In the big bad world of motion picture morality, there is a never-ending battle between good and evil. From the very foundations of the artform to the recent hits that bring audiences to their feet, heroes and villains are the reason for cinema’s lasting impact. They may not always be visible, and there are times when post-modern philosophies try to blur the lines between virtue and vice. Still, the war between ethical factions rages on - in dramas and action spectacles, horror narratives and standard morality plays…and linked in lockstep are the composers and musicians who make the differentiation between pro and con all the more recognizable. Indeed, aural symbolism works wonders in keeping the often cloudy contour between nice and nasty in check, and if it can add a little atmosphere and mood to the overall experience, then all the better.
This time out, Short Ends & Leader’s Surround Sound will look at three recent soundtracks that take the notion of white hats and black hats all too seriously. First up is the non-hit parade version of one of NBC’s biggest flashes in the pan. Luckily, the ladies behind the music make a much more profound (and lasting) impact. Similarly, a sedate update of a true terror sleazepit is buffered by a brilliant score from an unsung cinema MVP, while various tunesmiths see their work for a certain Bruce Wayne reworked by one of Eastern Europe’s most accomplished orchestras. Together, they take the notion of what constitutes merit and what emphasizes meanness and turns it into a jolting journey through the soundscapes of your own complicated perception, beginning with the brilliance that is:
Heroes: Original Score from the Television Series [rating: 9]
For many Prince fans, the contributions of Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman are crucial to the Purple One’s rise from studio savant to stadium superstar. They were pinnacle personnel in his band, The Revolution, and were literally instrumental in helping him achieve mass media prominence with many of his main ‘80s albums. But rising tensions caused the duo to leave their one time collaborator, and the rest is half-rumored history. While His Royal Highness went through a symbolic phase and continues to struggle for commercial parity, Wendy and Lisa have found cult success with a series of “solo” albums, as well as working on the score for the film Dangerous Minds
. When NBC phenom Heroes
bowed in 2006, the pair provided the sparse, ambient backing. Now collected in a soundtrack compilation, their contributions to the series mark an important development in both their professional direction and the concept of what constitutes television composition.
Tinged with Eastern flavor and running the gamut from straightforward and symphonic to ethereal and excessively moody, the work Wendy and Lisa offer for Heroes is nothing short of astonishing. Bringing everything to the table from their rock and roll roots to the slightest bit of blue-eyed funk, these unquestionable artists understand the inherent need to fuse drama with dynamics when backing a show of this style. Everything, from the eerie opening “Title” to the longer tone poems like “Peter”, “Claire”, and “Mohinder” (most of the songs here are themes for specific characters and/or show elements) effortlessly move between cinematic styling and aural splendor. Other highlights include “Kirby Plaza”, “Skylar”, and the terrific triptych “Jessica/Niki/Gina”. By the time the disc ends on the splashy “Fire and Regeneration”, we feel like we’ve traveled to a mystic land within the world, a place where sound fuses with significance to make the entire process seem important and oh so entertaining.
The Last House on the Left: Original Motion Picture [rating: 9]
He’s offered his composition skill to some of the best, most ambitious movies of the last ten years, from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels
to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later
. Yet few outside these cult titles know John Murphy - and that’s a shame. Aside from Snatch
and Miami Vice
, he’s never been part of a monster mainstream hit, nor has his haunting, evocative scoring shown up on a brassy popcorn treat. Instead, he’s slowly worked to make his name as a writer of intense, interesting backdrops. One of his best comes from the unlikeliest of sources - a remake of one of the ‘70s most controversial and crude exploitation classics. Indeed, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left
remains a notorious video nasty, as much for what it actually accomplishes onscreen as for the unforgettable ad campaign asking audiences to remember “it’s only a movie.” While the revamp definitely suffers in comparison, Murphy’s musical contribution is amazing. It’s one of the best horror scores ever.
This is a soundtrack that takes the position of locational substitution, placing us directly into the line of fire and inside the fear and danger of the film’s frightened characters. Random piano arpeggios underline the fatal, depressing nature of the crimes to come and throughout, the atmosphere is increased by frequent atonal blasts and moments of frigid silence. Beginning with the “Opening Titles”, and treading through an amazing set that includes “The Pool”, “The Boathouse”, “In the Woods”, and “Are You Ready to Be a Man”, Murphy prepares us for the terrors to come. By the time we experience the awful aural truths of “Killing Paige”, “Saving Mari”, and “John vs. Krug”, Last House on the Left has become a kind of radio play. We can see the shivers in our mind, witness the struggles between the innocent and the wicked. With “The End” putting a poetic, ambivalent cap on all the mayhem, the result is something sonically incredibly. For anyone interested in ambient music with an edge, Last House is a score to savor.
The Music of Batman Performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus [rating: 7]
They are such cultural linchpins, snapshots of cinema from the various decades they helped define, that it was only a matter of time before the Batman
movies (as well as the seminal ‘60s TV series and recent animated reinventions) would get their own kind of aural scholarship. With contributions from compositional giants like Danny Elfman, James Newton Howard, and Hans Zimmer, this compilation of all things Dark Knight offers the Prague Philharmonic covering all the caped crusader bases. We even get the highly effective work of Shirley Walker and Christopher Drake on the cartoon version of the masked vigilante. Of course, a little orchestral bombast can go a long way, but with the polished performances and brilliant sense of scope provided on this releas, the results more than speak for themselves.
Things begin with the most recognizable. When they arrive, it’s amazing how well known and culturally significant Elfman’s work on the Burton Batman really is. The CD offers cuts including the “Theme”, “Flowers”, “Love Theme”, “The Joker’s Poem”, “Clown Attack”, as well as “Up the Cathedral” and the creepy “Waltz with Death”. Things shift significantly, both in quality and ability to entertain outside the cinema with Elliot Goldenthal’s work on the far less effective Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Of course, things return to greatness when Howard and Zimmer amplify what’s epic about Batman Begins and the smashing Dark Knight. These final two selections, offering the cuts “Eptesicus” and “Aggressive Expansion” show how well Christopher Nolan redefined the comic book hero epic. The rest of the material, from Mask of the Phantom, Gothic Knight, and the ABC kitsch classic (including Nelson Riddle’s big band vamp for the eventual film adaptation) act like end notes to a symphony constructed out of Victorian swells and classical gas. It’s all so outsized and tonally terrific.