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Thoughts on Cleopatra

by Lukas Kendall

I posted this to the Internet newsgroup rec.music.movies earlier today:


Cleopatra came out yesterday -- I've been busy both days and when I got home I went right to the computer to see the excited threads about this awesome release.
Nothing!

Maybe a couple of comments about where to get the best price, which is fair enough.

On the one hand this is reassuring. Why? Because no news is good news -- and I've been around this particular block long enough to know. Usually -- in fact almost always -- when a CD garners a lot of comments it's because of a screw up: bad package, bad sound, delayed release, cancelation, flood, fire, famine... catastrophe.

So the fact that nobody has a bad word to say about Cleopatra -- in fact, any word -- means we (everyone who worked on the album, from Fox to Varese to executives to contractors and beyond) got it right.

But still, there are egos at work here! Doesn't anyone have anything to say? Was it as good as you expected it to be? Isn't this something you dreamed about for years while infatuated with movie soundtracks?

It sure is for me!

My appeal stands and I'm interested in seeing feedback from our soundtrack community. However, in the interests of saving time, please post to our message board rather than mail something to me directly.

I wanted to add some points to the above:

Cleopatra

Cleopatra is an outstanding score but it's interesting how it's at once, not over or underrated, but let's say inaccurately rated. It is highly unusual for an epic in that it is so intimate, small and yet austere. It's a really odd bird -- the movie too. I spent a lot of time with the movie to supervise the restoration remix -- it's such an awesome spectacle that you can't just dismiss it, and yet there's so much clunky and lame/dull stuff that you wonder...why? All that money to recreate ancient Rome and it looks like Vegas. But that's beside the point.

The Cleopatra score is not accessible the way Ben-Hur is accessible -- or even Spartacus. Alex North was a genius but he pushed the envelope in film scoring in a way that alienates many listeners -- which is not a criticism, of North or of the listeners. (People have a right to like the music they like and that's A-OK. Mantra #1 in my book.) As for North, he is one of many composers who did groundbreaking, very personal work that it's impossible not to recognize historically but it leaves a lot of people cold -- Leonard Rosenman and Jerry Fielding too other excellent examples. North was a very intellectual composer in that he pushed the boundaries of how unusual you could make music and still have it connect with the audience. Even though he wrote excellent melodies -- "Unchained Melody" is a famous standard and his pop/romance scores have great tunes -- his action music is like "anti-music," filling negative space. Cleopatra is the pinnacle of this "anti-scoring" in that it has the hallmaks of a '50s epic score -- the giant orchestra, sweeping gestures, "ancient" colors -- but it is the opposite of a romantic, European approach. It's about moody counterpoint, jabbing rhythms, balletic arrays of percussion and guitar -- an inward approach. "Intimate epic" is the correct oxymoron. It's why the film is so interesting despite its shortcomings. They failed but they sure did try.

So there's a tension at play in the discussion of Cleopatra the score: on the one hand you have people adamantly testifying to its brilliance and importance and then you have other people who don't care for it and will never care for it. So far the discussion has not gotten off the ground because the supporters don't seem interested in addressing a contrary viewpoint, and the people who don't care, don't care. Too bad.

I've loaded a new poll asking which listeners prefer, Spartacus or Cleopatra. Despite the boost of Cleopatra now being "in the news," I think Spartacus will get more votes. It's more accessible. We'll see.

How to Identify a Happy Listener

This I am sure of: when people are happy, they are quiet. I remember in November 1993 when the Star Wars 4CD box set came out from Arista reading the Star Wars newsgroups looking for feedback (I had written the liner notes). 90% of the posts were: 1) I can't find the album locally/how much does it cost? 2) What about the still unreleased music?

And now with Cleopatra, the 2CD set seems pretty well distributed, and there's nothing wrong with it. The main comment is, "OK, now where's Spartacus?" (Good question! Don't look at me. That's owned by MCA Records and they don't do big soundtrack restorations...at least not yet.) And if Spartacus came out, they'd ask where is [name another score]?

Again, this is fair enough...people have a right to express their opinion. It's just part of human nature -- and our media -- that people talk about problems and faults, not successes.

Anyway...

This Cleopatra release is fantastic. For years I've received letters and requests for the score -- questions about when it might ever be available. And now it is. This is the first time I'm looking at the booklet and it's a marvel, with an insightful introduction by Varese's Robert Townson, great stills, and a comprehensive essay by our own Jeff Bond which basically includes the FSM article we might have done on how the album came together.

Rejoice!

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