Saturday, August 14, 2010


It's here. It's grand... and it's irritating. It's strong... but it's wrong. It's beautiful and dutiful; and it's pitiful. It's the most elaborate presentation ever accorded a major film score, and it's driving movie soundtrack fans nuts.

I wrote a few weeks back about the then-forthcoming box set devoted to Spartacus, legendary 1960 epic film starring Kirk Douglas, Jean Simmons, and Sir Lawrence Olivier, directed by Stanley Kubrick and with a powerful and revered score--more mythic than heard--by Alex North. (This 2010 issue commemorates 50 years since the film's release, 100 years since North's birth, and the 1000th album produced by Robert Townson for Varese Sarabande Records.) About then, all hell broke loose among the rabid and raving filmscore fanatics, who proceeded to wrangle and argue and praise and thank and vilify the producer and his entire endeavor as hubris, aggrandizement, and wretched excess; a failure of imagination and a cock in the snoot to movie devotees who've yearned for decades for a complete score package but who now can't afford the $110 price tag, which buys six CDs of music plus a tribute DVD of interviews with composers influenced by North.

So they raged: "Has Townson gone 'round the bend? Seven discs and a fancy book?" "Where are all the other Stereo cues we know must be squirreled away somewhere?" "Who cares if Jazz musicians and other composers love 'The Love Theme' and want to share in the glory?" "Forget this overkill thing--when will the perfectly adequate two-CD Mono version be released, because I can afford that one?"

Now, a month later, the angry and the eager, the attackers and the defenders, the miffed boycotters and the paying customers, have managed to fill scores of pages of unsound but furious blog comments and namecalling back and forth, on the handful of websites devoted to soundtracks and other things filmish; the Film Score Monthly message board alone has well over a hundred pages. (After the first thread reached 1000 argumentative comments, a calmer thread was launched; find it here.) But now that the box set has actually been released, what will the verdict become?

Well, North's reputation will survive the brouhaha. After studying in Russia and then with Aaron Copland, scoring a dozen War years documentaries, and working with Silvestre Revueltas and a dance company in Mexico, in the late Forties North re-established himself in New York as a (sort of) serious composer for hire, which culminated in his startling music for the original staging of Death of a Salesman, directed by Elia Kazan. And then in 1951 he went from New York to Hollywood on the strength of Kazan's enthusiasm--where his music for A Streetcar Named Desire immediately proved potent, sensual, shocking and new. Film scoring had gotten by for 30 years on Germanic/symphonic grandeur, but North threw down the gauntlet, challenging studio bosses and excited viewers with elements of Jazz and Modernist dissonance. (Elmer Bernstein soon ran wild with the first, while every other young composer, from Jerry Goldsmith to John Williams, followed in North's wider wake.) By the time of Spartacus, he had a dozen major films in his resume and Cleopatra looming ahead.

The box set's four CDs devoted to the actual film score break down thus: the first has all locatible Stereo elements, 72 minutes worth. But as CDs two and three show in Monaural sound, the score actually runs to 140 minutes plus, so missing nearly 70 minutes of Stereo is a disappointment. On the other hand, the Mono soundtrack delivers most excellently in its own range-compressed way, and is complete. (The fourth CD offers 40 minutes of Mono alternate takes and timing cue preliminaries.)

North's powerful, variations-driven music lives up to the half-century of hype. Hearing all the instruments in crisp Stereo, including spectacular brass and many odd percussion add-ons, is certainly exciting--yet too many themes and developments and inner connecting pieces are missing, whereas the Mono CDs flow onward inexorably, with every tiny cue, changing theme, battle fanfare, exotic instrument, and tender passage in its proper place. Yes, I was swept along too, by what Star Wars/Superman composer John Williams (in a non-Spartacus context) once defined as North's amazing meld of Prokofiev and Jazz, of sweeping orchestral music, dissonant brass, Afro-American "blue" notes and a spirited Jazz attitude, reaching from Moscow to New Orleans.

There's no Jazz in Spartacus of course, and yet... One key melodic piece, long favored but lately berated, and usually called "The Love Theme from Spartacus," became a major sore point among the box set's naysayers. Townson made the calculated decision to include, originally one and then two, discs offering Jazz and semi-Classical arrangements of that exceptionally lovely theme--perhaps to suggest how influential North's music has been over the 50 years. (His "Unchained Melody" is another regularly recorded favorite.) For example, the main three-note motif must have been lurking in Johnny Mandel's mind when he composed "Emily." But I could be imagining things since I'm also hearing echoes of a pre-1960 "summer's day" song, "Lazy Afternoon" or "Green Leaves of Summer" maybe, which would imply North unconsciously echoing Jerome Moross or Dimitri Tiomkin...

Any possible similarities become more pronounced when one listens straight through all 22 theme-and-variations tracks included here--an astonishingly varied array ranging from a dozen flutes (all overdubbed by composer-player Alexandre Desplat); to cello and voice (Nathan Barr and Lisbeth Scott going for multiple layers, mournful and haunted); to terrific Jazz versions familiar from the past 30 years. Initially it was the latter that interested me most: Bill Evans' famous "self-conversation" playing three overlapping piano lines, and Gabor Szabo's unexpected, subdued-by-strings, ballad-to-bust-loose version of the tune, and the fiddle-the-soul thang John Clayton devised for Regina Carter's violin (with Marcus Belgrave on flugelhorn). Other performances, as by Yusef Lateef (exotic) and the Ramsey Lewis Trio (funky), seem tame in comparison, while new solo piano versions find the casual keyboarding of Jazzer Dave Grusin outgunned by the inventiveness of composer Patrick Doyle; and full orchestra ones reveal the London Symphony's sentimental love lament finale (conducted by Eric Stern) laid low by Lalo Schifrin's lively arrangement (shades of his Dizzy days), supporting the keening soprano sax of David Sanchez.

Among the remaining tracks are several that are closer to the sound of, well, soundtrack music--pleasing, perfectly suitable, less essential to a Jazz fan. But I was surprised and transported far by a quintessential quintet of takes: Carlos Santana challenged by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Harvey Mason--heavy hitters in a heavenly Latin groove--and his cosmos guitar rising, no, soaring, up and over the stars. Newcomer Diego Navarro recording in the Canary Islands and delivering a gorgeous piano/bass/violin/bandoneon makeover, a tango that sings passionately, evoking the apache dives of Paris and the dancehalls of Piazzolla's Paris of the South.

The brilliant back-to-back performances--sort of high-powered ambient music--by pianist-composer John Debney (with Tina Guo improvising on cello) followed by many-instruments-man Brian Tyler (his piece like the clear changing rush of a mountain stream) provide a quietly glorious climax midway through Disc 2, a one-two punch that makes the last four versions seem diminished and anti-climactic. But even Debney and Tyler are topped, back early on Disc 1, when Mark Isham calmly shows off his chops, blowing great Miles-ish trumpet in a fusion-drive arrangement backed by his eclectric trio called Houston Street; of that little-known band, Tom Brechtlein splashes his drumlines everywhere, and multi-tasking keyboardist Jeff Babko keeps mightily busy. Easily the longest version at 11-minutes-plus, flowing major to minor and back again, Isham's magical remake best shows how far Jazz musicians can get starting from just three notes.

Of the other items in the box set, I'm not inclined to say much. The DVD of interviews with film composers Desplat, Isham, Navarro, David Newman, Schifrin, Tyler, Williams, Christopher Young, and producer Townson himself is packed with many epiphanic moments, but Townson's decision not to cross-edit, or cutaway to pictures, or offer musical examples--no livening allowed!--but instead simply to show each commentator speaking straight through his contribution to each discussion chapter, one then another then another, again and again and again... does get a mite sleep-inducing. But watch it a few chapters at a time, and all's well. The 100-page book he wrote, in contrast, is packed with wonderful photos, carefully detailed musical analysis, great anecdotes, a thorough bio and filmography of North, and more--Townson's prose clear and eminently readable. I now believe I'd buy the set just for his book and the Love Theme CDs.

So getting the complete Spartacus score as well, two-and-a-quarter hours of perfect music, a complex and many-layered composition the equivalent in length of two symphonies, that took North over a year to create and in the half century since has proved to be hugely influential as one of the top two or three masterworks by one of the top five film composers of all time... well, let's just say the Spartacus box set is really all cake and no need for frosting.

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