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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
and we'll see you then. Excelsior!