Thoughts on Cleopatra
by Lukas Kendall
I posted this to the Internet newsgroup rec.music.movies
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.
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 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.
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.