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.

Big Hollywood Giant

2017.48: The BFG (2016)

This is a decidedly lightweight movie. Far from Spielberg’s best, it’s serviceable enough I suppose, which is about the best that I can say about it. But it is rather depressing really, how Hollywood takes a simple children’s story and blows it up into a cgi blockbuster with sophisticated effects and art direction. Like it’s commonly assumed it’s the only  a way to do it, going the ‘wow’ route. Naturally in 3D too, I reflected, noting how many of the films shots were choreographed. It’s funny how 3D movies have impacted how we watch films, in that they so easily telegraph what they are when we watch them in 2D. My suspicions were confirmed when I later noticed that The BFG was available in both 2D and 3D on disc, but at the time viewing the film it was rather distracting. I suppose we are stuck with that distraction for awhile but that’s depressing in itself, that we can’t watch films on 2D without being beaten over the head with ‘immersive POV’ shots etc.

Of course so much of this film is cgi (characters and sets) that it feels more an animated film than a live-action film. Reminded me a lot of the (superior) Tin Tin film that Spielberg shot a few years back.

I’m sure this film was made with all the best of intentions but it was too big, too overblown and exhaustingly ‘Hollywood Blockbuster’ for me. Spielberg can’t even refrain from recruiting John Williams to compose an overly saccharin score much akin to his misguided Hook score.

It’s just… too functional, typical. It’s a whimsical, rather silly children’s story gone all Hollywood.

The Force is strong with this one…

100_5489From a blogger who had the Star Wars soundtrack on cassette given him for his twelfth birthday back in 1978, a very happy birthday to film composer John Williams, who is 85 today. Life would have much less joy in this world without this amazing man’s music.

The Force is indeed strong with him, 85 years old and still working, composing the score for another Star Wars film (Episode 8: The Last Jedi) this year. Quite remarkable considering that cassette I was listening to dates back almost 39 years ago. Bravo, maestro.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

ST. JAMES PLACE

2016.63: Bridge of Spies (Amazon VOD)

Bridge of Spies is pretty spectacular, the best Spielberg film I have seen in quite awhile. Even someone familiar with the true-life story the film is based on will find the film enthralling. It’s chiefly thanks to a first-rate script (co-written by the Coen brothers no less, with Matt Charman) but what most impressed me was the craftsmanship evident onscreen. This is a surprisingly beautiful film. There is something remarkable in how the film recreates the period in which it is set- it looks absolutely ravishing, from the art direction to the cinematography to the flawless effects work. Best of all, Spielberg operates under quiet restraint- he isn’t too showy, emotions aren’t forced, camera moves aren’t so indulgent- stuff that hampered Lincoln for instance. A part of this is that it is also a rare Spielberg film -just the third, I think- that doesn’t feature a John Williams score (Williams being busy with a certain Star Wars gig).  The Thomas Newman score is nothing extraordinary but it does give the film a different ‘feel’ to a normal Spielberg picture and is understated enough to not draw attention (indeed I might be wrong but I was only first aware of the music some thirty minutes in).

The two leads are great. Tom Hanks of course is no surprise playing unlikely Superpower go-between James Donovan.He’s eased into a career of playing these noble, thoughtful and morally incorruptible characters for years and makes it look deceptively easy. It’s occurred to me that he would make a fantastic Bond villain- you know, casting him quite against type, set him up as a figure who you wouldn’t dream of being the orchestrator of global doom and then -Bam- I’m pleased to meet you Mr Bond. It gives me chills just thinking about a typically charming Hanks going all evil and chewing up the Bond scenery- maybe one day.

Anybody familiar with Mark Rylance (particularly in Wolf Hall) will perhaps be not at all surprised by how good he is as Russian spy Rudolf Abel, a soft-spoken, almost terrifyingly calm man who at the time the film is set becomes the most hated man in America (another possible Bond villain someday?). Abel is always a mystery and we don’t really get to know him but somehow an unlikely friendship and bond quickly forms between Donovan and Abel and it’s never short of convincing.  Its in the performances of the leads and the finely tuned script with some lovely dialogue and a sense of disarming humour (the influence of the Coen brothers, no doubt) even in the face of the Cold War nightmare threatening to unravel before us.

bridge2My only slight reservation is how the film displays the passing of time. From what I have read afterwards, Abel was arrested in 1957, Powers shot down in 1960, and the exchange happened in 1962, and yet I can’t really say that span of time was evident in the film. Maybe I was so swept away by the gorgeous photography etc that it passed me by- I certainly don’t recall any onscreen text ticking off the years, but maybe I was enjoying myself too much.

It seems an odd omission for a film that at least feels quite authentic and realistic, in that events seem to play out in rapid succession when in reality half a decade passes by (Donovans children, for instance, don’t seem to age from the start of the film to its end). In anycase, I don’t think anyone comes to a Spielberg film for cast-iron accuracy and a sense of impartial ‘truth.’ As it is, Bridge of Spies is a great film regardless of accuracy; a thrilling tale splendidly told.

1941 (1979)

1941a2016.52: 1941 -Extended Cut (Blu-ray)

1941 isn’t bad. Its terrible. This extended cut is no improvement either- there’s  146 mins of badness compared to the theatrical version’s 119, so there’s just even more bad movie, which of course cannot possibly be a Good Thing unless you are, inexplicably, a fan of this film. There are fans of this film, right? There must be (every film has its fans, after all), but I’m certainly not one of them. 1941 is supposed to be a comedy, and it isn’t even funny. Thats some kind of crime, surely.

Every great director has a bad movie inside of them and I guess this was Spielbergs- maybe there’s a few other films of his that might contend for this dubious accolade but I can’t really think of one, unless maybe the excesses of Hook or the romantic schmaltz of Always gets your blood boiling.  For me I think 1941, the whole misguided, badly-executed mess of it, is Spielberg’s Folly, just like George Lucas’ Howard The Duck a few years later. Films that… well, the idea of them is interesting but the execution is sadly pretty woeful and dire.

You wonder why some great ideas for films never get made and turkeys like these do instead, but at the time its all about the clout of the director- and after Jaws and CE3K, Spielberg was on a roll and he could have gotten a documentary on Kleenex greenlit. So 1941 was made.

I’d love to have been on-set during filming. What on earth made the cast and crew think that shooting guns and yelling loudly amid big explosions constituted the very heights of cinematic humour? I mean, thats about all that 1941 is- blazing guns and huge explosions, and Japanese soldiers disguised as Christmas trees. The prologue’s nod to Jaws is nice of course but its all downhill from there. John Belushi’s Capt. Wild Bill Kelso is just plain nauseating, strutting around onscreen as if he is somehow funny rather than just plain irritating, and the film wastes huge impressive sets and a fine 1970s cast, and -worse- a vintage John Williams score completely.

Sure, the dance hall set-piece is technically impressive but Spielberg would do all that so much better -and funnier- in the prologue of Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom. That latter observation is telling, because the one good thing about 1941 is that it apparently educated Spielberg, made him a better (and more frugal) director. Its likely we owe 1941 that at least. But thats about all, frankly.

I bought this damn thing on disc (cheap, mind). But yeah, I bought it. Makes ET look like Shakespeare or something…

 

Happy Birthday, Jaws

Jaws_int7145_600aJune 20th, 1975 was the day that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was released (here in the UK, we got it on Boxing Day- young un’s today moan about waiting two to three  months for a digital/blu-ray release, imagine if they had to wait six months for a cinema release!).

If you’re not watching the footy tonight, this is the perfect excuse to get out your Jaws dvd/blu-rays or soundtrack lp/cd and press that ‘play’ button.

One observation though- if like me you were around in 1975/1976 when it was first released, don’t dwell too long on the fact the film is 41 years old today; it will only make you feel older by association. I’ve been listening to the John Williams score today feeling rather old. Thats the trouble loving some of these movies, as the years pass and they grow older, so do we too- but of course, the films and the actors and locations within them are frozen forever on that celluloid, never changing, while we ourselves only have to look in the mirror to see the marks of time. In Jaws, it will forever be 1975. When I look in the mirror- bloody hell, its 2016 alright…

Oh well. Happy 41st, Brucie.

1976, the year it all started…

1976. Simpler times, especially if you were a kid. Batman was being re-run on the telly. I was reading Marvel Comics like crazy. Starsky and Hutch on Saturday nights on BBC. There was a drought that long hot summer. And there was that damned scary shark…

When all is said and done, I write film reviews on this blog, and you read them, because we love movies. I was wondering the other day about just when it all started for me. For most of us it’s an easy thing to state when we fell in love with movies, we know the moment well. Its usually a key moment when we ‘click’ with a certain movie, when it makes an impact on us on an emotional level. ‘Emotional’ because that’s the real kicker with any movie, at least for me- you can rationalise, on an intellectual level, the quality of a film, but where any film makes its real impact is surely on an emotional level; how it moves you, that’s where any movie really leaves its mark on you. Its why an undisputed classic like Citizen Kane may not be your favourite film- Kane is a great film easily admired but it may not have touched you in quite the same way as an intellectually inferior movie like a Ghostbusters or ET or Great Escape or Ben Hur did. Favourite movies are not always great movies, but they are often the reasons why we love movies.

JAWS1For me, it started with Jaws. Those of you who moan about waiting three months for a home release and are accustomed to simultaneous (or near as damn it) world theatrical releases might be alarmed at the Cinematic Dark Ages of the previous millennium when cinemagoers had to wait months just for films to cross the pond from America into our cinemas. American summer releases were often winter releases over here. So it was with Jaws, not arriving until 1976 here in the UK (It think it was actually Boxing Day 1975 for London, but it would take some months for it to eventually move out into the rest of the country… things were so slow back then!). So 1976 was when all this movie nonsense started for me. I was ten years old.

Of course, I’d seen many films as a kid but this was something else. My Aunt Lydia (now no longer with us, sadly) and her boyfriend (later husband/uncle) took me along on a Saturday afternoon to see the film. By this time the film was a massive phenomenon, merchandise was everywhere (I recall I was reading the paperback around the time when I saw the film) and it already clearly had a huge cultural impact- the delayed release over here actually only prolonged and intensified this. That delay -and films running at cinemas for a much longer period back then- has made me think. Nowadays films come and go in hardly any time at all, so we don’t seem to get such a scale of media saturation now. FIlms seemed to stick around longer back then, funnily enough, and home video releases now seem to have made films more disposable. I was in a supermarket the other day and quite recent films were already in a bargain bin of DVDs, which quite alarmed me. Jaws was a huge cultural event, and even some years later when it had its first tv premiere, I remember it still being a huge media event, featuring on the cover of the TV TImes. Films seemed a Bigger Deal back in the day. In my life, I think the only other film with a similar cultural impact as Jaws would be Star Wars a few years later (well, 1977 in America, 1978 over here).

I’ll never forget that Saturday afternoon. Indeed, to this day I cannot watch Jaws divorced from those memories, those feelings that screening engendered in me- everytime I’m pulled back to that cinema experience. Its funny how sophisticated audiences are now, everyone seems to laugh at the rubber shark, but it was never like that for me or indeed most audiences at the time. For us that shark was real. Of course, the film scared me shitless. But it wasn’t gore or anything graphic, it was more the anticipation, the fear of the unseen, the threat in those watery dark depths. I think the sophistication of audiences now… well I think they’ve lost something. Everything is so literal now. Thanks to cgi there’s no need to tease or hint, everything can be visualised up on the screen and from a storytelling standpoint and audience experience I think something has been lost. Sure it’s great to see such huge impossible things on screen these days but does it really now have to be so… complete?

The genius of Jaws is in its editing, and what is unseen. Most of this wasn’t at all intended, it was rather a triumph against adversity. The shark didn’t work, and many of the shots Spielberg wanted couldn’t be done, even with the shoot extending from some 55 days to 159 days. The shoot was a nightmare and Spielberg worried his career was already over. But all the disasters and technical problems that resulted in the production being forced into working around a non-functioning fake shark proved to be the making of the film. John Williams turned in an incredible score that provided all the tension that the fake shark couldn’t- you didn’t need to see the shark; you could hear its threat just in the music; it’s Pure Cinema, something much more effective than a contemporary authentic-looking cgi shark might ever be. Indeed Jaws is one of Spielberg’s best films simply because it has to be held back by its technical limitations; Jaws is Speilberg in Hitchcockian mode and he’s all the better for it. He can’t fall back on Douglas Trumbull or ILM excess to carry the picture. Consider the difference between Jaws and the excess of 1941. Needless to say, Jaws is my favourite Spielberg film- maybe not his best film, I appreciate that his later films have their merits- but certainly my favourite. When the film got released in cinemas a few years ago (2012 was it?) I naturally made sure to see it on the big screen again.

kk1It was such an intense experience back on that Saturday afternoon in 1976. Is it any wonder that it triggered an interest in that magical artform that has continued to this day? It was surely no accident that later that year I bought a paperback copy of Logan’s Run with the films gorgeous artwork catching my eye, or a paperback book about the making of that year’s remake of King Kong. The latter would prove to make a particular impression on me, as it would open my eyes to all the behind-the-scenes stuff that happened in order to get those films made. The following year I’d start buying magazines like Starburst which regularly featured making-of articles and interviews with directors and actors. But 1976 is when it all started. And of course, a little film titled Star Wars was just around the corner…

Star Wars OST audio cassette

100_5489A long, long time ago on a Birthday far, far away… well, February 1978 to  be exact, on my twelfth birthday (don’t do the maths, honestly, its too depressing), I was given this copy of John William’s Star Wars soundtrack on audio cassette.

Star Wars didn’t get released over here in the UK until late 1977, in London anyway, with it coming out into the regions some weeks later in early 1978, when I finally got to see it that same month of February as my birthday.  I loved the film, loved the music… well, its hard to explain the impact of Star Wars back then to people so inured these days to so many summer blockbusters.

Back then, soundtracks were pretty much the only way to ‘own’ a piece of a movie, a way to relive the film experience. Actually owning a copy of the film, on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray or whatever was something undreamed of. But yeah, my parents may have thought it a rather odd present choice of a young boy in England, but I really wanted the soundtrack. I chose to have it on cassette rather than vinyl simply because my parents had bought me a radio cassette player for Christmas a few weeks before, and after all, cassettes were The Future, weren’t they? No pops, scratches, clicks or jumps which records could be hindered with (so here we are decades later with vinyl enjoying a resurgence and most everyone under twenty looking at this wondering what the hell that plastic box is in the picture here). Yeah, and green plastic- even back then it looked a little unusual. I have to wonder, as the soundtrack was likely bought on vinyl more than on cassette, how many of these green things are still floating around.

100_5490Birthday presents come and go and they naturally vanish with time, but I made sure never to lose this cassette. No way I was ever losing this little beauty over the long years since. Its funny how you get attached to the oddest things. Of course as the years went on and the audio cassette format faded away this odd little guy started to become not just a reminder of a childhood birthday but something of a relic of a lost age, another defunct format. You’d think I’d learn, but we seldom do, as other media formats -Betamax, VHS, DAT, etc came and went. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Star Wars just goes on and on of course- I have VHS and DVD editions of the films themselves up in the loft and the Blu-ray box on a shelf behind me. Only being able to relive the film by listening to the score through headphones seems such a distant time.

100_5491I later bought the Star Wars soundtrack album on vinyl anyway, several years later in a sale (why exactly, I’m not even sure), and of course much later on compact disc in expanded form, but this little cassette was where it all started-  my first soundtrack. Which, when I think about it, is something of a Big Deal. It started an interest and appreciation of film scores that would last the rest of my life (my birthday present the following year was John William’s Superman: The Movie soundtrack, this time on vinyl- what wonderful years they were for soundtracks). This interest resulting in hundreds of CD soundtracks piling up all over my house. No doubt the CD format itself will follow the audio cassette into obscurity too, as has been threatened for years. That’s really rather depressing, especially considering just how many of them I have and all the time I’d have to spend converting them into mp3/digital files for posterity/future playback…

 

The Fury OST

The-Fury-HQJust received this new 2-disc edition from La La Land Records of John William’s fantastic score for Brian De Palma’s  rather lacklustre horror film The Fury. It’s another case of a great score serving a poor movie, and what a score it is. While it will never be considered one of Williams signature scores, nevertheless it dates back to, in my eyes (or to my ears?) at least, his finest period of work. Back when he did such breathtaking scores as Star Wars, CE3K, Superman: The Movie, Raiders of The Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back (my personal favourite score ever). You know, all those films/scores were released between 1977 and 1981, incredible as that now seems, and during this same period he also composed the scores for Dracula, 1941 (a little gem, that one) and The Fury. Williams was at the top of his creative form back then.

So while it might be a decidedly average film and not therefore one of William’s most popular works, nonetheless its notable for sharing much of the stylistic and thematic approaches as the other scores of that period, a dark cousin if you like. For someone like me who loves all those scores, hearing this score (which I’m really unfamiliar with) is like hearing a lost masterpiece. There are delicious moments of the music that recall moments from Raiders or Superman, and it must be remembered that, being a horror film score, it remains quite a rare departure for the composer. It seems to share an approach that Jerry Goldsmith took with his Boys From Brazil score, in that he used a waltz motif to heighten the strange ‘horror’ aspect of the score.  On De Palm’s suggestion it also has a very Herrmann-esque feel to it (by way of an homage to the then-recently deceased film music genius Bernard Herrmann). But that’s really rather incidental;  its 1970s John Williams at the height of his game. What’s not to love? Disc one is the complete film score with source cues previously unreleased, while Disc two features the original soundtrack album, which was a re-recording by the London Symphony Orchestra a few days prior to the recording of the Superman:The Movie score. Some listeners have always preferred the re-recording to the actual filmscore and its not hard to understand why, its got that lovely 1970s London sound. Both recordings are remastered to great success.

Just released on La La Land Records, its limited to 3,500 copies so should last awhile, but then again, considering the quality of the score, don’t be surprised if its OOP by year’s end if not before. Highly recommended particularly if you are a fan of Williams’ scores of that period. But of course, if you are, well, you’re not going to wait are you?