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Brian May (1934-1997)

by Paul Andrew MacLean

Brian May was a unique composer with an individualistic an eclectic style. He could evoke warm sentiment and visceral suspense—sometimes simultaneously. He had a gift for lyricism which Georges Delerue would have envied and could make a stationary theater seat feel like it was going 100 miles an hour. He was, in short, everything a film composer should be.

His early film work in the horror genre bore the influence of Bernard Herrmann, but unlike so many others he was no mere imitator. Like Herrmann, he scored for unusual orchestral ensembles, and preferred to orchestrate his scores himself. But unlike Herrmann, May had a strong gift for lyrical orchestration and a phenomenal command of counterpoint. All May's scores have a wonderfully flowing orchestration, every note placed for maximum impact, in a graceful style worthy of Ravel.

Fittingly, director Richard Franklin took an instant shine to the May in the 1970s. A friend and protégé of Alfred Hitchcock, Franklin's cinematic style gelled perfectly with May's. The Herrmann/Hitchcock influence was perhaps most apparent in Franklin's 1977 supernatural thriller, Patrick, a low budget but effective film produced by Antony Guinane (who was something of an Australian Roger Corman). The surging, attacking string writing, prominent use of harps and complete absence of brass recalled Herrmann's work for Hitchcock, but May slipped in his own brand of lyricism, which made an effective counterpoint to the terror sequences.

May continued working for Antony Guinane, scoring more films for Franklin and another young new director, Simon Wincer. Two years later, producer Byron Kennedy and director George Miller had just completed a new action picture, Mad Max, and were convinced no one could be found in Australia to score their film. The two were having dinner at friend Richard Franklin's home one evening when Miller paused to inquire what Bernard Herrmann score was playing on Franklin's stereo. Franklin surprised them by revealing it was Brian May's score for Patrick. Kennedy and Miller immediately contacted May. Although a highly resourceful picture, Mad Max was nevertheless a low-budget film without a great deal of production value. May's score lent incalculable scope to the film, making it larger and more furious. Again did May select an unusual acoustic palette, scoring for strings, large brass and large percussion sections, but no woodwinds (save a solo saxophone and one piccolo). Coupled with furiously staccato writing and Stravinskian time signatures, the result was a strident, metallic score, perfectly underscoring the film's barbarous, high-velocity car culture. A groundbreaking action score, Mad Max won the Australian Film Award for Best Original Score.

May's work for Antony Guinane continued, and he provided a particularly memorable score for Simon Wincer's effective Harlequin (aka Dark Forces) and even lent atmosphere to the laughable vampire movie Thirst (in which Henry Silva's death scene was one of the most unintentionally funny in movie history).

In 1981 May received the seemingly enviable job of providing some original music for Peter Weir's World War I epic, Gallipoli. Unfortunately, director Weir was not interested in original dramatic underscore, preferring to use the soundtrack he had cobbled together from existing sources (mainly classical music and Jean-Michel Jarre's "Oxegene"). May received credit for "Additional Music" but there is no original dramatic underscore in the film. A pity, considering what a remarkable canvas this Lean-esque film could have provided.

The same year however, May happily reunited with Kennedy and Miller to write what is arguably his masterpiece, The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2). Although the sequel to Mad Max, May took a different approach from the unrelentant stridence of the first film. He opted for a far more leggato and epic sound ("soaring french horns" was how he described it to CinemaScore magazine) and strove to accent not only the action but the overwhelming human atmosphere of tragedy. May's ensemble is typically unusual: strings, brass, percussion, and very sparse use of woodwinds. While the resultant score was highly listenable, the Road Warrior soundtrack album proved a bit of a disappointment. Produced without May's input, it contained sound effects in several tracks and only a portion of the exciting action cues. (A expanded reissue looks impossible, as the recording studio reportedly destroyed the session masters.)

May looked certain to gain a stronger foothold in Hollywood when Universal appropriately gave Richard Franklin the daunting challenge of directing Psycho II (1983). Franklin naturally intended to bring May along to compose the score, but as pre-production advanced, Universal felt the film was worthier of a larger budget (and thus, a more high-profile composer). Jerry Goldsmith, long Franklin's favorite composer, was solicited for the job. Although out of the project, the modest May could not complain, since Goldsmith was always his own personal favorite film composer too. Goldsmith's score was of course typically excellent. Still, one wonders what May himself might have written, and how differently his career might have unfolded had he gotten the job. (Incidentally Goldsmith is himself a fan of Brian May and stated publicly how impressed he was by the Mad Max scores.)

Franklin did call upon May's talents for his next Hollywood picture, 1984's Cloak and Dagger. This was unfortunately a weak and sentimental take on the "boy who cried wolf" theme, starring Henry Thomas as a adolescent with an active imagination who becomes involved with foreign espionage. May came up with an exciting musical accompaniment, however. This was his first experience working in Hollywood, and as such, the larger budget and time-crunch convinced May to work for the first time with an orchestrator. May asked Fred Steiner, who had been suggested to him by Jerry Goldsmith. Sadly, the poor box-office performance of the film did not help bring more Hollywood offers May's way.

When Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome went into production, there was little doubt in the minds of film music fans who would be tapped to supply the score. The Road Warrior score was such an important element of that film and the soundtrack sold respectably well (considering it had no pop songs) so naturally Brian May was a shoe-in for the job. However in a decision reminiscent of Universal's, Warner Bros. decided a more high profile composer was required. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is unquestionably one of the best scores Maurice Jarre ever wrote, but again one cannot help but feel May would have delivered an amazing and unique score. In any case, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome had so little to do with the other two films it was hardly a Mad Max film at all.

Despite this Hollywood setback, May remained active in his native Australia. In 1986 he also provided the score for the Australian mini-series Return to Eden. Although something of a soap opera (more of less in the style of Dallas or Dynasty), May nevertheless fashioned an impressive score, with some nice romantic themes and powerful action cues. In 1986 May was invited to score Death Before Dishonor, a Hollywood action film about U.S. Marines, and the directorial debut of stuntman Terry Leonard. May provided a brassy, patriotic score with a nice Americana flavor. (Unfortunately the accompanying soundtrack album seemed to have been rushed into production, and was rendered unlistenable by hackishly uneven mixing.) May's last Hollywood assignments were horror films: Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991) and Dr. Giggles (1992).

It cannot be denied that with the passing of Brian May, a unique and gifted voice has been silenced in the film music world. Despite being undervalued by Hollywood filmmakers and studios, May nevertheless continued to create exemplary and inventive work, and was unquestionably the finest of Australia's screen composers.


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