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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A serious score to settle…: Elmer Bernstein and the music of “Airplane!”

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The Airplane! cast strike up a tune.

[UPDATE, 27/7/16: I recently came across an article on Elmer Bernstein by Ron Sadoff in Music and the Moving Image (available here: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/musimoviimag.6.3.0023), insights from which have now been incorporated into the penultimate paragraph.]

[UPDATE 2, 10/06/17: Having now found that the full soundtrack album is available on Spotify, I have included links at appropriate points. Non-Spotify users can find most of the score’s various moments and motifs in the Symphonic Suite arrangement available on YouTube.]

‘By rights you should hate Airplane!,’ writes Stuart Heritage in a 2010 Guardian run-off of the all-time greatest comedy films, ‘simply because its influence stretches to every single woeful parody film made in the last three decades.’ Whilst its gag-centric, plot-light approach has certainly been repeated ad nauseam to cover just about every cinematic genre and sub-genre imaginable (a development aided and abetted by directors Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams and David Zucker – collectively known as ZAZ – in subsequent projects), it has aged better and continues to tower far above any of its inferior imitators for various reasons. Aside from its memorable lines and sheer density of gags, one such reason is its use of actors previously famed for more earnest or “serious” work, most famously Leslie Nielsen, but also Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Barbara Billingsley and Peter Graves. Moreover, far from conforming to the film’s overcharged silliness, the comedy of these performances lies precisely in the actors’ gravitas and straightness of face, in stark contrast to the manic events that take place around them.

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Rex Kramer (Robert Stack, l.) and Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) in the control tower.

Part of this effect lies in the fact that Airplane!, as well as spoofing numerous films of the airborne disaster genre popular at the time, borrows much of its plot, and indeed dialogue, from the 1957 film Zero Hour!, the rights to which were owned and granted to the filmmakers by Airplane!‘s distributor, Paramount Studios. Retaining a certain faithfulness to this film in terms of spirit as well as structure and playing up the seriousness with which its scenario would once have been dealt reinforces the sense that it is, in fact, the overwrought and preposterous narrative not only of the original, but of other similar films, that provides Airplane!‘s real comedic meat, to which its hailstorm of verbal and visual gags is merely the sauce and dressing. It speaks volumes, for example, that Dr. Rumack’s line stressing the importance of ‘finding someone back there who can not only fly this plane, but who didn’t have fish for dinner’ stems not from the minds of ZAZ, but from Zero Hour!‘s actual script.

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