Saturday, April 28, 2012

Screen Credit Quiz (Round 6): The Undiscovered Country

That's right, folks, time for another round of the Screen Credit Quiz!  Guess the movie by composer screen credit.  Put your guesses in the comments, and good luck! 








Past rounds links are here: Round 1, Round 2, Round 3 (JW), Round 4, Round 5 (B&W)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Basil Poledouris: The Collaborator

As much as I’ve enjoyed Basil Poledouris’ music over the years, I really didn’t know much about his life.  Turns out that his rise to film scoring was very similar to other composers.  
Basil was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1945.  He began with piano lessons at age 7.  Originally thinking of becoming a concert pianist, his mind was changed at University of Southern California and he made his way into the cinema department.  At USC, he took film composition classes with teacher Miklós Rózsa and eventually David Raksin.  Also at USC at the time were John Milius and Randal Kleiser – both of which would collaborate as director with Poledouris.  Besides some TV movies and documentaries, Poledouris’ big break into feature film scoring was with John Milius as director.  Those films were The Reversal of Richard Sun (1970) and Big Wednesday (1978).  His collaboration with classmate Randal Kleiser began with The Blue Lagoon (1980) and Summer Lovers (1982).  
Poledouris’s big break came from Conan the Barbarian in 1982, directed by Milius.  Given a 90-piece orchestra and full choir, Poledouris filled the film with music.  The music really is a centerpiece of the film, with tons of both strong action music and lots of moments when the music is front and center.  The film would define Poledouris’s style and certainly gave him worldwide attention.  Although the director changed, he returned to the sequel, Conan the Destroyer (1984).  Poledouris again reteamed with Milius for the Soviet invasion film, Red Dawn (1984).  He expanded his repertoire with a more atonal score.  Some of Poledouris’s most emotional music was written for the TV miniseries Amerika (1987).  He experimented with a more electronic sound for Cherry 2000 (1987), and another electronic score for No Man’s Land (1987).

Another prominent collaboration was with Paul Verhoeven in 1985 for the medieval epic Flesh+Blood.  Poledouris joined Verhoeven for the great action film RoboCop (1987).  His combination of electronic synthesizers and the traditional orchestra worked perfectly for describing the main character.  The next Milius collaboration was one of Poledouris’s most melodic scores – Farewell to the King (1989).  It is a sweeping score, akin to John Barry’s lush scores of the same time.  For the western miniseries Lonesome Dove (1989), Poledouris wrote around 4 ½ hours.  The miniseries won him an Emmy Award.  When Verhoeven came to score his next film, Total Recall (1990), Poledouris had to decline due to scheduling conflicts.  (The score was eventually given to Jerry Goldsmith, who would collaborate with Verhoeven several other times).  Poledouris’s other score happened to be The Hunt for Red October (1990).  The thriller score featured Poledouris’s trademark choral sound as seen in the standout track “Hymn for the Red October”. 

With the success of Lonesome Dove, Poledouris joined director Simon Wincer for the western Quigley Down Under (1990).  As an opportunity to score Dances with Wolves (1990) arose, Poledouris had to turn it down to score Milius’ Flight of the Intruder.  Another odd score story is for White Fang (1991).  Poledouris was replaced by Hans Zimmer, but the studio chose a compilation of their cues, with a majority of cues by Poledouris who ended up getting primary credit.  After handing over RoboCop 2 to composer Leonard Rosenman, he returned in 1993 to RoboCop 3.  One of his biggest hits in the ‘90s came from Free Willy (1993) with director Wincer.  1994 brought a bunch of films, including children fare Lassie, and The Jungle Book.  1995 saw two sequels: Under Siege 2, and Free Willy 2.     

Along with John Williams’ Summon the Heroes, Basil composed a piece called Tradition of the Games for the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics.  Among many other smaller films, Poledouris reteamed with Paul Verhoeven for Starship Troopers (1997).  His daughter Zoë composed and performs one of the songs for the film, as well as showing up as an uncredited actress.  As he replaced Gabriel Yared for Les Miserables (1998), he produced one of his finest scores of his career.  The score was dedicated to longtime friend and orchestrator Greig McRitchie who orchestrated most of Poledouris’s scores since the 1980s. 

His scores in the late ‘90s include the intimate Kimberly (1999), the baseball drama For the Love of the Game (1999).  He reteamed with Simon Wincer one last time for Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (2001).  He also composed music to The Touch (2002) and his last project, a TV movie – The Legend of Butch and Sundance (2003). 

He conducted a rare concert of his own works at the
Ubeda Film Music Festival in summer, 2006.  Poledouris later succumbed to cancer in November, 2006 at the age of 61.   

His style has been emulated over the years, as he was influenced by the great epic scores of the Golden Age.  He formed strong collaborations with a few of directors and his music shined through no matter what genre.  He found the emotional core of characters and situations.  His romantic scores work just as well as his scores to thrillers.  His love of sailing shone through in scores like Wind (1992) and Free Willy (1993).  His use of synthesizers enhanced his scores and found ways to use them alongside the symphony orchestra.  He hit his stride right off the bat with Conan the Barbarian, and continued to hone his craft throughout his career.  Whether epic action cues, or smaller intimate moments, Poledouris’ music shines though.
His "Conan Symphony" performed at Ubeda (part 1 of 5):

Friday, April 13, 2012

Who Conducts?

Since most Hollywood composers of the Golden Age began as arrangers, big band conductors or with Broadway experience, it was natural for the composer to also be the conductor for the film score.  The practice has been common throughout the classical world.  Knowing the material best, and being able to instruct the orchestra to their exact ideas is the best reason for this practice.  And who wouldn't love to see "Composed and conducted by...." on their albums?  

This list features a handful of composers who have conducted their own scores for the scoring sessions.  (By no means complete.) Many of these composers have conducted most-to-all of their scores.  Also included are pictures of the composers wielding their batons.  

Top row (l to r): Malcolm Arnold, Miklos Rozsa, Carter Burwell, John Barry, Georges Delerue, Bruce Broughton
2nd row: Randy Newman, Max Steiner, Ennio Morricone, Howard Shore, Alfred Newman, Christopher Lennertz
3rd row: Henry Mancini, Randy Edelman, Alex North, Maurice Jarre, Brian Tyler, James Horner
4th row: Bernard Herrmann, Alan Silvestri, David Newman, Cliff Eidelman, Dimitri Tiomkin, Lalo Schifrin
5th row: Michael Kamen, John Williams, Basil Poledouris, Elmer Bernstein, Alexandre Desplat, Jerry Goldsmith

Not every composer conducts.  Distinguished composers like Hans Zimmer, Michael Giacchino, Danny Elfman and James Newton Howard prefer to stay in the booth and make adjustments from there.   

That still leaves us with more conductors....TO BE CONTINUED

Monday, April 2, 2012

Quick Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
Music composed by James Newton Howard
Executive Produced by T-Bone Burnett
Conducted by: Gavin Greenaway
Orchestrated by: Jeff Atmajian, Jon Kull, Pete Anthony
Score Recorded at: Air Lyndhurst Studios, London
Album time: 44 minutes
Available on Universal Republic

Success is what The Hunger Games does well.  The novels by Suzanne Collins have been bestsellers and the film adaptation is no different.  The film seems to be breaking lots of box office records. 

The film’s music has had a few interesting additions over time.  Danny Elfman was first slated to score the film as reported this past summer.  Elfman left the talks due to scheduling, and was replaced by James Newton Howard.  Around January, conductor/orchestrator Pete Anthony made headlines about the scoring location of the film.  Read the story here.  Also added to the mix was music impresario T-Bone Burnett.  Burnett composed some additional music, including Deep in the Meadow (Lullaby).  And after all we are with the final score.

Here is my rundown and review of the score album.

The score opens quietly setting up the poor area in District 12.  It seems folksy but ominous at the same time.  The first 20 minutes of the film really set up all the information about the life they live in that District, and introducing us to Katniss.  I really like the orchestration in Katniss Afoot.  It’s a combination of bluegrass and traditional film scoring.  The sounds of the dulcimer/cimbalom and Celtic fiddle add to the ambience of the score.  Unfortunately, this track was not included in the film.  Reaping Day features mostly strings, which remind me of the Wayne theme from Batman Begins.  It’s a shame these tracks are so short and seem so quiet in the film, because they feature some nice writing. 

The Train is a great track.  Featuring some of Howard’s lyrical talents, it is beautiful and a bit foreboding at the same time.  Entering the Capitol starts with a wordless choir.  The music sets up the scene nicely, slowly building the score up.  Preparing the Chariots gives us little hints of the Capitol Anthem, and the overlay beats aren’t irritating at all.  The track leads into the full statement of the Capitol Anthem in Horn of Plenty.  This is the song written by Arcade Fire and arranged by James Newton Howard.  This is a great moment in the film, and a standout on the album.  And yes, there are lyrics to the song which I had to look up to understand. 

The next part of the film (and score) is about the various teams training for and going into the Hunger Games.  Penthouse/Training starts with strings and ethnic solos by Greg Knowles which transitions into a percussion heavy section.  The electronic overlay continues in Learning the Skills, a pseudo montage section of the film.  The Countdown is another track on the album that is not in the film.  Again, with the last unused cue, it is nice music that is welcome on the album.  It certainly fits with the countdown to the Games, as it crescendos to the end of the track.  Booby Trap features an odd set of orchestrations and various ethnic instruments.  As it is supposed to be strange, it works very well in the film to heighten the tension.  We also get a bit of the motifs heard earlier in the film. 

Healing Katniss has an excellent fiddle solo and more guitars in a track that works well outside the film.  The longest track on the album is Rue’s Farewell.  This is a turning point in the film, and director Gary Ross really let Howard’s music shine through.  It features a prominent guitar solo, and the beautiful string writing James Newton Howard is great at.  This is the stand out track by far.  We Could Go Home again repeats some of the earlier motifs on cimbalom.  Again, nice underscoring and blossoming melodic ideas cut off too short.  Searching for Peeta combines the ethnic instruments with the electronic overlay.  Music for The Cave is lyrical and sweet.  Featuring more solos including a piano solo and it seems to be reprising some past melodies, but it’s hard to tell.  Another long track is Muttations.  It quickly turns into the only ‘action’ cue in the film.  It features the writing similar to The Tourist (2010), lots of heavy percussion, electronic elements and even an electric guitar.  I guess it’s not bad.  It switches over to a dramatic section featuring some past melodies.  The end of the album is Tenuous Winners/Returning Home.  As the music seems slightly uplifting, we get a reprise of the melody in Rue’s Farewell.  And with that, the score album ends.  

The three songs in the end credits appear on the soundtrack album:  Abraham’s Daughter by Arcade Fire, Safe & Sound by Taylor Swift, Kingdom Come by The Civil Wars.  Note – the rest of the songs on the soundtrack are not included anywhere in the film.  But members of The Punch Brothers (who appear on the soundtrack) played in some parts of the score.  Also strangely not appearing on either album is some tracked music by Evgueni Galperine titled Farewell for the beginning of the film.  A bit of Steve Reich’s Three Movements for Orchestra is in the film as well as a track from Hanna (2011) by The Chemical Brothers.           

At an impressive 44 minutes, the album is certainly short - but not necessarily sweet.  I should clarify: it’s not bad music.  It overall doesn’t leave an impression on you either in the film or on the album.  Besides the Horn of Plenty and Rue’s Farewell, you might have to scratch your head to remember other music in the film besides mandolin strumming.  The folksy nature did work well in the film.  Even with frantic editing and jarring camera moves in parts of the film, the score never follows suit.  For such a high-stakes scenario, the score rarely gets too frenetic.  It grounds the film with our characters although none of the main characters have notable motifs or themes.

There are some nice moments on the album that might grow on you, especially if you’re a fan of James Newton Howard.  If he continues with the following sequels - all I want is more.