Django (1966)

django1I’m not one for spaghetti westerns- other than this one, I don’t think I’ve seen any that hadn’t been directed by Sergio Leone. The only thing I really knew about Django is that it was presumably the inspiration for Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). Django apparently was the subject of some notoriety due to its excessive violence, which horrified people at the time, although today its cartoony theatrics seem dated and almost quaint. It was directed by Sergio Corbucci, who would afterwards direct another spaghetti western –The Great Silence (1968) – which was known to me through its Ennio Morricone soundtrack which I bought on CD back when I was having a binge on Morricone albums a few years ago. Curiously I have that film’s Blu-ray release through Master of Cinema on pre-order for a November release, so when I noticed the connection seeing Django pop up on my Amazon Prime recommendations list, I gave it a shot, thinking it might indicate what kind of film The Great Silence might be. 

Well, it was sort-of a pleasant surprise. The dubbing is typically atrocious, the dialogue is dire, the story is so paper-thin it doesn’t really make any sense (its some vague revenge plot) and the acting isn’t any great shakes either: so on that front, the film was no surprise whatsoever. But there was something appealing about it. I thought the production design was impressive; I mean, its clearly cheap but there’s something arresting about the wind-torn, muddy streets of a desolate town that seems to be literally sinking into the mud. Its like the end of the world as much as the end of the West.

Corbucci’s direction is no-nonsense and straight forward with no ambition towards the mythic, operatic qualities of Leone’s work, although Django (Franco Nero) could be seen as an Angel of Death in some corner of Hell. The cartoony violence prefigures that of the Rambo films that followed Stallone’s First Blood (Django despatches dozens of bad guys with a machine-gun hidden in a coffin that he drags around through the film, and hilariously the ammo-belt feeding the gun never moves). I presume it was this body-count that infuriated everyone back in the day, and its quite funny watching the various stuntmen/extras flailing around in exaggerated death throes generally minus any blood squibs going off or anything- for a film decried for its violence its not particularly graphic. Today a film like this would get a pass for its violence but would be roundly condemned for its treatment of women characters, all depicted as whores, subjected to being beaten by male characters (or whipped, even) and an indulgent,  lengthy sequence in which three of them are caught in a mud fight that serves nothing but the pleasure of male viewers. Its literally a film from some other age and makes any of Leone’s excesses seem quite tame (Leone of course came under fire for his own treatment of women in his films, particularly Once Upon A Time in America).

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.  

Ennio Morricone

If I were a dreamer and one for fantasies, I’d like to imagine Sergio Leone is up there, somewhere, making more of his great movies and his Heaven is even more perfect, now, because now Sergio’s buddy Ennio Morricone is up there to make those great movies even greater.

The passing of Ennio Morricone today is… well, how does one put into words the sense of loss when someone as great as this musical genius, is lost to us, especially after so many years- that’s oddly why the news earlier felt so unreal, it really felt like he would be around forever.

So Ennio Morricone then: all those great Western scores (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Guns For San Sebastian, so many its impossible to list them), and Once Upon A Time in America, The Mission, so many others. Of course I’ve been listening to his chilling classic The Thing recently thanks to its remaster/re-release. Occasionally I’d have spells buying Morricone scores for films I could never see, Veruschka, Maddalena, The Red Tent… wonderful music, sometimes strange, always crazily inventive. That’s the thing about Morricone- he had a fantastic gift for melody, almost unparalleled, but didn’t rest at that; he was so incredibly inventive and creative and trying all sorts of crazy things with his music. Well, its hopelessly prosaic to say it, but we will always have that music, and the films he wrote that music for. But yeah, another one gone.

The Thing returns looking very 1982

thingYou’d have to have been around in 1982 to understand why this seems to be a Big Deal for me. Quartet Records have announced a remastered edition of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for John Carpenter’s film, and while it doesn’t feature any additional music -or indeed inclusion of the roughly ten minutes of electronic underscore added to the film by Carpenter and his then-frequent collaborator Alan Howarth- it does instead feature the original album cover art used on the vinyl release back in 1982. I loved this cover back in the day and its meant that the original vinyl release has remained a valued possession all these years.  It just always seemed to encapsulate the film and the music better than any other art used to promote the film or soundtrack editions ever since, and it will be great to finally have a CD release featuring it. The music will probably shine from its restoration and remaster, too, and the added news that Jeff Bond, who always writes entertaining and informative liner notes, has prepared this editions new liner notes ensures I’ll have to get a hold of this one, even if saner and wiser folks will be scratching their heads wondering what on Earth is the big deal.

Naturally, we’re living in an age of mp3s, downloads and streaming, and the value of the ‘overall package’ of art and liner notes must seem immaterial to most, if not utterly prehistoric – and 1982 does seem some kind of prehistory to many I guess.

Last week: Once Upon a Time

onceThis last week I’ve been contemplating re-watching Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America. I say ‘contemplating’ because its a formidable work to really take in- the restored cut released a few years ago on Blu-ray totals 251 minutes, which is just over four hours. That’s not four hours of big CGI action and stunts that can pass by without any effort regards actually thinking about what you’re watching- this is four hours of complex, bravura film-making at a sometimes glacial pace that shifts backwards and forwards in time across decades, between reality and opium dream. This is four hours that requires attention and respect. You don’t put Once Upon A Time In America on just to pass the time with a favourite movie. This film is an experience, and a sometimes demanding and daunting one. I’m sure some people hate it. I love it.

But I don’t watch it very often. Some films you can watch and rewatch quite regularly but America isn’t one of them- its just not that kind of film. I think its a film that should be savoured, and every time I do watch it, its a wonder to behold. As I grow older I find myself increasingly wondering how on Earth it even got made. America could never get made today. It just wouldn’t get done. I don’t think something, anything like this film, could ever get made now. Maybe it was the last of its kind.

Louise Fletcher. The first film I ever saw her in was Brainstorm. I loved the film but it was largely dismissed even at the time it came out, remembered now mostly for the tragic real-life story behind the scenes, a film practically disowned by the studio that made it and had to be forced to release it. Louise Fletcher was brilliant in Brainstorm, a revelatory performance for me; I thought she was wonderful. A few years later, having been familiar with Once Upon A Time In America for awhile through a VHS rental and later buying a VHS copy on a trip to London, I became confused by reports that she was in the film. I couldn’t remember her being in it, surely I would have noticed her. I put it down to bad information/poor journalism, but her name kept on coming up related to the film.  Eventually I learned that she actually had been involved, but that her role had been completely cut out. A film that was already 226 minutes long in the versions I had seen (I have always had a morbid fascination with one day seeing the infamous 139-minute cut but never have) somehow managed to cut her part out of it, an Oscar-winning actress? America is that kind of movie. Huge, monumental, astonishing, ridiculous.

The cast that is in the film is remarkable, but the stories about what the film might have been are equally remarkable, really- the film took so many years to make,  and over its lengthy gestation all sorts of names were connected for a time. Once upon a time, America featured Gerard Depardieu as Maz, and Richard Dreyfuss as Noodles (and James Cagney as the old Noodles? Crazy). Once upon a time, Tom Berenger was Noodles (and Paul Newman the old Noodles, even crazier!). Once upon a time, Brooke Shields was Deborah.

America always had Ennio Morricone scoring its music. Indeed, the music existed before the film was even made- Morricone wrote much of the score’s themes before it was shot and Leone filmed scenes to match the music. Once upon a time, films were made that way. Its why the score is as important as any cast member of the film; the score is the films soul.

I want someone to write a book about Once Upon A Time In America, a huge definitive book that delves into its long pre-production, its filming, its reception, its failure,  the death of the genius behind it, and its long road to reappraisal. Maybe that book would be as daunting to write (and read) as the film can be to watch.

The longest current version of the film is 251 minutes long, but it could yet be even longer. Leone’s initial cut was 269 minutes long, and I understand the missing 24 minutes exists, but cannot be incorporated into the film because of rights issues. Rights issues. Even the behind the scenes of the film is ridiculous. 35 years and Leone’s original vision is yet incomplete. Its like the plot of a movie, larger than life. Fitting enough I guess, as the film is always larger than life, more an ode to American myth, and Cinematic myth, than any reality. In just the same way as his Westerns are bigger than any real West.

I wish Leone had lived longer, and had been given opportunity to have made more films. Cinema is the lesser for his loss. But the irony of course is that America is the price of that loss, because the film and the troubles behind it are what is widely accepted as contributing to his untimely passing.

I’m sitting here writing this. I should be watching America.

Soundtrack Shelf: Cherry 2000/The House of God (Basil Poledouris, 1987/1984)

cherry 2000It seems only fitting that following Edward Scissorhands, my next pick from the soundtrack shelf would be this charming double-bill from the late, great Basil Poledouris, as the Cherry 2000 soundtrack shares the same quirky, irreverent sense of inventiveness as Elfman’s score. The film itself was a b-movie sci-fi Western with inevitable nods to Blade Runner and Mad Max, which languished on the studio shelf for two years before getting an eventual release (I think it turned up late at night on television many years ago, don’t think I even managed to get through all of it- which was my loss, as it might have been nice to have heard the score years before I eventually did). The House of God, meanwhile, suffered an even worse fate- completed in 1980, it was eventually dumped onto television/cable networks in 1984, and I’ve never seen it. So with this Intrada release (hey, another link with Edward Scissorhands) we’re in the realm of blind-buying soundtracks for films we’ve never seen, either from recommendations online or simply due to the composer’s name.  Its something of a wonder either of these scores got an official release, but they certainly deserve to. Cherry 2000 is part orchestral, part electronic, reminiscent of his Robocop score (both would have been written around the same time, I imagine) but is a much lighter score, blessed with a gorgeous love theme that demonstrates the composers gift for melody. The electronics work really well, my favourite track is Drive, which thanks to the magic of Youtube I can offer a link to below-

I must say there is something utterly magical and fun about the Cherry 2000 score. Whenever I listen to it, it always brings a smile to my face. Its electronics are certainly of its time, adding a nostalgic bent to it with memories of other Poledouris scores, and also Jerry Goldsmith’s scores of the time, like Gremlins, Twilight Zone: The MovieExplorers and InnerSpace, among others, which often seemed to share that same ‘sound’. There are tender, intimate moments using that achingly sweet love theme, and big, brassy moments of almost traditional Western Movie scoring that hint at Poledouris’ later triumphs (Lonesome Dove for one) and sadly remind listeners that he later willingly dropped out of scoring Dances With Wolves.

Giving a telling insight to Poledouris’ range and ability, his score for The House of God is a rather baroque, chamber-orchestra piece, rather sombre and intimate and quite beautiful. Its got something of an Ennio Morricone feel to it. The penultimate track, The Turf of Jo, is one of the most exquisite pieces of score music I have ever heard, and to think it’s part of a 17-minute score that few have possibly heard (for a film few have likely had opportunity to see) is really quite depressing. I’ve included a youtube link below to a suite from the score- the track The Turf of Jo is featured at about 8:50.

As usual for my soundtrack CD collection, the Intrada disc I have is now OOP. Which is a pity, as both are very fine scores that demonstrate some of the sublime genius of Poledouris, a composer who never really seemed to get his due in Hollywood. I have several of his scores on disc and I’m sure I’ll feature some of them later in this series of Soundtrack Shelf posts, if only because I really should listen to them more often. I’ve really enjoyed revisiting this disc and shall have to do so more often.

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.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

hate12016.40: The Hateful Eight (Blu-ray)

The Good:

Its beautiful to look at. Its got a great central story, interesting characters, some brilliant casting (Bruce Dern- wonderful!). Its prime cinematic immoderation- fans of Tarantino will adore it. The Morricone score is great (not Oscar-worthy great though), the lifts of out-takes from his score to Carpenter’s The Thing feel oddly perfect. There’s some great tension. There’s a brilliant two-hour film in here.

The Bad:

Does it really need to be a Ultra-Panavision 70mm film? While the format does suit Westerns with their wide-open spaces (I’m thinking of films like Dances With Wolves here, or Sergio Leone’s epics) Tarantino doesn’t really have the eye for widescreen composition of, say, John Carpenter, and once we leave those wide-open spaces and we are confined to Minnie’s Haberdashery, the film becomes much more intimate and that extreme-wide framing rather redundant.

Some of the acting does slip into the over-indulgent. I don’t think Tarantino ever advises his actors to tone it down a notch. Maybe he should.

The Ugly:

It’s loooong. The eventual bloody finale is great but it is an awful loooong time coming (I’m concerned at what repeat-viewing will be like). Would less be more? Some of that casting isn’t so great- (the ever one-note Michael Madsen, sorry but what the hell is he doing in this?). Tarantino’s dialogue feels as unreal as ever- probably works better on a page than it does in a film.