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Awaiting The Phantom Menace Soundtrack Album

An Aisle Seat Entry

By Andy Dursin

Seeing that I usually take this space to write about the latest film and videos (with the occasional soundtrack review), it occurs to me that this would be an ideal time to write a few things about Tuesday's long-awaited release of the STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE soundtrack by John Williams. (Hey, it is a hot topic, what can I say?)

We have been deluged with comments from site visitors and FSM readers for seemingly weeks about how people feel about Williams's new score, the album, and whether or not they'll be purchasing it on Tuesday -- over two weeks before the movie's release date.

Among the opinions being tossed about are that some feel that it will spoil their enjoyment of the film if they listen to the music ahead of time, while others are enthralled with the prospects of not having to wait until the movie to hear Williams's oh-so-anticipated score. (And what gives with the people who are carping about the "it's only 70 minutes!" length of the album, folks who would rather collect and complain than bother listening to the music in the first place? In case you haven't noticed, quantity has nothing to do with quality, and it could be that this 70 minute album represents the most significant musical passages in the film. Williams only wants it that way, I would expect.)

Next comes speculation on the tone of the music -- will it hearken back strictly to the days of STAR WARS, or will it surpass it in dramatic depth and resonance? Will it show that Williams has lost his touch with scoring a pure fantasy adventure, or that perhaps the passing years have only increased the musical ideas Williams has had for another score of this nature?

In the middle all of this are the insanely high expectations most folks have of this score, and the movie itself -- expectations that may or may not be reached, depending on how much you've been awaiting this movie and the music. I've been trying to dial down my anticipation of this film for a while (in fact I've resisted reading too much about it, and watching the trailers endlessly as some devoted fanatics have been), since I want to see THE PHANTOM MENACE without knowing every secret, every plot twist, and still be captivated by watching George Lucas's new film as if it was just another movie. That way, I'm hoping, the movie will capture my imagination in a way that the original did for so many unassuming viewers who weren't expecting "the most anticipated movie of all time," as this picture has already been labeled in the media. (Of course this is easier said than done, but I'm still trying).

For me, I'm not going to be buying the novelization of the film (what gives with that being released so far ahead of time--talk about spoilers!) but I am going to be buying the CD on Tuesday. After all, I'm not so concerned as to what happens in the movie (I'll wait for the film itself to take care of that), but I am fascinated with hearing Williams's music. However, as with any soundtrack I pick up before seeing the film, I'm going to try and hold off on rendering an official opinion until I actually have seen the movie -- even though I'll have my own first reactions to hearing the music, just as everyone else will.

The reason for this is simple -- over the years I've picked up many film scores that didn't really do much for me until I actually viewed the movie. Listening to the music on a soundtrack album is just one element of a film score; how it works in the film, underscores the drama, is quite another. Often times, a film soundtrack will combine sometimes disparate musical styles and moods that relate specifically to the film and musically, on album, lack cohesion. That doesn't make a film score less enjoyable or successful, though until you have seen the movie, the music may not work emotionally or as powerfully as it will once you've seen the picture. In fact, I have never heard a soundtrack that I didn't appreciate more after I saw the movie it was meant to accompany.

For example, I bought the EMPIRE OF THE SUN album virtually a month before the film opened nationwide, and at first listen, the score didn't provide the totally immersive listening experience it later would. The chorale pieces Williams composed, along with the Chopin classical passages and use of "The British Grenadiers," all related directly to a scene, a moment in the film, that made judging the soundtrack album quite difficult without having seen the movie. Weeks later, once I had sat and absorbed Spielberg's film (still his most underrated in my mind), the music took on a significance and power that I couldn't get out of hearing the album on its own. And whenever I've listened to the album since, I've gotten the emotion and eloquence out of Williams's music that I thought was absent upon first listening.

That's not to say that all film soundtracks don't work splendidly without ever having seen the movie they are meant to accompany -- something that's often especially true with Williams's works.

The greatest listening joy for me this decade was nabbing his FAR AND AWAY album from the record store shelves after my last class of the day, bringing it home and hearing the music the first time. Everyone has their personal favorite soundtracks -- albums they listen to over and over again because it appeals to them for whatever reason -- and for me, FAR AND AWAY is one of Williams's very best scores, and certainly one of the top soundtracks composed this decade (if not the best in my opinion for a variety of reasons).

Williams's music for this Ron Howard film was so lyrical, poignant, and infectious, it virtually bounded off the speakers of my stereo system with an energy that I've found completely absent in so many generic film scores of recent years. You didn't need the movie, or a screenplay outline, to follow where the film or the action was heading -- you could hear it, feel it, in Williams's music. The various, easily identifiable themes, interwoven with atmospheric Irish instrumentation (provided by The Chieftains), were so well developed and used by Williams that listening to the FAR AND AWAY soundtrack is like taking a true genuine musical journey, one that works ideally separated from the film. (And for this writer, the End Credits finale, with its reprise of the principal thematic material from the score, is simply one of Williams's most outstanding achievements).

Then again, that was the kind of score that FAR AND AWAY was -- its broad and emotional sweep was utilized like a main character in the movie, while the EMPIRE OF THE SUN score was used more sparingly, in the movie's most important sequences.

Having only heard a bit of the "Duel of the Fates" single so far, I think we can reasonably assume that Williams's music from THE PHANTOM MENACE will almost certainly work on an easily accessible listening level, the same way that scores like the original STAR WARS soundtracks did and works like FAR AND AWAY and HOOK also do. We can expect the heroic themes, dissonant passages, rousing orchestral fanfares and interesting textures that John Williams has made synonymous with the name STAR WARS, although something tells me that Williams's music for this film, and even its upcoming sequels, will be more mature. That's just one reason why I am geared up to listen to this score.

If you take away Williams's scores from several Steven Spielberg films (namely the JURASSIC PARK pictures and the last INDIANA JONES film), the composer has -- most likely wisely -- avoided scoring the sorts of "Saturday matinee" fantasy and adventure films he once routinely wrote music for. One can only guess that Williams didn't want to tread over previously trodden ground in the last fifteen years or so, and instead opted to score more dramatic pictures that enabled the composer to undertake a different sort of musical challenge.

Now John Williams is back to the genre that brought him worldwide acclaim, and it's going to be fascinating to hear him score a sheer fantasy spectacle, over two decades since the first STAR WARS. Just as George Lucas's new Trilogy promises to be more dramatic and emotionally powerful (with it charting the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker), Williams's music should be more operatic and grander in scope than its predecessors. Seeing those clips of Williams in the recording sessions, conducting a large choir, was nothing short of thrilling, even for the few seconds they aired, since musically it hints that THE PHANTOM MENACE score will be more than a rehash of the broad "good and evil" themes Williams wrote the first time around (as classic as they are, of course), more than a simple trip back to a galaxy far, far away.

Then again, no one can be surprised if that turns out to be the case. Williams has always undertaken the task of sequel scores by writing almost entirely new thematic material for the STAR WARS, INDIANA JONES, JAWS and JURASSIC PARK follow-ups. They each exist as stand-alone works, with their own distinctive musical identity.

I also don't think listening to THE PHANTOM MENACE album before the movie opens is going to ruin the surprise, spoil the fun of seeing the new STAR WARS movie. If anything, hearing those opening strains of the STAR WARS theme again before watching the new picture is going to get my blood pumping and spirits rising to a degree I haven't experienced lately in the entertainment world. I'm looking forward to hearing the music and imagining what scenes it will underscore, and how they'll look on-screen.

It's been a while since I've listened to a score that captivated me on first listening like FAR AND AWAY did, and I'm hoping that maybe THE PHANTOM MENACE will. If it doesn't, that doesn't mean that this can't be a classic score that we'll be able to enjoy and savor on repeat listening just like the original -- for that, perhaps we will have to wait until May 19th to find out, to take in a viewing of EPISODE I to see how the music works in the context of the film.

In the meantime, I'll see you at the record stores during lunch hour on Tuesday, asking some record store idiot if the new album has come in. (And don't forget, Jerry Goldsmith's THE MUMMY soundtrack is out, too. Why not make it a double-bill?) I know what I'm going to be doing come Tuesday evening -- sitting back at home, lights off, and listening to John Williams's latest score from a place that has captivated the imaginations of people around the world.

Let's hope the force was with him again. We're awaiting the results. Eagerly.

Video/Laserdisc

One of last year's best films was not rewarded at Oscar time, but for those of us who are routinely disappointed with the Academy Awards this came as no shock. The picture is Warren Beatty's BULWORTH (****; on laserdisc from Image Entertainment, $34.95), a cunning and brilliant political satire that cut through the feel-good façade of recent Presidential pics (try Rob Reiner's THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT on for size and even, to a degree, Mike Nichols's PRIMARY COLORS), and came up with a scathing indictment of left-wing politics comprised in (or even perhaps by) the era of Clinton-speak. Speaking from its co-writer/director/star's own political ideology, Beatty's film comes across as an angry assessment of politicians pledging to take care of domestic problems and then abandoning them when push comes to shove. A smart script, incisive direction, and plenty of big laughs make BULWORTH the perfect political film for this day and age, and Beatty the actor delivers with one of his best performances. Even the eclectic soundtrack -- comprised of Ennio Morricone score and rap songs -- works splendidly, as does the outstanding supporting cast, most noticeably Halle Berry as a black woman Beatty becomes infatuated with. Image's laserdisc is matted along the 1.85:1 aspect ratio and looks terrific.

Also forgotten once Oscar time arrived but not as deserving as some of its critical praise was Jonathan Demme's adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel BELOVED (**, laser from Image at $34.95), starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in a grueling movie that often feels like an unfilmable-novel-to-film translation that should never have been attempted. A cross between THE COLOR PURPLE and THE EXORCIST (how's that for a generalized plot description), BELOVED boasts strong performances and a sometimes compelling story -- of how former slave Winfrey is haunted (literally and figuratively) by a daughter she killed years before who would have been sold into slavery. The trouble is, the movie is so long and static, with director Demme spending too much time on insignificant details and "gritty" asides (like Winfrey urinating after seeing what could be her daughter's ghost and, more disgustingly, placing her dog's eyeballs back in their sockets after a poltergeist attack), that it's obvious why audiences were turned off by the picture. The cast tries valiantly but it seems to me that Morrison's novel is the sort that probably never should have been translated to film, with its flashback sequences, bizarre plot developments, and characterization that likely worked best on the printed page. It's downright tough to take at times, despite Tak Fujimoto's effective cinematography, which is rendered quite well in Image's laser transfer (another non-anamorphic film shot at 1.85:1). Finally, just reissued on laserdisc is the sprawling 1936 Warner Bros. Production of ANTHONY ADVERSE (***, Image laser, $34.95), starring Fredric March in a lavish soap-opera set during the Napoleonic era of the 19th century. Olivia de Havilland co-stars in this entertaining production, one of the most expensive films made during the '30s, which still holds up relatively well despite the dated aspects of the picture. Chief among the film's virtues is the Oscar-winning production design and outstanding music score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, one of the most elaborate original scores written for film upto that point. Korngold's music encompasses all of the bombastic themes and orchestration you would anticipate it to, but also works marvelously when backing the melodrama of the film -- and there's quite a lot of that, too! The so-so transfer is to be expected for a film of this age, and the sound quality is passable too. Golden-Age fans should give it a look.

NEXT WEEK... THE MUMMY, ELECTION, and first comments on THE PHANTOM MENACE soundtrack. Feel free to send your comments to dursina@att.net and we'll see you then. Excelsior!


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