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CD Reviews Lovely to Look At and Freedom Fighters



Lovely To Look At (1952) ***

JEROME KERN, OTTO HARBACH AND DOROTHY FIELDS

Turner/Rhino Handmade

23 tracks - 68:10

Midway through the soundtrack of Lovely To Look At, Kathryn Grayson sings Jerome Kern's "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and what had previously been a mildly diverting audio experience is all at once elevated into the realm of MGM musical nirvana (a rarefied state of alternative reality that includes Judy Garland's "The Trolley Song" and Lena Horne's "Where or When"). Relaxing her distinctively operatic performance style, Grayson delivers her best cinematic singing performance ever (with her vocals in Metro's sumptuous 1951 version of Show Boat running a close second).

There is a genuinely poignant and wistful quality to Kern's 70-year old ballad which has been memorably performed in other films (most notably by Cher in Tea With Mussolini) but never has this exquisite and enduring standard been treated as lovingly as this. In fact, Grayson's sensitive rendering of "Smoke" was so superb that it was accorded a place of honor in the acclaimed 1976 retrospective That's Entertainment, Part 2, a dazzling compilation of clips from Metro's matchless archive of musical films.

The good news continues as Grayson isn't the only showstopper onboard this limited edition Turner/Rhino Handmade soundtrack. During Hollywood's heyday, if a cinema marquee boasted the tour de force tap dancing talents of Ann Miller in a lavish production like Easter Parade or On The Town, audiences were guaranteed a high octane display of skilled showmanship. For Lovely To Look At, the always game Annie was handed the invigorating "I'll Be Hard To Handle," a plum production number which remains exciting minus the spectacle of Miller surrounded by a pack of predatory chorus boys in wolf masks.

Just as its title would indicate, the primary allure of Lovely To Look At is visual opulence. This Technicolor remake of RKO's Roberta (1935) certainly makes the most of its haute couture surroundings. In fact, the emphasis on eye catching splendor was deemed so vital that the film's director, Mervyn LeRoy, stepped aside so that Metro's numero uno musical director, Vincente Minnelli, could helm the climactic fashion show sequence. While the cameras remain fixated on a parade of ocular enchantments, the score suffers somewhat from an over reliance on instrumental reprises of Kern favorites. Nevertheless, the MGM Studio Orchestra, under the guidance of Leo Arnaud, Carmen Dragon, Saul Chaplin and others makes the most of this opportunity. A super snazzy arrangement of "I Won't Dance" is proof positive that MGM not only had more stars than there are in the heavens but also the most talented musicians of all the major studios.

Prior to this Turner/Rhino release, the Lovely To Look At soundtrack had been circulated in an abbreviated format for several decades. In 1974, 10 truncated tracks were paired with highlights from Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon (1954) and released as part of a popular MGM Records series titled "Those Glorious MGM Musicals." In the 1980s, MCA Records pruned even further and tossed a handful of Lovely tracks on to an album with songs from Summer Stock (1950). As if a pedestrian presentation weren't bad enough, MCA's edition even awkwardly retitled Grayson's big number "When Your Heart's On Fire Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." According to Will Rhys, librarian at The Scherer Library of Musical Theatre, Kern's verseless "Smoke" is based on a proverb which begins "When Your Heart's On Fire..." When the stage version of Roberta debuted on Broadway in 1933, that was the line that prompted the song. Hence, the confusion regarding the title that exists to this day.

This disc concludes with five bonus tracks from the 1951 mini musical Texas Carnival, which features songs written by the great Dorothy Fields, who also assisted with lyrics on Lovely To Look At. The standout among these tracks is "Young Folks Should Get Married," an overlooked gem in the MGM musical canon. As performed by Howard Keel (who had precious little to do in Lovely To Look At), the song not only bears repeated listenings but should be considered a coveted treasure to those who know it only from their nearly disintegrated vinyl copies of DRG's "25 Years of Recorded Sound (1945-1970) From the Vaults of M-G-M Records."     -- Mark Griffin






Freedom Fighters ****

JESPER KYD

NANOCD01

18 tracks - 65:38

Jesper Kyd has written several video game soundtracks, most notably for the Hitman series, and recently completed a score for the film Cycles, which has yet to see wide release. His score for the action adventure game Freedom Fighters has more going for it than your average film score. Sure, there are the obligatory video game-sounding electronics that seem an inherited feature from Brad Feidel's Terminator scores. But the full sound of the Hungarian Radio Chorus lifts these electronic ostinatos above and beyond mere aural filler. This choral writing has a definite Slavic feel reminiscent of Poledouris' The Hunt for Red October and Conan scores. Unfortunately, the chorus performs on a precious few tracks. Also of note are the score's techno elements, along with the percussive synth keyboard passages that sound like Vangelis on steroids.

While each track one its own can be musically intriguing, their sum total makes for a near-constant barrage of electronic punctuations; this obviously gets tiresome after a while. Perhaps that's more a weakness of the genre than a fault of the composer. While many will pass this album by, video gamers will definitely want to check it out, as will those interested in electronic music.

The downside -- the packaging is barebones, with no information about the composer, music, or the game itself in the booklet. Check out http://www.jesperkyd.com or http://www.music4games.net for more info on Freedom Fighters, and on other game soundtracks.     -- Steven A. Kennedy


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