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CD Review: NFL Films: The Power and the Glory

Music by Sam Spence; Narration by John Facenda

Tommy Boy TBCD1269. 36 tracks - 51:32

Review by Lukas Kendall

Here at Film Score Monthly, probably 90% of our readers are male. We do not regularly play up this fact, because we want to be more inclusive of fans. But for this one time, this is football we're talking about, and we can face it: we're men. Men love football. This game is all about huge men who smash into each other, and I think I speak for all men when I say that smashing, as a concept, is one of the greatest things in the universe. It's just a primal urge, but nowadays a forbidden one. Football is a holy validation of this masculine impulse, as well as a vicarious way to experience it.

Over the years, men have built up legends about football: great players, teams, plays, etc., and nothing has encapsulated the history and emotions of the sport like NFL Films. These grainy programs were a staple of the broadcast airwaves long before the cable universe provided highlights on a round-the-clock basis, casting games new and old in a mythical light and telling men and boys everywhere that they weren't wrong to love this stuff. Balletic receivers, beaming quarterbacks, goon defenders, mortified goats, and cursing coaches all received their due as theatrical icons. My all-time favorite NFL highlight involves a crucial game decided by a pass which bonked off of a player's head into the arms of a teammate who ran it for the winning touchdown. It is known as "The Immaculate Reception," and if you were wondering where this review is going, that pretty much sums it up.

Crucial to the success of NFL Films has always been the thunderous music. Today, sports highlights play over thumping techno music, but these productions had the classic, acoustic band sound of documentaries made prior to the video age. Sam Spence is the man responsible for these great library pieces, which are today etched into the consciousness of all grown-up little boys who used to watch NFL highlight movies. More than any other element of the documentaries, these scores placed the events in a mythic framework and Hollywood size. Spence's cues have the same effortless feeling of some of the greatest film music, an almost Mancini or Barry breeziness to their melodic lines. At the same time, they pack the forceful orchestrations of college marching bands, big band brass, occasional Mancini/Hefti-style jazz and rock, and Hollywood symphonies, altogether delivered with the sincere force of a 300-pound lineman coming to take you down. Yet somehow the tracks retain a clarity almost like the best of the spaghetti westerns (even while sounding little like those scores): they're just so straightforward.

Selected Spence cues were previously pressed on LP by NFL Films in the early '70s, now collector's items, but this CD is the first digital incarnation of this classic material. It's a brilliant package: Spence's most inimitible cues are included, and placing them in their proper context are narration excerpts by John Facenda, the old-school Philadelphia newscaster who became the voice of NFL Films. Facenda's voice is the appropriate mix of authority and drama; sweet and bitter at once, it's like the musty scent of a favorite old jacket. His excerpts on The Power and the Glory cut the chase, speaking with poetry (in the case of "The Autumn Wind," about the feared Oakland Raiders, literally poetry) on such NFL staples as the the blitz, the linebacker, and coach Vince Lombardi. Track 31 begins: "Pro football is a game; not a war. It's for win or lose, not life or death... but say that in the summer, for winter brings the playoffs, and a season is at stake." Facenda's excerpts on the CD are presented over a college of game sounds or quotes, the actual Spence cue it accompanied, or more contemporary music by NFL Films' current composers, Tom Hedden and David Robidoux.

Together, Spence and the late Facenda are The Real Deal, with Facenda's choice bits leading into a related cue by Spence. If there's one shortcoming to Spence's tracks, it's that they occasionally get too close to their obvious film inspiration: "Magnificent Eleven" is one thing, a cool homage which, as a tribute to Spence's musicianship, actually sounds like some other melody Elmer Bernstein might have written; similarly, the Patton-style trumpets which kick off the CD can be excused. However, "The Equalizer" is barely disguised Lifeforce (Mancini), and "Salute to Courage" is for all intents and purposes The Last Starfighter (Craig Safan).

For some material that must be in its third decade, the sound quality is remarkably good, and the sequencing here well-crafted. I just think it's awesome that there's a CD of football highlight music. For many of the cues, you can visualize the accompanying visuals: the despairing losing player, with his head in his hands; the rapid-fire assortment of receivers being creamed, the football dislodging into packs wide-eyed players; or the heroic moments of a fourth quarter drive. And I love the coach who talks about how losing is like dying a little: "You die inside, a portion of you. Not all of your organs... maybe just your liver."

If you hate football and have never seen these documentaries, this CD might strike you as a pile of lousy knock-offs. However, if all of this is stirring your ancient memories of grainy highlight films, let alone running, tackling and catching a football, you'll love this celebration of music and image.

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