CD Reviews: Strangers and Bulge
Into the Arms of Strangers ****
LEE HOLDRIDGE, VARIOUS
Chapter III CHA 1006-2
15 tracks - 42:30
Applying dramatic techniques to documentary filmmaking is a tricky and
intangible process; witness the difference between something like Errol
Morris' Fast, Cheap and Out of Control and Barbara Kopple's Harlan
County, USA. But while the dividing line between realism and drama
has always been blurry, for composers this seems to result in fertile grounds
for planting musical ideas. Lee Holdridge is no stranger to documentaries
(he scored the Oscar-winning The Long Way Home) and his newest project,
the Arms of Strangers, allows him the room to develop a more traditional
dramatic underscore with a careful eye on his boundaries. Into the Arms
of Strangers also reunites Holdridge with Long Way Home
Mark Jonathan Harris, and the result is a surprisingly varied soundtrack
Holdridge approaches the material with admirable restraint, using a
handful of Yiddish children's songs as the emotional backbone for his own
compositions. This extremely well-sequenced album allows for a lot of delicate
emotional fluctuations. It's a testament to Holdridge's capacity as a talented
melodic composer that he's able to keep the material so focused without
becoming maudlin and self-consciously melancholy. His "Main Theme" has
a childlike simplicity of tone, but compositionally it's carefully guarded,
never leaning in directions that could cause the rest of the score to spin
out of control. Even when the score hits darker notes ("Gathering Darkness,"
"Somewhere to Belong") Holdridge's melodic focus keeps the score beautifully
controlled. And when the music hits its emotional peak, in "Living With
the Past," you don't feel cheated whatsoever, because the release has been
The subject matter and style of this film and its score warrants inevitable
comparisons to Schindler's List. This album, however, combines the
Yiddish folksong and original underscore in a more streamlined and effective
way than the Schindler's List album did, by arranging the songs
in such a way that it lends itself to the emotional flow of the story.
All due credit goes to Holdridge for not succumbing to heart-on-the-sleeve,
tearjerking writing that distracts from the power inherent in the storytelling.
-- Jason Comerford
Battle of the Bulge **** 1/2
CPO 999 696-2
18 tracks - 78:58
British composer Benjamin Frankel's massive body of film work (he worked
on 68 films and countless other television productions) is almost entirely
unrepresented in album form; indeed, this new recording of his classic
score for Battle of the Bulge marks the first time one of his scores
has been recorded for album release. This is both disappointing and surprising,
given the obvious talent he possessed -- hopefully this album will go some
way to rectifying the loss.
Battle of the Bulge, nominated for a Golden Globe, was actually
his last score; the film itself is still fondly remembered, appearing on
television seemingly every other week. Like many films of its ilk, it featured
an all-star cast, with Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw principal among it.
This album features the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Werner
Andreas Albert, and is performed extremely well, with the appropriate vigor.
The score also receives an exemplary recording.
My first thought was to describe this music as 75% Alex North and 25%
Ron Goodwin. But in truth that would be doing a massive disservice to Frankel.
I reached my original conclusion based on the intricately detailed, precise
orchestration and elaborate percussion so typical of North's output. The
occasional quotes from the quasi-comical "Panzerlied," a traditional German
marching song, brings to mind Goodwin's work on all those British World
War II films.
Frankel's themes are not the sort that you will be humming in the aisles,
and nor should they be. However, Frankel does construct his music based
around a series of impressive themes. Most of them appear in abbreviated
form in the short "Prelude." Perhaps the most impressive cues are the extended
action pieces, especially "First Tank Battle" and "Final Tank Battle" (totaling
15 minutes between them). The writing in these is as impressive as anything
that North would have written for the film...and just as detailed. Contrasting
with this is the sublime and beautiful "Hessler in High Spirits."
Sitting a bit awkwardly alongside the rest of the music are a few more
lighthearted moments like "Soldiers in Hiding" and "Christmas in Ambleve,"
which actually interpolates a couple of Christmas carols; "Good King Wenceslas"
and "The First Noel." While they are fine in their own right, they do come
as slightly jarring when put together with the somewhat brutal remainder
of the score.
This small problem aside, Battle of the Bulge is superb, and
E.D. Kennaway has every right in his excellent liner notes to paint it
as a classic score. Hopefully this will lead to a resurgence of interest
in Frankel and perhaps the release of some of his other scores. --