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CD Review: The Jungle Book

By John Takis

The Jungle Book ****


Film Music Society FMS002

20 tracks - 53:59 / 1 track - 22:27

Some perspective: Miklós Rózsa's The Jungle Book (1942) was his 15th film score, his fifth (of nine) for the legendary Korda brothers; written during his mid-thirties, just five years into his career as a film music composer. Rózsa was already an accomplished concert composer at this time, one of the most important of his generation. Nonetheless, it is easy to overlook the important place The Jungle Book occupies in Rózsa's filmography as one of his personal favorite scores, and one which pushed him to new levels of fame and widespread acclaim. This was due in a large part to the concert suite which Rózsa adapted from his score. "The first American made dramatic feature motion picture to have its music score re-recorded for an album," the suite's success rivaled Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf in the concert hall for a time.

This concert suite has been available to Rózsa fans and audiophiles since its inception -- first on LP, and then on CD. A variety of recordings exist, both with and without narration; the best and most accessible of these was released by Varèse Sarabande (VCD 47258) in 1983. Approximately 30 minutes in length, the suite is a noteworthy musical accomplishment by any standard, and in balance is a fair representation of Rózsa's remarkable score. But fair is not the same as comprehensive. For years, the original masters being presumed lost, the true scope and dimension of this Rózsa masterpiece were hidden to all, outside of obscure or decaying prints of the actual film. Hidden, that is, until 1997, when a serendipitous auction caught the eye of Jeannie Pool -- a box of acetate recordings that contained, among other things, almost the entire original Jungle Book score. Seven years later, these recordings have finally become accessible to the fan community through the Film Music Society -- albeit as a very limited pressing of 1,000 discs, many (if not all) of which will be sold out by the time this review hits print. Nonetheless, it is the purpose of this reviewer to encourage you, the discriminating film music consumer, to track down a copy by any means necessary.

Certainly part of my enthusiasm stems from nostalgia. Korda's The Jungle Book, possibly the darkest and most successful filmic retelling of Kipling's legendary saga to date, captured my imagination at a very early age. It has the distinction of being the first score I remember being aware of...the first score that remained consciously with me once the tape was out of the VCR. Today, many years later, the score continues to work the same magic on me, and on all those I have the opportunity to share it with.

What gives The Jungle Book such lasting and universal appeal? It's as simple as the basics of good music. To begin with, a veritable menagerie of melodies that seize and inspire the imagination -- every character, every animal in the jungle, has a signature theme and distinctive musical presence. Second, consistently thrilling and exciting writing; there is never a dull moment, never a cue that is less than absolutely compelling. Third, Rózsa's music runs the whole gamut of human emotion -- the tears of a mother; the hot blood of wild youth; the savagery of combat; the mystery and majesty of human civilization confronting the untamed world...Rózsa captures all this and more with stunning boldness and seemingly effortless grace. An apt, appropriately old-fashioned word to describe the score would be "Ravishing!"

In each of these areas of distinction, I am thrilled to report that the complete film score exceeds the concert suite. Themes are extended, given more thorough development, and heard in new and exciting modes -- to name one example: the noble and grandiose theme for the elephants; a major-key theme whose minor-key variations were culled from the suite. Being almost doubled in length, the complete score remains no less thrilling or exciting. The emotional palette, furthermore, is broadened -- I am thinking here specifically of the dimension of cold-blooded fear, entirely missing from the child-friendly concert suite, that rises to prominence during cues such as "The Lost City" and "The White Cobra." There is also the haunting vocal version of "Jungle Lullaby."

A few more points are worth mentioning. First, the exotic flavor of India that Rózsa brings to the project, having thoroughly researched Hindu musical modes and integrated them appropriately. Of all Rózsa's "Oriental" scores, this may be the best. Second, Rózsa's vibrant conducting -- in spite of sound issues due to the age of the recording, the energy of the orchestra under the maestro's baton cannot be suppressed.

Ordinarily, this score would rank five-stars. This release of the score, however does not quite merit the full rating, based on the pros and cons of its presentation. The liner notes are interesting and informative, but don't say much about the actual music (this is somewhat compensated for by the final track on the CD, a 22-minute interview excerpt with Rózsa by Rudy Behlmer). Certain important cues are missing, not existing on the recovered acetate, although some music which was not heard in the film has been rediscovered and restored. The sound-quality is at times atrocious, ranging from damaged to merely ancient. I trust this could not have been avoided, and that the remastering was as good as could be expected. What could have been helped, on the other hand, is the way some tracks simply snap on and off, where others have been faded in or out. This can be jarring and disruptive during what is already a difficult listening experience. In this reviewer's opinion, since a certain amount of prominent hiss and background noise is unavoidable, an unbroken constant should have been maintained between cues. Fading away a track to nothing and fading in on the next cue is fine for a reasonably clear recording. When loud hiss fades away to silence -- or worse, simply cuts off -- only to have more hiss fade back in or snap back on, it seems to serve no useful purpose. That goes double for a score as organic and flowing as The Jungle Book.

But these are minor quibbles in the long run. This CD of The Jungle Book can be considered an archival release -- an act of preservation in line with the Society's mission, preventing the total loss of this wonderful music and recording. Imperfect, yes, but until some heroic label or producer can reconstruct the original score and undertake a definitive rerecording, this is the best we are likely to get. I have certainly found it to be indispensable, and recommend it unconditionally to all who are able to get their hands on it. I do not think that those who already own and enjoy the concert suite will regret the purchase.

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