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which remain largely unknown – instantly evoke a 1980s aesthetic and sound that is both fondly celebrated and jarringly outdated: “Flashdance…What a Feeling” from the 1983 film of the same name1984’s “Together in Electric Dreams” with the Human League’s Philip Oakley; or, to top it off,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.

It is certainly not hard to see how Moroder’s approach might have offended musical purists. Alongside his increasing use of electronic instrumentation, his albums and singles frequently (and unabashedly) rode musical and commercial trends, combining elements from already popular styles with electric or electronic backings that fully reflected the move witnessed in the 1970s away from the live musical experience and towards the discotheque. Whereas Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, with their respective forays into electronica, made music to be thought about as well as listened to, Moroder’s was quite explicitly designed for dancing. His work in particular with the American singer Donna Summer in the 1970s, such as their tantric 1975 magnum opus “Love to Love You Baby” and 1977’s watermark “I Feel Love”, made no pretensions to being much more than being solid, dependable floor-fillers with all the right ingredients: a formula that anticipated – and received – a great deal of commercial success.

It is not for nothing, however, that Moroder’s influence on pop music has been considerable and long-lasting, and the inordinate focus on his commercial sensibilities and success does something of a disservice to a compositional personality that was constantly experimenting with novel ideas, approaches and techniques, many of which are now so commonplace that the modern music market is inconceivable without them. Indeed, Eno, upon first hearing “I Feel Love”, famously and rapturously described it as “the sound of the future”. Much of this can be put down to the sense of freedom Moroder felt as a self-taught musician that left him free to play by his own rules. Indeed, in Daft Punk’s 2013 homage-cum-interview “Giorgio by Moroder”, whose name alone demonstrates exactly how his innovative and trademark sounds have since been liberally applied like a luxury fragrance, the man himself put it thus: “Once you free your mind about a concept […] of music being ‘correct’, you can do whatever you want […] Nobody told me what to do, and there was no preconception of what to do.”

The phenomenal success that “I Feel Love” in particular enjoyed both on and off the dancefloor – not to mention the eagerness of Moroder’s label Casablanca to capitalise on it – soon brought him fresh opportunities. As luck would have it, Casablanca’s film production arm was currently putting the finishing touches on its very first release, a gritty and gruelling prison drama based on the memoirs of Billy Hayes, a young American who had escaped from jail in Turkey after being sent down for drug smuggling. Director Alan Parker (above) had originally approached electronic musician and composer Vangelis (later of Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner fame) to provide the film’s score, and indeed had already begun work laying down some tracks and musical ideas. Upon Casablanca’s polite insistence, however, Parker was put in touch with the “in-house” Moroder instead, with the resulting collaboration proving, in Parker’s words, “very rewarding” and, in Moroder’s, “very easy”.

Brad Davis (l.) and the real-life Billy Hayes on the set of Midnight Express

The film was Midnight Express, and while the adaptation of Hayes’s experiences – through the course of various treatments by Parker, scriptwriter Oliver Stone, the studio executives at Casablanca and, naturally, Hayes himself – became increasingly looser as time wore on, Parker’s treatment retains at least the bare bones of his story. At the film’s outset, Hayes (played by Brad Davis in his first major screen role) is arrested at Istanbul airport after attempting to smuggle out two kilogrammes of hashish. Made an example of by the Turkish authorities, he is sentenced first to four years, and then to life in prison for his transgression, and the film pulls no punches in depicting the harsh and unforgiving nature of the regime inside Sağmalcılar prison where he is sent.

Moroder (c.) receives his Academy Award from Raquel Welch and Dean Martin.

As much controversy as the film’s subject matter generated for its at best naively stereotyped and at worst overtly racist portrayal of Turkish nationals, its music received a markedly more positive response, securing Moroder the 1979 Academy Award for Best Original Score – the first for an all-electronic soundtrack – on what was effectively his debut as a feature film composer. Coming only a year after John Williams scooped the same prize with his epic, all-orchestral Star Wars score, however, Moroder’s selection naturally raised a few eyebrows. Film music historian Mervyn Cooke, for instance, shows (if perhaps unwittingly) a certain degree of disparagement in characterising the electronic scores of both Moroder and Vangelis through their “unadventurous melodic use of synthesisers, eschewing [their] more radical timbral possibilities […] in favour of quasi-orchestral textures that offered the promise of both low budgets and mass-market appeal”.

Cooke’s observations, while perfectly valid, are also somewhat uncharitable, particularly given that Moroder’s score represents a natural progression in the increasing electronification of film scoring since the 1950s. From the well-established cliche, as exemplified by Bernard Herrmann in The Day The Earth Stood Still or Dmitri Tiomkin in The Thing From Another World, of denoting alien visitors (and hence otherworldly threats) through the unmistakable wail of the theremin, to the “Switched On” Beethoven provided by Wendy (then Walter) Carlos for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange to underscore Alex deLarge’s debauched and ultraviolent personality, electronic instruments and scores had long become a musical byword to delineate the abnormal and deviant, thereby helping the viewer to locate themselves on the “right” side of the divide. For other filmmakers such as John Carpenter, meanwhile, the comparatively inexpensive and compact properties of the synthesiser both avoided the need for expensive studio orchestras, composers and arrangers, and helped maintain a degree of creative control by giving them the means to compose their own scores.

Billy is rumbled at Istanbul airport.

Moroder’s music for Midnight Express, in contrast, is conspicuous precisely because of its comparatively utilitarian nature, and similarly innovative in its apparent lack of innovation. As atmospheric an accompaniment as it provides for Parker’s film, its overall effect is of a sound now so commonplace to the average cinemagoer that it represents a feasibly and equally appropriate choice for a gritty present-day drama as a traditional film score. One reason for this may lie in the practicalities of the film’s production. In contrast with Tangerine Dream’s similarly all-electronic score for William Friedkin’s thriller Sorcerer, which they were encouraged to create in complete isolation from the film’s visuals, Moroder and Parker worked very closely with the finished cut of Midnight Express to produce a score that, in time-honoured fashion, provided an undercurrent to what was already established on screen. In this sense, Cooke’s description of Moroder’s “quasi-orchestral textures” is absolutely appropriate, as these textures essentially supplant what previously would have been a real orchestra in providing the dramaturgical function of the film’s music.

Indeed, as well as underscoring Billy’s gradual psychological and physical deterioration behind bars, Moroder’s audibly “foreign” electronic textures come as much to represent the gruelling pressures of the prison system that gradually grind him down to an almost atavistic state, the representation of a seemingly all-powerful force that he fails to understand. The recurring cue “The Wheel”, for example, which plays during the ritual clockwise walk the inmates are impelled (or compelled) to make around an underground pillar, hints at the slow disintegration of Billy’s sanity as its harmonies become progressively more discordant and unstable.

As he is told in another scene of the extension of his sentence to life imprisonment, the crescendoing electronic sounds perform a similar function as the hand of the corrupt and sadistic chief guard Hamidou that clamps over his face and drags him back into the hell from which Billy thought he had escaped. Similarly, the accompaniment to the film’s infamous “tongue-biting” scene, in which Billy viciously attacks the prison snitch Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli), steadily grows in volume until it overpowers the scene’s own diegetic sound with ominous explosions of low and rumbling synth, giving the viewer the impression of hearing the roar in Billy’s ears as he is consumed by his berserker rage.

Admittedly, this does little to dispel the sense of an act of “othering” (intentional or otherwise) that numerous commentators have since identified as a running feature of Midnight Express between its Western “heroes” and Eastern “villains”. To Moroder’s credit, his score never indulges in the (often stereotypical) national and cultural musical signifiers otherwise widely prevalent in contemporary popular cinema – with the glaring exception of the Eastern flavour suddenly lent its main theme by the appearance of the hijaz mode, practically a musical calling card for the exotic Orient since at least the nineteenth century. The combination, however, of disconcerting electronic textures with the unmistakably Turkish (or “Turkish”) images in the film’s opening sequence, for example, with Istanbul’s Blue Mosque a prominent but shadowy presence in the background, provides an aural and musical dimension to a sense of alienation that is already (if unintentionally) established on a visual and narrative level, painting the locality in which the film takes place, in a manner not too dissimilar from the 1950s films mentioned earlier, as inherently threatening and strange.

At the same time as speaking to commercial trends, however, many of the apparent period cliches of Moroder’s soundtrack reveal themselves, in the knowledge of the film’s historical context, to have been very much ahead of the curve. If the “Chase” theme that accompanies Billy’s attempted flight from the authorities shortly after his arrest reminds the viewer more than a little of “I Feel Love”, this may be because this was almost precisely the intention. In numerous interviews and recollections since the film’s release (for example, this one conducted at the Library of Congress), Moroder has spoken of Parker’s keenness to replicate the exciting and driving pulse of “I Feel Love” particularly for this scene (Parker, for his part, gives a somewhat different account). Although there are certainly some similarities between the two, chiefly in terms of their tempo, minimal chord progressions and a shared home key of C, “Chase” represents more than merely a retouched update of his previous hit, instead showcasing Moroder’s adaptation of his own trademark sound in the pursuit of something more “cinematic”.

Whereas “I Feel Love” revolved around a tirelessly constant backing track, for instance, “Chase” continuously shifts and morphs over an otherwise solid four-to-the-floor disco beat, with studio-treated percussion fading in and out and its foundational bass line moving between stolid quavers and more dynamic arpeggiated semiquavers. Ironically enough, its characteristically “80s” sound,making it equally suited to a Miami Vice episode, predates the actual 1980’s by some years, and indeed sets something of a template for the later popular pairing of pulsating electronic pop music with suspenseful action thrillers, such as in Tangerine Dream’s Thief and Risky Business soundtracks or Harold Faltermeyer’s iconic “Axel F” theme from Beverly Hills Cop. Indeed, various elements look as much to the future as to the past, with the soft, warbling background synth washes (previously heard for example in Herbie Hancock’s more experimental 1970’s output) and the essential open hi-hat rhythms of disco (on both the on- and off-beats) hinting at the house movement that would later take off in New York, and the track’s EDM credentials were such that it would be remixed more than twenty years later by trance heavyweights Jam & Spoon (a.k.a Storm of “Time to Burn” fame).

Yet Moroder’s score is often more than purely electronic, adrenaline-fuelled window dressing, providing at times a larger macro-dramaturgy that extends beyond the immediate moment and hints at the broader story to come. The main theme tune, for instance, rather than being announced at the opening, is instead interspersed at various points throughout the film. As Billy’s British cellmate Max (John Hurt) explains, the “Midnight Express” of the film’s title is prison slang for an escape, and the continual recurrence of this main theme emphasises that, despite Max’s grim assessment that “it doesn’t stop around here”, this drastic measure remains Billy’s only hope of salvation as all other, more legal options and channels are gradually closed to him and the legal system in which he becomes enveloped grows more impenetrable. First heard as Billy is led to interrogation at the airport, it then reappears as he is escorted from the courtroom after being handed down his sentence – crucially, without the same knowledge as his lawyer and his father that he has even been sentenced – and then again as he is led to his cell, his home for at least the next four years.

As well as closing one circle by rounding off the film, the reappearance of the theme at the film’s close also concludes Billy’s journey by soundtracking the eventual moment at which he catches the titular “Midnight Express” – in plain sight, disguised, fittingly enough, as a prison guard, thereby concealing himself in the vestments of the very system that had previously threatened to snuff him out. Having been previously limited to a simple, even somewhat elegant piano instrumentation, the completeness of Billy’s escape is reinforced by the far fuller “orchestration” the theme is now allowed, not to mention by the series of black-and-white still photographs that depict his happy reunion with his family in the States.

Rather than revelling in Billy’s supposed triumph, however, Moroder’s theme stays resolutely in its mournful minor key, an aspect not fully communicated in the rather poppier version that was released on the soundtrack album (above). Indeed, with Stone’s screenplay originally due to close with an exciting chase sequence depicting Billy’s dash for the Greek border, Parker is arguably right to suggest that this comparatively sober (if not sombre) conclusion provided a better ending to the film, and the close-up on Billy’s noticeably older and wearier face reminds the viewer that, although there was considerable daring involved in both Hayes’s pro-filmic and real-life escapes, the circumstances of his capture and incarceration were notably less heroic.

From examination of the accompanying soundtrack album, the track “Love’s Theme” might at first imply a straightforward motif for Billy’s relationship with his faithful girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle), unbroken for the five years he spends behind bars. Instead, however, it plays over a montage sequence as a no less tender companionship begins to form instead between Billy and his Swedish cellmate Erich (Norbert Weisser), culminating in a coyly filmed kiss in the prison showers which nevertheless landed Parker in questioning at US customs. The outcome of this budding relationship is ultimately somewhat heteronormative, as Billy, despite never outright rejecting Erich’s advances, does not fully reciprocate his affections, and its brief inclusion in the plot might, for some, display a perfunctoriness that amounts almost to sensationalism, a gay subplot that the filmmakers seemingly did not have the courage to develop any further.

Erich (Norbert Weisser) and Billy share a tender moment.

Nevertheless, this choice of accompaniment, which would otherwise smack of cliche in a (hetero)normal romantic film (indeed, even before such cliches became commonplace in the 1980s), beginning with a tentative piano melody accompanied by tremolo strings before launching forth into a fully-fledged romantic ballad, adds here an almost refreshing sense of realism. Quite apart from being truer to Hayes’s experiences than many other aspects of Midnight Expressas he did engage in a consensual sexual relationship with a fellow prisoner during his time in Turkey, and certainly compared with the implications of sexual violence that fuelled the film’s controversy, his and Erich’s relationship, although ultimately abortive, is presented with a certain genuineness that makes one almost forget the prison background against which it takes place. Whether or not the moment it underscores is more “[one] of closeness and tenderness to another human being” as Parker saw it, the addition of Moroder’s music seemingly draws no distinction between the classic Hollywood romance between a man and a woman, and one between two men, and is in any case a moment of bright relief in what is otherwise a very dark scenario.


In many senses, Moroder’s Midnight Express soundtrack, like much of his studio music, rode a wave, tapping into contemporary trends and with an approach that was at least as audience-focused as it was creative-focused, if not more so. As seen from the examples included above, however, it would be unfair to evaluate it entirely on this basis. As well as profiting from a general commercial and creative shift towards scores that freely mixed elements of both electronic and pop music, its Oscar victory in particular provided a proven formula that paved the way for similar successes. Vangelis, for example, having been passed over in favour of Moroder for Midnight Express, would win his own Oscar three years later for Chariots of Fire with a similarly modern-sounding electronic score, only this time applied to a 1920’s period piece.

Above all, however, to argue that Moroder’s score fails to measure up to titans such as Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams or Ennio Morricone (all of whom Moroder beat to his Academy Award) is to miss the point. Particularly in Moroder’s much-sampled soundtrack for Brian de Palma’s Scarface, but arguably just as applicable to much of his 1980’s film work including Flashdance and The Neverending Story, not to mention his rebooted MetropolisPhilip Brophy identifies how the “symbolic function and textural weight” of Moroder’s material is “elucidated by the aural materiality of its soundtrack”. In other words, not only does it make no secret of its own artifice or seek to disguise its “materiality” as music generated predominantly by synthesisers, but it is positively central to the viewer’s overall audiovisual experience, the manner in which they combine what they see with what they hear.

In Scarface‘s case, Brophy argues, Moroder’s “glorious disco score” is fully commensurate with Tony Montana’s orgiastic displays of decadence and excess. In Midnight Express, on the other hand, Moroder’s score, beneath its superficial gloss and electronic song-and-dance, follows more closely the nuances of Parker’s dramaturgy, mirroring its rises and falls, its highs and lows, much as would be expected from a traditional film score and orchestra. While perhaps not delivering classic “Giorgio by Moroder” as he would in his later soundtracks, Midnight Express displays a certain subtlety that may communicate a lack of confidence to some, but a veritable surfeit of it to others.

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