Exploring the world through global cinema

Soundtracks

Lost On A Painted Sky

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” – Elvis Costello

Several months ago, I wrote what could only described as a shameless paean to two of my all-time favourite soundtracks – soundtracks to films I hadn’t seen, and how this made them simply great pieces of music in their own right. In a similar vein this week, I look into the phenomenon of the film soundtrack you love and enjoy before finally seeing the production itself, and how both are changed by the experience. The Hans Zimmer fan, for example, having enjoyed his scores from Rain Man to Gladiator may buy the album for Inception, even if a recurring stomach ulcer inflamed by the perpetual pouting of Leonardo diCaprio will prevent them from actually seeing the film itself. Soundtrack albums often take on a successful life of their own entirely independent of the film: how many have the score to Pulp Fiction without having actually seen it? It is to this particular category that my first personal choice belongs, that being Neil Diamond’s memorable musical marriage to the less-than-memorable ‘epic’:

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

(1973) Music by Neil Diamond

“Listen, everybody! There’s no limit to how high we can fly! We can dive for fish and never have to live on garbage again!”

Fifty years ago, Buddhism had permeated the pop culture of the day, influencing every artist from The Beatles to American author Richard Bach. In the eponymous novel, Jonathan is a seagull cast out of his flock for daring to suggest that there is more to life than squabbling over food scraps. With his talent for flying (the reader is encouraged to put aside the obvious point that all seagulls have a singular talent in this arena) and wanderlust powered by an eternal curiosity, he rises to new levels of consciousness, discovers that Heaven is not a place but a state of mind, and that all things are possible for those who dare to dream. First published in 1970, Jonathan Livingston Seagull became one of the most famous U.S novels of the 20th Century and is still in print today. Its ultimately upbeat, can-do attitude is perfectly attuned to American sensibilities, predating the self-help innervations of Anthony Robbins by decades and appearing at a time when the nation was in rapid growth. It was not without its critics though, some of whom derided it for being overly simplistic, dull, preachy and anti-Christian.

Film-maker Hall Bartlett meanwhile decided in 1973 that the tale was fit for the big screen, despite the seagull-heavy nature of the characters and the fact that there was no such thing as CGI. Obvious material therefore for an animation one might think, but to Bartlett, it was a live-action extravaganza or nothing. More of this later.

Jonathan is a seagull who believes there's more to life than fighting and squabbling with each other over resources - an allegory that works better in the theatre of the imagination.

Unsurprisingly, I was not especially aware of this when I first discovered the soundtrack around the age of four. It simply seemed to be an album by someone calling himself either ‘Neil Diamond’ or ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’ (equally plausible at that point in my life) filled with songs and music about seagulls, flying and oceans crashing into sandy shores. None of these elements were mysteries however – I lived in a coastal town lined with beaches of varying temperament and heavily populated by those flying rats of the shoreline. It was true though that the seagull celebrated on the album was not the loud squawking and squabbling ill-tempered irritant to be found on sand dunes and in picnic areas, but the lone and silent white span of wings swimming through the air currents far above. I was ironically closer to the novel than I could have realised.

I also discovered – once the confusion over who had actually recorded the album was cleared up – that this was not atypical music for Him of the Crunchy Granola. Explorations into his signature sounds left me wanting and disinterested: this album is lightning in a bottle, a one-off. It is largely orchestral in form, combined with Diamond’s vocals, acoustic guitars, the occasional choral medley and the sounds of the sea.

“The seagull celebrated on the album was not the loud squawking and squabbling ill-tempered irritant to be found on sand dunes and in picnic areas, but the lone and silent white span of wings swimming through the air currents far above.”

The hero of the tale, lost on a painted sky and heading for the farthest shore of the imagination.

Presented in story order, the music feels very much like a journey, beginning with the soft and rhythmic brass and percussion of ‘Prologue’, introducing what will quickly become the signature fanfare of the album. Those same iconic motifs continue in ‘Be’, wherein the listener meets Jonathan for the first time, “lost on a painted sky” discovering freedom away from the flock and the joys of flight. It’s a lovely tune, combining assured acoustic guitar with sweeping orchestral accompaniment and haunting strings. Religious undertones occasionally bubble to the surface on the album – references to ‘God’, a ‘Dear Father’, ‘gloria’ and ‘holy’, and Jonathan’s voyage of discovery could be described as a ‘religious’ experience. The instrumental ‘Flight Of The Gull’ follows, in which our hero tests the very limits of his skills, flying higher than ever before, only to meet with disaster. Here, the orchestra captures the journey perfectly with refrains rising as if into the very sky on gusts of wind, before leveling out and soaring above the clouds. Determined percussion echoes Jonathan’s efforts to push himself ever-further while buoyant woodwind tells of his sheer enjoyment – one that cannot last.

Quiet, unassuming piano opens the song ‘Dear Father’, finding Jonathan licking his wounds and in search of answers. “Who are we to need?” he implores, for the first time forced to temper desire with understanding. Diamond’s distinctive tones capture the lead character’s longing, echoed by a frustrated orchestral interlude and finally heartfelt string rendition of the main theme. Recovered, Jonathan shows off his newly-discovered flying prowess to the flock in the upbeat acoustic guitar, bass, percussion and strings ensemble of ‘Skybird’. The elders are singularly unimpressed however and banish him from the community. Alone and adrift in a ‘Lonely Looking Sky’, Jonathan ponders his fate. The mellow and melodic song is the musical equivalent of abandonment, fading to an uncertain future.

Hall Bartlett: ambitious visionary or literal-minded extremist? You be the judge.

‘The Odyssey’ marks the turning point of both album and story, in which Jonathan begins his journey to higher planes of being. An instrumental medley of the main fanfare, ‘Be’, ‘Lonely Looking Sky’ and ‘Dear Father’, consolidates the story so far. The highlight is the instrumental of ‘Lonely Looking Sky’, proving it is just as powerful with strings in place of vocals, and a very beautiful tune, although similar treatment of ‘Dear Father’ is also very powerful. There is also an excellent haunting harp section speaking of new worlds, nicely reproduced by warmer strings a short while later, only to end in ominous brass discord.

“Transcend, purify, glorious.”

Lilting violins seem to bid welcome in ‘Anthem’, coming as close as they ever will to the voice comma, before Diamond slowly intones the processes underlying Jonathan’s moment of transition. An angelic chorus set to a cheerful harpsichord melody applauds this most holy transformation before the tune reverts to its lilting origins. Then follows a short instrumental reprise of ‘Be’, with piano and clarinet reaffirming the hero’s discovery of the self. Enlightened, Jonathan returns to the flock to pass his knowledge on to others. A soaring vocal version of ‘Skybird’ describes the lesson. “Rally each heart at the sight of your silver wings!” implores the teacher as he urges his pupils to take to the skies and follow their own unique path. A short and sombre instrumental reworking of ‘Dear Father’ tells of the flock elders’ anger at his ‘dangerous’ influence, however the acolytes are convinced and in the finale, a reprise of ‘Be’, Jonathan hands over teaching duties to rising pupil Fletcher Lynd Seagull and sets off, for “on a distant shore”, there will be other outcasts searching for the truth. Where ‘Be’ was originally a livelier, upbeat song, here, it is slower, the beats more dramatic, indicative of conclusion.

Years later, I would finally see Hall Bartlett’s live-action extravaganza, in which real seagulls were utilised, forcing the post-production to work very hard at convincing the viewer that their actions were in any way related to the narrative, mainly through the work of voice acting. Meanwhile, white, seagull-shaped radio-controlled gliders were employed for the flight scenes, to varying levels of success. So underwhelmingly bad was the experience that it completely failed to tarnish my enjoyment of the score and I would urge the curious to investigate the novel instead. Familiarity with the story has forever altered my perception of the music and lyrics however, by mapping the music to particular scenery – at least until I managed to forget most of it. The production values of the album do seem somewhat dated today, and the music doesn’t seem as grandiose as it did when I was younger, and indeed seems a lot more heavy-handed and sentimental. We all have music from our childhood that we hear differently to those who discover it when they’re older and whom will probably struggle to understand what all the fuss is about. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is most definitely a prime example of this for me and probably always will be. Favourable conversion to the rest of Neil Diamond’s discography however still seems unlikely.

*****

Under The Mountain

(2009) Music by Victoria Kelly

Another film based on a famous novel, Under The Mountain tells the story of Rachel and Theo, red-headed twins who discover they are all that stands between the human race and the evil Wilberforces, shape-changing aliens determined to take over the planet for their own malicious ends. Both the story, and its author Maurice Gee are probably New Zealand’s most famous contributions to the country’s rich oeuvre of fiction. It was one of my all-time favourite novels as a child, the 1982 television adaptation long the definitive screen realisation. 2009 saw it dramatised on the big screen for the first time by film director Jonathan King, unsurprisingly improving upon the production values of its predecessor, but significantly dumbing down the text and introducing emo-driven characterisation neither present in the original nor remotely necessary.

Scoring duties meanwhile were assigned to locally-born composer Victoria Kelly, who manages to produce a soundtrack that fits the intentions of the film perfectly. Kelly’s ominously dramatic chords, screeching strings and unsettling woodwind recreate the suspenseful atmosphere of the sci-fi/horror tale extremely well without ever standing out where they shouldn’t or failing to underpin the right emotion. It is essentially a soundtrack that does its job extremely well and listened to in isolation is a sequence of nicely suspenseful mood pieces. ‘Nowhere To Run’, one of the tracks on the album, neatly encapsulates Kelly’s style, uneasy mystery, staccato percussion for moments of high drama and ‘distressed’ string discord for creeping horror. Thumping percussion and hyperventilating strings are another trademark, heard for example in ‘The History Of The World’ and throughout. The angry drum beats perfectly capture the onscreen terror, sounding at times like someone (or something) hammering at a door, demanding to gain entry, while high-pitched strings imitating the sound of knives sharpening complete the fear factor – the track ‘One Will Be Enough’ being a good example of this. The composer demonstrates a natural sympathy for the requirements of the script and it’s only a shame that this self-same script doesn’t live up to her abilities.

“The composer demonstrates a natural sympathy for the requirements of the script and it’s only a shame that this self-same script doesn’t live up to her abilities.”

Fortunately, subsequent viewing of the film did not ruin my enjoyment of Kelly’s work, and it remains a great selection of tense, atmospheric music that can be enjoyed independent of the drivel it was created for. The 1982 TV miniseries is still the definitive version. Better yet, listen to it while reading Maurice Gee’s novel. Were it not for my love of the original text, I might not have bothered to acquire the score, and I recommend the film only as I would recommend pneumonia. Recommending its composer however, couldn’t be easier.

*****

Next Time

Little Tall Island is a quiet community of good, God-fearing folk where nothing ever happens. Sure, there was that whole business with Dolores Claiborne up on the hill a few years back, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. Peace reigns until one day a stranger arrives and turns the community upside-down, forcing them to face the dark truth of their so-called Middle American lives and the secrets they all harbour just beneath the surface. The newcomer wants something from them before he’ll go away and leave them to their social fiction. However, to stay alive, the islanders may have to sell their souls. World On Film continues its break from the prime directive next week with a review of Stephen King’s 1999 epic, Storm Of The Century. Click below to see a trailer:

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The Independent Soundtrack, or ‘Sex Power’ Meets ‘Fire & Water’

Apologies for the complete lack of activity last week. I attempted to write an entry, but appeared to be going through a brief phase where everything I typed had all the merit and intelligence of a burnt waffle. The offending text was therefore quickly cordoned off and quietly disposed of in the interests of public safety and thankfully normal service has now resumed. This week, I deviate from the blog’s prime directive one final time to look once more into the realm of film scores.

Hollywood drivel, though Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack is a great listen.

Like the films they were designed to accompany, soundtracks have the powerful ability take the listener into exciting new worlds. Their totality, from haunting melodies to minimalist motifs describing emotional discord, can shape an entirely new experience when listened to separate from the film itself, free of the originally intended thematic envelope. Even the casual film-goer likely has at least one score in their collection, a sequence of specially-crafted movements that captured their attention even if the movie itself failed to, or indeed it may be a compilation of ‘found music’ (not specially composed for the film), which in the past decade gave rise to the dubious yet predictable marketing initiative of producing ‘Songs inspired by the film’ – in much the same way that a communion wafer might be inspired by the Sistine Chapel. The real thing thankfully outshines these pointless attempts at greed by several orders of musical magnitude.

“The past decade gave rise to the dubious yet predictable marketing initiative of producing ‘Songs inspired by the film’ – in much the same way that a communion wafer might be inspired by the Sistine Chapel.”

I too have my favourites among the post-film soundtrack experience. While Gladiator did for Roman history what PRC school textbooks do for Hong Kong, Hans Zimmer’s wonderful and powerfully-evocative accompanying score is a powerful and moving sequence of themes that make for fantastic background music when I’m writing. And there are plenty of other worthy examples, the most intriguing of which are the film scores in my collection attached to motion pictures I have never seen. To call these ‘soundtracks’ is surely almost inaccurate, for they are here simply albums of music in their own right. If one’s whole experience of a soundtrack is simply a long and happy flirtation with the music on its own terms, should it still therefore be shackled to that unknown piece of cinema? Below, I provide two of my favourite examples: two entirely different albums of musical mastery that evoke in me entirely different feelings than they were perhaps intended to elicit.

Sex Power

Music by Vangelis Papathanassiou

The soundtrack’s striking album cover hints at the story to this rare film.

I know I wouldn’t be the only one introduced to the musical mastery of Vangelis through the equally excellent Carl Sagan PBS documentary Cosmos. The 13-part series utilised much of the Greek composer’s work, most notably the 3rd movement of 1975’s Heaven And Hell album for the theme. The program alone provides a good cross-section of Vangelis’s eclecticism, from his trademark explorations into electronica to sweeping orchestral sounds and hauntingly-beautiful use of choir. Heaven And Hell along with later Albedo 0.39 and Ignacio, albums that Cosmos viewers would hear as they travelled from the shores of the cosmic ocean to the backbone of night, all demonstrate how the long-celebrated composer is equally at home creating more commercially-attractive melodies that would become well-known cinematic themes (Blade Runner, Chariots Of Fire, 1492), to dramatically-spartan experiments in sound – echoing metallic thumps giving way to ethereal chimes and frantic piano chords – no less captivating than their more harmonically-constructed counterparts.

A great many of these trademark sounds were in evidence five years earlier, when Vangelis composed his score for Henry Chapier’s art-house exploration into youth, reality and love, entitled Sex Power. The film would never be seen again following its debut at the 1969 San Sebastian Film Festival (at which Chapier won the Silver Shell Award for his efforts) until its DVD release in 2010. The soundtrack however, was given a limited release on LP by Philips in both France and Greece in 1970 and although only marginally rarer than Sex Power itself for decades, gained a growing audience thanks to the rise of recordable media and unofficial bootlegs.

While viewers are now having to decide whether the film itself was worth the wait, opinions are less divided on the music, serving almost as a black box recording of the feature for nearly 40 years. Having seen only the first 8 minutes of Sex Power (previewed on a French website), I’d prefer to abstain from judging for now. However, I have listened to and loved the film score ever since I was able to track down a copy some four years ago. From the reverberating keyboard offsetting an almost visceral scraping of metal-on-metal into an unaccompanied, yet insistent quasi-tribal drumming of the introduction, to the hauntingly-beautiful Mediterranean acoustic guitar melody reappearing in multiple forms across the album, sometimes accompanied by Vangelis on piano and a small choir peppered with swirling keyboards and spangling percussion, Sex Power offers many of the sounds Vangelis would continue to develop and repeatedly delight music fans with for decades to come.

Sex Power offers many of the sounds Vangelis would continue to develop and repeatedly delight music fans with for decades to come.”

Alain Noury stars as the young man on a journey of sexual awakening, where the lines of reality and unreality are blurred.

Like many soundtracks, the chaos of the real world intrudes upon several pieces – doubtless making instant sense when viewing the film itself. Without that point of reference, the sputtering engines of race cars, police sirens, car horns, footfalls and muted clapping are an intriguing aural puzzle challenging the listener to create a coherent imagery that somehow makes sense of them all. Yet so too do the clanging triangles, gongs and industrial-sounding clatter – ominously demanding attention only to fall silent before a distant chanting heralds the gongs of an unspoken longing. Almost certainly one is listening to Chapier’s journey through the blurred lines of fantasy and reality his on-screen male protagonist must ultimately make sense of, but the ominous cacophony would work equally as well in any of Armando D’Ossorio’s Knights Templar zombie films. It’s tempting to think that Blind Dead composer Antón García Abril happened to be in San Sebastian that year, although the likely explanation is that we are hearing many of the sounds in vogue for Southern European composers of the period. Either way, its highly-distinctive character works wonders in both camps.

While the film itself takes place in America, the music – particularly independent of any visuals, is decidedly Mediterranean, with soaring choral motifs rising above the islands of the Aegean and gently swirling guitar strings underscoring life in a small town somewhere in the south of Italy. Worn red bricks and fading paintwork give way to a shimmering azure sea, filled with the soaring white sails of gently-wavering fishing boats. In between, insistent drumming and echoing cymbals evoke shadows and uncertainty in achromatic alleyways anywhere from Cagliari to Monolithos. Isolated from Chapier’s intentions, the essence of a world Vangelis grew up in rises confidently through the speakers, unfettered by the extra dimensions of the director’s commentary on life in the abstract. Perhaps the score is a perfect fit for Sex Power, but it is also perfect as is.

Fire & Water

Music by J.J. Burnel and Dave Greenfield

Out yonder, there is this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great eternal riddle at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking. The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation. – J.J Burnel quoting Einstein, ‘Liberation’, Fire & Water.

In 1983, film-maker Vincent Coudanne turned to eclectic British rockers Jean-Jaques Burnel and Dave Greenfield to provide a soundtrack to his never-to-be-seen work, Ecoutez Vos Murs (which either translates to ‘Listen To Your Walls’ or ‘Don’t Trust Babelfish’). [Update: not quite ‘never-to-be-seen’, it appears. Speaking on BBC Radio in 2011, Burnel explained that Ecoutez Vos Murs did indeed get a premiere screening in London upon completion. Its audience detested it so much that it was never inflicted upon anyone else. As it happens, the webmaster of the official Stranglers website has said he plans to interview Burnel about the album to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2013, so more information is forthcoming.] The premise of the film has long been lost in the mists of time, leaving only the soundtrack to offer any kind of clue, released as it was by Epic Records on LP under the title Fire & Water that same year (the long, overdue CD release finally appeared in 2008 on the Edsel label), retroactively becoming an experimental album in its own right for Burnel and Greenfield in between their regular contributions as bassist and keyboardist respectively for The Stranglers. Indeed, anyone familiar with the band’s highly-successful 1982 album Feline would not find Fire & Water such a massive departure – the former album relying heavily on the European synth stylings common to the period. However, whereas Feline was a pop album expressing The Stranglers’ take on the genre with a commercial bent, Fire & Water as a soundtrack to an art-house film is free to be far more experimental, the collection of tracks ranging from the recognisable three-minute pop song to long sequences of disconcertingly ominous percussion rhythms, melancholic piano and relentless keyboard swirls demanding an atmosphere of the uncertain and the bizarre.

Liberation begins the album, with a slow, creeping build up of bleak wailing keyboards leading to a catchy drum machine rhythm relentlessly drawing the listener into its clutches. Greenfield quotes Einstein (further putting question marks on the film’s storyline) and accompanied by the drums, the keyboards repeat an odd, rising, falling melody at times cheerful, at other times wavering yet insistent. The electronica having firmly set the tone, the album then launches into its one, bona-fide pop song, entitled Rain & Dole & Tea. A heavily overdubbed Maggie Reilly (often associated with Mike Oldfield) sings of an encounter with a young Englishman in Paris and the relationship that ensues. The vocals are treated so much that one can barely make out certain lyrics, however, it’s a very catching tune and the undisputed highlight of Fire & Water.

He promised me everything although he was poor.

But what use is everything if he just sleeps on the floor?

That the album half-metamorphosed into a work in its own right is never more in evidence than the subsequent track, Vladimir & Sergei. ‘The Chronicles Of Vladimir’, told through a succession of tracks that would mainly appear as Stranglers B-sides in the 80s, relates the very tongue-in-cheek adventures of the titular protagonist, once a happy and productive citizen of Communist Russia, who slowly begins to realise life in the secretive state is not all it seems. Losing his family to a case of ‘bread mould madness’, Vladimir, no longer deemed able to practice sub-nucleonic particle physics, is posted to a tractor plant and there meets the ebullient and well-travelled sailor Sergei. Intoxicated by Sergei’s personality and tales of distant lands, Vladimir develops a strong attraction to his new-found companion, only for the authorities to appear one evening to “cure him of his illness”. Vladimir & Sergei, featuring Burnel on vocals set to a simply, but jaunty Russian-style melody provided by Greenfield, consequently has little to do with Ecoutez Vos Murs but made Fire & Water an essential purchase at the time for those wanting to discover the next installment of the unlikely hero’s fate – today’s CD reissues of The Stranglers’ Epic-label discography have made this unnecessary. The fact that the completely out-of-place third part of the saga finds itself on Fire & Water seems to be a practical resignation that the album will be purchased only by knowing fans.

“The premise of the film has long been lost in the mists of time, leaving only the soundtrack to offer any kind of clue.”

Le Soir however is very clearly a soundtrack piece. Dark and brooding, with a menacing bass riff, aggressive keyboard melody and discordant, wailing synthesiser, it maintains a thick and oppressive atmosphere. The gloomy tone continues with Trois Pedophiles pour Eric Sabyr, eschewing wailing keyboards for hammering electronic drums, thundering through the speakers like heavy raindrops on a tin roof, before an oscillating metallic hissing gives way to equally dramatic piano chords, eventually slowing and growing ever more melancholic. The tense atmosphere is finally punctured in Dino Rap, another addition to round out the album. A short tribute to longtime Stranglers minder ‘Dino’ whom Burnel impersonates with tongue once again planted firmly in cheek.

If you’ve got a pony, I might tell you where it’s at.

If you’ve got a monkey, you’re sure to get the crack.

J.J Burnel and Dave Greenfield drag up for the album single, possibly giving potential listeners the wrong idea as to the lyrical content.

The lighter tone continues with the next track, as Burnel and Greenfield bring Einstein back into the frame with Nuclear Power (Yes Power). The result is a reverberating synth-rock wall of sound accompanied by barely in tune lyrics that recount the late scientist’s words with wailing irony. Detective Privee meanwhile returns us to Ecoutez Vos Murs, a sombre,  keyboard heavy melody set to Burnel’s deeply-intoned French lyrics. Greenfield rounds out the album with the almost hypnotic Consequences, another keyboard piece, though this time instrumental, with a series of arpeggios that ebb and flow finally, into silence. Owners of the CD reissue also get the bonus track single version of Rain & Dole & Tea, which in addition to being shorter, contains less overdub, allowing Reilly’s lyrics a greater clarity. Said clarity does however remove some of the original’s ethereal quality and smoothness, but this same difference makes it a more energetic contender for the hit parade of the day (if such things matter).

While Sex Power is a fully cohesive effort and 100% film score, Fire & Water is a somewhat haphazard affair suffering from a lack of direction as a result of the film it should have heralded vanishing without trace. It is a rough assemblage of tracks that clearly would not have seen the light of day anywhere else and are thrown together on Fire & Water for that very purpose, knowing that at least Stranglers fans, for whom the 80s was their most successful decade, would fork out for. All of which may sound as though I’m not terribly impressed by it, yet jumbled collection though it is, I really enjoy the album and find myself giving it a great deal of airplay. Its selection of moody synth and thumping bass is very atmospheric and enjoyable, with Liberation perhaps my favourite example, while Rain & Dole & Tea is a marvellous song. It polarises opinion within Stranglers circles as reviews on Amazon UK from where I purchased my copy demonstrate. Sex Power in contrast is, from beginning to end, a testament to a single, sustained vision and is all the more powerful for it. It is more than the sum of its parts, while Fire & Water is loose collection of excellent sounds and other experiments that didn’t quite work. Both albums are excellent, but enjoyed within two very different moods and atmospheres. As soundtracks, both have the ability to take me on that journey into new worlds independent of the films for which they were created, standing tall as musical creations in their own right. I will admit however, to being highly curious about one thing: who was Eric Sabyr and why did he need three pedophiles? Presumably, this is what Detective Privee was investigating.

Next Time

World On Film finally returns to its original mission reviewing films from across the world. The new ‘series’ as it were begins with the touching, yet overambitious Bahamanian romance-drama, Float. To get a taster, view the trailer below:


Phantom Power

Greetings. World On Film is currently taking a break from weekly foreign film reviews. During this time, I will be taking some short trips and sidesteps into matters closely or very distantly connected with the blog’s goal, but certainly always on all things film. This week therefore, I bring you…

Still Powerful

The famous unmasking scene: still powerful 85 years later.

85 years ago, audiences gasped with audible horror as Lon Chaney’s self-applied make-up was revealed to all by an unsuspecting Mary Philbin in the silent classic adaptation of The Phantom Of The Opera. Reportedly, Chaney kept the full extent of the prosthetics to himself before the actual filming for maximum impact, allowing for astonishment on both sides of the camera. The unmasking scene is still memorable to modern audiences – I was in my early teens when I purchased a fairly average print of the film on VHS back in the early 90s and remember being quite unprepared for the skeletal apparition that burst onto the screen. It was proof to me even then that the pre-talkies still worked for a modern audience.

“I was in my early teens…and remember being quite unprepared for the skeletal apparition that burst onto the screen.”

Film soundtracks were of course continuous in those days. Often, rather than specially-created and timely musical motifs designed to heighten certain moments of comedy and tragedy, they were a continual, live narrative that a theatre organist had to maintain throughout the entire duration, reacting instinctively to what they saw as it happened. I wonder if they were given advance screenings so as to get a feel for the unfolding visuals, or whether that first night was the true test of their abilities. At the same time, specially-written scores began to appear for the major motion pictures, with organists handed the sheet music they were to play. Doubtless, Phantom is an example of this.

The Opus 1680, built by Wurlitzer, and used by organists to provide the soundtrack to many an RKO picture, 'The Phantom Of The Opera' included.

Decades after the silent film was dismissed as little more than a laughable aberration of primitive technology, its extant fans gave birth to the alternative soundtrack. Ironically, perhaps the most famous of these is little more than serendipity: Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon album was declared an uncanny musical accompaniment to The Wizard Of Oz – something I have yet to confirm for myself, mainly because finding that scene where an extra supposedly hangs himself is little motivation for having to actually sit through what is probably one of the most overanalyzed cinema musicals of all time.

Everyone’s A Musician

The rise of youtube has of course meant that anyone with a passing knowledge of video editing can produce short mashups that totally alter the meaning of the original subject matter. Inevitably, they’re hit and miss, but there are some really thought-provoking and of course genuinely hilarious results, such as Disturbing Strokes:

“The rise of youtube has of course meant that anyone with a passing knowledge of video editing can produce short mashups that totally alter the meaning of the original subject matter.”

Enter Rock, Enter Rick

Universal brought Technicolor to the Phantom. Several years later, the masque scene would be computer-coloured, though as yet not the whole film. Does it need to be?

Far more interesting, however, are musicians who intentionally ‘re-score’ a film. This is precisely what prolific keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman set out to do in 1991. Phantom Power was specifically designed to be played along with the original Phantom Of The Opera as a modern take on the ancient swirling organ lines of another era. Wakeman’s efforts were, in some ways, a distant musical forerunner to the significant contemporary efforts of comedian Paul Merton, who regularly tours Britain screening classic silent comedies at their correct speed to the tune of a modern organist’s improvisations. It’s an interesting attempt, given that most people tend to disregard pop culture roughly ten years before their birth as too distant to have any relevance. Merton’s ongoing success with his screenings proves that it’s simply a matter of putting yourself in the right frame of mind.

Phantom Power was however a commission from Universal – or rather the music itself was, as the album features only 51 of the 90 minute continuous score. This early 90s print, which comes before the speed-corrected version that would be released on dvd the following decade, is filled with scratches, and tinting has been applied to all but the famous colour scene of Erik in full Red Death regalia.

“[‘Phantom Power is] a modern take on the ancient swirling organ lines of another era.”

Wakeman albums of the late 80s/early 90s frequently centred around the KORG synthesizer. Pictured: a KORG M1 circa 1988.

The audience is therefore faced with what is already quite a different Phantom of the Opera before the soundtrack is even considered. I am not a fan of colourisation for colourisation’s sake. It ranks up there with remaking foreign films simply for the sector of audience who declares they go to movies ‘to relax, not to read’. Restoration work involving picture clean-up and speed correction on the other hand, is an example of the ways technology can be put to great use. It’s hard to take a film seriously when everyone on screen seems to have ADHD, especially when physical acting has to convey so much more due to the absence of sound.

Anachronism

Earlier, I mentioned that the Wakeman sound was intended as a ‘modern take’, and so it is – for 1990. Rock as we know sees major stylistic shifts every 10 years or so, but you can literally pinpoint the period when synth keyboards are involved. It’s almost hard to believe that the late 80s/early 90s faux vibraphone and harpsichord were as in vogue as one could get at the time, yet they are now just as anachronistic and primitive-sounding as the computers that powered them – the eternal evolutionary punishment for digital hubris.

An example of Universal's colourisation, or tinting as it should more accurately be called.

Thus is the soundtrack as much out of time as the film itself, yet far more ephemeral: as always, until there is a synthesizer for every epoch, only organic music can survive the generations. For many, watching a silent film already requires placing one’s self into a particular frame of mind, so far removed is it from the cinema of today. 20 years on, we now have to employ schizophrenia in order to suspend disbelief in three different time periods: 1925, 1990 and whenever subsequently you’re attempting it.

“It’s almost hard to believe that the late 80s/early 90s faux vibraphone and harpsichord were as in vogue as one could get at the time, yet they are now just as anachronistic and primitive-sounding as the computers that powered them – the eternal evolutionary punishment for digital hubris.”

Accompanying the ironically retro keyboards to create a rock ensemble, we also have bass, lead guitar and a drum kit. Vocals are provided by longtime Wakeman colleagues Ashley Holt (first heard on the album Journey To The Centre Of The Earth), Chrissie Hammond (of the band Cheetah), and, reaffirming the keyboard virtuoso’s prog rock roots, opera tenor Ramon Remedios. Not only is this a Phantom soundtrack with vocals, but clearly defined songs in between descriptive synth mood pieces. Thus does the music only partially attempt to match the action on-screen, while the songs themselves are more thematically tied to the story as a whole and the dominating character of the Phantom himself:

Everybody knows him

Everybody shows him

Every door is locked

But still you get a visit from the Phantom

'The Myths & Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table' - one of Wakeman's signature concept albums.

The presence of Ramedios also means a number of significant gear changes throughout. Holt’s husky tones swap intermittently with Hinde’s higher, but no less powerful vocal thrusts through definitive period-Wakeman rock pieces, in between which, Ramedios appears with several self-contained arias. Occasionally, he’ll be accompanied by Hammond, who is more rock than opera singer, but certainly pitch-perfect. She also gets behind the microphone for softer ballads, such as ‘You Can’t Buy My Love’. To say that there’s a lot going on in Phantom Power is an understatement: the budget may not have stretched to more than the most basic of sound equipment, but the ambition is clearly evident.

Having heard just about all of Rick’s catalogue at some point, I would place the quality of the music somewhere in the middle. He is best-known for defining the prog-rock genre in the 70s as part of the supergroup Yes and his own concept albums – most notably The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, and The Myths & Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table. These and several other efforts are in my opinion absolute masterpieces, not only of progressive rock, but of true creativity and musical wonder. I’ve been listening to Journey as far back as I can remember listening to anything, and it’s still provokes a sea of emotions from wonder and fascination to delight and fear. Phantom Power in contrast has many good moments, is performed with technical prowess and contains a number of interesting ideas, but it simply doesn’t evoke that level of feeling.

“I’ve been listening to [Wakeman album] Journey To The Centre Of The Earth as far back as I can remember listening to anything, and it’s still provokes a sea of emotions from wonder and fascination to delight and fear.”

But in purple, I'm stunning: the Ted Turner legacy.

It certainly makes for an unusual soundtrack and traveling back to that Universal soundstage of 1925 to the tune of half rock-opera, half rock album is indeed…schizophrenic. I’m definitely in two minds about how successful the project was, at the very least. The two eras don’t really mesh as they should, although there were times when I forgot about the music entirely and concentrated on the visuals. This is when you know a film score is doing its job. The rest of the time, I found myself carried away by the music. One could argue unfamiliarity to a certain extent: if all silent films were scored in this fashion, it wouldn’t seem so jarring. At the same time, however, I don’t the songs help and completely clash with what is being attempted on screen. While you may not hear any dialogue, the actors are still speaking and clearly progressing through a sequence of actions within the story. The sudden lapse into song literally feels as though you’re in the middle of a conversation while a third person is simultaneously trying to interrupt with their own perspective on the same topic. The lyrics are even more disruptive when the dialogue cards appear. Since there are other sequences where the music attempts to mirror the action, the overall effect is a little disjointed. Perhaps stronger overall direction would have reminded all concerned that they were meant to be producing a film score rather than a rock album would have prevented some of this audio-visual discord.

The lyrics at times are also a little annoying and repetitive. The words ‘phantom’, ‘phantom power’, and ‘the phantom of the opera’ are chanted unnecessarily across several songs – possibly an unconscious nod to the Ted Turner idiots who need their films colourised, although more likely an unsubtle attempt to build up the drama. Equally annoying are the words ‘the phantom is still alive’ repeated with great urgency by Ramedios as Lon Chaney flees through the fake streets of Paris at the film’s climax. We know he’s still alive. It’s a silent film, not a radio program. The fact that it’s Ramedios evokes that repetitive declaration one might find the norm in opera, however to support this view would be to let Wakeman off the hook.

“The two eras don’t really mesh as they should, although there were times when I forgot about the music entirely and concentrated on the visuals. This is when you know a film score is doing its job.”

Mob rule: the Phantom releases Christina as he is pursued through Paris.

Since Phantom Power the album is a polished song-driven concentration of the full score, it therefore has to be evaluated on those terms. ‘The Visit’ is probably my personal highlight (from which the above lyrics can be heard). The simple, yet effective and powerful bass-driven rock melody is memorable, and given extra menace by the vocals of Ashley Holt, though he’s also good on the softer, but moody ‘Evil Love’. The entirely instrumental ‘The Stiff’ gives the listener a good idea of the musical score one hears between songs across the full 90 minutes, although the equally instrumental ‘Sand Dance’ is the less nondescript of these unaccompanied offerings. Finally, despite the repetitive vocals, ‘Rock Chase’ is probably my favourite track to feature Ramon Ramedios (it features all three vocalists), perhaps because of the urgency of the piece, designed to accentuate that memorable climax.

'Phantom Power': the album.

Despite its many flaws, I find myself warming to Phantom Power with each successive listen, which in turn only supports my belief that much of the problem was jarring unfamiliarity. This does not excuse the many times Wakeman ignores the action on screen, the dated instruments, and the fact that he has definitely been more creative than this. It’s certainly too anachronistic to replace the traditional organic sound audiences are used to, but at the same time, it is, as I said at the very beginning, an interesting idea, an experiment that was worth attempting. Its creator can’t help the fact that it’s now about as contemporary as Milli Vanilli, especially since this ultimately is what he was asked to produce. On balance, the end result is as flawed as it is enjoyable. Since it felt so far removed from the original film, I don’t think it really changes my perspective on The Phantom Of The Opera. Perhaps the best tribute I can pay it is that I’d rather listen to Phantom Power any day than the overblown pretentiousness of the Lloyd-Webber musical. Now there’s someone who really did miss the point.

*****

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