February Soundtrack Picks
Soundtrack Picks: ‘BACK TO GAYA‘ IS ONE OF THE TOP SOUNDTRACKS TO OWN FOR FEBRUARY 2012
Also worth picking up: Exorcist II: The Heretic, Footnote, The Grey, Journey 2 the Mysterious Island, Red Tails, Safe House and Winston Churchill: Walking with Destiny
To purchase the soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover
1) BACK TO GAYA
What is it?: As with the final works of such ailing composers as Jerry Goldsmith, Michael Kamen didn’t let sickness diminish the talents that first landed him on the Hollywood map, namely a flair for orchestral writing. And like the equally missed Goldsmith, Kamen’s memorable swan song would be for an animated film. But “Back To Gaya” (otherwise known by its equally confounding titles of “The Snurks,” or “Boo, Zino & the Snurks”) is no “Looney Tunes: Back In Action,” or the Kamen-scored “Iron Giant” for that matter. And that’s one big reason why this otherwise terrific soundtrack has languished in obscurity until Movie Score Media has come along to do it justice.
Why should you buy it: Perhaps it was Kamen’s background at giving a symphonic rock and roll voice to the likes of Pink Floyd that made the composer approach his bigger orchestral scores with a swashbuckling attitude, a humorous, over-the-top heroism that infused the likes of “Brazil,” “Die Hard” and “Highlander.” It’s this rollicking spirit that shines brightly in “Gaya”’s tale of annoying, Smurf-like characters being propelled from their TV toon realm into our world, These two realities provide the key for Kamen’s approach for a score that’s at once happily home in a Carl Stalling-like realm of toon comedy, while just as quickly segueing to Kevin Costner-worthy thrills. But if “Gaya” might remain unwatchable for anyone over the age of six, Kamen’s music works precisely because it plays the film’s shenanigans with the kind of uncondescending commitment that’s just about as great as anything the composer produced in his Hollywood glory days, complete with a neo-historical sense of adventure that makes “Gaya” a grand throwback to the trumpeting style of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and “Robin Hood.”
Extra Special: Another stunning revelation in “Gaya”s winding history is that Michael Kamen didn’t live to finish the score himself. Instead, fate left it up to his collaborators Steve McLaughlin, Christopher Brooks, orchestrator Robert Elhai and their enthusiastic team to turn the composer’s thematic ideas and sketches into a cohesive work. How they did it so well with Kamen’s beloved Abbey Road Orchestra makes for a moving tale in “Gaya”’s lavish liner notes by album producer Mikael Carlsson. His Movie Score Media label certainly knows the treasure it’s dug up here. And “Back to Gaya” is certainly one their most noteworthy releases, no more so than in revealing how vital, and eternal Kamen’s boisterously sound remains, or the loving effort it took to realize his unintended swan song.
2) EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC
What is it?: Ennio Morricone has gotten some real humdingers to score in his more-than-prolific career, particularly when it comes to such crazy genre pictures as “Orca,” “Holocaust 2000” and “Treasure of the Four Crowns.” Yet while these movies might be inadvertently hilarious, Morricone has always played the most ungodly material with a straight face, no more so than with “Exorcist II: The Heretic.”
Why should you buy it?: One of this sequel’s many hilarious mistakes was turning its evil spirit into an African locust demon named Pazazu. Yet it’s this same tribal spirit that makes Ennio Morricone’s score for an otherwise woeful film so intriguing. With high-pitched strings mimicking the chirping of insect wings, Morricone turns his love for the female voice (as evinced in so many classic Spaghetti Western scores) into a malefic and transfixing instrument, her wailing, cackling and chanting jumping about like a witch in a drum circle coven. Angelic choruses are also in force for the now-teenaged Reagan, her sweetness given a lyrical theme for strings, piano and the guitar. As darkly impressionistic as Morricone tries to be with his extended, hellraising rituals, his music also can’t help but be beautiful in the same moment. For if “The Exorcist”’s use of modern classical music was about the terror of being possessed, then Morricone’s accomplishment with “The Heretic”’s very cinematic soundtrack is showing evil’s dark enchantment, if not the emotional power that dispels it.
Extra Special: For a voice-centric composer like Morricone, it’s little wonder that so many of his compositions feel like songs. And few have the gonzo 70’s progressive acid rock vibe down like “Magic and Ecstasy.” Thrashing electric guitar combines with children’s wordless dah-dah-dah vocals, ritualistic rhythm and the crack of a bullwhip to create one of the great movie horror anthems of all time. Though not in the movie itself, the piece would make “The Heretic” s trailer brilliantly enticing. Perhaps the devil made Morricone fill all of those seats for the opening weekend. And while they quickly emptied, Morricone’s heretical “Magic” is now once again available on CD thanks to Perseverance Records, with informative liner notes by horror score expect Randall Larson that do their best to keep it to the far more frightening music.
What is it?: Who’d have thought that the seemingly boring process of Talmudic translation would result in pokey pizzicato music that makes you think you’re listening to the score of the latest dumb multiplex pratfall fest, as mixed with the zanier stylings from “The Witches of Eastwick.” However, what you’re actually experiencing is the ever-maddening Tom and Jerry sound of a cat and mouse battle between hyper-intellectual father and son, the smarts behind this seemingly goofball soundtrack brilliantly captured by Israeli composer Amit Poznansky.
Why should you buy it?: Where so many ultra-serious pictures from the Holy Land are as dramatically dry as its sands, “Footnote” turns out to be as wittily entertaining as any Coen Brothers comedy, especially as propelled by writer-director Joseph Cedar’s inventive use of visual bookmarks. These arch character revelations are also they key to Poznansky’s purposefully overblown screwball approach. He brings on an ever-escalating series of orchestral snooping, sad-sack brass statements, scratching violins and gleeful harp glissandos- goofball stuff as the height of irony when applied to steel-trap minds spinning out of control with Talmudic facts. It’s also a playful approach that works exceptionally well at conveying the razor-sharp thought process of a nearly mute, grumpy old academic’s seeming moment of triumph. Yet it’s anything but as “Footnotes”’s scholarly subterfuge and battle of factoids turns Poznansky’s music into a madcap Viennese circus waltz as conducted by an insane Igor Stravinsky, his frenzied instruments’ inability to stop thinking causing them to collapse into one cream pie after the other.
Extra Special: Probably the wackiest score ever written for smart people who are astoundingly dumb when it comes to real life, Poznansky’s score could make him the next big thing for an Adam Sandler movie, if he’d want to go the tote in Hollywood.
4) HAUNTED OR HUMORED
What is it?: Few composers have been as diligent about getting their work out there as Christopher Young, whether his music accompanied blockbusters, unreleased indies, concert pieces, shorts, or scores that weren’t used at all. Based on dozens of albums and promos, Young has been one very busy man over the decades. Yet even his most obscure releases have shown the same dedication to quality and creativity, no matter the project’s music budget or studio politics. Now Young’s relentless musical drive has inspired his own record label to put these scores onto, beginning with the compilation “Haunted or Humored.”
Why should you buy it?: As a composer whose work has ranged from the instrumentally eccentric likes of “The Vagrant” to the lush orchestra of “Creation,” “Haunted and Humored” offers a striking spectrum of Young’s imagination, hearing a Sam Raimi “Fan Boy” with wacked-out hayseed jazz (of course with ukulele and whistling), while also giving a heartfelt guitar salute to his high school’s prized teacher “Susan Graham.” Young’s ability to experimentally terrify with echoing pianos and dissonant strings infuse his feature-worthy score for the horror short “Re-Membered.” But if any cues fall under the What the F column, then it’s Young’s chillingly beautiful work for “Faces in the Crowd,” a serial killer flick that doesn’t bear his score. But Young’s demos here are the next best thing, offering a poetically eerie theme and ethereal suspense that nearly puts “Faces” in a league with such other Young serial killer classics as “Copycat’ and “Jennifer 8.” Young’s second CD goes well beyond presenting a score that could have been, as “To Spain With Love” takes the material he originally written for “Ask the Dust” and turns it into a sparkling tribute to a country whose love of Hollywood music shames this own. Guitars, flamencos and the joyous voice of Clarita Corona embrace the land’s rhythms, from energetic dance to romantic reveries, coalescing the fragments of a once upon a time movie score into a batch of ethnic valentines that celebrate Spain’s inescapable romance and earthy energy.
Extra Special: A far less friendly land to visit is Afghanistan, even if its music can also evidence joy and hope along with mournfulness. And if you pick up both previous albums on Young’s website, then you’ll get a free copy of this beautiful score to “The Black Tulip,” where Young proves himself equally adept in this even more ancient soundscape. For this film where a family tries to open a restaurant after the fall of the Taliban, Young weaves a mesmerizing score out of ethnic instruments, Arabic tone poems and percussion, all conveying enlightened Afghans as their café attempts to bring back art, and joy into a country that’s anything but free from fundamentalist oppression. Yet the gentle, hopeful spirit that blooms in “The Black Tulip” tells us the human spirit won’t be so easily repressed, especially when it came expressing itself through music. Thankfully Young is now insuring that this score, and its forbearers, don’t remain unsung anymore.
5) RED TAILS
What is it?: Terence Blanchard has been fighting the good fight when it comes to scoring the black experience in any number of scores for Spike Lee, including his look at negro soldiers in the WW2 Italian conflict for the “Miracle at St. Anna.” But if this composer hasn’t progressed in Hollywood as far as he should have long ago, it’s because Blanchard’s complex, jazz-inflected orchestral writing for Lee’s films, not to mention his pigeonholing as a composer best suited to urban-themed pictures (thankfully excepting his awesomely nutty Kung Fu score to “Bunraku”) hasn’t made him as easily clichéd as a whitebread ‘action guy.’ But now as Blanchard returns to Italy’s field of battle once more, he’s obviously determined to fly high with the “Red Tails,” a score that more than earns its stripes, and racial pride by being both ethnically tuned, and multiplex accessible at the same time.
Why should you buy it?: There’s a big difference between keeping up with the changing musical times, and selling out- something which Patrick Doyle proved by showing he could turn his gloriously grandiose symphonic sound to the contemporary action-percussion tastes of “Thor” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” without losing his soul in the bargain. Ditto Terence Blanchard on “Red Tails.” While his writing here might not reach the Copland-esque complexity of his past scores, Blanchard has lost none of his striking voice, or jazz chops. The difference here is that the sound of his people’s struggle is having a great time kicking Nazi fighter pilot ass. It’s an excitement conveyed through his most thematic and breathless score yet, kicking in the daredevil jams when screaming rock guitars, electronic rhythms, Gospel organ and Zimmer-esque percussion that roars across the soundtrack- of course with Blanchard’s jazz and vocal inflections attached. His score is at once exhilarating, entertaining, and audacious, all making for one big announcement to Hollywood that he’s got the chops to compete in the multiplex action department. Judging by this thoroughly entertaining movie’s audience reception, Blanchard has hopefully earned the scoring stripes to branch out way beyond the musical skin tone that’s often been put on him.
Extra Special: “America the Beautiful”’s been played ad infinitum in movie scores, not to mention sporting events. But the depth of feeling that goes into Blanchard’s version that wraps up “Red Tails” makes it one of the tune’s most profound renditions yet. Flowing from a singular jazz trumpet to take on choral and symphonic power, Blanchard’s majestic take captures the spirits of God, country, and equality that the Tuskegee Airmen fought for, creating a moving, musically patriotic salute if there ever was one.
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
. DOCTOR WHO: SERIES 6
The Doctors might change every season or other, but we can be thankful that Murray Gold has been riding the Time Lord’s T.A.R.D.I.S. since his first, revamped regeneration. In the process, the new “Who”’s music has constantly impressed with its sheer, giddy sense of invention and production value, qualities that quickly impressed even a non-acolyte like myself. “Series 6” is no exception, especially with the dynamic playing of BBC’s Nation Orchestral of Wales under the enthusiastic baton of Ben Foster. If there’s any quality that makes this two-CD collection’s numerous suites sound of a piece, then it’s the neo-Bondian approach that Gold gives to the varied adventures, from the fuzz guitar and imposing countdown of “The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon” to the playful military bombast of “Let’s Kill Hitler.” Quirk also abounds with the twisted fairy tale music of “Night Terrors,” the bizarre country-dulcimer stylings of “The Girl Who Waited” and the cartoonish pizzicato doings of “Closing Time.” But if there’s a true key to Gold’s uniform success with the series, it’s that he can at once have fun with its absurdity while also realizing the emotion that’s now invested in these characters. It’s a moving sense of dramatic grandeur that also inflects even the quirkiest adventure, especially for the climactic “Wedding of the River Song.” As with each Silva Screen “Who” compilation, Gold gives neat personal recollections of the musical story arcs on hand in the CD booklet. Each displays a personal connection to the Doctor that epitomizes the fanboy love of the character’s longtime followers- one more reason to hope that the composer never sheds this Gallifreyan’s skin.
. THE GREY
Joe Carnahan’s previous films like “Narc,” “Smokin’ Aces” and “The A-Team” have had no shortage of headbanging action for composers to play. But those kinds of opportunities are in short supply for his esoteric man-against-nature film “The Grey,” which instead offers shades of macho-talk colors for Marc Streitenfeld to play with when wolves don’t occasionally show up to kill its Alaska-stranded characters. Yet for a film so intent on making this situation “real” in pseudo-Hemingway docudrama fashion, the “The Grey” gets the most color, and emotional impact when Streitenfeld’s is hovering about the Deadly White North. Pretty much avoiding overt “survival” music, Streitenfeld’s score is beautifully haunting and unusually transparent. Cast with ethereal orchestral, a violin and chilling, high-pitched tones to sink in the feeling of inevitability, Streitenfeld makes the music reflective and mesmerizing without being depressing in the bargain. And when things get nasty to jump-start the film, Streitenfeld amps up the furry monster factor by effectively switching into horror mode, but again without overdoing it on the trembling strings, ominous samples and primitive drums. While “The Grey”’s castaways might do too much thinking, Streitenfeld contemplates their desire for life, and acceptance of their wolf-gnashing destiny with impressive musical nuance.
. JOURNEY 2 THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND
If you’re a teen heading off to explore a Vern-nian wonderland, a more powerful wingman to have at your side than even The Rock is composer Andrew Lockington. Truly burrowing onto the scene with 2008’s “Journey To the Center of the Earth,” Lockington impressed with his ability to conjure a wide-eyed sense of orchestral wonder for these kid-friendly re-jigs of their parent’s fantasy classics. Now after a slightly more foreboding tour through “The City of Ember,” Lockington returns to the “Journey” series with his most impressive score yet. Just don’t expect any hints of life-imperiling darkness that Bernard Herrmann gave to the 1961 Ray Harryhausen stop-motion extravaganza, as this is the kind of CGI effects movie where no one really gets hurt (unless you count everything living on the Island at the climax). But that innocence is also a big reason for the immense charms of this child-friendly franchise, for which Lockington pours on as much musical suspense and spectacle as possible with his sweeping, thematically-powered orchestra- its “Stargate”-like resonance powered once again by that score’s orchestrator Nicholas Dodd. Like its wide-eyed, enthusiastic young hero, Lockington just can’t wait to get to the next choral revelation of a lost city or giant bee, unabashedly pulling out the symphonic stops- and just as easily achieving emotional intimacy with a haunting female voice. Adding to the exotic sense of musical discovery is drumming brought by Lockington from the Cook Islands and the wilds of Papua New Guinea. His enthusiasm comes together for a dynamite climax for electric percussion, a Carmina Burana chorus and full-throttle London players with a suspenseful last-second save by the Nautilus- easily one the action cues to beat this year. The series’ next journey to the Moon can’t come soon enough for Lockington’s exponentially growing ability at bringing classic literary wonders to cinematic life. Bonus points go to The Rock’s golden throat for his playful takedown on the most overused Hawaiian song of all time, as well as bringing a Las Vegas wink to its actual lyrics, complete with a big band.
. KINGDOMS OF AMALUR: RECKONING
An undead knight is out for Kratos-level payback in this fantasy RPG, and it’s up to Grant Kirkhope to go Medieval with a far more mature bit of musical creature-trouncing than he’d dealt with in such previous child-friendly games as “Grabbed By the Ghoulies” and “Banjo Kazooie.” Thankfully for Kirkhope’s sake, “Kingdom”’s warrior will have everything on his lethal list of grievances except for this score, as Kirkhope does “Reckoning”’s wrath proud with an exhilarating soundtrack that plays like equal parts “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” – minus much of the dirge-like bits that go along with a grim quest. It’s an E-rated vibe for an M-game in the best way, going for a thematically grand sense of wonder and excitement. Performed with bold power by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirkhope’s music dexterously ranges from vocal enchantment to imposing brass payback. But it’s during the cliffhanging thrills and spills that “Reckoning” really soars, music that conjures a battle with TIE Fighters far more than it does dealing vengeance to some blood-crazed ogre. If anything, Grant Kirkhope scores these “Kingdoms” like the music a twelve year-old hears in his head while playing Dungeons and Dragons- a sound that’s fantasy-analogue in its winning attitude.
. MASSACRE AT MARBLE CITY
When Americans hear “Spaghetti Western,” Ennio Morricone stands as the lone gunslinger. But thanks to Italy’s Beat Records label, other practitioners of this mythic, self-referential craft are getting their time in the sagebrush spotlight, especially Francesco De Masi. While his one English-language modern martial arts oater would be “Lone Wolf McQuade,” De Masi was as prolific as Morricone on their home turf with the likes of “Arizona Colt,” “Any Gun Can Play” and “Ringo, The Lone Rider.” Beat now unleashes a De Masi fusillade in the genre (far from the only one practiced), two bullets of which include “Massacre At Marble City” and “Lone and Angry Man” (or respectively “Alla Conquista Dell’Arkansas” and “Una Bara Per Lo Sceriffo”). While Morricone, De Masi and their many compatriots watered their horses at the same musical trough, each composer set their pasta apart. In De Masi’s case, it’s with sturdy, Hollywood-style orchestrations that are more conventional, and no less thrilling for it (or “more Tiomkin than Morricone” as the composer’s son Filippo sums it in his appreciative liner notes). “Arkansas”’ bold symphonic action quickly defines no-nonsense heroism with a throttling theme and angry percussion, along with such effective musical conventions as a wearily played harmonica, an Indian drumbeat and a jaunty choral melody that trumpets its avenging gunslinger angel to the heavens. De Masi is completely reverential in terms of musical good and evil, no more so than with an “Angry Man,” whose fate is to die with gun in hand. He gets it with a throatily memorable title song by Peter Tavis, once again accompanied by a swooning chorus. De Masi clops along with harmonica in mouth, a handily strumming guitar, baleful horn and even some subtle rock nuances, his vengefully swirling orchestral theme nicely bringing to mind Elmer Bernstein and John Barry. Both De Masi scores are terrifically fun, if not outright revelations for those who didn’t know he rode the range. Thanks to Beat for showing us there was another Spaghetti sheriff in soundtrack town.
. NORWEGIAN WOOD
While it’s the famed Beatles tune that spurs a Japanese man down a 1960’s-set relationship memory lane, what you’ll get here is a far more demanding type of musically pleasing love, courtesy of “There Will Be Blood”’s Jonny Greenwood. And while his latest score might not spill over with quite as much milkshake-worthy insanity, there’s again no denying that Greenwood is right at the top of the Avant-garde scoring movement between dissonance and melody. However, the trick of the Radiohead member-turned-composer is turning what could be as unlistenable as a lot of today’s “modern” classical music is into something truly transfixing. His “Norwegian Wood” is the kind of completely untraditional film composition who’s least concern is guiding your emotions. If anything, Greenwood’s writing leads you on with its pure strangeness, if just to figure out what the hell it’s all supposed to mean. In tandem with the aching bows of The Emperor Quartet, Greenwood materializes the trembling, unsettled ghosts of the past, achieving a sound of incredible longing with all of the conflicts that shattered love long ago love. Thankfully, there’s identifiably romantic chamber guitar playing to go along with the string instruments’ more forbidding reaches, aided as well by a bit of electronic manipulation. “Norwegian Wood” ends up coming across like the music of an artsy guy remembering happier times, all the while trying to flee them- not a bad place to be if your mind is open to taking this kind of experimental ride to a place that’s anything but rom-com friendly.
“Safe House” is risk-free in more ways than one as it follows most of the same story beats of a CIA dude movie on the run, a genre that was made so popular by the “Bourne Identity” franchise. Yet that doesn’t mean this espionage suspenser is lacking for propulsive danger, especially given a tensely effective score by Ramin Djawadi. Though set in South Africa, the German / Iranian composer avoids an ethnic sound and gets straight to the heart of the rhtymic action, with a driving, rock-accented talent he’s already impressively displayed in two “Medal of Honor” videogames. Here Djawadi literally drives fuel to the fire for a lot of the action, with an orchestra providing a strong backdrop. But what truly distinguishes “Safe House” from similarly themed action pictures, and scores is that its hero certainly isn’t Jason Bourne, even if his sucessful heroics seem just as superhuman. For running in pursuit of a crafty Denzel Washington is a heavily panting Ryan Reynolds, a very mortal field operative who gets more than he wishes for when he asks to get out from behind the desk. His desperation, and steady grasp of just how dehumanizing it is to be in The Agency gives an emotionally potent lull to “Safe House”‘s rhythmic stuff, making the actors’ firecracker mind games perhaps even more interesting than all the running about. While Djawadi and the audience are familiar with the path both men will inevitably take for “Safe House,” its musically dangerous, and surprisingly introspective quality make this album worth a comfortably provocative stay.
. THERE BE DRAGONS
It’s no easy task scoring a movie as singularly over the top, in that romantic 1930’s kind of way as Roland Joffe’s “There Be Dragons,” a film whose overly passionate intentions managed to turn the Spanish Civil War into a soap opera. Even an accomplished musician can slip from the dramatic into the maudlin when given this kind of florid scope to accompany, as could be heard in the over-emphatic score by the film’s original composer Stephen Warbeck during “Dragon”’s brief theatrical run last year. Thankfully, the producers’ commitment to salvage one aspect of the film afterward turns out to be a golden opportunity for Robert Folk to really strut his stuff. For while he might have such notably eclectic credits as “Ace Venture 2,” “Arabian Knight” and “Police Academy,” none have revealed his Korngoldian ability like the gigantic canvas of “There Be Dragons.” Given a veritable orchestral cannon to blast this score out with, Folk nonetheless gets the film’s old-fashioned storytelling without overdoing it in the wrong way. He connects with the glossy symphonic swagger of Hollywood orchestras at the time of the Spanish Civil War’s height, pouring on lavish, memorable themes that hear history in a black and white way, with ripping guitars, military danger, Latin rhythms and a chorus of hundreds conveying the kind of star-crossed fate and sacrifice that demand a star filter. Folks “Dragon’’s roar with a new symphonic excitement for the composer, a fiery sense of heightened drama that would’ve made the movie play way better if it was there the first time out. Hopefully, soundtrack fans, and this town in general will hear the second, powerful life that Robert Folk has granted “Dragons” with one of his best scores.
. WINSTON CHURCHILL: WALKING WITH DESTINY
When so many documentaries are hampered by the budget to truly give them a rousing sense of history, Lee Holdridge has often been lucky to bring the battle-filled past alive with the army of a full orchestra, giving his music the stuff of legend for such Intrada-released soundtracks as “The Explorers” and “In Search of Peace.” Holdridge’s rousingly dramatic, and deeply emotional approach is no better suited than for one of WW2’s most tenacious figures in “Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny.” Never before had Britain seemed on the verge of annihilation than during the Nazi blitzkrieg, if not for the bulldog stance of their Prime Minister. Holdridge’s music not only embodies the core of his resiliency, but also hears the united England through it. One can detect the spirit of the country’s famed composers Benjamin Britten and William Walton to this surging, bold music, which resonates with both Britain’s dark desperation and its never-say-die determination, especially when warning the world of Hitler’s developing Holocaust. Yet Holdridge just as powerfully captures Churchill the Man with flute, strings and the piano, creating a real sense of “Destiny” that reaches across the years for maximum, heartfelt impact. Holdridge’s sound is of vibrantly melodic flesh and blood, as opposed stock footage and talking heads, a powerful talent that’s on epically intimate display here.
CLICK on the album covers to make your hardcopy or download purchase, and find the soundtracks at these .com’s: Amazon, Buysoundtrax, Intrada, iTunes, Moviemusic, Moveiscoremedia, Screen Archives and Varese Sarabande