Film Score Friday #8: “Midnight Express” (1978)

Billy Hayes (Brad Davis, r.) and Max (John Hurt, l.) line up in Midnight Express.

The musical legacy of the Italian musician, producer and composer Giorgio Moroder is often viewed through a prism of postmodern “so bad it’s good” irony. His 1984 reworking of Fritz Lang’s classic science-fiction epic Metropolis, for example, for which he both oversaw production and provided a new score, is described even in a 2012 Quietus review as “one of the best bad films ever made”: “colourful and kitsch”, yet at the same time with “a tooth-achingly awful soundtrack”. Many of the hit singles to which he contributed either as an performer, producer or songwriter – contributions which remain largely unknown – instantly evoke a 1980s aesthetic and sound that is both fondly celebrated and jarringly outdated: “Flashdance…What a Feeling” from the 1983 film of the same name1984’s “Together in Electric Dreams” with the Human League’s Philip Oakley; or, to top it off, both Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone” and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” from arguably the ultimate ’80s film, Top Gun.

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Film Score Friday #7: “The American Soldier” (1970)

“Das Spiel ist aus” for Karl Scheydt’s gangster Ricky.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s untimely death in 1982 was widely viewed, both at the time and in later years, as the death knell for the (quantitatively and qualitatively) resurgent West German film scene of the 1970s that later came to be known as the New German Cinema. While his individual cinematic tours de forces (Fear Eats the SoulThe Bitter Tears of Petra von KantThe Marriage of Maria Braun) will continue to be the bedrock of his legacy as a filmmaker, the sheer scope of his oeuvre, and above all his Stakhanovite level of productivity – 45 films, shorts, documentaries and television series in 13 years, plus numerous stage plays, essays and unrealised projects – justify in themselves his subsequent characterisation as the driving force behind the success of the New German Cinema, both at home and, more often, abroad. In an obituary for the director, who succumbed to a drug overdose aged only 37, Wolfram Schütte wrote that Fassbinder was the movement’s “heart, [its] beating, vibrating core”, without which it was incapable of prevailing further, something that for many critics was proved true in the years that followed.

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Film Score Friday #6: “Brazil” (1985)

Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) prepares to do fantastical battle in Brazil.

[Before we kick this one off… As with all my other articles, there is a risk of significant SPOILERS, so please bear in mind! This is particularly relevant to this film as, for reasons outlined below, multiple different versions and edits exist, of which a rundown is available at faqs.org. This article takes as its reference point the full “Director’s Cut” edition, which is now (as well it should be) the standard DVD release version of Brazil.]

By turns bitingly satirical and deeply moving, chillingly terrifying and laugh-out-loud hilarious, Terry Gilliam’s dystopian farce Brazil is a film that prides itself on confusing the viewer; the latter was certainly the case for Roger Ebert, who detected within the film a palpable and “general lack of discipline”. Indeed, as Jack Mathews documents extensively in his book and documentary The Battle of Brazil, these qualities (combined with Gilliam’s intransigence towards compromise) made it the subject of a protracted dispute between the director and his distributors at Universal, so much so that an alternative cut was prepared (without Gilliam’s blessing) simplifying some of the film’s narrative and, famously, altering its thoroughly ambivalent ending. It is precisely this ambiguity, however, that makes Brazil not only memorable but, as Mathews writes in an accompanying essay to the film’s Criterion Collection DVD re-release, quintessentially Gilliam-esque. Indeed, the film conforms perfectly to the description offered by a Criterion forum member of “Monty Python meets 1984“, as the nightmarish system it depicts, a true bureaucracy where everything is governed by paperwork, is effortlessly omnipotent and fundamentally inefficient all at once, the machines and suited bureaucrats that run it both unassailably powerful and inherently ridiculous.

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Film Score Friday #5: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965)

Charlie Brown and Linus van Pelt muse on the meaning of Christmas.

The list of things that one might readily associate with the timeless charm of the animated specials based on Charles Schulz’s phenomenally successful Peanuts cartoon strip is plentiful: the trademark scream; the “kick the football” running gag; the gibbering voices of Snoopy and Woodstock, ably provided by long-time series director Bill Melendez; or perhaps the naturalistic delivery of the real children who voiced their main characters. For others, however, it might be the invariably tasteful yet effortlessly swinging jazz soundtracks contributed by pianist Vince Guaraldi, collections of lovingly crafted miniatures with a sprightly liveliness that makes them as infinitely enjoyable to listen to in their own right as when accompanying the adventures of Charlie Brown and friends. Indeed, Chris Barton writes in a Los Angeles Times article from 2013 of how these scores acted as a first exposure to jazz for generations of young children, and furthermore made life-long converts out of many, including Guaraldi’s later biographer Derrick Bang. Yet far from being gradually introduced, this was a core component of the series from its very inception, and especially so in the inaugural A Charlie Brown Christmas.

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Film Score Friday #4: “Ran” (1985)

‘Why do I write film music? … I don’t like things that are too pure and refined. I’m more interested in what’s real. And films are so full of life’. This simple self-assessment by Toru Takemitsu, which opens Charlotte Zwerin’s documentary for Sony Classical’s Music at the Movies series on his considerable output for film, neatly encapsulates the aesthetic of a repertoire that does not so much contrast with as complement the varied, unique and endlessly fascinating oeuvre that firmly established him as Japan’s most celebrated classical composer. Working with film, Takemitsu continues, with its rather more ‘coarse’ elements of (among many others) eroticism and violence, afforded him a certain freedom from the comparative ‘purity’ not only of writing concert works, but also of the increasing demands for abstraction from emotional impulse in contemporary art music, both of which occasionally, for him, threatened to border on stultifying. Indeed, his film scores, of which he composed more than 100 over the course of his career, do not at all represent a compromise of his compositional voice, but rather showcase his insatiable curiosity and urge towards experimentation to a very different degree.

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