By Scott Ross
If one loves movies, and movie soundtracks, one presumably has a mental wish-list of scores that never received a commercial release. I can vividly remember letting out a very audible gasp the day I stumbled across the Varѐse Sarabande studio recording by the conductor Laurie Johnson’s of Bernard Herrmann’s North by Northwest score in the soundtrack bin at Sam Goody’s in 1980. True, it wasn’t the actual soundtrack, but it was North by Northwest! A cherished score that, from its debut in 1959, had — inexplicably, to me — never been issued on LP. I was equally excited to stumble across a Herrmann-conducted Psycho album some time later, although seeing the movie again made me realize that the composer had slowed down the tempos far too much (often by half), losing a great deal of slashing terror in the process.
The turn of the century saw the emergence of specialty labels devoted to preserving and issuing the work of the great movie composers. Film Score Monthly was the leader, and more either followed, or expanded: Buy Soundtrax, Prometheus, Intrada, Varѐse, Perseverance, Percepto (although these last two seem to have disappeared), La-La Land, Quartet, Kritzerland and (briefly, before Time-Warner took it over and began farming out the soundtrack jobs to other labels) Rhino/Turner and Rhino Handmade. That last must have really hurt, as Rhino, through Turner, had been the hands-down leader in releasing quality discs of musicals and dramatic scores from the vast MGM library.
Now, of course, we’re told that the compact disc is a dying format. Based on the difficulty in finding a decent used CD player these days (there are no new ones), I have to assume it’s true… or at least, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I know that a host of problems attend these things, not least of them dealing with studios and musicians’ unions over what are called “re-use rights.” But while even the venerable FSM has given up the ghost, a few of the labels above are still kicking, and they’re going at the problems full-tilt. So, the soundtrack nut can perhaps be forgiven for hoping that a few of his favorite scores, up to now only available on LP (if at all) will one day make the leap to digital. The following constitute my personal wish-list.
*8. How Sweet It Is! An old favorite, with, alas, no CD reissue… yet (Kritzerland? Quartet? La-La Land?) I don’t remember much about the movie, and I don’t recall it being especially funny (except for one riotous moment involving Debbie Reynolds and Vitto Scotti, depicted in pink on the album cover’s kaleidoscope.) But I love this score. I’m not sure how much of it is actual soundtrack and how much filler, or re-recorded for the album, both heavy practices in the late ’60s. It was my introduction to Patrick Williams, and to Jimmy Webb as a name; he wrote two kooky, exceptionally melodic, beautifully arranged and very likable songs for it. (I’d already heard many of his compositions on the radio, of course, without knowing he’d written them.) Pat Williams is not nearly as well-known as he ought to be. This was his first movie scoring job. It’s very much of its period (1968) but unlike, say, David Grusin’s banal background score for The Graduate, you can listen to even the dance music in it with great pleasure, and no embarrassment at how upper middle-class/pseudo-hip and “dated” it sounds. I doubt this one will ever get a CD release, as it’s far too esoteric. But a boy can dream, can’t he?
7. That Darn Cat Robert F. Brunner’s bright, jazzy caper music for the likable 1965 Disney comedy, bookended by Bobby Troup’s vocal renditions of the Sherman Brothers song. One of the few pure orchestral scores Disney ever released on LP, and we still have no CD edition. Intrada has been releasing some well-loved Disney scores of late (John Barry’s The Black Hole, Paul Smith’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Elmer Bernstein’s The Black Cauldron, etc.) so perhaps wishing for this one is not as wild an idea as it might seem.
**6. The Bad Seed Alex North was a far greater, and more important, film composer than his public profile would indicate. Here, he limns the depths of a murderous pre-pubescent through the motif of a childish piano exercise, filtered through a demonic orchestration that builds to terrifying heights. Not, alas, on CD, at least in America.
5. Silent Movie John Morris was Mel Brooks’ house composer, and his score for Silent Movie is half the fun of the entire enterprise. That this absolutely treasurable comic score has not been reissued (and expanded) on CD is a source of unending dismay and frustration to me.
4. Lawrence of Arabia The score for David Lean’s unmatched epic for the intelligent audience received a reissue of the original 1962 soundtrack LP (on Varѐse) in the ’80s and a fine 2-disc studio reading by Nic Raine on Tadlow; additionally, the 50th anniversary BluRay boxed set contained a soundtrack CD with two extra tracks not on the official release. But the complete soundtrack remains a dream. I’m not a great fan of Maurice Jarre in general, and this is quite possibly not even his best work in a notably spotty career. Still, it’s a score whose original tracks deserve to be heard in their entirety, and the theme itself is so inexorably wed to our image, not only of David Lean’s remarkably intelligent epic, but of the Arabian desert itself that it almost constitutes an entire new genre of movie scoring.
3. Modern Times Chaplin’s “Smile” theme became ubiquitous, especially after Jerry Lewis adopted it. But this is, quite simply, a great comedy score. Chaplin was aided immeasurably in its preparation by David Raksin, but the music is pure Charlie: Startling, wistful, uproarious, and intensely melodic. In 2014, Timothy Brock prepared and conducted a beautiful studio recording of the complete score, but the only commercial release I know of the soundtrack on CD was for a European compilation that compiled the original United Artists LP tracks with Raksin’s Laura suite and Herrmann’s Jane Eyre.
2. Psycho “Black and white music” for an iconic thriller, performed by string quartet. Nothing ever sounded like it before, and it’s been endlessly imitated since. I don’t think any theme before Jaws evoked so much unease in so many people as Herrmann’s slashing, scarifying “Shower Murder” with its bird-like, screeching strings. Even when you’re expecting the outburst, it still packs a wallop. The above artwork is from a Russian LP release that claimed to be the real thing, but I note that nowhere does it sport the word “soundtrack,” so I’m dubious. (It’s one of two such boots I’ve seen in recent years.) As I noted previously, Herrmann’s own languid re-recording leaves a lot to be desired. Joel McNeely’s on Varѐse is far better, and closer to the film’s fevered tempi. But why Universal, which made a mint on Psycho in 1960, did not deign to release a soundtrack LP at the time, remains an utter mystery to me. (They similarly eschewed an LP of Herrmann’s Cape Fear, and that picture too was profitable. And this at a time when studios released soundtrack albums for damn near everything.) Agonizingly, the original film tracks have since been lost. It’s a fate Psycho shares with all too many classic American scores.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird That Elmer Bernstein never won an Academy Award for composing is telling. (His sole Oscar is for scoring the non-song portions of Thoroughly Modern Millie.) That he didn’t win one for this one is an outright scandal. It’s my favorite, not merely of his work, but among all movie scores, but my preference is incidental: No one had ever captured the wistfulness and terror of childhood so well before, and no one other than John Williams has come close since. The resolution of those final, elegiac, chords, never fails to send chills of bliss down my spine and tears of emotional release springing to my eyes. Bernstein himself re-recorded it twice, once for his subscription-only label (which was subsequently re-issued by Warner Bros.) and once for Varѐse. The 1962 Ava Records soundtrack showed up on CD, briefly, in the late 1980s, but the reproduction was wretched. A later Intrada edition, in a boxed set of Bernstein’s Ava releases, is of infinitely better quality. Although there is still no complete reissue of the entire score, Universal has been cooperating of late with Intrada on items like full restorations of key Henry Mancini scores of the early 1960s. And so I live in hope, dancing without musick.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross
*Update: The British label Vocalion released How Sweet is is!, all 28 glorious minutes of it, in 2016. A brief recording, but a wonderful one. You can order it on Amazon.
*Update the second: La-La Land reissued this one late in 2017. Two down, six to go…