Surround Sound: Mix It Up!

It is safe to say that there are several kinds of soundtracks, each type geared towards exactly what the filmmaker wants or the narrative needs. Some act as nothing more than metaphysical mix tapes, complications collecting the various pop music tracks secured for a marketing tie-in release. To call it commercial would be stating the bloody obvious. Others act like subtle supplements, doing little more than emphasizing the storyline or subject matter inherent in a film. For these ethereal attempts, the slightest sonic breeze might simply blow it all away. But some scores are wholly reflective, capable of offering the listener an inner mirror. They provide a resource for mimicking the moviemaker, turning their vision into the sonic serenade heard over the Cineplex speakers.

In this edition of SE&L‘s regular look at movie (and occasionally, television) scores, we see a 50/50 split between instrumentals and individual songs. One example of the cinematic hit parade is nearly perfect. Another suffers from a significant lack of performance diversity. In the simple composition department, however, both collections illustrate the mood merry nature of the aural backdrop. Sometimes, the sonic presentation alone is enough to sell you on an otherwise unknown quantity. There are even cases when it’s better than the film being featured. We begin with a buoyant blast from the past:

Caddyshack: Music From the Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

After the wild success of Animal House, the National Lampoon gang – Harold Ramis, Douglas Kenney and buddies Chris Miller and Brian Doyle-Murray were approached about a follow-up project. Many wanted to tackle their memories of working as caddies for the snooty restricted gold clubs in their neighborhoods. The studio suits wanted more anarchic gross out sophomoric hijinx. What they got was a clever cult combination of the slacker linkster mindset and more trendy toilet humor. Given its massive hit status and continued consideration as some manner of classic, it’s amazing to think that the soundtrack (featuring a certified smash by Kenny Loggins with “I’m Alright”) was never really released to the record buying public. Now, with the inclusion of the interesting orchestral cues from composer Johnny Mandel, and the always welcome addition of Al Czervick’s favorite Journey song, Caddyshack has its long awaited, limited edition CD reissue. For many, it might not have been worth the wait.

The first cut is illustrative of why this half and half album might not be everyone’s cup of Long Island Iced Tea. Loggins gives us the treacle-laced troubadour sing-along theme, rife with recording gimmicks and sonic stunts. Then we are treated to three more tunes from the songsmith, none of which really stand out or demand basic Billboard attention. “Lead the Way” is lame, “Make the Move” is minor, and “Mr. Night” misses the mark. By the time we get through Steve Perry and the boys and an obscure track from The Beat (“There She Goes”, not to be confused from the pop perfection of the similarly named song by The La’s), we’re done with all the attempted chart-topping. Luckily, Mandel’s Casio influenced backing breaks up the monotony, reminding us of seminal sequences like “The Marina”, “The Big Bang”, and “Divine Intervention”. With the added element of some one-off tune from Hilly Michaels (“Something on Your Mind”), the experience is complete. Sadly, no version of Ty Webb’s immortal “I Was Born to Rub You” is available.

Leverage: Soundtrack from the Original Television Series [rating: 7]

TV shows are certainly striving to one-up their frequently lagging cinematic cousins. For the most part, they meet the artform halfway, finding performers and ideas that match the outsized conceits of film without truly mimicking the medium’s craft and artistry. The latest example of this almost good enough ideal is the Timothy Hutton vehicle Leverage. Poised as a modern day Robin Hood, using his gang of con artists, computer hackers, and professional thieves as a means of taking from the corrupt corporate rich and giving back to the lowly common man, the Oscar winner (for Ordinary People) has found a nice niche, playing cool and clever inside a huckster combination of Mission: Impossible and CSI. Produced by former Friend of Roland (Emmerich), Dean Devlin, there is a satiric genre pose to the project, one easily exemplified by the choice of Joseph LoDuca as main musical mastermind. This is the guy behind Sam Raimi sensations The Evil Dead, and The Evil Dead II, as well as dozens of definitive TV work. He doesn’t disappoint here.

Sure, we initially balk at all the Ocean’s “X” jazz riff rip-offs present, as if such sonic stuntwork will get us to buy into Leverage‘s cool cat concepts. It really doesn’t work, though tracks like “Main Titles”, “What I Do”, “Can’t Go Home” and “An Honest Man” do have a nice, naughty novelty to them. Many of the selections here could best be described as snippets, something like “Surprise” lasting only 41 seconds, while others (“Losing Underpants”, “Mumbai International”) clock in at just over a minute. Indeed, it is the more fleshed out pieces that really impress, the delights of “Do You Remember?” and “Tank Fight” making the otherwise minor efforts of “Out of Tricks” and “Elevator Bomb” appear acceptable. Overall, LoDuca is definitely locked in a weekly TV formula, desperate to find ways of managing a mammoth pile of musical material. For the most part, he truly triumphs. Leverage may be a less than original revamp of an old school storyline, but the background provided keeps things upbeat and lively.

Whip It!: Music From the Motion Picture [rating: 9]

It’s just not fair. This movie should have been a MONSTER hit. It should have jumpstarted Drew Barrymore’s stage two career shift into a bankable mainstream director. It should have proven that actress Ellen Page and the rest of the lovely grrrl power cast could carry a moneymaking commercial hit. Even better, it should have jumpstarted a brand new obsession with the decades old sport of roller derby. In all its tattooed tart tricks and fierce feminist empowerment, Whip It! was, and remains at its core, a sensationally entertaining film. Why it failed at the box office is anyone’s guess. It certainly couldn’t be for the way Barrymore (a first time feature maker, that’s a given) handled the use of music in her movie. As the magnificent mix-tape style celebration of sonic subterfuge indicated, the soundtrack of Whip It! is as wonderful as the film itself. It’s anarchic, rebellious, sweet, and oh so special.

Like the greatest hits of a local indie record shop, things start off with the terrific “Pot Kettle Black” by Tilly and the Wall. We then jump into the equally exciting old school swagger of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” by the Ramones, and then “What’s the Attitude’ from Cut Chemist featuring Hymnal. From then on, the Breeders bring the noise with “Bang On”, while the brilliant Raveonettes serve up the stunning aural assault of “Dead Sound”. As the 19 songs build in power and performance, as they veer and swerve from “Boys Wanna Be Her” by Peaches to the glorified grace of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, we marvel once again at Barrymore’s brazenness. Who else would pay tribute to Southern songsters .38 Special (“Caught Up in You”), positioning them right along with Goose (“Black Gloves”) and The Ettes (“Crown of Age”). By the time the Chordettes clash with The Go! Team to set up the celebration of everything the movie stands for, we are instantly won over. As one of the best compilation of this or any year, Whip It! deserves respect and recognition. Why it didn’t get it in theaters is still shocking.

Armored: Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 8]

As half-baked heist flicks go, Armored apparently had little to offer to the Award Season movie going public. Seen as counterprogramming to the over-abundance of prestige pictures flooding the Cineplex in December, this otherwise average action film couldn’t find a friendly demo willing to work with its unknown director (Nimrod Antal) and eccentric cast (including Matt Dillon, Jean Reno, and Laurence Fishburne). Clearly, the general consensus was to reserve judgment on the effort until a more viewer-friendly format could be found (read: wait until DVD). At least composer John Murphy has nothing to be sorry for. His efforts for Armored are, like most of his work, iconic, inspired, and intriguing. Responsible for much of Guy Ritchie’s creative canon (Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch) and one of Danny Boyle’s best (28 Days Later), the UK artist delivers another excellent aural backdrop.

Following the action packed genre he is working in, Murphy makes the most of hard driving electronic beats and bumpers. Tracks like “Armored Truck Chase” and “Get the Kid Out of the Truck” crackle with tons of tunesmith energy. Elsewhere, equally evocative selections like “Ty’s Decision”, “Federal Reserve”, and “Stashing the Cash” add to what is perceived to be an atmosphere of tension and thriller suspense. Sometimes, Murphy can repeat himself, the various songs featuring central character Ty (“Ty Escapes”, “Ty Saves a Cop”, “Ty Runs”) getting massive mileage out of very similar styles, and when dealing within a specific cops and robbers categorization, certain sonic bombast givens have to be expected. Yet in the end, when the entire soundtrack has been sampled, one gets a nice, almost complete sense of closure. Murphy is one of the few musicians who seem to be working to garner a “big picture” appreciation of the title he is hired to underscore. While Armored may not have sizzled with film fans, the musical backing here is well worth a listen.