Jóhann Jóhannsson has died

It is with profound shock and sadness that I have read the news that Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was found dead yesterday at his home in Berlin. Over the last several years I have enjoyed his music, particularly the albums ‘IBM 1401, A User’s Manual and Fordlandia, which are particularly moving and thoughtful pieces, and witnessed his rise as a film composer with such scores as Sicario, Arrival and The Theory of Everything. Last year  Blade Runner 2049 should have had a score by him. In fact, that score was likely the one thing I was most relaxed/looking forward to about that whole project. He seemed a safe pair of hands who might offer the film its own ‘voice’, especially following his score for Arrival, where the music was such a major part of the film. The subsequent news that he had been dropped from the BR2049,  announced late in the film’s post production, was the first real note of alarm regards the project. While so much else seemed great regards cast and crew, Jóhannsson being fired was my first real “oh, hang on, wait a  minute,’ moment when doubts began to leak in, and while the film finally turned out to be great, his absence seemed strange and I always wondered at what his score would have been like. I thought that maybe we would find out what happened and what his music was like, maybe even hear some of it someday.  But maybe now we never will.  

Berlin authorities are investigating the death and an autopsy will follow, so cause of death is obviously unknown. I am genuinely shocked and bewildered and so very saddened. Awful news. Maybe some sense will arise when we learn the facts behind his passing, but at the moment its hard to process it. I did not know the man but I did love so much of his music, and from a purely selfish perspective I am sad that I will not get to hear any further new albums/film scores from him. It feels like how I did when I learned that Prince had died. You think these guys will be around forever, and rather take the gift of their music for granted. We really shouldn’t.

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Close Encounters soundtrack- new edition

CloseEncounters-HDThere is something captivating about that poster for CE3K, of the road at night leading to a mysterious glow on the horizon. I remember it on the paperback cover, the original vinyl album, the collectors edition magazine etc. It always seemed so arresting, so…. I don’t know… it just evokes the same feelings in me now, all these years later, holding this new La La Records edition of the John Williams soundtrack. I think this cover is actually a rework from either new elements or original elements remastered but in any case, it is effective as it ever was.

It feels rather fitting, also, to be writing about this new edition of the CE3K soundtrack album immediately after writing my post about Baby Driver. Music is an integral part of both films, just in a different way- in the case of Baby Driver, its source music, but in Close Encounters its the score that is woven so tightly into the fabric of the film. Indeed, one of the pleasures of this edition of the score is the track Advance Scout Greeting, which is functions as sound design in the film but is actually score music, when the scientists first attempt communication through music with ufos prior to the arrival of the mothership. Its utterly sublime and a wonderful reminder of one of my favourite moments of the film- this track alone worth the price of buying this soundtrack yet again.

In all honesty, Close Encounters is not my favourite John Williams score (Empire Strikes Back, if you’re wondering); it always seemed, even back in 1978, music to admire rather than love or adore. It’s a complex, sometimes atonal score, very much of the 1970s when film music could indeed function as a fundamental part of a films success, full of themes and motifs, without being designed as easy-listening or full of tunes to whistle afterwards. While it lacks tunes like Darth Vader’s theme or the Superman march, it does have one of the most identifiable musical motifs of any film, period; the five-note musical signal transmitted by the aliens and the centerpiece of the human/alien communication.

Beyond its sometimes revelatory remastering (for once,  here’s music that really does sound superior than it has ever before) one of the best aspects of this particular release is that it is based on the discovery that John Williams had originally planned to release the Close Encounters soundtrack as a double-lp in similar fashion to the previous double-lp edition of the hugely successful Star Wars soundtrack (and as he would the Superman soundtrack album). For some reason this intention was nixed in favour of releasing a standard single-album of highlights, but this release has allowed the first compact disc to roughly correspond with what Williams had originally intended. .So, rather than be a complete and chronological release as is usual these days for these expanded releases, instead, the first disc functions as a satisfying musical listening experience. Considering the sore is so atonal in places and the original highlights album full of edits and compromises, it works brilliantly well here.

The second disc in this set functions in much the same way, but chiefly with unreleased music, album versions, alternates and the like. It works as a compelling and satisfying alternative to what the first disc offers, almost a director’s cut of the original soundtrack. Its a novel approach but works so well it’s a shame no-one has tried something like this before. As it is, it makes all previous editions of the soundtrack irrelevant and this edition definitive. You may have heard this music before, but whether you have the original vinyl or the 1998 expansion on CD, you haven’t heard it like this. Essential for fans of the composer’s work or this score in particular. My apologies to your wallet, as if you’re here in the UK these things aren’t getting any cheaper – I’d direct you to the music box website as the best deal to avoid customs charges etc. Delivery is quick as its just popped across the channel and the discs well packaged.

Baby Driver

baby.jpgGeorge Lucas is naturally best-renowned for the impact that Star Wars had on the film industry back in 1977, but thats ignoring the pioneering use of source music in his earlier film American Graffiti– the end-to-end parade of rock and roll songs played on the radio formed an evocative and groundbreaking soundtrack/soundscape through the film that revolutionised the subsequent use of source music in film-making.

So I found myself thinking of American Graffiti whilst watching Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. The use of source music -updated from radio airplay to ipod/smartphone mp3 streaming, naturally- is as integral a part of what Baby Driver ‘is’ as much as the music was in Graffiti. Indeed, what gives Baby Driver its own identity is that its taken it one step further, with the performances and editing timed specifically to the beats of that infectious soundtrack of songs. In some ways it seems almost a much a musical as, say, La La Land.

So whilst it owes so much to a film from decades past it also comes across as being refreshingly original, and excitingly new. Perhaps it’s just a natural progression of how source music has become such an integral part of film over the years since Graffiti, particularly in how some sequences in films often seem to be pop videos in how they are shot , edited and soundtracked with pop songs. The clever conceit of Baby Driver is in how the central character needs the songs in order to function as the titular driver of the film, his skill for driving and spectacular stunts behind the wheel wholly dependant on the flow and beat of whatever he is listening to. Its almost genius in its execution.

baby2The fact that there is actually an involving and thrilling film independent of those frenetic chases is the biggest and most welcome surprise of the film. Indeed, the actual screen time of those car chases is surprisingly small regards the whole.

Alden Ehrenreich must offer something pretty special as Disney’s new Han Solo in his year’s Star Wars anthology movie, because Baby Driver is surely Ansel Elgort’s 2-hour statement for being the best young Solo that we’ll never see. He offers a vulnerability and charm that so often brings to mind a young Harrison Ford/Han Solo that its almost irresistible- intensified perhaps by his costume design in this film, practically wearing Solo’s Star Wars wardrobe like some cosplay nut. No doubt this was a deliberate ploy by Edgar Wright, Baby so obviously evoking the Han Solo look and the sense that Baby and his cars is like Solo and his Millenium Falcon. I recall back in 1977 the sense that the Falcon was like a hotrod in the stars- a novel thing back then so pedantic now. Wright must have been so aware of that when writing/shooting this film.

Isn’t it weird to be referencing old George Lucas films so much when discussing this film? It’s almost as if this film is a love-letter to Lucas, and makes me sadly reflect on how great a film-maker the 1970s George Lucas was (lets not forget the ingenious sound design of THX 1138 or the fact that the 1970s Lucas also cemented the Star Wars saga making The Empire Strikes Back and the creation of the matinee-throwback heroics of Raiders of the Lost Ark).

Is Baby Driver the last hurrah for Kevin Spacey in a mainstream Hollywood movie? I suppose only time will tell but this film is a welcome reminder of how great he is as an onscreen bastard (his offscreen credentials in that regard seems to have nixed his future career somewhat). His charisma and coldness here forms a fulcrum for the film; so much seems to revolve around him and he is so convincing it makes me a little sad that we will lose some great future performances/films re: his probable absence from film-making in future. That’s purely a selfish consideration as a fan of film though rather than any moral judgement on what the actor himself deserves- we’ll just have to see how all that plays out in future.

So soon after enjoying her performance in Cinderella, Lily James appears here as Baby’s love-interest, the charming if rather under-written Deborah. At least the two actors share some convincing screen chemistry,  the lovestruck youngsters evoking a clean cut version of True Romance‘s Clarence and Alabama (Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette). Who would have thought when watching Downtown Abbey that she, in particular, would be the performer whose star would subsequently rise in film?

Anyway, Baby Driver was a surprising blast- great to look at and listen to and a pleasure beyond its car chases and stunts. The clever conceit and importance of its music was exciting and at least felt original and new, which can’t be underestimated in this era of ‘me-too’ cgi blockbusters and superhero flicks.  And while I’d love to see where Wright could take the characters and that conceit with a Baby Driver 2, it’s so nice that the film feels so self-contained and wrapped-up, a new film that feels wholly of its own that doesn’t depend upon or tease a sequel or franchise.

 

Morricone Magic

tendaI’ve been listening to some of Ennio Morricone’s great soundtracks on the commute to work of late. Started with his score for La Tenda Rossa (The Red Tent) which features one of the most gorgeous love themes you’ll ever hear, progressed to Once Upon a Time in America and then onto Once Upon a Time in the West and then the psychedelic kitsch of the bizarre but achingly beautiful score for Veruschka.

I remember buying the Once Upon A Time in America soundtrack on CD way back when CD was pretty new, in the Virgin Megastore up Brum. The assistant at the counter commented “great movie, that,” when I handed him the disc to buy it. Back then the film was still pretty unknown following its failure at the box office, and I had bought it on VHS in London a few months before (horrible pan and scan, and likely an ex-rental). We chatted a little while about the film. Funny the things you remember. It was great just to meet someone who had even seen it, let alone loved it.

gssBooklet.inddLast, so far, listened to in the car is Morricone’s Guns for San Sebastian, which was a western from 1968 starring Anthony Quinn and Charles Bronson. I’d watched the film many years ago and the score always stayed with me (even when a kid great scores had a profound impact on me when watching films). When the FSM edition was released some ten years ago I ordered it instantly, but hadn’t listened to it for some years since, somehow lost in the piles of CDs I have. What a phenomenal score it is- huge, thunderous with a heartfelt and stirring main theme/love theme as only Morricone could manage. I’ve read that the score is widely considered a rehearsal for his more popular score for Once Upon A Time In the West, and you can hear that, particularly in the use of frequent Morricone muse  Edda Dell’Orso. But it’s a great score albeit inevitably lost in the long shadow of Once Upon A Time In the West. They just don’t make films, or film scores, anything like this anymoreHell of a thing, listening to such rousing music prior to walking into the office and then finding reality hit you in the face. It’s just not decent.

Horner’s Titanic Returns

TitanicI’ve been spending the last few days listening to James Horner’s Titanic score, recently released in a definitive (and exhaustive) four-disc edition by La La Land Records. It isn’t my favourite Horner score by some margin, he did much better stuff earlier in his career, and the film’s huge success (and that Oscar) became rather a turning-point for Horner, in just the same way as Vangelis’ Oscar for Chariots of Fire changed his career too. Maybe that’s a bit contentious, but I just think all that fame and wealth (both soundtracks sold in the millions and both projects raised their composers profiles immeasurably) sometimes does more harm than good, no matter how gratifying it might be personally.

But I will say that, despite that, it has been a considerable pleasure listening to this complete and remastered edition, the first time I have heard the music outside of the movie in many years. It’s been a reminder of all that was lost by Horner’s passing a few years ago in a tragic flying accident. Its funny how all those Hornerisms that annoyed me so much when he was alive scoring stuff (his habitual re-use of motifs and material from previous scores numerous times) is such a bittersweet thing now that you just don’t hear it anymore in new films. Its strange. Somehow I don’t mind some stuff sounding like another parade of Horner’s Greatest Hits, or being reminded of moments from Field of Dreams or Braveheart or Wrath of Khan or whatever. I listen with affection now, rather than irritation. Its weird.

 

Purple Reign

princePrince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions: 1983 and 1984 by Duane Tudahl

A glimpse behind the purple curtain, and perhaps the most important recording period of Prince’s career – I say ‘perhaps’ because although Purple Rain is widely considered Prince’s masterpiece/breakout period, I really think Sign o’the Times and his output during that 1985 – 1986 period is more interesting, but that’s likely just a personal thing and I’m certain many fans will argue otherwise. At any rate, this exhaustive  book is an utterly fascinating read. And I must say, it’s a formidable prospect-  it’s huge, running at well over 500 pages of detailed text, I have to admit I’ve barely delved into it but having already learned so much from it,  I feel it necessary to mention the book on this blog to get the word out there to all Prince fans- you need this book. Buy it now or get it put on your Christmas lists, because this will surely be a cornerstone of anybody’s Prince collection in years to come. Best yet, the author intends for it to be the first in a series of such books, so hopefully my beloved Sign o’the Times era will get similar treatment someday.

The book is pretty much a day by day account of Prince’s work in the recording studio from 1st January 1983 through to the end of December 1984, from the last days of the 1999 tour through to the breakout that was Purple Rain and how it changed everything for Prince. It breaks it down to day by day, recording the dates and times and what was done, song by song, session by session, including those many songs currently in the fabled vault yet to be released (and those that leaped out onto the extras disc of the recent Purple Rain deluxe reissue). It documents how he worked, where he worked, who he worked with, and is filled with commentary from those who were there. It really is a new insight into Prince’s genius at a time when he was particularly on fire creatively, and shows just how hard it was to craft those songs. The work involved in documenting all this and collating it is quite breathtaking.

I’ll be losing myself in this book over the coming days and weeks. It’s a helluva book.