bolder sense of victory and determination for the Supreme Court ruling. When the flag waves here to celebrate all colors of the rainbow, it’s with a humble thanks the carries the feeling of heart and homeland, the score’s finally sweeping orchestral patriotism well earned in a good fight that’s a long way from over.
2005s “The Wedding Date” marked a slightly less momentous, but nonetheless important timetable for Neely’s musical destiny, as this completely charming rom-com score signaled an auspicious beginning for his career after time spent orchestrating, conducting and composing for the likes of Hans Zimmer and Michael Kamen. And one can certainly hear how Neely picked up on their rhythmic appeal as he peps up a classically orchestral bridal tone with a pop groove. It’s a thoroughly likable date with the kind of smart comedy scoring that plays the meet-cute romantic travails of what’s essentially a reverse “Pretty Woman” with bouncy orchestrations, of course full of shimmering bells, love struck guitars and a nice feel for thematic melody that charts the race to the happy ending altar. Neely at first goes for frisky energy before playing true emotion, then heartbreak and renewed attraction with the pre-determined rom-com course. But this “Wedding’s” warmth is truly genuine, and a big reason that fans haven’t forgotten about Neely’s score after nine years – a fond remembrance that now sees Buysoundtrax produce an “ultimate” “Wedding” album, complete with alternative cues, demos and Dominik Hauser producing new takes on the film’s source songs, including an upbeat 50s version of “One Fine Day.” It’s a perfect date night soundtrack indeed, the definition of peppily emotional romantic scoring at its sweetest.
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