Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter

junocvrIn his music through all the past decades, one thing regards Vangelis’ music has been clear- for all its futuristic feel, thanks to it being primarily (albeit not exclusively) electronic in nature, the composer has always had one eye firmly on the past. His music has always had a classical, ancient bent, an inherent ethnicity that adds a flavour and colour all its own. The heart and soul of his Blade Runner score, for all its futuristic electronica, is in its sense of ethnicity, of a melting-pot of cultures and language: you can hear in the soundtrack all the visually diverse cultures seen onscreen, and the 1940s fashions and art deco stylings scattered amidst all the technological grandeur of the films production design; its all there in his score. Its the one thing that has, for me at least, kept Vangelis’ music standing quite apart from other electronica, and musicians like Jean-Michel Jarre, Tomita, Brian Eno or Wendy Carlos. The curious thing is that this perpetual nod towards the past –Mask, Mythodea, El Greco being the most obvious examples, but I think you can hear it in all of his work- has allowed a sense of timelessness to so much of his music.  I can go back to his 1970s and 1980s albums and they feel as fresh and ‘new’ as they ever did, and very often they just seem to improve with age, as if they were just waiting for their time, or for the rest of us to catch up with them. I listen to his 1975 album Heaven and Hell all the time, its like nothing else sounds remotely quite like it, and I also find myself returning to his 1990 album The City very often… both albums are hugely different from one another, but they share the same feeling, of being some artefact of both future and past.

So finally after the most curious release odyssey I can quite remember -certainly within the Vangelis catalogue, although I suppose the eventual (and repeated) release of the Blade Runner soundtrack possibly trumps it- we have actual physical copies of Vangelis’ latest project, Juno to Jupiter, in our hands. Some of us of course have been listening to this album since August last year, when an online store sold digital copies of the album on what had been the albums original planned release date. The album was quickly withdrawn from sale over that odd, confusing weekend when so many Vangelis fans were wondering what in the world was going on, but it left Vangelis followers in a curious position. Some of us were listening to and enjoying the new album, while others were left in the dark, frustrated.

While I suppose the album found its way onto torrents and spread wide on swashbuckling sites, I think some credit is due to those fans who respected Vangelis’ desire to hold back the album release, because I’m not aware of the album ever dropping onto YouTube for instance, and those of us who would ordinarily be posting detailed reviews etc refrained from doing so. I wrote a review at time, thinking I would be posting it in September on its rumoured revised release date, but that didn’t happen. In fact so many revised and rumoured release dates never happened, I began to wonder if it would ever get a release at all, and superstitiously deleted my review without ever posting it. Vangelis cancelling releases is hardly something new: I’m always thinking of the 2011 Qatar concert that was filmed for a DVD and CD release that never happened. While its bizarre that it would be over a year before the proper release ever occurred, at least Juno to Jupiter finally came out.

Which leaves me in the peculiar predicament of reviewing a ‘new’ album release which is quite old to me. Over the past year I have listened to this album so many times, with it often becoming a soundtrack to my workday since I’ve been working from home throughout the pandemic. Its as familiar to me now as all Vangelis’ albums; its lost that exciting, this-is-new feel that comes with every fresh Vangelis discovery. I’ve listened to it and recognised nods back to the Heaven and Hell music used for the Cosmos TV series, or the officially-unreleased Tegos Tapes and other little musical easter eggs scattered throughout its generous near-73 minute running time (as far as Vangelis releases go, this is some kind of epic in length at least). Unfortunately, while 73 minutes sounds wonderful, this is spoiled somewhat by just too many ideas being squeezed in, but more on that later.

jupiterjunoOne curiosity of Juno to Jupiter is that, contrary to its epic length, the actual music feels rather intimate and low-key. There are exceptions, of course, such as the 11-minute workout that is Zeus Almighty, but on the whole the album feels very restrained when compared to, say, the sprawling, huge operatic odyssey that is Mythodea, another of Vangelis’ works that just gets better and better with age. I mention  Mythodea because, like Rosetta, it shares a common theme to Juno to Jupiter, in that it is music written to accompany a real-life, actual space mission of discovery. In fact, one could almost consider those three albums as being a trilogy of sorts, and its clear that Juno to Jupiter is much more like Rosetta, sharing much of that albums approach and sonic stylings (inevitable, really, as they are two of his most recent works while Mythodea dates back to a 2001 release, and its music actually farther back than that, to at least 1993).

There is an ambient feel to Juno to Jupiter, each track transitioning to the next, the audio journey mirroring that of Juno itself. It makes for a very good listening experience, similar to how Vangelis would often rework his film scores into album releases, but conversely I think this may be the biggest weakness of this album, something I also felt true of Rosetta. Other than the aforementioned Zeus Almighty, when listening to this album I keep wishing Vangelis developed each track more, they each feel like little ideas that need development and stretching out, but instead they rather play out a theme or motif and then frustratingly ebb out into background noise to enable a transition to the next track. Its the biggest weakness of Rosetta, too, in my mind, with tracks that were not given sufficient room to breathe. I guess I just miss some of those big epics of the Nemo years, those tracks that were given time to stretch and breathe like the sublime Himalaya from his 1979 album China. I think its a genuine weakness of the tracks that they usually last about three or four minutes (some less than two, even) compared to the average of six or more minutes of those on Mythodea, for example.  

Which is not to say that Juno to Jupiter is a bad album. Its a very good album, and a very good listening experience, but its the individual tracks themselves that are weakened by Vangelis’ likely preoccupation with that overall experience and ensuring the flow from one to another (the transitions are largely very, very good indeed, its just a shame they conversely hamper the quality of the tracks themselves). I guess its largely something of personal taste, but I would have preferred fewer, but longer tracks, ones which shared the scope and breadth of Zeus Almighty. Instead, the generous album running-time is compromised by it squeezing eighteen tracks in -eighteen!-which leaves many of them feeling almost like sketches than the fully-developed tracks that Vangelis might have had on earlier albums. I’m sure many fans and purists are furious at my description of the tracks as sketches, and rest assured a Vangelis sketch is something very good indeed, with moments of genius nonetheless, but all the same, having sat with this album for twelve months, in just the same way as with Rosetta, for me there is something not quite ideal regards Vangelis and these shorter compositions, especially when so many are cut even shorter by the need to find passages to transition between the tracks proper. Compare the tracks on Juno to Jupiter to those of Direct, say, which all seem perfect and fully-formed, whatever length they really needed to be to proper realise their promise.

To be sure, there is some beautiful music here, and some of it is vintage Vangelis the likes of which it seems only the maestro can accomplish. The opening section is very strong -I adore Inside Our Perspectives, if only it could be stretched into an eight-minute workout, and likewise In the Magic of the Cosmos is a nod to Vangelis magic (sic) of old. The three tracks featuring Angela Gheorghiu as soprano are very strong and remind one of Mythodea, and I only wish the closing track In Serenitatem, which seems to gloriously harken back to the sublime Summit from China, could have been twice as long as it is. There isn’t really a bad track on the album, its just the balance seems wrong to me, it should have been fewer, longer tracks, but again, that’s likely just my own personal taste and affection for some of Vangelis’ masterworks of old. Its very possible that time will be kind to this album and its perfection will dawn upon me, who knows, its happened before with Vangelis’ music.

Glory expanded edition

glory1Christmas is coming early. I’ve been waiting for someone to do this soundtrack proper justice for years, decades, and here it is at last- one of the last James Horner remasters/expansions, I imagine, certainly one of the last few I’ve been holding out for. What is left, Field of Dreams and maybe the 2-disc Brainstorm? Yeah, I’m still hoping for the latter: it’d be ironic and strangely fitting if that soundtrack, the first James Horner album I ever bought (on the old TER vinyl), turned out to be my last one too. But its a crazy enough world, this Glory is proof enough of that.

I look forward to being able to write a review in a few weeks.

The Dune Sketchbook (Hans Zimmer)

dune sketchbookGiving us our first real glimpse of what will be the musical soundscape of Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune film, WaterTower music have today released the first of what will ultimately be three Dune albums from Hans Zimmer. This first one, The Dune Sketchbook, is a pretty substantial one, one hour and forty-two minutes of what I presume are sonically finished (they certainly are not demos), works-in-progress musings and expansions of themes and motifs that we’ll hear on the official soundtrack (released September 17th, apparently).

I’m not really one for buying soundtracks ahead of a films release; I remember hearing the The Empire Strikes Back album before it came out over here in the UK (I seem to recall it came out before the film did Stateside, too), and have found I much prefer seeing a film ‘fresh’ and experiencing the music at the same time as the rest of the film.

But the idea of The Dune Sketchbook seemed an intriguing one, and presumably much of what I’ve heard here will be different in the film and much of the actual score re: themes, motifs etc will be missing from this. Its also quite possible that these versions will be more rewarding than the official soundtrack counterpart, as these pieces are not constrained by the whims of film editing etc. and have been given plenty of room to ‘breathe’.

LOTS of room: some of these tracks are very long. The album has nine tracks but they are really each more lengthy musical essays or suites than simply ‘tracks’: the two best pieces, I See You In My Dreams and House Atreides are substantial: the first is eighteen minutes long and the other just shy of fourteen. I remember entire soundtrack releases totalling less music than that of just those two tracks. There’s some very good stuff in the other tracks (Pauls Dream and Moon Over Caladan spring to mind) while in others Zimmer slips into less easy-listening, experimental sound design, but its all quite fascinating stuff, even when it descends into the very weird. There’s an atmosphere to it all that is very promising: its not scoring in the traditional John Williams/Jerry Goldsmith sense that is sadly missing today, but it does have a clear identity and sense of self which is quite refreshing. That said, I’m sure people more familiar with Zimmer and his colleagues doing the ghost-writing will have fun picking out bits similar to earlier scores like Gladiator or Dunkirk etc.

That being said, I did sense a distinct Vangelis vibe to some of it, particularly the two standout tracks I mentioned earlier. I suspect Zimmer still had some of his old keyboards handy that he’d pulled out of storage for the Blade Runner 2049 score, because there is a Vangelis feel to some of those electronics weaving through the voices. Also reminded me of the Tron Legacy score (which itself nodded somewhat to Vangelis with its ‘old-fashioned’ analogue synth pads etc). Indeed, the voices that are a big part of the score’s soundscapes (at least the experimental workouts here) remind me of Vangelis’ work with Irene Papas: latter parts of the track I See You In My Dreams which feature a woman’s voice in an unknown (native Fremen?) dialect weaving through electronic drone reminded me of the Vangelis/Papas track Song of Songs from their Rapsodies album (which is a brilliant albeit obscure album) and also Vangelis’ See You Later album, in how Vangelis featured spoken and sung vocals in that album’s partly dystopian music. 

The House Atreides track breaks out into a bold anthemic piece that will inevitably remind some of Braveheart’s James Horner score (or indeed Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica music) but to me pointed almost directly to Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire score, particularly the triumphant swells of Eric’s Theme (possibly even more so in Vangelis’ re-recording album for the London play from a few years back). I’d never imagined music like this for the Atreides but it does make perfect sense; its noble, heroic, clearly signifying the hope and tragedy of what befalls them: an emotional quality totally missing from, say, the David Lynch film.

I’m not suggesting Zimmer is being a plagiarist here, its just that I’m hearing plenty that I like, especially as I’m such a huge Vangelis nut. This album is certainly worth a punt for those curious, and while I’ll be leaving the official soundtrack proper until I’ve seen the film, I’m sure I’ll be listening to this a lot in the meantime up to the film’s release. On the strength of this album I think its very easy to get just all the more excited regards what Zimmer has been doing for this film: it could be great. 

Really, at this point, is there anything negative one can say about Villeneuve’s film other than its a Part One currently without a Part Two? You can almost touch the hope and positivity about the film, its difficult not to get swept up by it. If this film turns out to be as great as it might be and still flops at the box office… ugh, I can’t bear to imagine.

The increasingly curious journey of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter nears its end, (almost…)

junoboxDecca have finally announced the release of Vangelis’ rather belated album, Juno to Jupiter, now scheduled on CD and digital download on September 24th, unless you’ve been waiting for the vinyl, as that’s not coming until February next year (that particular journey continues, then). Of course some of us who bought the somewhat premature digital release have been listening to it since last August, so its a rather strange instance here of getting excited about something that already feels like history. Still, it will be nice to be able to finally purchase it on CD and find out what my mate Andy thinks about it when he finally gets to listen to it. And hey, I may be able to finally write that album review.

Meanwhile, I wonder what Vangelis has been crafting in the meantime? One never knows, but we might be heading for one of those curious situations in which, having waited so long between releases, suddenly a few seem to come within several months of each other (presuming we’ll be lucky enough that Vangelis releases another album in 2022). I’d rather like to see a release of some kind or other based upon his score for the dance production The Thread, which was streamed last year, but we’ll see; the maestro has a way of confounding hopes and expectations.

Stories from the shelf (Part One)

shelfoneEvery shelf tells a story. Here’s the top shelf of a corner unit that contains many of my film soundtracks collected over the years (mostly the ‘premium’ limited expansions that I largely had to import from America). It possibly says more about how my brain works than anything else, as I clearly tried to make it alphabetical, or something, starting therefore with John Barry and a few titles beginning with ‘A’ then going somewhat astray. Lower shelves in future instalments will be all Goldsmith and Horner and Williams and more, but I’m going to start from the top and work my way down, so we begin with John Barry.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Barry, but I know many film soundtrack lovers are absolutely convinced he’s brilliant and top of the pile. One soundtrack I didn’t squeeze in here and probably should have is his soundtrack for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which is probably my favourite of his (and my favourite Bond film, too). I suspect the reason why that expanded CD isn’t on this shelf is because I’m not actually sure where it is…

You may find a recurrent theme going on, where notable absences come to my mind for the same reason.  I’ve been buying too many CDs for so many years, and part of the reason why I put up some more shelving last summer was to put my favourite and most treasured discs in one place so I know where to find them (this years project is to do the same with my books but hey-ho we’ll see how THAT goes). Part of the problem is that, once a disc is ripped onto my laptop/external hard drive, I can then listen to it often but without going back to the CD, so that disc actually gets untouched for months, years…

Anyway, back to this shelf. And Barry. My issue with Barry is likely the same reason his devotees are so devoted. Barry had a knack of finding a ‘killer’ theme and therefore compilation albums of his soundtracks are often very successful, but unfortunately (from my point of view) this would also prove to be Barry’s weakness in his actual full scores, and certainly score expansions on CD. Barry would write a wonderful theme for a film and then he would use that for most of the score, reworking it and re-orchestrating it endlessly. His fans adore this, I’m sure. My personal mileage varies so I only have select albums, and one or two even then only because I bought them in sales.

lion1This criticism, by the way, is possibly actually unfair, certainly in the case of the first disc here, The Lion in Winter, a film I haven’t even seen but I was recommended the score and yeah, its a wonderful piece of work. Some people refer to it as Barry’s Christmas album and that rather fits: its in a medieval mode, with choir and pomp and majesty. It features, typical of Barry, some simply magnificent themes (‘Eleanor’s Arrival’ is quite gorgeous, the kind of music that as soon as you hear it you stop what you are doing and purely listen, enrapt, and frustratingly this is one of those times where Barry doesn’t then reuse the theme continuously so my argument regards Barry comes undone). This is possibly my second-favourite Barry score. It dates from 1968, so its almost as old as I am (its aged considerably better).

dances1Second on the shelf is his immensely popular Dances With Wolves soundtrack, here the two-disc expanded edition from La La Land Records (a label you’ll see plenty of here, alongside Intrada and the late, lamented FSM) which was released in 2015. Soundtracks are often like Blu-rays, they seem to get released on anniversaries, something marketing boys seem to be fascinated by which endlessly irritates me. Disc releases of films seem to be delayed years in order to tie into some 15th or 20th or 25th Anniversary (the higher that number goes the more scared I become when its one I recall seeing it at the cinema). An interesting piece of trivia: Dances With Wolves was originally supposed to be scored by Basil Poledouris (of Conan the Barbarian and most pertinently, Lonesome Dove fame), but he backed out of it in order to fulfil obligations to his friend John Milius regards his delayed Flight of the Intruder film. Wolves would have been Poledouris’ break-out score, conceivably changing his career completely and fans of Lonesome Dove can only wonder at what Poledouris might have conceived recording the score for Kevin Costner’s hit Western. Poledouris’ career slid downhill after that, and the bittersweet sting in the tale is that Intruder got pushed back six months so Poledouris could have scored both after all. Life can be cruel. But then again, I guess Barry’s fans hear that story and grit their teeth thinking that they almost missed out on one of Barry’s most popular scores. Its certainly got some wonderful emotive themes and was a big part of the films success. 

Barry’s smouldering, evocative score for Body Heat follows: Lawrence Kasdan’s wonderful neo-noir is a fantastic film truly elevated by Barry’s moody score. Its possibly too repetitive (this is FSMs 2-disc expansion with full score on disc one and Barry’s original album on disc two with an added near-thirty minutes of theme demos that wears thin) but its so atmospheric, its almost like a sultry, smoky score of summer heat, which is exactly what Barry was aiming at. 

kongAnother FSM disc follows- Barry’s score for the 1976 King Kong. Back in the early 1980s, the vinyl album of this was in the bargain bins of record stores and I picked up a copy (as I recall it came with a poster): I was always seduced by that films poster art that was actually promising some other movie entirely (not the poster which FSM used, by the way, as they obviously intended their 2-disc edition to stand out from the original which FSM had actually reissued on CD a few years earlier). I didn’t see the 1976 film until several years later, when much of the music would make more sense, but the film always fascinated me because a paperback of the making of the film was one of the first books I ever read and one that really fired my imagination about movies and the stories about the making of them. So while this King Kong was really a disaster movie for all the wrong reasons, I’ll always have some affection for it. This Kong has something so typically Barry- an absolute belter of a love theme, and it sounds fantastic in some of its variations here in expanded form. Some of the action music is quite jarring and atonal but the romantic sweep of the love theme is quite timeless, Barry just had a gift for melodies like that (see also Somewhere in Time, Raise the Titanic and so many others). I will also just say that the track Kong Hits the Big Apple was a big-band number that was much derided by my freinds and I back in the day when we listened to the vinyl album, and it hasn’t really aged well since, but hey, it was 1976.  

Then we come to Barry’s The Black Hole score. Again, this was one I had on vinyl and it really suffers from Barry’s habit of just repeating ad nauseam a theme over and over. The Black Hole was an ill-fit for Barry; I don’t think this kind of space adventure flick was really suited to him, it was really John Williams domain and to be fair, even a great like Jerry Goldsmith possibly struggled at that kind of thing (although Star Trek: The Motion Picture is absolutely magnificent, but more on that later, as that’s a story for another shelf). I recall that The Black Hole was one of, if not THE, first digital recordings of a major film score., because they made a big deal of it on the cover of the album and in adverts I read in Starlog at the time (1979). In that respect, it seemed more something of the future than the actual music did. Its no disaster but I remember buying this expanded CD edition more out of a sense of nostalgia than a love of the music, although it is a pretty cool main theme (the heroic action theme is diabolical though, that REALLY didn’t suit Barry- Star Wars theme it isn’t). In hindsight the case of The Black Hole, and Disney so clearly trying to mimic the appeal/success of Star Wars, is really kind of funny when you consider that they spent over $4 billion buying the thing from George Lucas decades later- if you can’t beat ’em, er, buy ’em, seems to be the lesson of that story).

abyssThis post is getting too long already so we’ll skip on past a few Barry discs I bought in sales in order to instead dwell on Alan Silvestri’s score for The Abyss, here the expanded Varese two-disc edition that was something of a Grail of mine. I’m not a big fan of Silvestri’s scores, but I always loved The Abyss, score and movie. 1989: summer of Batman, soundtracks like Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade, Pet Semetary… soundtracks that were coming out on CD then, vinyl being a thing of the distant past. The Abyss was a suspenseful, dramatic and strange score, even if its Main Title owed an awful lot to the opening of James Horner’s Brainstorm. Temp music rearing its ugly head again, I suspect (I mean, that thing is a blatant rip).  

Back then I still bought soundtracks from shops, even though that seems something so long ago. I remember the Saturday I went into town and bought both The Abyss CD and Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels CD, listening to both of them late that night on headphones (Strange Angels has always been a personal favourite album, by the way, which is possibly why I remember that day so clearly- oh and two girls in the town who I think were trying to pick me and my mate Andy up, but I was too distracted (okay, ignorant) to pick up on it at the time, foolishly batting them off. I had odd priorities for a teenager back then and I placed nerdy concerns somewhere higher than girls).  

Varese’s original The Abyss album on CD was typical of the time, limited to about 40 or 50 minutes or so (which was pretty good, as many hovered around the 30-minute mark due to music union issues), certainly far from complete and missing some of the music I enjoyed in the film- so the deluxe version released in 2014 really was something special, so much so that I posted about it here at the time. A limited edition, as so many of these score expansions on disc are, I recently noticed this edition being up for sale at £150 on Amazon. Yikes. I dare say quite a few CDs on my shelves might be worth something now, or at least for as long as people have CD drives/players. 

how2Here’s where my filing of my CDs becomes a little eccentric. What follows on the shelf are a number of discs linked by the actor who stars in the particular films, rather than by the composer: Avanti!, The Apartment/The Fortune Cookie, Irma La Douce How To Murder Your Wife/Lord Love A Duck and Barefoot in the Park/The Odd Couple (regards those last two, the films in question are definitely NOT Lord Love A Duck or Barefoot in the Park, its just that those each feature scores for two films by Neal Hefti). The actor in question is of course Jack Lemmon, and these are films I absolutely adore, and they date from a period when film music was really quite wonderful, melodic and memorable: scores that are great, for great movies that star a great actor. The actual music is quite varied and the composers quite different in style, but generally seem to have great romantic themes that really soar: Carlo Rustichelli’s Avanti! is beautiful and timeless, and Neal Hefti’s How To Murder Your Wife has a love theme that just.. well, I fell in love with THAT theme back when I first saw the film many years ago, and it never ceases to amaze me that it ever came out on CD one day, and one that actually featured the full score as well as the original album on a second disc.  I think I was buying film soundtracks at a particularly fortuitous time: the last score for a Jack Lemmon film that I’m really holding out for is Prisoner of Second Avenue, another personal favourite film whose Blu-ray I can endlessly re-watch. Maybe one day.

silentNext disc on this shelf is Peter Schickele’s Silent Running. This is another CD that is pretty special to me. Douglas Trumbull’s film Silent Running has always been a particular favourite of mine and its ecological themes have only gotten more prescient as time has moved on, and Schickele’s score is one that sounds really quite unique: its very 1970s, featuring small orchestration with folk songs from Joan Baez that should really date it (maybe they do, but that only adds to the films strange charm). It was one of the films from which I recorded the music via tape deck and holding a microphone to the tinny tv speaker, and listened to the cassette with the music mixed with some dialogue and sound effects.

Many, many moons ago back in the 1980s I used to see the vinyl album in stores but I never bought it (pocket money never stretched that far), and when it went out of print I just thought it would turn up on CD someday (everything seemed to eventually), but it didn’t. I think the reason was that the master-tapes were lost or destroyed, so when Intrada finally released it on disc in 2016, it was actually a recording sourced from a pristine vinyl copy, and surprisingly, it sounds pretty damn fine.  Plenty good enough to me, considering I’d been pining for a release for decades at that point. Whenever I see this CD on the shelf I have a bit of a ‘pinch-me’ moment. 

doorostFinally, Marcelo Zarvos’ The Door in the Floor soundtrack: I love this music. Its one of those deeply emotional, rather dark and reflective scores… the film is a pretty bleak drama, really quite sad, being about the break-up of a marriage that being destroyed by the unbearable grief over the loss of two children in an accident (it stars Jeff Bridges, Kim Basinger and Mimi Rogers and is really quite good). Its one of those cases where the music is as integral and important as any other part of the picture. In this respect its like Vangelis’ Blade Runner: the score is the soul of the movie. Zarvos’ score is such a powerful work of longing and regret; to me it works completely seperate from the film the music it was written for. I suspect many will have never heard it or seen the film (it dates back to 2004, incredibly).

Crikey, this one went on a bit. Might have to pause awhile before I get around to the next shelf: Horner!

P1100355 (2)

Yes I know, ‘G’ (for Goldsmith) comes before Horner but there is a method to my madness…

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Soul (2020)

soulThis was a beautiful film. It looked beautiful (even for Pixar, this computer imagery is quite remarkable), it sounded beautiful (an interesting Jazz-infused score from Jon Batiste contrasting with electronic doodling from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) with a captivating script that felt refreshingly adult, not pandering to the young tykes in the audience as much as it might have. My favourite Pixar film remains the quite sublime Ratatouille but Soul runs it a very close second. I was quite taken by this one, and its really such a pity that it didn’t get the theatrical release it deserved, Covid forcing it to be premiered on Disney+ (quite fittingly, I suppose, on Christmas Day). 

Thankfully Disney don’t seem to have nixed physical releases just yet (perhaps seeing it as a way to recoup some of the losses of missing a theatrical distribution, or to get its greedy fingers into the pockets of those of us not yet enticed by its streaming platform) so through this 4K UHD release I’ve finally been able to watch it. I’m sure this is a film I will be watching many times in the future, its really quite wonderful. I’m not entirely sure it sticks the landing, the finale feeling a little ‘off’, but maybe a repeat viewing will dispel any doubts. 

Curiously, I only watched director Pete Docter’s previous Pixar film, Inside Out  once and never returned to it. I was quite surprised to read my old review of Inside Out and find that I really enjoyed it, because my recollection of the film remains pretty vague now (well, it has been five years and countless films under the bridge since), so I was perhaps unfairly a little cautious about Soul. Having seen Inside Out only once perhaps I should watch it again (if only I can find my Blu-ray; five years has a way of burying discs in the unlikeliest of places). Maybe I’ll be posting a re-review here when I manage to find it – at the minute it seems a job for Indiana Jones; I hope I’m not alone in discs disappearing without trace, but at times I can be searching for a film for weeks if not longer. Sometimes they never turn up, but they are in this house SOMEWHERE.

parentadvWhen the credits came up for Soul and I reflected on just how wonderful a film it was, I had the most curious train of thought. Maybe it was the Jon Batiste music score and the warm feeling that the film had infused in me, but I began to think how sad it was that Pixar never worked with Prince on a project. No doubt Prince with his track record (Parent Advisory stickers anyone?) would forever negate any possibility of him teaming up with an outfit as homely as Pixar or Disney, but that explicit content stuff dates pretty way back and Prince had moved on from that in his later years. I just considered what an amazing talent Prince was, and what he might have done musically if afforded an opportunity to work with creatives like those at Pixar or Disney. Or maybe I’m just wondering what might have been, had Prince not been so… Prince, in his later years. Because clearly few musical artists could amaze and frustrate his fans quite as much as Prince often would.

Its possibly because I’ve been reading Neal Karlen’s book about Prince ‘This Thing Called Life, Prince’s Life On and Off the Record’ (which is a very good book by the way) that I had Prince in my head at the time. Its the only explanation I can offer at why such a curious fancy struck me at that moment.

Thanks partly to the vacuum left by Prince’s untimely passing and the music from his vault released over the years since, some fresh perspective has been afforded regards Prince’s prodigious talent, strangeness and failings. I’m sometimes not at all convinced Prince was entirely human, he seemed to be on some other level, like a Da Vinci or a Mozart or a Einstein, and that judging him like the rest of us is unfair (or maybe that’s just a way of letting him off the hook for often being such a jerk).

Karlen’s book is very balanced, the guy certainly knew him as well as most could ever hope to- marvelling at Prince’s talent and rueing those disturbing failings, suggesting that the same talent that made Prince so great perhaps also destroyed him. Prince was a musical savant that was perhaps tortured by that same genius (the size of that vault of unreleased music gradually leaking out an indication of how obsessed he was, particularly in the 1980s with so much great music pouring out of him). There’s a few parts of the book in which Prince remarks about all the voices in his head, the endless creativity at his peak that stopped him getting much sleep… that’s a blessing and a curse, surely. Of course Prince wouldn’t be the only superstar whose success divorced him increasingly from normal life until he became an oddity, a contradiction and almost a self-parody of earlier heights. How can such a genius be such an asshole, is the same as asking how can such a genius NOT be such an asshole?

I don’t know, it was possibly an errant and unwarranted trail of thought, but I just wondered, like a what-if, regards all the disparate talents out there that if combined… like Lennon and McCartney being so greater together in The Beatles than they ever were once separated, or how great a film like Blade Runner became with the timely combination of Scott, Trumbull, Vangelis and all those other talented creatives at their peak at just that moment in time. I just thought how great a visual/musical experience a Pixar film might have been with Prince’s involvement, had he been able to work within a creative team rather than just on his own. It might have been a horrible disaster. But it might have been great.

Which is of course nothing at all do with Pixar’s Soul, so I’ll stop this stream of unwarranted consciousness from harassing your sensibilities any longer. If you haven’t yet seen it, do watch Soul, its a wonderful film.

The increasingly curious journey of Vangelis’ Juno to Jupiter

Juno to JupiterThis may be more normal in the music industry than I expect, but the journey of Vangelis’ latest project continues to confound  (although referring it as ‘latest’ seems almost premature at this point- who knows, he may be releasing another album before Juno finally lands). Originally scheduled for digital release anytime between July and September last year, with a physical release a few months later in November, we’re still waiting. Well, some of us- a digital store inadvertently released the album in August over the weekend of the 7th, apparently in error. How they got hold of the music files (possibly a promotional copy?) could either be an interesting mystery or a mundane clerical error, but Decca and Vangelis’ team yelled foul and put a stop to it, citing an actual release date in September which never happened, nor later rumoured dates in December or January this year (including a vinyl release having an bonus track not on the digital or CD releases). Last week it transpired that even Amazon had gotten tired of the curious marketing dance, cancelling my CD pre-order.

I’ve been listening to the album since August, and its a great Vangelis album that everyone of his fans should be listening to, and I’m sure they will once they can actually buy it. I actually deleted the draft review I wrote up in September just in case I was the one jinxing it by some supernatural conjunction of the spheres (I’d written it hoping to post it on the albums release date, but hey, hope springs Eternal). I expect that Covid-related complications regards production might have something to do with it, as the Deluxe CD version is packaged with a book about the Juno mission, and its likely that its this book delaying things rather than something on the music side. I admit though to being curious after such a long delay as to whether Vangelis himself feels the inclination to revisit and revise the music in some way, but that’s surely a longshot (which would possibly mean those of us who purchased the digital version in August have something of a rarity).

So anyway, with no further rumoured release date in the air at all, we fans just need to wait awhile longer. But it is such a curious tale regards this release. Of course with everything going on in the world, there’s much more pressing things to get excited about, but Vangelis releases are so increasingly rare that we fans can only be more fascinated by Juno’s increasingly curious journey. I’ll post more news as it arises. There’s probably a major announcement due any day/week/month now. It does occur to me though, that it took the space probe five years from launch to eventually reach Jupiter, so who knows, maybe the maestro’s mirroring real-life space physics regards the journey-time of his album.  Isn’t that a sobering prospect.

I can only repeat its a fantastic album, and really, in all the years I’ve been buying Vangelis albums  I’ve known nothing quite like this (except, ominously, the ultimate no-show of the Polydor Blade Runner album advertised on that films end-credit crawl in 1982 that had me visiting record stores every week in vain).

 

Millennium Actress 4K UHD

mill2I’m actually worried to note that Satoshi Kon passed away in August 2010; I clearly remember being saddened and shocked by the news (he was only 46)- but it just really, really doesn’t seem that long ago. Time and memory plays tricks on us, certainly I can vouch for it becoming increasingly obvious as I get older that the years are falling by faster and faster. But how is it that Kon passed in 2010? How can it be more than a decade, now, already?

One of the reasons I remember it so clearly was how sudden it was, announced from out of nowhere and accompanied by a message from him, written shortly before his death and posted onto his blog. In May he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and had chosen to spend his last months at home. From the perspective of 2021 I am thinking of two things: how Kon’s final message being posted on his blog feels so very of our age, and how it foreshadowed how I felt when Prince died (and indeed David Bowie just a few months before Prince). I’m not comparing Kon to Prince or Bowie at all, its just how shocking someone’s passing can be when you fool yourself into thinking they will be around forever. But then again, we always seem to do that. We always think we have years, decades. I suppose the last several months we have all shared should have us thinking differently. We should be thinking that we can count on nothing, and should take nothing for granted.

So Millennium Actress, Kon’s love-letter to Japanese Cinema (and by extension, all Cinema), to lost loves and unrequited passions, arrived in the post from All the Anime last weekend. I hadn’t seen it in far too many years, so I watched it late on that Saturday night. I’m glad to report it remains as beautiful and poignant a film as I remembered and still as emotionally draining. Anybody who loves cinema, and haunted by the impermanence of memory, surely cannot fail to be captivated by this film.

mill1Revealing too much about the film would be very wrong of me, so I’ll keep a summary of the general plot quite brief: a film studio, Ginei Studios has become bankrupt, and its backlot and film stages are being demolished. A reporter, Genya Tachibana and his cameraman Kyoji Ida are visiting the home of the studio’s most famous and popular star, Chiyoko Fujiwara, an actress who retired from both acting and the public eye some thirty years ago. While his cameraman has no knowledge of Chiyoko or her ‘old’ films, an increasingly nervous Tachinana is full of awe at finally meeting his favourite star. When the actress greets them, Tachinana gifts her a present; Chiyoko opens the package to reveal a key that she lost many, many years ago. The key seems deeply important to her, and they start the interview, Chiyoko reminiscing about her life and her career and what the key means to her.

What follows is what makes the film so special and why it seems to have such a life of its own, and is also perfectly suited as an animated film- as Chiyoko tells her story, the film becomes a story within a story, the events of Chiyoko’s life interwoven with scenes and images from her films, and Tachinana and Ida caught up within them, inside the films and her memories. The film becomes almost surreal and Lynchian, as we are never sure what is ‘real’ and what is part of one of her films: instead, it all seems to be inexplicably, intricately linked, scenes not just being those that Tachinana remembers from watching his favourite films but also doubling for her own memories, the characters she is playing also being her, somehow. Even when we are watching what is clearly a scene from a film, it seems loaded with subtext for her own ‘real’ life. As if all the films she ever made represent her whole life, a kind of meta-reality frozen on celluloid.

The heart of the story is Chiyoko’s teenage encounter, before she ever became an actress, with a stranger being pursued by the authorities. She shelters him and she learns he is a painter and political activist- soon after the man disappears, leaving her a key as a token. This key symbolises her instant love for this man and her fervent hope that somehow, someday she will meet him again. Part of her drive to become an actress is to be famous enough that perhaps one of her films will reach this stranger so that he might return to her or contact her.

Kon made just four films, Millennium Actress was the second and seems to be rather in the shadow of his greatest popular success, the Hitchcockian thriller Perfect Blue, but I much prefer Millennium Actress. There’s a peculiar magic in it, and I am sure a part of it is just its love of movies, and of how magical and important films can be, how they can have a life all their own. Its also a love story, and like the best love stories, a rather sad one. Its true that the film derives its life-affirming message out of that sadness, which only makes it all the more special. Like all Kon’s films, Millennium Actress suggests that animated films can be as deeply rewarding as any live-action film and that there is much more to animation as an art form than popular Disney fairy-tales or Pixar adventures. There’s nothing wrong with Disney/Pixar films, but very often examples come along in anime that suggest animation can be greater; ‘Great’ even. Such is Millennium Actress.

mill3Regards the All the Anime 4K disc, I cannot really vouch for it to being anything astonishing but it is perfect, all the same. The film does not have any HDR applied which may seem odd but I can’t really say I noticed the lack- the film was never originally made with HDR in mind so it seems perfectly justifiable, to me, to not have it. I can understand why neon-drenched anime spectaculars like Akira possibly benefit from utilising HDR (funnily enough, fans obviously complained about that films HDR-less 4K release over here last year resulting in a recall/replacement) but something as intimate as Millennium Actress really doesn’t need it. The last time I watched the film was on DVD so I was impressed by the uptick in quality, but how much the 4K disc distinguishes itself from the standard Blu-ray that accompanies it I cannot say, as I have not seen any of that disc, and besides, my player/tv upscaling it to 4K rather the point or any chance I’d have anything worthwhile to note. One thing I will mention is the soundtrack; the audio on the 4K disc seemed particularly fine and the sublime music score by Susumo Hirasawa sounds wonderful. That score is fantastic and a huge part of the films success, and is its beating heart as surely as the music of Vangelis is that of Blade Runner. I imported the Millennium Actress  soundtrack on CD from Japan back in the day back when that kind of thing was difficult. A fine music score is a big part of a films success, and a films audio-visual experience a huge part of a films attraction to me. If I make a list of my favourite films, its a good bet they all have deeply involving and effective scores.

I watched the film in its original Japanese audio with English subs but there is an English dub if one prefers that. There’s a few nice extras; interviews with two of the Western dub cast and some of the Japanese film-makers who recall working with Kon. A commentary track would have been lovely but anime films aren’t renowned for being loaded with extras: the rights holders like to keep Western releases expensive and curtailed extras-wise in order to not encourage Japanese fans importing them.

Nothing ugly about this one

gbuostAbsolutely a surprise Christmas present for film score fans, Ennio Morricone’s classic score to the Sergio Leone western masterpiece The Good, The Bad and The Ugly has been announced by Quartet Records in the form of a 3-CD complete edition, following on from Quartet’s remaster of his 1982 score The Thing earlier this year. This western score is truly as iconic as its movie, instantly recognisable, back when film scores were Film Scores and intended to be noticed, front and centre of the film experience (the final stand-off practically an Operatic masterpiece that takes the film to some mythic level). This very surprising release looks magnificent- a dream come true for fans. Originally released as a standard 34-minute vinyl back in the day, and later expanded to a 55-minute CD that seemed to be the best anyone could possibly hope for (and a CD I bought some years ago) this edition is clearly definitive: the full score and alternates over the first two discs and the original vinyl edition (a re-recording I believe, as many soundtrack albums were back then) in stereo on the third disc, fully remastered. Pretty amazing news, and a fantastic release to close out the year with. Now that I think about it, it might be time to dig out my Blu-ray of the film for a watch over Christmas: they don’t make ’em like they used to, and no-one ever wrote film scores like Morricone.  

A Hidden Life Revealed

hiddenTerrence Malick’s  latest work, A Hidden Life, is a beautiful-looking film, but of course that is the norm for films from Malick, and it is also very long, again, the norm for Malick. Its musical score is utterly sublime in how it matches those striking images; sometimes original score (this time by new collaborator James Newton Howard) and often classical pieces, all, again, the norm for Malick. It also has monologues usually in breathy voiceovers accompanying that captivating imagery – again, the norm for Malick, but here, notably, they are fewer, sparser, less intrusive than in some of his films of late.

It is, without doubt, his best film since The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line, having slipped into self-indulgence of late with recent films, succumbing to his own worst excesses. A Hidden Life may not be his best, but its certainly a return to form. Its certainly got a lot to do with the fact that this is his first film in many years to have a traditional, linear narrative. I’m sure critics will point out, possibly quite rightly, that the film would be just as good minus a third of its running time- I’m a fan of his work (both The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life are among my favourite films) and even I would appreciate some keener editing,  but hey, if its the price we pay for getting films such as this (essentially extended Directors Cuts minus the usually obligatory truncated theatrical cuts most directors are mandated to initially sanction) then so be it.

A curious note regards the title; A Hidden Life is true of the film itself- as is becoming increasingly so with Malick’s films, no doubt due to financing and distribution deals, the film has been awfully hard to see over here in the UK, not getting much of a theatrical release and only a belated release on digital platforms, forgoing any physical release on disc at all, as far as I can see, which is why I have had to wait until now, with it eventually airing on Sky Cinema. There is something clearly wrong with this world when Malick’s beautiful movies do not automatically get released on 4K UHD; some of his films could sell the format but remain utterly absent (I’d noted a digital 4K release on Amazon but, well, I’m old-fashioned and stubborn enough in my preference for physical releases to vote with my wallet).

My only issue with the film, really, is one the film can hardly be condemned for, as it more concerns the real events that it is based upon: the film is the story of  Franz Jägerstatter (August Diehl) who was an Austrian conscientious objector during the Second World War who, refusing to take the Hitler oath as a Wehrmacht conscript, was executed in 1943. His stand as a conscientious objector to Hitler’s rule was condemned in his own village, his family vilified, and his name forgotten until a researcher stumbled upon his story in the 1960s. Its a noble and uplifting story and I feel guilty complaining about it- its just that, for me, the film didn’t really get me ‘into’  Jägerstatter’s head, so to speak- a devout Catholic, it was primarily his religious convictions that formed the backbone of his defiance, which I couldn’t really accept. I was just frustrated that he could make his stand and risk the endangerment and safety of his wife and three daughters (indeed their suffering continued long after his was over) and I could never reconcile his ability to do that to his family in the name of his moral stand, no matter how righteous its may be deemed to be.

That is, clearly, more of an issue with my own point of view than the film itself and its true that the films narrative does raise the issue of his family’s trials back home while he was in prison; its perhaps my own religious conviction being rather more suspect, my own sense of moral code proving dubious.

Its a point made by a painter during the film, who is painting religious iconography and murals within a church, the artist casting doubt on how beatific it is compared to the likely realities behind them, and how churchgoers themselves may have acted in the events: “I help people look up from those pews and dream,” he says. “They look up and they imagine that if they lived back in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did.” Perhaps what Malick is doing is asking what we would do in Jägerstatter’s position: to me the truth is that there were no absolutes, and that I would have thought more of my family than my moral convictions and would certainly have signed on that dotted line that would have spared him. In all likelihood, the Catholic church is well on the way to making Jägerstatter a Saint someday soon, but some viewers might see him as something of a stubborn fool who abandoned his wife and children. Malick should perhaps be commended for keeping such ambiguities, if so intended, but it does leave the film, for me at least, one with a frustrating core.