Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Keeping (sound) track of the movies


NOTE: FILM COMPOSER JOHN BARRY’S DEATH ON JANUARY 20, 2011 PROMPTED THE FOLLOWING PIECE.

By Steve Crum

John Barry’s music coincided with, and helped perpetuate, my love of motion pictures. It was not until 1962 and Dr. No, when I was 15, that the movie score became integral for me in connecting with a given film.

That same year, Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence of Arabia soundtrack music cemented my appreciation for film music, which exists more than ever today. On a more subliminal level my fond recollection of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s compelling score for King’s Row dates to my preteen years, when I first saw the movie on TV. (OK, The Wizard of Oz and Disney animated musicals jam my recollections too, but we are talking scoring for non-musicals here.)

Realize too that until the dawn of Beta and VHS tapes, in 1975 and ’77, respectively, the only way to rent or “own” a favorite movie was via its soundtrack LP record. It is also true that one could, from the early 1950’s, audio tape an entire movie from TV, using a reel-to-reel tape recorder. This is something I did as well using my father’s machine, even though the tape would often run out before the movie ended. In those days, movies shown on TV were at least two decades old, not current like today. More extravagant budget types would collect movies, both old and relatively new, on 8 or 16 mm.

For the dollar challenged like yours truly, however, listening to a soundtrack album was the nearest thing to reliving a film recently seen in a theater. Listening conjured the movie’s images and dialogue, which was far better than relying solely on one’s memory. During radio’s golden era, pre-TV listeners did just that. They listened. From Charlie McCarthy to Jack Benny to dramatic programs like Suspense, listeners’ imaginations provided visuals to this solely audio medium. Radio writer/producer Arch Oboler called it, “Theater of the Mind.” (Many film composers, like Bernard Herrman and Jerry Goldsmith, launched their careers as composers for radio programs.)

Likewise, listening to soundtrack music triggers image and dialogue from any particular film--but only if the music is catchy, identifiable, and emotionally involving. The composer’s genius of interpretation and translation is key.

Plus, you could look at the album’s cover and liner notes to add to the illusion. A few albums included snippets of dialogue from the movie: The Odd Couple, along with Neal Hefti’s score; and Little Big Man, with a bountiful amount of dialogue, complemented by John Paul Hammond’s music, among them. Two LP’s were produced of the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton starring vehicle, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, based on Edward Albee’s play. One featured Alex North’s music only; the other, a double-LP, included all dialogue from the film. Both were simultaneously released by Warner Bros.

Record album tracks, like today’s CD tracks, were titled after specific scenes or themes. Barry’s Thunderball soundtrack album, for example, includes the track, Mr. Kiss-Kiss, Bang-Bang, a reference both to a character and a line of dialogue. Musical themes date back to the beginning of sound movies, even to silents. Max Steiner’s Tara’s Theme, from 1939’s Gone With the Wind, is by no means the first to emotionalize a person or thing (in this case, the O’Hara mansion). In 1915, D. W. Griffith’s silent classic, Birth of a Nation, included an original score by Joseph Carl Breil that was played by musicians in the movie theater during the film’s showing. Birth’s love theme was later adapted as the signature music for radio and TV’s popular, albeit controversial, Amos ‘n Andy.

Even without background music underscoring my words in this piece, surely my love for film scores is obvious.Of the 20 or so great film composers, my most admired and collected are a foursome: Elmer Bernstein, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith, and Bernard Herrmann. God knows there are also hours of Rosza, Williams, Copland, Korngold, Waxman, Mancini, Steiner, Elfman, and Jarre in my abode. Maurice Jarre, in fact, nearly makes the final four with his magnificent rendering of Lawrence of Arabia alone.

In the heyday of collecting, my soundtrack LP’s numbered at 600+. That number has been reduced, due to economic, technological, and space reasons. Still, there are about 150 LP’s resting upright in plastic protectors, in my closet. These remaining albums are the rarest of the rare, until iTunes or commercial CD’s replace them. My Jerome Moross-composed The Cardinal used to be a lost soundtrack until iTunes recently made it available again via download.

Autographed soundtrack albums are rare, but I do have a CD of the Civil War epic, Gettysburg, signed by composer Randy Edelman. What I would not give for the soundtrack LP of 1956’s Forbidden Planet, signed on the cover by its composers, Louis and Bebe Barron. Their electronically produced music, with a Moog-ish sound, is considered an ahead-of-its-time classic due to its “electronic tonalities.” I bought this rarity via A-1 Record Finders, approximately 40 years ago, as a gift for a close friend. When he unexpectedly died two years ago, the Forbidden Planet album was among the items either sold or kept by his cousins. Let us hope it was not part of a dollar a handful, garage sale. Or, worse yet, that it was discarded. If someone now owns it, he or she has a gem of a collectible.

The same goes for my late friend’s vintage, still-in-the-box, Forbidden Planet “Robby the Robot” toy. Heavens to Morbius!
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Sit back and savor these tributes to four of the greatest film composers of all time...

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