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CD Reviews: Mary Poppins and The Parole Officer

Mary Poppins (1964) *****


Walt Disney 61202-7

Disc One: 28 tracks - 79:48    Disc Two: 23 tracks - 74:43

Mary Poppins seems pretty spry for being 40 years old. Released in 1964, Mary Poppins was a huge hit for Disney and was nominated for 13 Oscars, winning five including two for music. Richard and Robert Sherman's songs have become standards, with a made-up word of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" actually making it into the dictionary. In 2004, Disney released a special 2-DVD version of the movie, and for the occasion, they have also released an extended soundtrack with extended songs, score and on a separate disc, recordings from story meetings between the Sherman Brothers, P.L. Travers (the writer of the original books) and screenwriter Don DaGradi.

Does a children's movie really deserve this much scrutiny? If it's as popular and beloved as Mary Poppins, the answer is yes. First, there is a plethora of unreleased music and song which wasn't part of the 2001 CD soundtrack release. From the full versions of "Pavement Artist," with the first appearance of the Oscar-winning song "Chim-Chim-Cher-ee" to the six-minute extended version of the song later in the movie, the expanded album contains a wealth of treasure. It would have been nice, however, to also get a sampling of "Chimpanzoo," one of the deleted songs featured on the DVD. But the real joy of the new release is that the wonderful and whimsical score by the Sherman Brothers is finally available, especially the Carousel chase and penguin dance during the imagination sequence in the pavement painting. Accolades all around to the special edition producer Randy Thornton.

I haven't seen the 2-Disc DVD with all the bonus materials, but the second CD includes the audio equivalent of such bells and whistles. The most substantial portion of the second disc is handed over to a story meeting with P.L. Travers, who reads part of the script while stopping every so often to ask questions and making suggestions, like dropping the fact at the beginning that Mary Poppins may have been Mr. Banks' childhood nanny. There are also occasional snippets of singing of the songs, including some that were eventually cut.

The disc continues with a nice interview with the stars and creators (including orchestrator Irwin Kostal) from a radio program, and finally a reminiscence by the Sherman Brothers about writing the score. This is all wonderful and fascinating archival material that may not be worth listening to more than once, but is great to have preserved.

This only the beginning of this renewed interest in Mary Poppins. With the recent opening of the London stage production and its inevitable transfer to Broadway, Mary Poppins will indeed be treasured by a whole new generation. And that's just supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.     -- Cary Wong

The Parole Officer ***


Harkit HRKCD 8093

20 tracks - 34:43

Alex Heffes' The Parole Officer is a clever, extraordinarily unified score. The movie itself is a broad British comedy in the manner of the old Alan Partridge movies. The plot concerns Simon Garden, the parole officer of the title, who is framed for a murder he witnesses. The only way to clear his name is to steal a video of the murder that is currently under lock and key at the local bank. To accomplish this feat, he recruits some ex-cons of his acquaintance and hilarity and mayhem ensue.

This is a tongue-in-cheek production, with dashes of The Italian Job and recent Hollywood heist movies thrown in for good measure, and to score this brisk comedy, the director turned to relative unknown Alex Heffes. Heffes has slowly been making a name for himself with his recent work on the documentary One Day in September and the exceptional Touching the Void. The Parole Officer shows that these later efforts were not a fluke and that he is definitely a name to watch in the coming years.

The reason I make that bold claim is because of how well Heffes matched the movie's tone, even though he made unusual scoring choices. Most composers would have approached this project with either humdrum action writing or off-kilter slapstick writing that did not hold together outside the project. Heffes pokes fun at these conventions while crafting a unified work. The main title, presented in "Theme from the Parole Office," would not have been out of place in an Elmer Bernstein western in the 1960s. It is bold and uses brass, strings, and piano to create the asymmetric swagger familiar from Bernstein or even Copland's ballets for that matter. Heffes then uses that theme as the basis for almost every other theme in the score. He pares it down for a beautiful love theme in "I Like Your Knees," pumps it up by adding electronics and a strong beat in an imitation of the Bruckheimer sound in "Car Chase," and even uses it as a lead in to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyrie" in one particularly over-the-top moment.

These are all choices that work, even though on first glance you might hink they wouldn't. And they are given an infectious energy by the rawness of the sound, something achieved by happenstance when the entire score had to be recorded in a day. Sometimes, however, Heffes does go a little too far. In cues like "It's Kirsty!" which would sound perfectly in place in an Austin Powers movie, he manages a parody of a parody. By giving a knowing wink in the score, Heffes wants to be providing ironic commentary on the state of action scoring, but it's so obvious that it only serves to distract.     -- Andrew Granade

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