Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Apr 22, 2009
Heroes: The Television Series/ The Last House on the Left/ The Music of Batman

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 and Sunshine. 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.


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Apr 7, 2009
Monsters vs. Aliens / Crank: High Voltage / Sunshine Cleaning

There are two kinds of musical scores in movies - those which do their damnedest to announce their presence and participate in the stories/scenes/scenarios being offered, and those that are content to sit back and act like scented candles in an overall atmosphere of shared experience and communal creativity. The former tends to make up the vast majority of today’s musical output, composers so concerned about the next job that they have to make their sonic status good and known less the next skilled craftsman take their place. We see it all over the mainstream movie dynamic, from the underrated Danny Elfman to the overrated John Williams. The latter, on the other hand, is far trickier to get a handle on. Rock and roll icons like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Blur’s Damon Albarn can step out of their bandmate mode and give subtle, signature sounds to even the largest project, while the genre’s biggest names continually revert to the same old pomp and cinematic circumstance.


This passive-aggressive act is perfectly illustrated in this installment of Short Ends and Leader‘s soundtrack overview, Surround Sound. In looking at three recent releases, we find illustrations of both flash with little substance (Monsters vs. Aliens), electricity with more fuel than any film should have (Crank: High Voltage), and the kind of subtle softness that balances support with symbolic shimmer (Sunshine Cleaning). Oddly enough, in two of the three cases, the studios have decided to “accent” these offerings with the same old canned pop charts chum that’s supposed to act like a kind of instant recall. While they work in one (Cleaning), they really undermine the epic earnestness another is attempting. In all three situations, however, we can literally see where ego usurps artistry, and where a need to be recognized is measured against the ability to truly support a motion picture paradigm. We begin with:


Monsters vs. Aliens - Music From the Motion Picture [rating: 6]


It’s tough for composers to make the transition from assistant to featured player. It’s doubly difficult when you’re moving from creator of additional music (for movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Kung Fu Panda) to producing the score for one of 2009’s possible blockbusters. That was the assignment given to Hans Zimmer protégé Henry Jackman. The classically trained UK artist who once collaborated with known pop music producer Trevor Horn, was asked to take on Dreamworks CG spectacle known as Monsters vs. Aliens. Following the tale of an everyday bride struck who grows 50 feet high after being struck by a meteor (she is then kidnapped by the government and secreted away with other so-called “creatures”) the assignment required Jackman to balance the needs of the narrative with the overall campy nature of the project. And just to make things a tad more interesting, he had to make room for a myriad of mandated “classics”, tunes taken in to suggest the 1950’s foundation for the set-up.


If Mars Attacks! and Wolfman Jack had a baby, the bizzaro world offspring known as the Monsters vs. Aliens soundtrack would be the result. Part b-movie schlock, part playlist from an out of touch studio exec’s IPod, this perplexing combination of score and songs gives sonic schizophrenia a new name. On the one hand, Henry Jackman does a marvelous job of matching the movie’s inherent camp with his over the top marathon orchestrations. Nothing here is small, not even the moments where the music drops down to supplement something sad or dramatic. Instead, numbers like “A Giant Transformation”, “A Wedding Interrupted” and “The Battle at the Golden Gate Bridge” literary excite the speakers with outsized action film scope. Then, just as the backdrop is promising something truly grand, we are taken aback by moldy oldies like “Tell Him” (by the Exciters), “Wooly Bully” (from Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs) and that Dr. Demento benchmark, “Purple People Eater”. We expect there to be some bows to ‘50s fluff when it comes to a movie named Monsters vs. Aliens. What we don’t need are the same old Happy Days jukebox tracks shoved down our sensibilities.




Crank: High Voltage - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]


When I arrived in theaters three years ago, no one knew what to make of Crank. It starred up and coming action adrenal gland Jason Statham and was helmed by a pair of aggressive upstart who referred to themselves by the last name novelty Neveldine/Taylor. Working on the neo-noir premise of a criminal with 24 hours to find the people who poisoned him, it was a video game gonzo trip into a wild ride world of testosterone, stunts, and scantily clad women. With an ending that suggested a possible (if highly improbable) sequel, and a growing cult following thanks to DVD, the inevitable update is here. On the negative side, the studio (Lionsgate) won’t be bothering to show the film to critics. That’s never a good sign. On the positive, however, is the sensational soundtrack from Faith No More’s/Mr. Bungle’s brilliant Mike Patton. Like a retarded rave on hallucinogenic, this multi-track masterwork is what contemporary composition is all about.


Like a kitchen sink gone psycho, this all inclusive sonic smorgasbord runs the gamut from balls out rock, ridiculous electronica, pure punk posing, and slinky lounge lizardry. There’s buzzsaw riff riots and overcharged chill outs o’plenty. Over the course of 32 astonishing tracks, Patton plays both participant and provocateur, giving Crank: High Voltage its necessary zing. You can practically see the cinematics propelling “Juice Me”, “Ball Torture”, “Shock and Shoot-Out”, and “Car Park Throwdown”. Elsewhere, Patton puts his own unusual spin on situations such as “Organ Donor”, “Porn Strike”, “Surgery” and “Epiphany”. For those used to the typical faux rock chug of the noxious nu-metal tracks that supposedly suggest brawn and battlements, the score for Crank: High Voltage is an astonishing ear-opener. It argues that, sometimes, a more avant-garde approach to aural backdrops is far more fascinating that more mock Marilyn Manson. Here’s hoping Patton continues is the realm of reel music making.




Sunshine Cleaning - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]


When Michael Penn broke out of his famous brother’s shadow in 1989, delivering his debut album March and the MTV hit single “No Myth”, few could imagine the eventual path his career would take. Over the course of seven albums and numerous guest stints, he’s developed an oeuvre both instantly likeable and quietly insular. Current married to pop chanteuse Aimee Mann and working on films as well as his own self-released LPs, Penn has been responsible for the music in movies by Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights) and actor Alan Cummings (The Wedding Party, Suffering Man’s Charity). Now comes his work on the indie effort Sunshine Cleaning. Sharing the soundtrack with a group of neo-novel navel-gazing tracks that tend to mimic the movie’s moxie and sense of spirit, Penn delivers a likeable collection that takes its own sweet sonic time before settling it to assuage your soul.


If you liked plucked acoustic guitars, ethereal strings and keyboards, and a symphonic style that sounds like Carter Burwell channeling a college alt-rock station, you’ll adore Michael Penn’s ambient score for the recent indie quirk fest. The story of ladies working as crime scene clean-up “specialists” demands an equally idiosyncratic soundtrack, and the former hitmaker (with some help from Golden Smog, Ken Andrews, Electrelane, Bodega, Ernie Miller, and David Majzlin) turns in a lovely set of aural signatures. Each individual beat, from the laconic limits of “CB Radio and Resolve” to the buoyant beauty of “Some Ice Cream” defy easy description. More like tone poems than actual tunes, Penn plays around with character and time signatures to keep us off balance and emotionally connected. Standouts include the moving “Trestling”, the atmospheric “Trailer Park”, the personal themes for “Joe and Oscar” and “Rose and Mac”, and the terrifically tender “Mrs. Davis”. If there is one weak link, a moment so unnecessary it almost sinks the entire project, it’s the inclusion of the superfluous ‘70s stalwart “Spirit in the Sky”. Penn creates his own spirituality. We didn’t need this novelty bit of Bible thumping to amplify Cleaning‘s cosmic aura.


 


Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Wednesday, Mar 18, 2009

As we’ve stated before (yes, we know you’re sick of it by now) action and horror get a bum rap, mostly for some very wrong, very narrow-minded reasons. Like a gut-busting comedy, critics like to believe that both are dead easy. They also believe they have been rendered unexceptional, by filmmakers who don’t really give a damn, or actually don’t know how to. They point to the endless string of shoddy productions, mangy motion pictures that put the last two words in that phrase up for debate and make their asinine assertion. The truth is, terror and thrills are perhaps the most difficult cinematic responses to come by, and that’s because, like humor what scares someone or pushes them right to the edge of their seat is a completely personal and subjective ideal. What horrifies one might make another laugh, and visa versa. Still, the studios keep trying, and by doing so, fulfill the pundit’s prophecy in ways only a cash hungry conglomerate can achieve. Desperate to keep their moneymaker in the public eye, they will literally do anything to drum up publicity.


Perhaps this explains the exploding editorial mailbox recently. As these films come and go from the Cineplex at an alarming speedy pace, SE&L and Surround Sound have been inundated with soundtracks - lots and lots of soundtracks. In the last few weeks alone we’ve received over 20, and many of them have been for efforts that were marginal media sensations at best. One has to wonder what studios see in releasing the scores for such sonic non-issues as The Unborn, The Uninvited, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans (not once, but in two DIFFERENT versions). Sure, last installment’s Watchmen double hit made sense since Warners clearly thought it had a mega-hit on its hands. Now, with the Zack Synder triumph underperforming, it’s clear that contractual obligations, not a realistic view on a soundtrack’s substantive qualities, dictate the pressing of a promotional disc. And such legalese is clearly the case here. There is no other reason these marginal musical offerings should see the CD light of day, beginning with: 

The Unborn - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]


Some ideas seem stupid from the get go. Others take their time in revealing their ridiculousness. For writer/director David S. Goyer, there seems to be a clear distinction between the merely banal and completely braindead. As a scribe, he’s lucked into some decent affairs (Dark City, Batman Begins, Blade II). As a director, he’s helmed some of the worst hackneyed garbage this side of a Charles Band production (oddly enough, Goyer worked for the schlockmeister during the ‘80s). Zigzag was tired, Blade III literally killed off the franchise, and The Invisible was like Ferris Bueller’s Unfunny Undead Day Off. Still, trailers for the recent The Unborn seemed to indicate a change in Goyer’s filmmaking fortunes. Part Jacob’s Ladder, part demon child spine tingler, it took the promise of a tired premise (the evil unborn twin) and tweaked it for a CG-13 demo. Sadly, the results only reaffirmed the man’s well-meaning mediocrity. Even with a star studded cast, Goyer just couldn’t get his gruesome groove on. The score for The Unborn indicates the hopeless hit or miss reasons why.


It all begins with a very X-Files-like title track, a bunch of odd electronic beats providing the backdrop to a combination of synthesizer squawks and symphonic cues. As the tune moves along on a set of staccato melody mounds, we’re not sure if we’re in for a fright flick, or a potboiling political thriller. Luckily, the next three tracks - “The Glove, “Jumby Wants to Be Born Now”, and “Twins” take us where we need to go. Composer Ramin Djawadi’s modus operandi seems to be a combination of the lax and the overly loud. Tracks like “Possessed” will start out with slow, subtle signatures only to explode near the end with abrasive, abrupt orchestrations. There’s lots of nods to the composer’s broadcast past (Djawadi is responsible for scoring the entire run of FOX’s Prison Break), and you can even hear a bit of Batman Begins and Pirates of the Caribbean in the mix (the man was responsible for additional music for both films, among others). By “Bug” we anticipate the tracks overwhelming cacophony of atonal terrors. But then The Unborn slips back into sinister lullaby mode, mixing small note piano lines with eerie sonic washes. Still, “Sefer Ha-Morot” is wild enough to wake-up even the drowsiest dread denizen - and not necessarily in a good way.



The Uninvited - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]


Critics love to complain that horror films are formulaic and derivative. If you’ve seen one, you’ve basically seen them all. That makes a fright flick remake doubly desperate. Not only is it representative of an already stereotyped genre, but it’s repeating an idea already done - and typically, a lot better. Still, when it was announced that American fans would finally see a Western take on the unfathomably popular Korean chiller A Tale of Two Sister (good, but not as great as some have indicated) there was reason to be both wildly excited and wary - especially with the Guard Brothers behind the lens. Sadly, the movie didn’t make much of an impression on reviewers or the audience. While it had the standard strong opening weekend, it soon faded off the cultural landscape to make way for more terror tales like remakes of Friday the 13th and The Last House on the Left. For composer Christopher Young, the lack of success is not that unusual. As the musician responsible for the sonic backdrop to solid shivers like Hellraiser, Species, and The Grudge, he can only be responsible for the aural aspects of fear. Unfortunately, he’s hooked up with some really subpar cinematics - especially this time around.


From the very beginning, Young seems lost in a homage-heavy backdrop. There are hints at his previous stints with the Cenobites, references to Stanley Kubrick and his ethereal 2001 score, as well as the typical electronic throb one associates with John Carpenter. Soon, the entire soundtrack has a thematic clarity that clashes with these recognizable references. Young is obviously going for the small and simple juxtaposed against the symphonic in scope. The title track is all low whispers and single key strokes. By the time we get to “Christmas Corpse”, the obvious elements are in place - banshee like female trills, single instrument droning, the regular chug of a sparse orchestra. In between, “Twice Told Tales” has a nice piano clarity, and “Terror on the Water” is big and brash with lots of ambience. Still, if there is one thing you can count in with a horror film, it’s derivativeness, and Young’s work here definitely fits that pattern. The Uninvited may have been a cinematic disappointment for the scary movie maven. The score does little to bring anything new or novel to the mix.




Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 3]


Of all the videogame titles sitting out there waiting for a big screen adaptation, bringing back a beloved golden oldie from the early ‘90s seems foolhardy, especially when the mortal combat console effort was already the subject of one shoddy film. Yet the producers of Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li must have felt strongly enough about the material to give the failed franchise a second chance. Without Jean-Claude Van Damme and the late Raul Julia around to mess things up, director Andrzej Bartkowiak (Romeo Must Die, Doom) had a chance to make his own mark on the material. Sadly, the film underperformed so badly that many in the demo didn’t even know that there was a new Street Fighter movie in theaters (it’s still playing in some markets, believe it or not). Of course, once you hear the tired soundtrack submitted by Stephen Endelman, all questions about this offering’s inefficiency are easily answered. If the film is anything like the strangled, stunted score, a series of skyscraper like banners couldn’t earn the fanbase’s attention - or appreciation.


Endelman, who actually received a Grammy nomination for his work on 2004’s De-Lovely, is what you would call a film industry fringe dweller. He’s been involved in numerous projects, both noted (Flirting with Disaster) and nominal (Phat Girlz), but nothing that would distinguish him from a dozen similar soundtrack composers. His work on Street Fighter feels like a marginal movie fan’s idea of what a Hong Kong martial arts epic would sound like. There’s lots of rhythmic drumbeats and random bell noises. The orchestra wanders around the tribal tones, offering recognizable riffs before switching over into boring, bombastic mode. We are supposed to see our heroes in flashy fisticuffs while “Chun-Li vs. Bison” and “Bathroom Fight” careen out of control. But Endelman also wants to go for the emotional, with tracks like “The Montage” and “Reunited with Father” failing to provide much of said sentiment. With the howling hip-hop happenstance of “Arriving in Bangkok” (the city should sue), and slinky salsa like stumbles of “Following Balrog”, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li is all over the map. The only locale it doesn’t locate is somewhere memorable.



Underworld: Rise of the Lycans - Original Score [rating: 5]


Here’s an interesting question - how does a composer compete with a studio set on making their latest movie a backdrop for a bunch of unsigned indie idols? Put another way, does someone like Paul Haslinger, a musician responsible for b-movie bedlam in such titles as Death Race, Crank, and the stellar Shoot ‘Em Up (he was also a member of seminal synth act Tangerine Dream from 1986 to 1990) really mind that his score comes second to a bunch of nu-metal nonsense. A few weeks back, Surround Sound took on the pop hit oriented version of the Underworld 3 marketing machine, and were not too impressed. The remix heavy hackwork, replete with bands whose names read like discontinued titles in the Anton LeVay Self-Help Collection, was definitely not worth remembering. It would be nice to say that Mr. Haslinger redeems the project by bringing his classically trained musicianship to what is basically a horror film with outsized action epic pretensions. Unfortunately, except for a track here and there, this score is as silly and near irredeemable as the movie it is meant to supplement.


Granted, there are times when Haslinger gets its right. “The Most Precious Thing to My Heart” has a wonderfully evocative ambient quality, and “Court Battle Suite” is as sonically silly and over the top as it sounds. It’s also a gratuitous guilty listening pleasure. But for the most part, Rise of the Lycans believes in that “blast, and then boredom” ideal that is supposed to invoke movement and power and yet ends up sounding like someone fell asleep on the ‘volume’ switch. Tracks like “The Arrow Attack”, “The Wolves Den”, and “Storming the Castle” all huff and puff like a formerly retired stuntman, while others meander around in a haze of half-realized electronic drones. Haslinger does indeed evoke emotion and mood with his work. We can sense the menace throughout. But there is so little actual melody here, no matter if it’s buried in “Lucian and Sonja’s Love Theme” or “Sonja’s Trial and Execution” (talk about spoilers!) that it’s hard to appreciate the effort. Only the last piece, a remix of the title track, does anything truly interesting or involving with the material. Oddly enough, it accomplishes this by taking Haslinger’s bravado down several sizable notches.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Tuesday, Mar 10, 2009

Movies about big ideas require big scores. Films about larger than life individuals also mandate music to match. There’s a fine art to making sonic mountains out of melodious molehills, a true gift that few composers have, and few longtime artists can maintain. Certainly audience familiarity and fondness can ruin/resurrect a career, and there are certain aesthetic and stylistic conceits that follow any musician when they respond to the call of their muse. But the true titans of supercharged soundtracks, names like Elfman and Williams, find ways to challenge themselves as well as the listener. Mr. Oingo Boingo is often known as the man who made Batman dark and diabolical, but his recent score for The Kingdom was a wonderful bit of experimental ambiance. Similarly, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer have been hammering out the same bombastic backups for years, but as with last year’s incredible The Dark Knight, it works within the right context.


This time out, Surround Sound looks at the recent almost-phenomenon that is Watchmen. We dissect both Tyler Bates’ contributions as well as those cultural lynchpin pop songs chosen to represent the parallel USA of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. In both cases, the results are less than stunning. We then go back to one of the original cinematic stalwarts, the man in the funky fedora carrying a bad-ass bullwhip. John Williams will always be much more than the sonic side of the Spielberg/Lucas money machine, but there’s no denying his iconic help in solidifying both men’s amazing oeuvres. Newly minted with material not previously available on CD or MP3, the Indiana Jones films (the important efforts from the Greed Decade only) are their own unique entertainment experience, thanks in large part to the incredible abilities of the man responsible for their familiar epic sweep.


But let’s start with the recent attempt at broadstroke heroics. As Watchmen proves, not every comic book champion has a signature sound to amplify their importance:


Watchmen - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]


As the first certified controversy of 2009, the lack of critical consensus over Zack Snyder’s Watchmen has been interesting to observe. Those who love it embrace the faithful translation of the famed book. Those who hate it clearly expected something more than what was on the screen. In between are opinions ranging from acceptable to awful, with many divergent judgments falling smack dab in the “no particular point one way or the other” middle. Many have hinted that the lack of “epicness” in Tyler Bates score is one of their chief disappointments, and it’s not hard to see why. As the mastermind behind the soundtracks for other Snyder efforts (including Dawn of the Dead and 300), there is a sense of unnecessary nepotism at work, and while some of his efforts for other directors (Rob Zombie, Neil Marshall) have stood out, Watchmen is just not that interesting. Indeed, when most of the music sounds like leftovers chopped from healthier compositions, you know you’re in trouble.


Fluctuating wildly between heavenly choir pomp and subtle, almost inconsequential circumstance, Bates’ score for the much anticipated adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel is underwhelming and often underdeveloped. After the requisite hero histrionics of “Rescue Mission”, insignificant snippets like “Don’t Get Too Misty Eyed” and “Tonight a Comedian Died” underlie the music’s lack of impact. “Silk Spectre” gets things back on track, if only because of its Danny Elfman-like flourishes. Indeed, it seems the longer the effort, the more substance it has. As one works through the 21 individual pieces, it’s clear that Bates had little thematic clarity. Indeed, the best bit comes right at the end, when the composer drops the stereotypical spectacle and goes for the heart. “I Love You” is a wonderfully evocative experience, a lone guitar picking out a plaintive melody that seems to drift along, accenting everything that’s come before. It makes up for the meaningless grandstanding of something like “Requiem” (which borrows from Mozart of all things).




Watchmen - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]


Oddly enough, the big problem with the actual score for Watchmen manages to cross over and condemn the collection of pop culture hits used as a backdrop to the movie’s main narrative as well. It’s not just a question of poor choices - it’s the idea that, within the vast realm of ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s music available, Zack Snyder decided that these were the indicative songs of the era he was trying to evoke. And they just don’t do the job. When a fan can sit back and pick better tracks than the one’s compiled, there’s an inherent flaw in the formulation. Granted, there are some interesting choices (“Pirate Jenny” by Nina Simone, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen), but for the most part, a panel of VH-1 inspired soccer moms with limited exposure to either the time frame or Alan Moore’s novel could probably come up with a similar set of sonic cues.


After the noise nonsense that is My Chemical Romance’s ridiculous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Road”, Watchmen jumps over Nat King Cole (“Unforgettable”) to deliver its sole genius decision. Using Mr. Zimmerman’s ode to cultural progress, “The Times They Are-a-Changin’” works perfectly within the storyline being set-up, the montage meant to bring us up to speed on the entire masked avenger idea, and the numerous historic events being referenced therein. It’s so inspired in fact that later attempts at the same thing with tracks like “The Sound of Silence” or “All Along the Watchtower” seem subpar. Elsewhere, K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “(I’m Your) Boogie Man” is hollow, and the randomness of “Ride of the Valkyries” offsets the depth derived from a modern classic conceit like Phillip Glass’s “Pruit Igoe” and “Prophecies”. Still, Snyder understands the inherent mood created by these songs. Some are clearly used to enhance atmosphere and little else.




Raiders of the Lost Ark - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]


How John Williams, a Julliard trained pianist and composer went from tacky TV themes for The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space to the man behind such magnificent blockbuster scores as Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Superman is an amazing story in and of itself. Getting his start with Henri Mancini and contributing to the works of such luminaries as Bernard Herrmann, and Jerry Goldsmith, the man responsible for the Mystery Science mainstay Daddy-O (his first solo film credit) became an Academy fixture when his work on Valley of the Dolls was nominated in 1967. By 1971 he had a coveted Oscar (for adapting Fiddler on the Roof for the big screen) and had given Irwin Allen’s disaster flicks The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno their popcorn buzz. But it would be neophyte upstart Steven Spielberg who turned Williams into a hummable household name. After working on The Sugarland Express together, the duo delivered the seminal shark tale to a eager Summer of ‘75 public, and the rest is motion picture mythology.


By ‘81, Williams was the go-to guy for the growing Spielberg/Lucas mega-movie empire. Even lesser films like 1941 would see his amazing musical hand in collaboration. When the Hollywood heavyweights decided to pay homage to the Saturday matinee serials they grew up with, Williams was tagged to give the action opus its jingoistic charms. The resulting theme for Indiana Jones, and his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, managed to push the artist into another commercial realm all together. As he had previously with other cinematic characters, Williams created a sonic signature that, even today, offers a kind of instant recall for the icon being preserved. In the person of Harrison Ford, Jones and his first adventure became an instant classic. Naturally, Williams was back for installments two and three (and four, if you’re counting the recent Crystal Skull stumble among the representative efforts of all involved).


Williams was also responsible for what might be called the ‘soundtrack album experience’. Instead of offering one or two recognizable tracks, almost everything he writes becomes a memorable sonic experience. During Raiders, selections for sequences “Escape from the Temple”, “The Map Room: Dawn”, and “The Fist Fight/The Flying Wing” have their own individual recognizability. It’s an effect carried over to Temple of Doom (“Slalom on Mt. Homol”, “Children in Chains”), and The Last Crusade (“Keeping Up with the Joneses”, “The Canyon of the Crescent Moon”). Williams functions in compositional wholes, of making characters thematically clear and aurally symbolic. It does lend itself to a kind of reasonable repetitiveness that makes his scores so undeniably rock solid. And perhaps the best thing about the newly rereleased remasters of these soundtracks is the inclusion of material left out in previous editions. Getting to hear three new tracks on Raiders, ten on Temple, and seven on Crusade makes the experience that much more fulfilling.


Indeed, Williams work here is without comparison. He’s truly the gold standard of such high pitched bravado. The moment his Indiana Jones theme kicks in, we know we’re in for a wild rollercoaster ride of cheesy thrills and action—packed chills. Elsewhere, he evokes the mystical elements of each story quite well, be it the Ark of the Covenant (“The Well of Souls”), the sacred Shiva lingman rocks of India (“Approaching the Stones”) or the actual holy chalice of Jesus Christ himself (“The Keeper of the Grail”). Though his work is often oversized and stratospheric in scope, Williams never gives in to the excess. His compositions always seems compact and complete, not a single note out of place, not a single cue overcompensating.


While it helps to be working with some of the most talented filmmakers in the history of the medium (good melodies have to have visuals to cement their staying power), Williams walks the fine line between necessary contributor and stand-alone star. No wonder his scores for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Las t Crusade are so timeless. Even in truncated (and now expanded) versions, they speak of one man’s undeniable talent, and his essential assistance as a part of the motion picture equation.



Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA
Monday, Jan 26, 2009

All over the world, from Bombay to Jackson Heights, NY to Southall, London, to Kuala Lumpur, more than 200,000 people listen to Indian film music a year, and over 70% of what they’re listening to is written by the same three men: Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani, and Loy Mendoza. On film credits, they’re billed as their team name, “Shankar Eshaan Loy”, just like a corporation.  As big as these three have become, they practically are one. 


Their name alone exemplifies the best of modern India, Shankar, a Hindu, Ehsaan, a Muslim, and Loy, a Christian. They’re a part of the dynamism and success that evolves from a secular, progressive country.


In the past six years, they’ve reinvigorated the musical genre in India.  Gone are the arcane, traditional village folk melodies of previous generations that accompanied many scenes of buxom heroines frolicking along the Western Ghats. Waves of immigration over twenty years have made the audience more global, more attuned to varieties of musical styles and sensibilities.  Hip-hop, alternative, techno, and the old-fashioned Broadway score, have become incorporated into the songs of Hindi films diversifying the sound and emotions contemporary Indian pop culture.


The songs of Shankar Ehsaan Loy have the extraordinary ability to unify masses of scattered people in different countries and of different generations through common melodies that are infectiously catchy and irresistibly singable.  Half the listeners don’t even speak or understand the Hindi lyrics of the songs.  But people, regardless of cultural background, know a good song when they hear one, and Shankar Ehsaan Loy have prodigiously churned out several in the short span of only half a decade.



The Essential Shankar Eshaan Loy:



Mission Kashmir (2000)
Love amidst the blood-soaked beauty of civil war-torn Kashmir.  The film itself was a compelling blend of heaving machismo and romanticism, like crossing parts of Rambo with Dr. Zhivago, but the score was haunting and otherworldly.  From the achingly wistful lullaby, “So Ja Chanda” to the famous folk serenade, “Bumbro” performed by resplendently costumed Kashmiri dancers, the songs wrap you around in a dreamy haze.


Dil Chata Hai (The Heart Wants… - 2001)
Farhan Akhtar’s debut film about the love lives of a group of three close friends facing the anxieties of what to do with their lives after college touched a raw nerve among Indian teens in the way Say Anything and The Breakfast Club spoke to the youth market of the late 80s.  The songs are wildly eclectic and catchy: the rousing club anthem, “Koi kahe kehta rahe,” the romantic banter sung to the strains of a deegiree-doo in “Jaane kyon,” the joyously playful movie nostalgia piece, “Woh ladki hai kahan” to the soaring title song, the soundtrack was inventive and fresh and different from anything ever heard in Indian movies.


Kuch Naa Kaho (Don’t Say a Word - 2003)
This slightly better than average romantic comedy about a single mother finding true love is one of those movies that proves that a gorgeous score can save a movie. The partnership of the three composers with the éminence gris of lyricists, Javed Akhtar was seldom as rapturous and lush as it was here.  The Old World court poetry of ghazals set to contemporary pop and disco melodies made for an eclectic blend of love songs and serenades.  The rapier “battle-of-the-sexes” banter of “Baat Meri Suniye” has a Cole Porter cleverness, while the dance tune, “Tumhe Aaja Maine Jo Dekha” is at once energetic in beat and tender in romantic longing. 


Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come - 2003)
The great, epic NRI (non-resident Indian) movie.  The Kapur family of Queens, with their emotional squabbles over marriage, money, and the future, their closeness with their friends and community, became a representation of us in our struggles to stake out an identity in the West while still retaining our Indian heritage.  The wistful title tune, “Kal Ho Naa Ho” is gentle nod to mythic move ballads of the past, “As Time Goes By,” and “Three Coins in a Fountain.”  But the most endearing, winning song is the boisterous wedding finale number, “Maahi Ve,” now played in every Indian wedding party in every hotel ballroom.


Bunty aur Babli (Bunty and Babli - 2005)
Bunty and Babli is a playful crime caper, like Catch Me if You Can, where we’re rooting for the young con artist in spite of his callousness and naivete. The film follows a couple of teenage runaways on their Robin Hood escapades, hoodwinking corrupt government officials and slimy petty thieves, all of whom deserve the childish humiliation they receive. The songs are sublime; the best kind of musical storytelling that propels the narrative as well as enlivens the film. The pulsating call to adventure, “Dhadak Dhadak” that opens the movie, the irresistibly bouncy title theme, “Bunty aur Babli” and the famous, show-stopping rock-ghazal, “Kajra Re” are all unforgettable and totally appealing to everyone at a fundamental level of pure, joyous entertainment.


Don  (2006)
A very sleek, high-style crime thriller from Farhan Akthar, a remake of a 70s, pseudo-blaxploitation classic.  Superstar Shahrukh Khan takes on an early Amitabh Bachan role and adds his own distinctive shadings of personality.  The music is suitably sophisticated with brittle, hard-edged techno tones.  Songs magnificently showcase a character’s motivations and drives.  The lazy folk melody “Khaike Paan Banaras Wala” resurrected from the original film, is pumped up full throttle here, complete with a synthesized techno background and the nuanced vocal shadings of Udit Narayan.  The seductive disco piece, “Aaj Ki Raat” is at once mysterious and danceable, and the religious hymn to Ganesha, “Maurya Re”is brilliantly composed, sung, and staged complete with clouds of pink and orange dust, cymbals, and hundreds of street dancers.


Salaam-E-Ishq (Love’s Sweet Salute - 2007)
Love, Actually, masala-style. Converging stories of different couples struggling through relationships in Mumbai has a breezy, effervescent quality that’s wholly entertaining.  The eclectic song sequences are lavishly and lovingly staged by talented new director, Nikhil Advani.  The gorgeous, infectiously catchy title number, “Salaam-E-Ishq” is a crowd-pleasing extravaganza in the vein of the golden age of Hollywood musicals from the 50s with the entire cast lip syncing like mad on a spinning soundstage; the Trafalgar Square wedding serenade, “Tenu Leke” is outrageous fun, with the film’s matinee idol, Salman Khan, playfully hip-thrusting with sari-clad back-up dancers in front of Nelson’s column. And the pensive lament, “Ye Rabba” is tender and aching, and adds just the right note of melancholy to temper the film’s buoyancy.  The soundtrack is perhaps the most varied and virtuosic of the three composers, a startling showcase of their versatility.


Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (Dance, Baby, Dance - 2007)
A striving-for-edgy romantic comedy set in the South Asian immigrant borough of East London.  The filmmakers spent more time on creating the illusion of cool associated with the stars than on developing an actual plot.  The film’s only good song is the title song, “Jhoom,” but when it’s good, it’s incredible.  Inventive in melody and instrumentation, with a repetitive, Sufic trancelike beat that stays in your head for hours. It’s a perfect blend of hybrid styles, courtly Old World Persian, Indian Classical, rock n’ roll and Bhangra that exemplifies the borderless, dynamic quality of Shankar, Eshaan, and Loy.


Chandni Chowk to China (2009)
The trio’s first, mainstream, wide-audience based movie: Bollywood musical meets a Kung Fu action flick. Reuniting with Saalam-E-Ishq and Kal Ho Naa Ho director, Nikhil Advani, Shankar-Eshaan-Loy explore a variety of different styles to compliment the commercial vehicle of this new type of cross-over movie. There’s a slick, pop-like Michael Jackson quality to the title track, “Chandi Chowk to China” while the film’s memorable romantic scene, the two loves soaring among the night-lit skyscrapers of Hong Kong, Mary Poppins-style with a magic umbrella, is accompanied by the gentle, electronic synthesizer melody of “Tere Naina.”  But the best track, is the most traditionally minded.  It’s the simple hero’s theme music, “S.I.D.H.U.,” a pulsating, exhilarating Indian classical, earthy Punjabi paean to optimism.


Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.