Friday, May 25, 2012

Bill Conti: The Inspirational

Bill Conti’s work has gone places that many composers dream of.  His achievements have ranged from world famous themes, numerous simultaneous television credits, and conducting the Academy Awards (in addition to winning one of his own).

Conti was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1942.  He started piano as a child with his father as his teacher.  He eventually added bassoon to his repertoire.  The family moved to Florida, and there Conti joined his high school band and orchestra.  He majored in composition at Louisiana State University, and continued playing bassoon, playing jazz in night clubs and arranging music for the marching band.  After LSU, he was accepted into the Juilliard School of Music, where he received a Master’s Degree. 

Conti moved to Italy in 1967 and began arranging and scoring for various projects.  Upon moving back to the United States in 1974, he was tapped by director Paul Mazursky to move to Hollywood and score Blume in Love (1973).  It was Mazursky who would also bring Conti along for Harry and Tonto (1974).  The score would bring Conti some Hollywood attention, but not as much as the score he did for director John G. Avildsen – Rocky (1976).  The film (which won the Oscar for Best Picture), featured Conti’s theme song “Gonna Fly Now”.  The song was both Golden Globe and Oscar nominated.  The hit song also appeared at #1 on the Billboard charts in 1977, as well as RIAA Certified Platinum Album and RIAA Certified Gold Record.  The theme of course is synonymous with sports films, montages and certainly entered pop culture with numerous references in films and TV.  The song “Gonna Fly Now” was also voted to the AFI 100 Songs list. 

For the 49th Annual Academy Awards (1977), he was designated Music Director for the first time.  Conti’s history as Oscar conductor is legendary and one of his great accomplishments. 

Conti continued scoring TV movies and films at a quick pace.  Other scores from the 1970s include: An Unmarried Woman (1978), F.I.S.T. (1978), the Stallone film Paradise Alley (1978), Slow Dancing in the Big City (1978), A Man, A Woman and a Bank (1979) for Paul Mazursky, and Rocky II (1979) which expanded his themes from the original in tone and orchestration. 

His success continued into the 1980s starting with the comedy Private Benjamin (1980).  As the James Bond franchise continued into the 1980s, usual composer John Barry was swapped for Conti in For Your Eyes Only (1981).  The film was a hit, and again featured a hit title song.  The hit song (sung by Sheena Easton), was nominated for both the Golden Globes and Oscars, both losing to Arthur’s Theme from Arthur (1981).  The 80s also brought Conti to the small screen, writing themes for television shows like Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Cagney & Lacey, and even American Gladiators.  Continuing with the franchise, Conti scored Rocky III (1982).  Conti also scored the astronaut drama The Right Stuff (1983).  Many moments in the score are based on music heard in the temp tracks, notably music by Henry Mancini and classical composers Piotr Tchaikovsky and Gustav Holst (Mancini and Holst are listed in the credits in the song section).  Nevertheless, the score won the Oscar for Best Score in 1984, being Bill Conti’s first win.

For the 1984 Summer Olympics, Conti contributed The Power Sports Theme.  Also in 1984, he reunited with Rocky director John G. Avildsen for The Karate Kid.  He also continued scoring the series with Karate Kid Part II (1986), Karate Kid Part III (1989) and The Next Karate Kid (1994).  Another large success for Conti was the TV mini-series North and South (1985) and the sequel North and South, Book II (1986).  Conti was nominated for an Emmy for his work on the original series.  He had other hits in the late 1980s including the stinker Masters of the Universe (1987), Broadcast News (1987) and the drama Lean on Me (1989) with John G. Avildsen.   One of the few film composers to have one, Conti received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1989.

His role as musical director for the Academy Awards continued, and received an Emmy for Musical Director for the 64th Annual Awards.  Conti returned to Rocky (after not scoring Rocky IV) – for the next film Rocky V (1990).  Through the 90s, he continued to be the go-to Oscar musical director.  He scored a lot of light-hearted scores including The Adventures of Huck Finn (1993), Rookie of the Year (1993), and Spy Hard (1996).  Conti reunited with Nomads (1986) director John McTiernan for The Thomas Crown Affair (1999).  He also wrote several themes for ABC News Primetime Live as it evolved in the 2000s.  He returned to the Rocky franchise with a different take on his past scores with Rocky Balboa (2006). 

He continues to score films and conducts various orchestras around the world.  He has conducted or been musical director of the Academy Awards 19 times.  The score to the film Tropic Thunder (2008) even has a track title (which takes place at the Oscars) titled “Cue Bill Conti”. 

Conti’s music works hand in hand with the inspirational montages found in the Rocky and Karate Kid films.  His score to The Right Stuff is just as inspirational and emotional.  His scores range in many genres and he has a great ability to get to the moment of whatever the director is asking.  His scores fit the emotions and the action every time.  His themes from television are iconic, and his work in films is top notch.  

Bill Conti, 60th Oscars (1987)
Bill Conti, 71st Oscars (1998)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Quick Review: The Avengers

The Avengers
Music composed by Alan Silvestri
Conducted by: Alan Silvestri
Orchestrated by: John Ashton Thomas, Mark Graham, Dave Metzger, Alan Silvestri
Recorded at: Abbey Road Studios, London
Album time: Intrada (76 min); Download (64 min)
Available on Hollywood Records/Intrada Records

With the Marvel film lead-in films Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America, writer/director Joss Whedon has finally brought all the characters together in The Avengers.  The Marvel films have gone through a nice variety of composers: Ramin Djawadi, Craig Armstrong, John Debney, and Patrick Doyle.  After his triumphant score to Captain America, Alan Silvestri returns with The Avengers.

In a surprising move to score albums and the sadly fading physical CD sales, the score was released as a 64 minute download album as well as a 76 minute CD.  I’ll be reviewing the physical disc, since it has more music than the download.  (Note: The download has one less track, and the minutes trimmed off various tracks).

Like the previous Marvel films, the story starts right away without main credits, no themes blaring at the beginning.  He did start Captain America in this same way, which evolved as the character did.

Silvestri starts the score in a very militaristic style, similar to G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra (2009).  The music in Doors Open from Both Sides and Tunnel Chase sound like generic action cues.  Tunnel Chase does sound like a lot of Silvestri’s past work, with the snare drums at high levels.  The heroic sounding Avengers theme is hinted at the end of the track.  We don’t get a chock-full of new themes for the characters, but really only 2 main themes for the film.  (First being the Avengers theme).

The new character theme is for Black Widow, which first appears in Interrogation.  The theme has a Russian flavor to it, like Black Widow herself.  (This track only appears on the Intrada release). Stark Goes Green is one of the tracks benefitted by the longer release.  The track features a keyboard solo and one of the quieter tracks.  Helicarrier is a standout track of the album which features the brass kicking in, and large horn moments.

Subjugation, while relying heavy on percussion and the ever-present Silvestri anvil and snare drum, it provides good tension and even features a snippet of his own Captain America theme.  It is hinted at in the score a few times, which works well as his motif.  Don’t Take My Stuff features more action music (no surprise there), as well a more quiet moment with the Tesseract theme. (The Tesseract theme was hinted in Silvestri's previous Captain America score).  Red Ledger features a reprise of Black Widow’s theme.  This track is largely underscoring the talk between Loki and Black Widow, and a welcome break between action scenes in the film.

Assault mixes a few past motifs, including a hint at Captain America, the Tesseract and a brief turn at the Avengers Theme.  As our heroes start joining together, we get Performance Issues, which feature some electronics but nice touches of our main theme, and a great heroic moment at the end of the track.  (This track is greatly expanded on the Intrada version).

From this point on, the music is almost all action and the score takes off. More ostinatos and heroic moments appear in Assemble.  The last quarter of the track is cheer-worthy, as the Avengers finally appear as a group – we finally get a fuller rendition of the Avengers Theme and the music really carries that moment in the film.  I Got a Ride is in a similar vein as some of his material in The Mummy Returns (2001) and Van Helsing (2004).  Silvestri kicks into gear, and a transformed Black Widow’s theme appears in a heroic fashion.  Both A Little Help and One Way Trip work really well.  The latter features some emotional material, which fits the film nicely.  It doesn’t really sound like anything heard in the film so far, which I think is a benefit in this case.  A Promise begins with a very short featured guitar solo.  We get more reprises of the Avengers Theme as the film wraps up.  If you were to hum a melody out of the theater, this would be the one – due to its repetitiveness near the end of the film.  The end credits are featured in the track The Avengers.  We get the full blown theme, with the drum kit in certain sections.  It’s a great way to end the album, and works well with the end credit visuals.

My favorite aspect of the score is that it marries a modern film score sound with an old school feel of electronics and drum kits, and the tradition scoring techniques together.  Many Silvestri scores fit in this category, and they typically work well.  It is not overwhelmed by motifs (which it easily could have been).  Is the Avengers Theme simple yet effective?  You bet.

A lot of people say this score is a missed opportunity.  I suppose that’s valid.  But it really depends on what Joss Whedon wanted.  Yes, we come into the film hoping to get blown away, and we might not be.  It works well, and is most likely makes Silvestri fans very happy.  After all, Silvestri’s work is still better than a lot of junk that gets pumped out.  So let’s be happy with that.  

Friday, May 11, 2012

Quick Review: Dark Shadows

Music composed by Danny Elfman
Orchestrated by: Steve Bartek, Edgardo Simone, David Slonaker
Conducted by: Rick Wentworth
Score Recorded at Air Studios and Abbey Road Studios, London, England
Album time: 53 minutes
Available on Water Tower Music

Hey, hey, the gang’s all here.  Tim Burton’s newest film features several Burton mainstays (Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, and Michelle Pfeffer).  At 13 films together, Burton’s biggest mainstay would be Danny Elfman.  Luckily for the listener/filmgoer, we’re treated to this Elfman/Burton film as well as their next collaboration, Frankenweenie, which comes out later this year.

Elfman was certainly influenced by the sounds of the Dark Shadows TV series (1966-1971) with music by Robert Cobert.  The style of the Cobert music is in the score, with a handful of musical references, which should please the die-hard fans.  Even the electronic synth work has a retro vibe to it.

Here’s my rundown of the score album, and of course, track titles contain a few spoilers.

The album starts with the longest track: Dark Shadows - Prologue, and it is very satisfying.  The beginning features some low alto flutes, setting up the mood.  The music then turns a bit sweeter as the choir joins in.  It gets more eerie with low brass and string harmonics.  The music shifts with a quickened pace as horns and low strings drive up the action. The choir works really well and the whole orchestra gets intense to the end.  Much of this track is similar to the music Elfman did for The Wolfman (2010), but of course works very well.
Resurrection features tons of orchestral tricks in the strings, giving that eerie atonal sound.  We hear a solo voice reprising the Angelique/Dark Shadows motif from the Prologue, and the flutes return with the beginning motif.  The other opening tracks like Vicki Enters Collinwood and Deadly Handshake have more of the solo voice, some spooky sound effects, harmonics and vibraphone.  These tracks set the mood nicely, although they aren’t too exciting to listen to without the film itself.  Starting with an electronic edge, Shadows – Reprise, is literally a quick reprise of the Shadows theme.

At 43 seconds, Is It Her? is the shortest track on the album.  The other short tracks work well in the flow of the album, and don’t really seem cut off.  Barnabas Comes Home features more of the motifs and techniques from past tracks, still with the classic Elfman-esque sound found in films like Batman (1989).  I suppose I should be glad it has taken it so long for the score to turn to the ‘standard’ sounds.  While a short track, Vicki’s Nightmare is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland in its use of choir and churning strings.  Killing Mr. Hoffman and Dumping the Body seem to blend into each other in tone.  These tracks, while effective sound all too similar to everything heard this far into the album.  Perhaps it is edited that way, but it almost does sound like one long track.

There are some nice moments in Roger Departs and Burn Baby Burn/In-Tombed.  They go by awfully quickly.  The latter gets more of the action in the strings.  Lava Lamp features more alto flutes and vibes and the Dark Shadows motif.  The music finally picks up at The Angry Mob.  House of Blood contains a bunch of electronic sounds and sound effects.  It is more intense, which is a welcome relief.  

As in several other Elfman soundtracks, we get the track title The Final Confrontation (8th time to be exact).  This track and Widow’s Hill-Finale are great cues, with plenty of momentum and reprises of the Dark Shadows/Angelique theme.  The momentum continues as the score continues to grow into The End (Uncut)More The End references a bit of the original Dark Shadows music by Robert Cobert, which blend nicely with Elfman’s music.  The album ends with a slew of ‘End’ puns track titles, and the music ends on an unresolved note.

Elfman seems rather subdued in his scoring compared to his other Burton collaborations.  In interviews, Elfman did say he wanted a smaller score, a more intimate sound.  He called it “lean and mean”, instead of the bigger score we’re used to.  The score features tons of low brass sounds (including the cimbasso!), adding to a very dark sound.  It does translate well due to the original source’s TV history.  The score does owe a lot to Robert Cobert’s music for the series, and Elfman tapped right into it.  The score is full of the melancholic alto flute/vibes theme for Barnabas and the Angelique theme, which permeates the score.  It doesn’t rely heavily on Cobert’s music, or turn the score too campy like Mars Attacks! (1996).  Instead, we get a rare intimate score, similar in tone to bits of The Wolfman (2010) and Sleepy Hollow (1999).

His collaboration with Tim Burton has produced some great music over the years.  I wouldn’t rate this among the top, but it has some great moments and serves the story and characters well.    

Monday, May 7, 2012

Female Film Composers

Shirley Walker
There are plenty of females in film scoring.  From great session musicians like violinist Belinda Broughton and harpist Gayle Levant, vocalist and score contributor Lisbeth Scott, music preparer JoAnn Kane, to the ever-present music contractors Isobel Griffiths and Sandy DeCrescent, there are tons of of examples. 

Women in the Hollywood Studio Symphony for Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) - photo by Maria Giacchino 
Unfortunately, the common listener or moviegoer has probably heard of a small fraction of female composers.  I wanted to list a few of a few well known names and a few that should be more well known.     
Rachel Portman
Lesley Barber
Mansfield Park (1999), You Can Count on Me (2000), Seven Little Monsters (TV 2000), The Moth Diaries (2011)
Additional Music: Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008)

Wendy Carlos
A Clockwork Orange (1972), The Shining (1980), TRON (1982)

Andrea Datzman
UnderCovers (TV), Alcatraz (TV), Let Me In (additional)
Score Coordinator/Assistant/Orchestrator: Alias, Lost, Mission Impossible III (2006), Ratatouille (2007), Up (2009), Star Trek (2009), John Carter (2012)

Anne Dudley
Say Anything... (1989), The Crying Game (1992), The Full Monty* (1997), American History X (1998), A Man Apart (2003), Tristan + Isolde (2006), additional music/orchestrator Les Miserables (2012)
*Academy Award winner

Lisa Gerrard
The Insider (1999) with Pieter Bourke, Gladiator (2000) with Hans Zimmer,  Ali (2001) with Pieter Bourke, Whale Rider (2002), Tears of the Sun (2003) with Hans Zimmer, Layer Cake (2004) with Ilan Eshkeri, Balibo (2009), Priest (2011) with Christopher Young

Laura Karpman
Taken (TV 2002), Odyssey 5 (2002-03), Everquest II (Video Game 2006), A Monkey’s Tale (2006), Kung Fu Panda 2 (Video Game 2011)

Deborah Lurie
An Unfinished Life (2005), Mozart and the Whale (2005), 9 (2009), Dear John (2010), Footloose (2011), One for the Money (2012)
Additional Music: Spider-Man 2 (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Wanted (2008)

Yvonne Suzette Moriarty
Orchestrator: Speed, The Lion King, Antz, Gladiator, Shrek, The Last Samurai, Pirates of the Carribean, Transformers, The Dark Knight

Angela Morley (1924-2009)
Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969), Watership Down (1978), Dynasty (TV), Dallas (TV)
Uncredited additional orchestrator: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), Star Wars (1977), Superman (1978), Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), E.T. (1982), The Verdict (1982), The Right Stuff (1983), The Karate Kid (1984), Home Alone (1990), Hook (1991), Schindler's List (1993)

Rachel Portman
The Joy Luck Club (1993), Emma (1996)*, The Cider House Rules (1999), Chocolat (2000), Mona Lisa Smile (2003), Never Let Me Go (2010)
*Academy Award winner

Pinar Toprak
Behind Enemy Lines II: Axis of Evil (2006), Breaking Point (2009), The River Murders (2011), The Wind Gods (2011), Skydance Productions Logo (2012)

Shirley Walker (1945-2006)
White Fang (1991), Batman the Animated Series (1992-1995), Space: Above and Beyond (1995-1996), Escape from L.A. (1996), Final Destination (2000), Final Destination 2 (2003), Final Destination 3 (2006)
Conductor/Orchestrator: Scrooged (1988), Batman (1989), Days of Thunder (1990), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Backdraft (1991), Toys (1992), True Lies (1994) 

Debbie Wiseman
Tom and Viv (1994), Wilde (1997), Warriors (1999), Arsene Lupin (2004), Flood (2007)