A much bigger circle: “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971)

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By Scott Ross

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“For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
The 1971 film transmigration of the 1964 Broadway phenomenon Fiddler on the Roof is arguably the most beautifully made of all adaptations from the musical stage, and certainly one of the most faithful. By filming it in as realistic a manner as possible, and as close to the birthplace of its progenitor, Sholem Aleichem, as the director, Norman Jewison, could get (Yugoslavia), the filmmakers honored the material as well, I think, as the source. What fell away, inevitably, was much of the very thing that made Jerome Robbins’ original so striking and even, in the terms of the musical theatre of its time, revolutionary. Any truly theatrical experience, play or musical, that exists in a heightened, stylized state can only be diminished by literalism. This is why any sane admirer of Follies, say, can only hope no movie ever gets made of it. Unless (as here) the material can support the transliteration, and the filmmakers are able to balance the inevitable losses with considerable gains of their own.*

Boris Aronson's set design for the interior of Tevye's home. Note the circle of houses surrounding it representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler, they are precariously balanced, even upside-down, but they hold.
Boris Aronson’s set design for the interior of Tevye’s home. Note the circle of houses surrounding it representing Anatevka. Like the figure of the Fiddler, they are precariously balanced, even upside-down, but they hold.

Realism cannot take in, for example, the potent abstraction of Boris Aronson’s original Fiddler set. Inspired by (but in no way slavishly reproducing) the shtetl-based paintings of Marc Chagall, Aronson constructed a series of stage images that fully expressed the key concerns of Robbins and his collaborators: Not merely the sense of tradition (arrived at through Robbins’ insistent, necessary, question, “What is this show about?”) but the crucial aspect of the circle which binds the community, the people of the play, even the faith itself.

Great Performances

Zero Mostel’s Tevye leads the original company of the stage musical.

Nor can a realistic style encompass the inherent theatricality of the piece as a whole, especially as Robbins directed and choreographed it — as when, for example, in the opening, Tevye is suddenly joined by the figures of the villagers, hands linked, emerging from either side of the stage to create the circle that stands for Anatevka itself. A couple of songs in the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick were also shed during filming, but their omissions are more than adequately compensated for by the filmmakers’ otherwise rare fealty to the score, superbly enhanced by John Williams’ rich, sensitive and often thrilling arrangements.

Thus, what was lost. (For some die-hards, the replacement of Zero Mostel with the earthier and less ostentatious Topol was likely also a grievous deficiency.) So what was gained? On a simplistic, yet pleasurable, level, the land itself — vast, verdant, arable, even majestic —and the physicality of Anatevka, especially the magnificently realized wooden shul with its stunning, intricate murals, glimpsed in the opening number and, at the climax, gazed at in anguished silence by Zvee Scooler’s Rabbi as he prepares to depart its walls forever. (In her splendid book Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of “Fiddler on the Roof,” http://alisasolomon.com/ Lisa Solomon reports that Jewison wanted the building preserved but, by the time he’d reached an agreement in Israel for its transportation it had, heartbreakingly, already been torn down.) And too, the pogrom that destroys the wedding of Tevye’s daughter Tzeitl at the end of the first act is, because of film’s innate ability to realistically depict such events (Cossacks on horseback, flaming torches, shattered glass, the shredding of the young couple’s gifts) far more gripping, and powerful, on the screen than it can ever be on the stage.

Tevye and his director: Topol and Norman Jewison.
Tevye and his director: Topol and Norman Jewison.

The strength of photographic imagery in the movie of Fiddler begins almost immediately, and to the point; as Topol warms up “Tradition,” Jewison and his editors (Robert Lawrence and Anthony Gibbs) cut, in rhythm, to Anatekva’s various articles of faith as well as to the villagers themselves, engaged in their respective tasks. Not quite the image of the circle as enacted by the company on the stage, but each rapidly glimpsed clip sets, and reinforces, the theme of communal traditions as the glue that allows those in the Russian Pale of Settlement “to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking [their] neck[s].” Nowhere in the show, or the movie, of course, do the authors (Joseph Stein in his book and screenplay, Bock and Harnick in their score and, although un-involved with the movie, Jerry Robbins) suggest that the bending of ritual leads to the eventual expulsion of Anatekva’s Jews. It’s all of a piece: The advent of 20th century modernity and czarist anti-Semitism, conspiring by accident to alter the face, and form, of institutional observance. Tevye, seemingly the least hidebound of the older Anatevkans, bends, as he says, only so far. And although he is unwilling to break entirely, even he softens enough by the end to at least express his parting concern for his wayward daughter Chava, if only through the intermediary of his eldest, Tzeitl.

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Topol, that “huge dancing bear of a man” singing “Tradition.”

The one, indispensable, element of the movie’s strength must be accounted the performance of (Chaim) Topol as Tevye. As a Sabra the actor was, in common with many of his fellow Israelis of the time, not especially attuned to Yiddishkayt. (Indeed, many were entirely antipathetic.) But Topol’s size, his vigor, his warmth and his courage — as much as, when compared to that of Mostel, his smaller but no less compelling theatrical presence — bring him closer to us, and perhaps even to Sholem Aleichem. Pauline Kael, in her review of the movie, which she called “the most powerful movie musical ever made,” referred to Topol as “a huge dancing bear of a man.” That’s just about perfect, I think. Although the then-35-year-old actor was only slightly younger than Zero Mostel when he first assayed the role, he carries with him an authority, and an expansiveness, that goes far beyond the touches of gray in his hair and beard. And although he is a far more handsome man than Mostel, sings better and more easily attains the higher notes without noticeable strain, what’s essential, even elemental, about Topol is the sense he projects of a man who, while firmly affixed to the appurtenances of his faith, is capable of elasticity — the flexibility a plant, however well rooted, needs to survive.†

Great Performances

The lyricist (Sheldon Harnick) and the composer (Jerry Bock) of “Fiddler.”

Essential, too, are the songs by Bock and Harnick. It is not merely fashionable to dismiss them; most of the show’s original reviews expressed reservations (is that the polite term?) about this immensely treasurable score. But as much as Sholem Aleichem himself, the Fiddler songs are inextricably linked to the show’s sense of identity, its abundant charm and humor, and its remarkable power. Bock, one of his era’s most accomplished musical dramatists, as at home in New York’s Tenderloin as in Hungarian milieu of 1930s She Loves Me, steeped himself in Yiddish folk melody and klezmer, and refracted it through the prism of his own exceptional composition acumen. While the ultimate tone of, and concept for, Fiddler (then called Tevye) was not set during much of the writing process there is in Bock’s supple, often yearning, melodies the concert of the shtetl, at once vigorous and elegiac. And they are perfectly complemented by Harnick’s alternately playful, moving, direct and ruefully funny lyrics all of which seem, as he said of his experience wedding his words to Bock’s music for “Sunrise, Sunset,” to “crystallize on the music,” as though there could be no other possible lyrics to any of those tunes. (Although there were, reportedly, dozens of attempts for every song that finally placed.) I’ve noted this before, but I think it bears repeating: If you think evoking Sholem Aleichem’s people, and place, and doing so while keeping in your mind the correct rhythms and cadences, and the needs of the performers, and making the humor or the pathos land properly and effectively on 1,500 minds and hearts and pairs of ears hearing them for the first time, is easy, then go ahead: You write something as effective as “Tradition” or “Anatevka” I’ll wait.

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Norma Crane (Golde) and the Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon (Yente the Matchmaker). Note Picon’s playful signature.

Kael, who loved the movie in spite of what she saw as the “squareness” of Jewison’s direction and the (to her) Broadway jokes and disposable songs, nevertheless carped about the performance of Molly Picon as Yente the Matchmaker. For all her gifts, Kael sometimes seemed to go to inordinate lengths to separate herself from her own Jewishness. I don’t mean her less than laudatory remarks about Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (with many of which I agreed — not least her complaints about its sheer, numbing length — but which got her in a lot of hot water with some readers and colleagues); I refer instead to her rejection of some of the richer veins of humor which American show business has accepted as a delicious gift from its creative Jews but which, for Kael, smacked either of special pleading or of unconscious self-abasement. She was hardly alone in this. Indeed, as Solomon points out in Wonder of Wonders, resistance to, and rejection of, Yiddish theatrical traditions lies at the heart of controversies that attended every mid-century attempt to place Sholem Aleichem’s stories on the stage; second and third generations of Jewish-Americans didn’t want all that schmaltz and inflection with which their parents and grandparents cluttered up a brave new assimilationist world. So, nu? But Yente — her very name a Yiddish convention — is, while admittedly an invention of the show’s book writer Joseph Stein, very much a part of the soil of the shtetl — indeed, its soul — at least as delineated by the creative team that put the show together. Even granted Robbins’ understandable aversion, as Solomon also tells us, to making his Sholem Aleichem musical The Return of the Goldbergs, who better to embody Yente’s very yenteism than Picon? As the one-time, undisputed queen of the Yiddish theatre (although when she began she neither spoke nor understood Yiddish) Picon knew this woman in her very bones; the kvetching and kvelling, the self-martyring geshrais, the constant smug (and self-justifying) nudzhnikness of a woman who is despaired of but never entirely dismissed (all those children to be wed!) Picon’s performance, always pleasurable, is especially — sorry, it’s the only word that will do — piquant, now that Molly herself is no longer with us.

No such grumbles greeted Norma Crane’s Golde, although Kael did complain that the role was under-written. Perhaps. But so is everyone’s, aside from Tevye; after all, the show is not called Hello, Golde! What Crane achieves in her limited screen-time is a highly believable portrait of a careworn, un-lettered woman of the earth with a great deal of love but no time for sentiment. Crane (who died, shockingly young, of breast cancer, three years after the movie opened) had an almost Classical beauty, but hers is no glamour-puss Golde. No-nonsense, she bears her husband’s mischievous wiles as she does her daughters’ unruliness: with a shrug, an exasperated bark, or a sighing aside (“You can die from such a man…”) Yet Crane’s strength of character is not merely admirable, it’s necessary. How else could a woman like her bear the vicissitudes of that life? And when she breaks, after Tevye orders her on the road to forget her middle child Chava, the effect of her normally ram-rod straight body, black-clad as though in mourning and whipped by the winter wind, bent double in hopeless despair, is harrowing.

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Maybe the most rapturous lovers in movie musical history: Leonard Frey (Motel) and Rosalind Harris (Tzeitel.)

As Tzeitl, the eldest of the three marriageable daughters (the youngest pair are marginal) the beautiful Rosalind Harris makes an impression that can remain with you a lifetime. At a precocious 20 when the film was made, Harris carries herself with both a wry dignity and an open honesty of expression that she lingers in your memory long after Tzeitl’s major part in the family drama is over. And as her nebbishy swain Motel, the adorably tongue-tied Leonard Frey is utterly endearing. Frey, who played the Rabbi’s son Mendl in the 1964 production (and who would eventually graduate to Motel on stage) had just come off reprising his definitive Harold in the movie of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. Here, he is scarcely recognizable as the actor who portrayed that acid-tonged, “32-year old, ugly, pock-marked Jew fairy.” He nabbed an Academy Award® nomination for Motel (as Topol did for his Tevye) and one would have thought that, if he could successfully negotiate those two, wildly disparate, roles, the world should have been open to him. (Alas, it wasn’t, and he succumbed to AIDS at 50, in 1988, leaving behind the sense that an important career had, somehow, been thwarted aborning. By homophobia? Perhaps. Or maybe just the usual Hollywood myopia.) When he finds his voice at last, his serenading of Harris, and their delighted dance to “Wonder of Wonders” is one of the most rapturous numbers of its kind ever filmed.

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Bending, but not breaking: Perchik (Michael Glaser), Hodel (Michele Marsh) receive Tevye’s permission, and his blessing.

Michele Marsh, as Hodel, is a touch too conventionally cute, but she does convey the spirited independence of the role and sings a notably beautiful, poignant “Far from the Home I Love.” Hodel’s vis-a-vis, Perchik, is a bit of a pill in his ardent Socialist mania, which could make him a self-righteous boor in the wrong hands. Blessedly, Michael Glaser (later, as Paul Michael Glaser, the Starsky of television’s Starsky and Hutch) brings a kind of thoughtless, arrogant charm to the part, making Hodel’s eventual willingness to follow him as far as Siberia at least explicable.††

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Neva Small as Chava.

The third daughter, Chava is, in her way, crucial to the success of the narrative.  Her determination to not merely throw over tradition for love but to engage in apostasy, risking the eternal enmity and alienation of her beloved family and the entire Jewish circle of Anatevka, must be absolutely grounded or the increasingly troubling arc of the play’s darker second act can topple off its delicately balanced wheels. In Neva Small, Jewison found his ideal. In each of the show’s succeeding marriage stories, one gets the sense that these girls have been paying sharper attention to Tevye’s warm interior than his gruff exterior, and play off it in ways that place their father in ironic binds. But in the Chava story, that reading has not been nearly close enough; she pushes back harder, and more devastatingly, than she knows. Small somehow manages to embody both her father’s idealized vision of her (his “little bird,” his cherished Chavelah) and the less perfect self of reality. Inquisitive, keen, at once guarded and openhearted, Small’s face radiates intelligence and love in equal measure, making Chava’s eventual estrangement (and Tevye’s anguish) deeply, personally, traumatic.

Zvee Scooler lends his beautiful, gaunt face and gentle gravitas to The Rabbi.

Zvee Scooler lends his beautiful, gaunt face and gentle gravitas to The Rabbi.

The smaller roles were cast with similar care. Zvee Scooler, who played the innkeeper for the entire seven-year run of the play, makes a superb Rabbi. His gaunt, moving face and his gentle gravitas do much, I think, to take the curse off a role some Jewish commentators felt was too condescendingly comic on Broadway. Paul Mann’s Lazar Wolf, with his charmingly Santa Claus-like mien, is nicely judged as well, neither as boorish as Tevye at first believes nor as completely docile in the face of marital defeat as the peripatetic dairyman might hope. Louis Zorich likewise does wonders with the off-handedly anti-Semitic Constable who — in a scene added by Stein to the screenplay — makes agonizingly clear what Edmund Burke meant when he wrote that “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” (Well, maybe not “good” so much as halfway decent.)§ And the Welsh singer Ruth Madoc is an unforgettable Fruma-Sarah in the inspired dream sequence, wildly funny in her uncannily witchy ululations.

“The Dream”: Tevye and Golde menaced by Fruma- Sarah (Ruth Madoc.)

Which brings us rather nicely around to the strengths of Jewison’s imagery. Onstage, “The Dream” leaps from one form of heightened theatricality (Aronsons’ set) to another (folk-inspired ghost story.) In the movie the effect of the humor, and the quality of its tongue-in-cheek ghoulishness, in the midst of the filmmaker’s “square,” quotidian visual palette, is even stronger, and funnier. (There’s a shot of Topol reacting to Fruma-Sarah with knock-kneed terror that is especially uproarious.) It’s a folk nightmare, the colors de-saturated, the costumes and make-up both over-the-top and eerie. That push-pull of the pragmatic and the fantastic is also true of the sudden distancing effect Jewison goes in for when Tevye confronts his daughters’ romantic yearnings: Topol is seen at a vast remove, suspended in agrarian space between his core beliefs and his overmastering love for his children. But when he speaks/sings, “Look at my daughter’s eyes…” the director immediately closes on those expressive orbs, bringing Tevye, and us, instantly back to the crux of the material’s emotional center. Likewise, the gorgeously realized “Chava Ballet” is rendered as a hallucination-like reverie, Tevye’s sense of his immediate world crumbling in the face not only of modernity but of the inevitable loss a parent experiences when his children move, as they must, away from his sphere of influence, and love.

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The “Chava Ballet.”

The famous

The famous “Bottle Dance,” inspired by Jerry Robbins observing a red-bearded trickster at a couple of Jewish weddings in 1963.

In his quest to hone Fiddler to its essentials, the director Jerry Robbins left the choreographer Jerome Robbins somewhat high and dry; that “Chava Ballet” arrived at its effective abbreviation only after a much longer, more frenzied and frightening, number outstayed its welcome. But Robbins at least had a first act topper in the famed “Bottle Dance” during Tzeitl’s nuptials. Inspired by a trick he witnessed a red-bearded wedding guest perform at two different Jewish weddings, the dance has since become so much a part of the Fiddler ethos that many assume it’s an actual freylekh. Having been fired from the movie of West Side Story for the very deliberateness that led his theatrical collaborators to despair but which enhanced his unique staging, Robbins was never truly considered to helm the movie of his most successful stage musical, so it was up to his assistant, Tom Abbott, to re-create the original choreography, and it’s nowhere more ebullient or felicitous as during the wedding. Not only the sinuous “Bottle Dance” itself but the entire sequence is informed by Robbins’ meticulousness in recreating the exuberant, uninhibited, even frenetic, merry-making he witnessed at various Jewish weddings preparatory to mounting the show. And it’s here that Jewison makes one of his few missteps. The dance is shot, and edited, too casually, denying us the pleasure of watching those limber bodies going through their joyous paces. This is even more obvious when watching the Canadian Broadcasting documentary about Jewison on the Fiddler DVD, when the CBC’s camera placement during the “Bottle Dance” trumps Jewison’s own. Dance on film is always a sticky problem. Fred Astaire felt, with no small justification, that the camera should be placed at a distance (and not further cluttered up by fancy editing) so the audience could appreciate the footwork. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen concurred, and they never interfere with our enjoyment of, and exultation in, even the most complex numbers in Singin’ in the Rain. So documentary realism does have its limits, especially in musicals.

Fiddler on the Roof was, seemingly, a tough sell in the mid-1960s. Not only was the material overtly, even proudly, Jewish (as indeed were the Sholem Aleichem stories on which it was based) but its action embraced a pogrom and the saddest of all possible climaxes — the enforced expulsion of an entire people. In comfortable, and comforting, hindsight, one can always look back and say, of a hit, “Well, of course…” (I always thought John Simon was being more than slightly disingenuous when he opined during that decade that the most enormous possible sure-fire Broadway hit would be “a big, vulgar musical about black, Jewish homosexuals.” Simon’s target was theatrical parochialism, I know. But let’s not be ridiculous.) No, Fiddler was no sure thing, in 1964 or 1971. What sold it, and continues to sell it, was the collective intelligence, even genius, of its creators as much as — and I would argue, more than — the universality of the underlying material. The unwavering devotion of Robbins, Bock, Harnick, Stein and the original producer Harold Prince to telling this story well, and with scrupulous dedication to its shades of meaning within a specific confluence of humanity, was picked up, and codified, by Jewison & Co. in sumptuous turn. Those final, ineffably moving, images of a new Diaspora infused both with hope (in the amorphous forms of Palestine and America) and hopelessness (in the unutterable grief of the dispossessed that presages the Shoah) contain, in microcosm, everything that made, and makes, Fiddler on the Roof such an imperishable fact of life.

Exodus: The haunting finale.

Exodus: The haunting finale.

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*One of my five favorite movies is the 1972 Bob Fosse version of Cabaret, itself, under Harold Prince’s direction, a highly stylized show. But as Fosse and his collaborators re-imagined the material, hewing more closely to the Christopher Isherwood model and throwing out the “book” songs, it’s the exception that proves the rule. Especially as the name most often reported in connection with a movie of Follies is — saints preserve us! —Rob Marshall.

†Topol was the London Tevye in 1967, based in part on the producer Richard Pilbrow’s having seen his 1964 Israeli comedy Sallah (or Shallah Sabbati.) Pilbrow was expecting to meet much older man. Topol, who had succeeded Bomba Zur in the role during the highly successful 1965 Israeli Fiddler, was not what you would call proficient in English before he starred in London, and it’s interesting to compare his performance on the movie soundtrack with that on the ’67 Columbia cast recording; his inflections in the latter tend to Anglicized pronunciation (“You may ahsk” rather than “You may ask.”)

††Glaser/Perchik lost out on a solo in the movie. Motel’s original number during rehearsals for, and early performances of, the show (“Now I Have Everything”) was eventually ceded to Bert Convy’s Perchik but Jewison didn’t think it right for the movie. Jerry Bock’s replacement melody, “Any Day Now,” is among the finest and most rousingly apposite he ever composed, and Harnick’s lyrics are in admirably quirky character. But the moment is a bit of a dead-end, and it’s probably just as well the number was cut. You can hear it, in Glaser’s somewhat over-taxed rendition, on the Fiddler soundtrack CD and the DVD.

§Zorich is probably best known for his role on Mad About You as Paul Reiser’s father Burt. From conductor of pogroms to befuddled Jewish pater familias — that’s one hell of a range.

 

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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A good balance: Andre Previn at 85

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Note: This was written in 2014. Previn is 89 now.

By Scott Ross

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Of his early days scoring music for the movies Andre Previn once noted, “When I composed, I heard my music played by the orchestra within days of completion of the score. No master at a conservatory, no matter how revered, can teach as much by verbal criticism as can a cold and analytical hearing of one’s own music being played. I would mentally tick the results as they came at me: that was pretty good, you can use that device again, that was awful, too thick, that mixture makes the woodwinds disappear, that’s a good balance, and so on.” When one reads that statement, and remembers that Previn began arranging for MGM at 16 (and composing at 17) some indication of his proficiency, beyond the tender year of his initiation and the innate talent he must have shown the brass at the Musical Department, emerges.  For a quick study, as young Andre quite obviously was, those instant analyses were clearly more than merely formative. One need only look glancingly at the great innovators of the scoring game — Waxman, Herrmann, Rózsa, Raksin, North — to comprehend how invaluable that immediate resource must be to increased facility and, when applied with genius, to artistic advance.

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Previn’s is one of those names I learned early, from the back of the My Fair Lady soundtrack LP (and the front of the Firestone Julie Andrews Christmas album) in my parents’ record collection. It was only later that I was introduced to his work as a composer, conductor and — most joyously — a jazz pianist and bandleader. When a man has been an integral component of your musical life for almost as long as you’ve been alive, you may naturally be somewhat defensive about him. As with his contemporaries, the Sherman Brothers (at their high school graduation Previn played a duet with fellow student Richard M.) I bristle at criticism directed toward Sir Andre’s musicianship. Gary Giddins, one of our finest contemporary critics, not merely of jazz, with which he made his name, but of movies, is absolutely vicious on the subject of Previn (as he also is on Quincy Jones), and for reasons I cannot wrap my brain around; his comments on Duke Ellington’s score for Anatomy of a Murder on the Criterion edition drip with notably poisonous contempt for Previn’s similar endeavors. Why?

But then, jazz writers tend themselves toward more than a little defensiveness on the subject of composition. Hence the dubious, and more than slightly hysterical, assertion by so many jazz aficionados that Ellington is the greatest of all American composers, a claim that falls apart on the evidence. A great songwriter, surely (although the contributions of Billy Strayhorn to Ellington’s oeuvre cannot be overstated) and an interesting composer of some fine movie and ballet scores (Anatomy, The River) but hardly on a par with, say, Gershwin, in symphonic endeavor. For that matter, Ellington’s individual songs are no better than those of Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Frank Loesser — which is to say, of the highest quality but hardly beyond it. And where Arlen and Porter bestow joy on their listeners, Ellington inspires admiration. Not exactly the same thing.

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It is true that Previn’s Broadway and movie musical scores are often less interesting than those of his contemporaries, but that may stem to a degree in his working so often either with lyricists who were not operating at their highest (as with Comden and Green on It’s Always Fair Weather) or those who were floundering artistically and whose projects with Previn were not, shall we say with kindness, their finest (Alan Jay Lerner on just about everything after the Broadway Camelot.) Yet even within these projects are musical gems that glitter, however feeble their light. I’m thinking especially of items like “Gold Fever” and “A Million Miles Away Behind the Door” in the bloated but entertaining 1969 movie of Paint Your Wagon, the former performed with splendidly laconic musicality by Clint Eastwood, the latter containing what may be my very favorite lyric (“There’s so much space between / The waiting heart, and whispered word…”) There were occasional glories (the Previn/Johnny Mercer score for the London Good Companions, if not the show itself, and Previn’s superb collaboration with Tom Stoppard, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour) and, here and there, the odd success d’estime (the needless and polarizing opera of A Streetcar Named Desire.) It is, then, not for his theatre compositions that Sir Andre will be best recalled.

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Previn’s movie work is far more varied and successful.* He wrote a fine jazz-based score for Two for the Seesaw, a spectacular one for The Subterraneans, and there is real, disturbing power in some of the others: The propulsive, whirling, dangerous main title theme for Bad Day at Black Rock; the elegiac dissonance of Long Day’s Journey into Night; the soured waltzes (precursor to Jerry Goldsmith’s similar writing on The Boys from Brazil) and ominous percussion of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; the uneasy ecclesiasticism of Elmer Gantry.

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But Previn’s comedy scores are even better, particularly those he arranged for Billy Wilder. He composed a pleasing waltz and juggled Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” into and around the short score for One, Two, Three; adapted part of the Gershwin trunk for the reviled but surprisingly plangent Kiss Me, Stupid; wove Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come To” into an ironic statement for, and added another comic waltz to, The Fortune Cookie. For Irma La Douce, Previn both adapted Marguerite Monnot’s original stage melodies and composed his own, as it were, contrapuntal score. It’s a tribute to his gifts as an arranger that you can’t tell the difference between his work and Monnot’s unless you know the London or Broadway (or original French) Irma. The love theme Previn wrote for Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine is among the most achingly beautiful ever composed for a movie romance, comic or dramatic.

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Previn’s great (pace Mr. Giddins) jazz legacy is his series of small-combo recordings, often with Red Mitchell and Shelly Manne, many of which concentrated on a single Broadway or Hollywood musical (Pal Joey, My Fair Lady, Bells are Ringing, Li’l Abner, Gigi, Camelot) or a specific composer (Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke.) As often as not, however, these glittering, exquisitely tempered albums feature Previn’s own sprightly, infectiously melodic compositions, rendered either in piano solo (or, as in his collaboration with Russ Freeman, duo) or with bass and drum. (Latterly, Previn’s collaborators have included Ray Brown, Joe Pass and even Itzhak Perlman.) Since their debuts, these superb sessions have been non-pariel. To this day only Terry Trotter’s series of Sondheim scores arranged for trio on Varèse Sarabande have come close to the lilting, gentle, playful originality of the “show” discs produced by Previn & Co.

Previn, whose conducting for movies goes back to the late 1940s, took on his first symphonic assignment in 1967 (the Houston Symphony) and went on to lead the LSO, the Pittsburgh, the Royal Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Phil, not always to the satisfaction of all. Indeed, it is, oddly, as an orchestral conductor that Sir Andre has interested, and satisfied, himself the most, and me the least — a surprise considering how efficacious his Hollywood work with the baton had been. His “classical” recordings often eschew effective tempi, either rushing or worse, elongating to the point of acute boredom. His recording of Peter and the Wolf, which he also narrates, is charming, in part because of that lovely, soft Mid-Atlantic accent of his.† But in general he neither inspires nor excites on the podium as the greatest conductors routinely have, and do.

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Similarly, some of his creative decisions have been decidedly perverse. His collaboration with his then-wife Dory (née Langdon) on the songs for Inside Daisy Clover would make sense only had the filmmakers retained the contemporary backdrop of Gavin Lambert’s splendid original novel; since they set it instead in the 1930s, the Previn songs, such as the anthemic “You’re Gonna Hear from Me,” otherwise very fine in themselves, sound no more like they were written during the Warren-Dubin Depression era than Jay-Z’s raps for the recent The Great Gatsby actually reflect the 1920s.previn - no minor chords bk2785

As a raconteur and (somewhat reluctant) Hollywood survivor, Previn hit a personal high-water mark with his delicious memoir No Minor Chords, in which a few of his colleagues, past and contemporary, come in for some wickedly appropriate drubbing. Previn’s memories also make good copy for other biographers: His having to quite literally lock Alan Lerner in an upstairs office in order to get a single couplet out of that notoriously recalcitrant wordsmith, for example, or his reaction to Lerner and Leonard Bernstein’s wonderfully scored but theatrically appalling White House musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: Watching with glazed eyes as a silhouette of Lincoln ominously crosses behind an upstage scrim at the end of Act One, Previn recalls thinking, “I’m going mad.” That may be the single finest epithet I’ve ever heard for that rather historic Broadway bomb.††

Andre Previn turned 85 yesterday. Thank you, Maestro, for the pleasure you’ve given me nearly all my life. On balance, your own balance has been very good indeed.

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*Previn was nominated for some 13 Academy Awards® for scoring and composition, and won four — all for adaptation: Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi; the same Porgy & Bess whose existing prints the Gershwin heirs are currently buying up and destroying; Irma La Douce; and My Fair Lady.

†Previn was born in Berlin, where he lived with his parents to the age of 10 before, as with so many assimilated German and Austrian Jews of that time, fleeing to America.

††That’s not a condemnation of the show’s score, which is full of glories. But as Stephen Sondheim once noted of his former West Side Story collaborator, Bernstein always aimed big, making his successes even bigger; subsequently he would not have, in Sondheim’s words, “a mini, mingy failure; he would have a big, pretentious failure.”*Previn was nominated for some 13 Academy Awards® for scoring and composition, and won four — all for adaptation: Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi; the same Porgy & Bess, all of whose existing prints the Gershwin heirs are currently buying up and destroying; Irma; and My Fair Lady.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

The Buzzword Walks Among Us

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By Scott Ross

It is, I suppose, a measure of how out of step I am with my time that I care, not only about how I express myself, but how others speak, and write, as well. “Curmudgeon” comes to mind most readily as an epithet for the likes of me. Well, call me sorehead, call me crank. Call me crusty if you really must. Call me a malcontent, a Grammar-Nazi, or even (should you be of a whimsical turn of mind) murmurer or crosspatch. I got through 9th grade — I’ve been called worse. Teen-talk, as it’s called, with its accent on digital media acronyms, inarticulate and pointless interjections (“like”) and overuse of words like “awesome,” is sometimes annoying, but one can’t get overly exercised about it. (I was a teenager once.) It’s when it follows you into adulthood that it becomes maddening. And each time I read or hear an adult man or woman who was once a good speaker, or a good writer, adopt the trendy, teen-speak “way” for “much” or “far,” something in me dies a little.*

Slang is not the issue. The adoption of the demotic and the colloquial do not, in themselves, cause me to despair; language that does not move and change and grow with those who speak it soon becomes language that is fustian, and dead. What I am nattering on about are those words that muddy the stream of meaningful discourse. Saying, or worse, writing, “impact” as a verb so often that it becomes accepted speech does not clarify. It obfuscates. (Anyone who can, with complete lack of guile, use that adjectival nightmare “impactful” and not feel a sense of shame so overwhelming as to induce a psychic breakdown is already beyond the pale.) Using “proactive” when what you really mean is to behave in a manner that anticipates problems and avoids them before they occur, is sheer linguistic barbarism. The English-speaking world managed just fine being active (or even “reactive”) for hundreds of years and was not aware that it needed grammatical correction for a verbal lack that never existed.

And don’t get me started on “verbal” when you mean “oral.”

Most of the bad badinage that afflicts rational discourse has arisen from, as nearly as I can determine, three principal sources, none of which I would trust with fixing a streetlamp, much less altering the language: Business, government, and that curiously hyper-polite matrix I think of as “OfficerSpeak”: The military and its kissing-cousin, what we still laughingly refer to as “law enforcement.”

From the world of business, contiguous with its nasty little soul-mate The Ad Biz, both of which are of course ever-mindful of what is rightest, newest, “coolest” and best, we get such hideous neologisms as the aforementioned “proactive” and the rending of a hitherto perfectly inoffensive little noun like “impact.” Business is, in bloating the coffers of the language, a busy little beaver indeed and so has provided us with nifty hack-words and phrases like “diversity,” “empowerment” (and its bastard bother “powerful”)†, “core values,” “joined-up thinking” (this, from people whose cerebra are as creaseless as a baby’s bottom), “incentivize,” “signage,” “paradigm-shift,” “strategize” “think outside the box,” and, that all-time favorite of Michael Eisner (whisper who dares), “synergy.” Sadly, these utterly meaningless words and phrases have, with the speed of sound itself, filtered into every conceivable nook and linguistic cranny of daily life. Well, as Mel Brooks once noted in one of his ad-libbed colloquies with Carl Reiner, “Advertising is a lot stronger than life.”

Government, which has proven itself over the millennia and in every guise about as trustworthy as ants before an open jar of honey, tosses the language about like barrels of pork to a professional lobbyist. And with as much integrity. I well remember, even from the wobbly age of 12 or 13, the assault of jargon, and the flatulent verbiage, that emerged from the Watergate scandal, as slimy as Nixon but with even greater sticking power. Of “in terms of,” a then-nascent hack-phrase whose use is now epidemic, Robert Klein observed at the time: “That’s a phrase I heard about three times in my life before this year.” With the passage of time, it’s gotten even worse: “Enhanced interrogation techniques” when what we mean (and should riot over our government’s use of) is “torture.” And should you wish to spend billions of our treasure and ensure the continued health and, as our betters would say, “viability” of anything, just declare war on it. Whatever “it” is (poverty, drug abuse, famine, terrorism) rest assured it will never be heard from again.

The armed forces, at least in America, are well known for their determination to break down the individual. Each branch then says it is in the business of building that young person up again… on its own terms. And with its own terms. Thus, the instantly- known becomes, with time and effort, euphemized and re-jiggered beyond all sane codification: As George Carlin famously pointed out, the World War I term “shell-shock,” a blunt word to match a man-made, horrifying condition, became by the next War to End Wars, “battle fatigue.” Now, of course, it’s not a phrase or even a word; it’s an acronym. PTSD sounds ever so much less threatening than shell shock, doesn’t it? Guns are not ‘weapons,” they’re “assets.” The accurate application of ordinance meant to blow human beings into their constituent parts is “clean” bombing. Saber-rattling might is “coercive potential.” The hideously maimed, both physically and psychologically, need no longer be crippled, handicapped or driven to the brink of madness by their experience as cannon-fodder. Now they hobble about, or drool with pride, having achieved the exalted status of “wounded warriors.” Worst, and most blood- chilling, the loss of life and limb by the innocent at the hands — or, more accurately, the thumbs and forefingers — of our “freedom fighters” is now mere “collateral damage.” Oops. My bad, as they say. (All too often.)

When freedom fighters (those, in any event, who do not become wounded warriors) enter civilian life, they traditionally gravitate to two fields: Aviation, if they’re Air Force personnel of proven abilities, or the police, if they’re… well… discretion forbids. Here they can take the weirdly prissy articles of overly elaborate verbal protocol they’ve learned as soldiers and apply them to everyday life. How often have we watched, and listened, as some martinet cop on the eleven-o’clock news goes through his or her (usually his) protracted, over-articulated spiel when asked about the commission of a crime? The officer never merely arrests when he can “apprehend.” Accused criminals are “individuals” or “perpetrators.” And neither cop nor felon need ever flee from or merely and humbly get out of an automobile; they “disengage from their vehicles.” Obfuscation of this type, and in this form, is deadening. Or perhaps that’s the intention? The more emotionally robotized and phlegmatic the cop — excuse me, the Law Enforcement Officer — the more fascistic he seems, and the more to be feared. And obeyed.

The many and various media, of course, take their cues from all of the above, particularly when dealing with popular culture. It is now axiomatic that any book, film, play or piece of sausage-factory pop-music that has managed to eke out a year or two of notoriety is a “classic.” Any individual of whatever stripe whose career has lasted more than a decade is instantly granted the exalted sobriquet “legendary.” Music no longer functions as a stimulant, an anodyne, or possesses a meaning of its own; it is “the soundtrack to [fill in the blank.]” ††

As for the rest of us (those of us who in any case are not ourselves legends) we no longer have lives. We have life-styles. We do not read — well, who does now? — listen to, watch, or in any meaningful fashion absorb the fruits of culture, high, low or middle. We “consume” it. And, one presumes, in a throwaway society, consign it to the W.C. of civilization once we’ve finished digesting it.

Well, I say it’s bullshit, and I say the hell with it.

As William Strunk, Jr. noted in The Elements of Style, “Vigorous writing is concise.” It’s a phrase that has become something of a mantra with me over the years, and which I now apply equally to speaking. Strunk goes on, a few phrases later: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” [Emphasis mine.] Words are not empty things. They convey meaning, and, especially in this so-called Communication Age, aid immeasurably in one human being reaching another. But if the words we employ cloak meaning, or cheapen it, or obfuscate and obtrude where they should clarify and enlighten, we are as one with those E.Y. Harburg once whimsically termed “the rabble at the Tower of Babel,” talking over, under and around each other without making anything like a meaningful, or even temporary, connection.

And don’t get even me started on cell phones.


*Richard Corliss, I’m speaking to you.

†The abuse of poor old inoffensive “power” reaches its nadir in the patently ridiculous vogue-phrase, oxymoronic in the extreme, “Rest in Power.” The personal anxiety informing that one I leave to psychologists.

††“Soundtrack” carries its own linguistic burdens; a Broadway cast recording is still far too often referred to by ignoramuses as a “Broadway soundtrack.” Then again, these days, with the theatre experience itself more and more resembling a rock concert in style, form, presentation and content, and where the soundboard operator is at least the coeval of the actor-singer-dancer, and more important than the stage manager, that perhaps is as it should be.

Text Copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Enlarging the scope: Jerry Goldsmith in the 1970s

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By Scott Ross

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At the dawn of a new decade and after several years scoring for television and movies, Jerry Goldsmith was more than ready for the challenges ahead. He hit 1970 running, and pretty much never stopped. Right out of the gate, Goldsmith composed one of the most prominent themes of the era: His bold, classical, yet forward-looking martial motif for Patton.

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On its face, Goldsmith’s Patton theme follows the parameters of a long line of military marches, particularly those for movies — including his own. Yet those ghostly horn fanfares at the beginning (their reverberating effects achieved by Goldsmith’s use of the Echoplex tape-delay system) and the similarly eerie organ chords that seem to emanate from a distant past, are what the theme is really about: George S. Patton’s sense of himself as an invincible force, not merely of his own time but of all history, reincarnated from the shades of the ancients in his beloved historical war-texts. As bound up in the past as this is (the march’s cadences are distinctly Celtic) the use here by Goldsmith of recent musical reproduction technology points to his increasing fascination with what synthesized sound could do for his craft. Incredibly — but all too believably — while the score was nominated for that year’s Academy Award®, Goldsmith lost once again, this time to… Francis Lai(!) and his saccharine Love Story for which only the theme, endlessly iterated on pop recordings, is remembered.

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No matter. Goldsmith went onward, composing a remarkable, appropriately bifurcated, East-West score for Tora! Tora! Tora! that is (as so often with him) better than the movie deserved, and an energetic late Western score, Rio Lobo, for Howard Hawks, featuring an exquisite Spanish guitar theme, performed during the main titles by Tommy Tedesco. In 1971 Goldsmith moved further into electronica than anyone could have anticipated with his truly unnerving music for the horror thriller The Mephisto Waltz, in which he incorporates (along with the expected interpolation from Liszt) such other-worldly strings and Hell-tormented moans that listening to the score on its own with the lights off could constitute a true act of courage.

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That same year Goldsmith composed a vivid, exciting and appropriately melancholy score for Blake Edwards’ sad, elegiac Western Wild Rovers, the movie itself later butchered by the loathsome James Aubrey at MGM. At Christmas of 1971, home viewers could hear Goldsmith’s music for The Homecoming, that loveliest of holiday movies, out of Earl Hamner, Jr’s semi-autobiography. When the special spawned a series, The Waltons, Goldsmith was tapped to write the theme, resulting in a piece of music that, in just over a minute, conjures Depression rural America, Hamner’s slightly fictionalized family, the splendid Richard Thomas, and the warmth that eventually became a comedic by-word but which, at least in the early years, was quite genuine, and without falling into manipulation and bathos. All that from six well-chosen notes.*

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For 1973’s escape epic Papillon, Goldsmith composed a lilting, Gallic waltz on which he rang dramatic variations. For the first television miniseries (a concept much discussed at the time) based on the inexplicably popular Leon Uris novel QB VII† Goldsmith drew overtly on his own Jewishness for the first time, in music that keens as though with the voices of the six million dead.

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Many Goldsmith aficionados cite 1982 and the triple-play of Poltergeist, The Secret of NIMH and First Blood as the Anno Principium of the composer’s great period. To be comprehensive, one could as easily point to 1966 and The Sand Pebbles, which for all intents and purposes begins his career-long ascendancy. If you don’t wish to extend things quite that far back, I would respectfully suggest 1974 as the year from which there really is no looking back, only, appropriately, forward. And the score that affixes Goldsmith’s place in the filmmusic firmament is the masterly Chinatown. Taking its cue from the Roman Polanski/Robert Towne classic’s pace, milieu, look, period and understated, doomed romanticism, the score has moments of languid eeriness, unnerving tension and bittersweet, minor key melodiousness whose key component is a jazzy, slightly foreboding solo trumpet line. Goldsmith’s score replaced that of Phillip Lambro, who was only recently permitted by the studio to release his version on disc, and even then providing it did not mention Chinatown in either the title or the description. Listening to Los Angeles 1937: The Unused Score of a Film by Roman Polanski (fuck you, Paramount) one can see that Polanski led Goldsmith down very similar symphonic paths indeed. I’m not suggesting Goldsmith lifted from Lambro, but it is fascinating to note how not dissimilar (to use a deliberate double negative) the two scores are. But Lambro’s does not have a similarly (and insistently) memorable trumpet theme, and that may have been the dark/romantic sound the movie’s producer, Robert Evans, was after.†† Additionally, I would not pretend that the two competing works are equal in quality; Lambro’s score is splendid but Goldsmith’s is a masterpiece.

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For the 1975 Charles Bronson prison-escape thriller Breakout, Goldsmith provided a score of tremendous velocity, anchored by a Latin underpinning appropriate to the movie’s Mexican setting. Later that year he wrote one of his most accomplished scores, for The Wind and the Lion, the right-wing fantasist (I nearly typed “fascist”… by mistake?) John Milius’ epic fantasia on the so-called “Perdicaris Incident” of 1904. The movie, which, in Wikipedia’s apt phrase, “blends historic facts into a violent fictional adventure,” commanded from Goldsmith a magnificent score filled to overflowing with “exotic” Arabic strains, robust adventure writing, and unabashed romanticism. “The function of a score,” Goldsmith once noted, “is to enlarge the scope of a film. I try for emotional penetration — not for complementing the action. For me, the important thing about music is statement. I can’t describe how I arrive at the decision to make a statement, I simply feel it and react to it.” Seldom has such reaction yielded a more sublime response.

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The 1976 Logan’s Run, a rare science fiction picture at a time when the genre was considered a sure-fire loser (Hollywood needed to wait only one year longer to learn how wrong that thinking was, at least regarding space-fantasy) elicited from Goldsmith a score based on an sonic notion that complimented the movie’s theme: The highly artificial, hermetically-sealed world of the future, with its pleasure-games and enclosed reality (represented by electronica) contrasted with the world that’s been left behind — verdant, lush and full of possibilities (full, rich orchestral arrangements.) The central theme, which builds rhapsodically, is exquisite. Much more notable, and remunerative, was The Omen, which still, shockingly, remains Goldsmith’s sole Academy Award® winner. That’s not a slam. It’s a superb horror-movie score, anchored to the sinister, Stravinskiesque (if ungrammatical) Latin choral anthem “Ave Satani” (itself up that year, for Best Song!) but, alas, largely in the service of the filmmakers’ blood lust for progressively grander and ever more ingenious means of graphically killing off its cardboard characters. Screw Friday the 13thThe Omen is the true progenitor of ’80s slasher-porn.

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The same year as The Omen, Goldsmith composed what he regarded as his own favorite among his scores. Islands in the Stream amounts in a way to the anti-Omen; personal where the previous movie is impersonal, character-driven as opposed to effect-driven, elegiac where The Omen is deeply foreboding. One of Goldsmith’s not-infrequent collaborations with Franklin J. Schaffner, the director of Patton, and based on a posthumously-published, semi-autobiographical and incomplete Hemingway novel, Islands is one of the composer’s most ingratiating, and most melancholy, scores. Yet it is suffused with emotional highs — it’s filled with wonder. The long (nearly 12-minute) cue “The Marlin,” depicting the George C. Scott character’s younger son battling to land a gigantic fish from his father’s boat is, at least in Goldsmith’s hands, as stark, exciting and intensely memorable as Hemingway’s description of it. I don’t know why the composer felt as strongly as he did about this material, or why it so moved him, and, really, one doesn’t need to. This is film music that, alone, and without choral accompaniment, sings.

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Contract on Cherry Street, a good 1977 television thriller (from an even better novel, by Phillip Rosenberg) starring Frank Sinatra, drew from Goldsmith a score that, unique for the home-screen of its time (or even now) was full-bodied, completely orchestral, one that would have enhanced any theatrical film of its type, then or today. The writing is muscular, exciting, subtle and crackling with energy, yet with moments of haunting emotionalism. No one but Goldsmith could have composed it.

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Peter Hyams’ 1977 paranoia thriller Capricorn One, about a faked Mars landing, drew on post-Watergate cynicism about the government (and our concomitant elevation of dogged reporters to hero status — almost entirely alien in these post-free press days) for a far-fetched but entertaining yarn, heightened by Sam Waterson’s wise-cracking and ultimately moving performance as one of the doomed astronauts (O.J. Simpson was the other; only James Brolin came out of it alive. Well, of course.) Goldsmith’s score compliments the material handily, from its ominous, heraldic, opening chords to its uplifting finale, although a comparison with Contract on Cherry Street does indicate some discrete sharing of arrangement and motif.

Which brings us rather neatly to the matter of the compositional phase. One hears it a great deal when listening to a single composer over an extended period: The recurrence of color, motif, orchestration — even entire phrases. If you listen to, say, Capricorn One and follow it up with The Great Train Robbery, Alien, The Secret of NIMH, Poltergeist and Night Crossing, the similarities in tone and arrangement fairly scream at you. This isn’t self-plagiarism, it seems to me; I suspect it’s natural, a creative outgrowth of both where the composer is at a given time, and what his or her concurrent harmonic interests are.

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For the inevitable Omen sequel, in 1978, starring William Holden and Lee Grant this time out, Goldsmith used his “Ave Satani” theme more sparingly, supplementing it with new choral material that occasionally apes the croaking sound of ravens. (A bird crucial to one character’s bloody demise.) As he did with its predecessor, the composer piles on the action cues with aplomb. It’s better writing than pap of this sort merits.

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William Goldman’s Magic was essentially un-filmable, relying as it did on a literary device that must, necessarily, fall by the wayside in a visual transliteration: In the book we’re unaware that Corky Withers’ comedy partner, Fats, is a ventriloquist’s dummy until well into the story; in the movie, we know immediately. Still, Magic was creepy fun, inspired by the Michael Redgrave sequence in Dead of Night, and a chance to enjoy one of my then-favorite “unknown” actors, Anthony Hopkins, in a starring role. Goldsmith’s harmonica motif is appropriately unnerving, in the Bernard Herrmann manner, and the score as a whole is a dandy.

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Michael Crichton adapted and directed his own, fact-based, historical novel, in 1978, and The Great Train Robbery is good, juicy Victorian amusement from beginning to improbable end, especially with such seasoned pros as Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland along for the ride. Goldsmith’s waltzing train motif is a prime asset, adding a major dramatic thrust to the narrative, and on which the composer rings seemingly endless variations. If ever a movie score can be called “fun,” it’s this one; it’s as if the high of Korngold’s Sea Hawk theme extended over a movie’s entire score.

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The 1979 Alien was easily one of the most intensely memorable experiences of my movie-going life. Knowing virtually nothing about it before buying my ticket, I was wholly unprepared for the genuine shock awaiting me; when that damn thing burst out of John Hurt’s chest, I had a five-minute attack of hyperventilation in the theatre. Goldsmith was famously unhappy with the final mix as heard in the movie, where music from his score for Freud was tracked in to replace his original main title, some Howard Hanson appeared instead of his own end credits music, and his elaborate, driving theme for the alien was removed from the final print. For Goldsmith aficionados, the best solution is the 2007 Intrada release, which couples the complete score and the 1979 LP tracks with alternate cues and bonus items. Goldsmith’s score sets the tone, for the movie itself and for the entire coming cinematic franchise: Dark, moody, expressionistic. Harrowing.

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Goldsmith ended the decade as he’d begun it, with one of his most-cherished works. Few fans, or critics, were best pleased with the long-awaited Star Trek movie, but there were no similar complaints about Goldsmith’s majestic score; indeed, his theme for The Enterprise quickly supplanted Alexander Courage’s original television main title, and is the immediately identifiable “sound” of the subsequent Star Trek universe. (Courage, interestingly, became one of Goldsmith’s most frequent orchestrators, and his own “sound” is intimately bound up in that of Courage.) It took many years for the full soundtrack of Star Trek: The Motion Picture to be released, but it belongs in the collection of any Goldsmith aficionado. Or, indeed, that of any serious student of the form. Although the electronics for this space epic are kept to a minimum, there’s a Blaster Beam effect that is superbly integrated into the score, and the whole is nearly as good, in its more modest way, as John Williams’ music for the first Star Wars movie. The 3-disc La-La-Land release brings it all together, eked out by alternate cues and a reproduction of the original 1979 soundtrack re-recording. Essential.

Three years after the release of Star Trek, Goldsmith would have his unofficial Annus Mirabilis. But I daresay he’d been giving us years of wonder all along.

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*Goldsmith also composed music for some of the early episodes of The Waltons, but any hopes of a CD highlighting those scores, and that marvelous theme, have been dashed by the intelligence that Lorimar, the company that produced the series, destroyed the tapes.

†It goes without saying that the Holocaust is one of the most important, and appalling, events of the 20th century, and one can well understand the emotional involvement of Uris’ readers in QB VII. But the book, based on the author’s own legal experience with a man he named as a Nazi doctor in his novel Exodus, is written — “hacked” would be a better word — with no finesse whatsoever. Worse, it exhibits an appalling misogyny and evokes a masculine world in which women are either pussy, or nothing.

††In addition to the Los Angeles 1937 CD, you can also hear Lambro’s music under the movie’s original trailer. See YouTube et al.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

Overcoming Fear: Jerry Goldsmith in the 1960s

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“I think that the great part of creativity is overcoming fear. Fear is a given. When you sit down and have to begin something, don’t be afraid to be filled with fear, because it goes with the turf.” — Jerry Goldsmith

By Scott Ross

One of the abiding sorrows of my life is that, while I am intensely musical I play no instrument and, although I would rather sing than do almost anything else, cannot read music, or in any case can do so only in the most rudimentary fashion. As in: I see the notes rise and fall on the staff, so know they’re either higher, or lower. Higher or lower than what, though, I couldn’t necessarily say. I enjoy a fairly eclectic blend of music, a variety which takes in concert works (I loathe the catch-all term “Classical” except when applied to the actual Classical era, which it seldom does), theatre scores (the odious, and largely ignorant, phrase “Show Tunes” will never pass either my lips or my typing fingers) some folk, a smattering of pop and funk (Paul Simon and Rufus Wainwright are demi-gods for me, and I am still partial to the Top 40 of my childhood and early adolescence, which was refreshingly integrated in a way, in our hyphenated existence, it now longer is), and a whole lot of jazz (Louis Armstrong is, for me, as close to a Supreme Deity as any pretend sky-god.) But what I tend to listen to most are film scores.

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Miklós Rózsa

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My personal Pantheon embraces Franz Waxman, whose early work, like The Bride of Frankenstein, did much to give us a grammar for movie scoring (Max Steiner got there slightly earlier, but, as with Eric Wolfgang Korngold, his scores tend to the stolid, the sentimental and the over-emphatic, with nothing like the compositional daring or the harmonic complexity that were Waxman’s stocks-in-trade); Alfred Newman and Dmitri Tiomkin, both capable of indifferent or bombastic work but whose masterpieces are as fine as anyone’s; Miklós Rózsa, the supreme classicist of the so-called Golden Age, without whom both Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder would have been the poorer; Bernard Herrmann, the first great genius of the form, and a giant on whose shoulders virtually everyone who followed has stood; Carl Stalling, whose Warner Bros. cartoon scores took animation spotting to heights of playful, antic sublimity and whose best compositions

(pace Daniel Goldmark) are as far from simple “Mickey Mousing” as it is possible to get;

Alex North with his "Honorary" Academy Award. Your compromise statuette when they won't give you an actual award for your best work.

Alex North with his “Honorary” Academy Award. Your compromise statuette when they won’t give you an actual award for your best work.

David Raksin, a minor deity, perhaps, but an important one, whose finest efforts, such as The Bad and the Beautiful and What’s the Matter with Helen? exhibit a stylistic range and a tonal flexibility that are considerable; Alex North, the first great modernist of the American film score, whose Spartacus is one of the glories of the moving-picture age; Nino Rota, who, even if hadn’t composed the score (and now-famous theme) for The Godfather would be a giant, if only for his work with Fellini;

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Vic Mizzy, surrounded by some of the creatures for whom he wrote his memorable scores.

 

 

 

 

 

Jerome Moross, who despite some redundancy of style was a bracing composer of Americana; Laurence Rosenthal, whose lyricism is beyond reproach and whose score for The Miracle Worker is as close to transcendent as movie music gets; Henry Mancini, whose sound virtually defined his era but who, due to his penchant for producing easy-listening albums rather than soundtrack LPs, is still not taken as seriously as he had every right to be; John Barry, another era-definer, whose James Bond scores are infinitely richer than the series deserved and whose best work elsewhere (The Lion in Winter, Robin and Marian, Dances with Wolves) need apologize for nothing; Jerry Fielding, a fiercely idiosyncratic composer who, after years of blacklist, over-worked himself to an early grave; Vic Mizzy, whose Don Knotts efforts, particularly The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, are among the best comedy scores in movies; Ennio Morricone, who is sometimes repetitious, and occasionally absolutely dreadful, but whose work for Sergio Leone (not to mention later masterworks like The Untouchables and The Mission) transcend their movies, and their genres; John Williams, whose more syrupy and/or emphatic excesses can be forgiven for any number of masterworks, from The Reivers to Munich (and including, of course, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the Star Wars series); Lalo Schifrin, so splendid at “cool,” jazzy atmosphere that it’s impossible to imagine McQueen’s Frank Bullitt or Eastwood’s Dirty Harry Callahan without him;

John Williams and friend.

John Williams and friend.

and David Shire, whose limited output is in no way indicative of his gifts and whose incomparably rich score for Return to Oz is among the finest composed for any movie in the last 70 years.

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A pair of masters, however, share my top spot: Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith. When these twin giants, appallingly, took their leave within a month of each other in the summer of 2004, the art and craft of movie scoring received a blow to its very soul, one from which I doubt it will, or can, ever fully recover.

Elmer Bernstein in 1967. He never won for any of his great scores, only for "Thoroughly Modern Millie," which contained very little of HIS music.

Elmer Bernstein in 1967. He never won for any of his great scores, only for “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” which contained very little of his music.

For me, Bernstein’s loss hurt in a way that Goldsmith’s did not. Aside from his having been, by all accounts, a courtly and rather lovely man, the sheer emotional heft of his greatest work revealed a heart as expansive as any that ever beat. If I had to pick a single cue, by any film composer, as my favorite the choice would be, without question, the one labeled “End Title” in Bernstein’s To Kill a Mockingbird (but which is actually the music accompanying the final scene, end titles in those days seldom lasting more than 30 seconds.) Those final, elegiac, annealing chords, rising impossibly high before, finally, resolving themselves, gently yet decisively, never fail first to send chills of rapture up my spine and then to move me to shameless tears. It isn’t merely the perfect climax to that movie’s (indeed, that novel’s) story. It is, on its own, as close to perfection in emotional response, and release, as anything I’ve ever heard. It’s the music I’d want to be the last thing I ever hear in this life. Barring that, they can play it at my wake.

A young, and very handsome, Jerry Goldsmith in the mid-1960s. He had reason to smile.

A young, and very handsome, Jerry Goldsmith in the mid-1960s. He had reason to smile.

Jerry Goldsmith’s scores seldom move me in quite that way, although he wrote as astounding number of peerlessly lovely themes and there are quite a few whose emotional qualities, beautifully controlled and never allowed to slip into bathos, are exemplars of the scorer’s art. Almost without exception — I’ll come to a few achingly singular examples by and by — these are from his scores for smaller movies, of the type Hollywood seldom makes now, and was making fewer and fewer of as Goldsmith’s life came to its close.

One is struck by the composer’s remarks on that subject, inasmuch as the bulk of Goldsmith’s best work was in the action or thriller genre, and he really excelled at Westerns. “I like the variety,” he was quoted as saying. “But basically my choice of films [sic] is a small intimate film. Quiet film, no action, just people in relationships. That’s what I like the most.” It’s telling how relatively few of these he (and Bernstein, who also excelled at them) actually scored. Did, as I suspect, the opportunities simply vanish? “When I get a fantasy film job,” Goldsmith noted, “the first thing I look for is the non-fantasy element to build the music upon. The human side of the film is what’s important, not the hardware. My work on Poltergeist is a perfect example. Most people saw it as a ghost story and a horror story. I saw it as a love story and wrote the music with that emotion in mind. There is no formula to finding what musically fits a science fiction film. I just look for the emotion. When I don’t find those, it makes things more difficult.” Judging from his later output, it must have been difficult much (if not most) of the time.

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While Goldsmith had television (and radio) credits as early as 1954, his composing career only really began to build, and blossom, in the early 1960s.* The familiar, glorious Dr. Kildare opening is his, but his first important credit for movies was for one of those “small intimate films,” the melancholy Lonely Are the Brave, which its star Kirk Douglas has often called his favorite from among his own work. That same year (1962) Goldsmith was engaged by John Huston for Freud (aka, Freud: The Secret Passion) and for which he composed an enormously effective, somewhat atonal, score, which earned him the first of far too many Academy Award® nominations he would ultimately lose.† The following year, and in a complete change of pace, Goldsmith wrote a deliciously sly, playful, Kurt Weillian score for Huston’s tongue-in-cheek Phillip MacDonald whodunit The List of Adrian Messenger which has, thankfully, recently been issued on a limited edition CD by Varèse Sarabande, one of several cottage outfits of varying sizes specializing in preserving American film scores, many of which (Intrada, the now-defunct Film Score Monthly) also emphasize Goldsmithiana.

Somewhat surprisingly, Goldsmith did not receive an Academy nod for the much-nominated Lilies of the Field, a small, heartfelt work, although he was nominated for the subsequent Sidney Poitier drama A Patch of Blue. The composer received 18 nominations in all (Bernstein got 14) winning only once, for The Omen — a fine, if derivative, horror score, leaning heavily on faux-Stravinsky via Gregorian vocalese (Symphony of Psalms seems a particular antecedent), but nowhere close to his best work.†† Could Goldsmith’s peers have seriously imagined this was his only award-worthy score, or that it was in some way superior to The Sand Pebbles, Chinatown, Islands in the Stream, The Wind and the Lion, Lionheart, Poltergeist or even The Secret of NIMH? Granting that those are highly personal choices, I submit that any one of them displays greater emotionality and more daring, even wit, than the highly popular, and influential, Omen.

The Washington, D.C.-based political thriller Seven Days in May (1964) elicited from Goldsmith an appropriately spare, brief, martial score and the same year’s Western Rio Conchos one of the composer’s most insistent, melodic earworms of a theme as well as some terrifically expansive, muscular action cues. For Our Man Flint, a cheerfully ridiculous Bond spoof starring a relaxed and genial James Coburn, Goldsmith offered up some delicious, tongue-in-cheek spy-pop that includes the riotously and deliberately inane theme-song (lyric by Leslie Bricusse) “Your Zowie Face” (Z.O.W.I.E. is the organization Flint works for.) Von Ryan’s Express (1965) has some splendid things in it as well, as does The Blue Max of 1966 with its soaring main theme, although one can point here to Waxman’s superb The Spirit of St. Louis as an obvious point of sonic reference.

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No such niggling comparisons obtain for Goldsmith’s early magnum opus, The Sand Pebbles (also 1966.) While the movie itself, for all its seriousness of purpose and remarkably epic qualities, is a lamentable diminution of the magnificent Richard McKenna novel, its thinness exacerbated by the disastrous miscasting of the intolerably unresponsive Candice Bergen and the almost incredibly overrated, and terminally blank, Steve McQueen in the central roles. But that score! Along with two lovely, and ultimately heart-wrenching supporting performances by Mako and Richard Attenborough, it is left largely to Goldsmith to provide the unsettling dramatic thrust, the aching melancholy and the almost unbearable emotional underpinning the story needs in order fully to convey the results of the tragic confluence of imperialist misadventure and explosive social upheaval. The cue “Death of a Thousand Cuts,” for Mako, is one of the most emotionally wrenching things of its kind in the composer’s oeuvre, a track that continues to move the listener as much on the dozenth play-through as on the first. The Sand Pebbles is Goldsmith’s first undeniably great work for the movies, a score so intriguing, so layered, and so fraught with aching humanity that it has been released numerous times, in incrementally superior editions the last of which, on Intrada (and which contains the score as heard in the movie as well as the contents of the re-recorded “soundtrack” of the period) belongs in the library of every serious movie music aficionado.

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For Hour of the Gun, a rather good 1967 variation on the Wyatt Earp legend starring James Garner, Jason Robards and the great Robert Ryan, Goldsmith composed a terrific genre score. (Choice cuts: The arresting main theme and the curiously un-punctuated “Whose Cattle.”) 1968 saw the arrival of another milestone Goldsmith score, for Planet of the Apes. The composer had flirted before with electronica, but had not fully explored its possibilities for appropriately otherworldly sounds until this one, although the best cues (“The Hunt” and “No Escape”) are, in the main, more traditional in composition and orchestration. Goldsmith would, in future, lean too heavily on augmented instrumentation for my taste; I admit to a decided prejudice against synthesizers and related musical hardware over sounds produced by human players — the only really good synthesized film score I’ve ever encountered is Arthur B. Rubinstein’s for Blue Thunder — but I defy anyone to seriously defend the “superiority” of the lamentable Hoosiers over even such minor achievements as, say, Rudy or Deep Rising.

justine

In 1969 Goldsmith returned to television, composing the gentle, memorably optimistic theme, and some of the early scores, for the excellent, laugh-trackless comedy-drama (as they used to be called in those antediluvian days before the hideous neologism “dramedy” was, like the voice of the turtle, incessantly heard throughout the land) Room 222. He also scored the absurd but exciting Gregory Peck thriller The Chairman, and the Cukor-directed misfire Justine. For this transliteration of one-fourth of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Goldsmith contributed a vivid, enticing, spirited score in which sitar, auto harp and recorder, added to an already rich orchestral palette, evoke eroticism, exoticism and terror equally, and equally well.

At the very beginning of the next decade Jerry Goldsmith would not necessarily become a household name, but he would compose a single theme that, like Herrmann’s shower murder and John Williams’ shark music, very quickly achieved nearly universal identification and in Goldsmith’s case, instantly reminding listeners of that film, its star, and the movie’s towering, contradictory real-life subject…

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*Goldsmith composed a splendid, trumpet-driven theme for one of the quirkiest of all Westerns (and perhaps of all radio dramas) “Frontier Gentleman” starring the redoubtable, and very busy, John Dehner.

†Does anyone really think The Omen, good as it is, Goldsmith’s best score? Possibly only the same people who would likewise rate Bernstein’s incidental music for his only Oscar®-winner, Thoroughly Modern Millie.

††Few so-called film critics, who know as little about music as they do about acting, direction, cinematography, plays, literature, history or any of the other, myriad aspects that go into making the art, ever single Goldsmith out for praise. Or, if they do, as did John Simon in his review of the 1974 Chinatown, may be capable, as Simon was a scant two years later in a critique of The Omen, of making reference to “that pretentious hack Jerry Goldsmith.” He’s done this sort of thing repeatedly in his criticism, to the point where I wonder if Simon, whom I often admire in spite of his militant ugliness of spirit, has a peculiarly selective memory. Goldsmith cannot be an artist one year, a hack the next. Which is it, Simon?


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

 

 

Looking Back in Anger

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By Scott Ross

For the past two days, I have been listening to Quartet Records’ meticulous reconstruction of Miklós Rózsa’s exquisite score for the Billy Wilder/I.A.L. Diamond masterwork The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in, if not exactly a state of rage, at least fits of reasonably manageable pique.

A note on the Quartet website explains, to a large degree, the reason for my fury: The company’s producers and engineers, it tells us, “spent almost three years searching for the best possible sources, but the original masters are, unfortunately, forever lost […]  We have used three different monaural music-only stems from the MGM vaults for this release — none of which was in ideal condition.”

This is, sadly, an old story, all too often replicated. It is an especially cruel irony that, while the loss of priceless soundtrack masters is not unheard of within the vaults of the major Hollywood studios, this deplorable state of affairs holds true with much more depressing regularity on movies produced outside the system — in those very places where the filmmakers and their collaborators had more freedom than anywhere else. Time after depressing time, we who love film scores are told that the soundtrack for X movie, the cherished LPs of which we’ve worn to hockey pucks over the years, is simply gone.

For older studio scores, the major problem is often that effects and music (and, occasionally, some dialogue) were stored on the same tracks. Nothing to be done about that… at least for now; who knows what digital magician of the future may arrive to perform some as-yet unknown feat of prestidigitation that will ameliorate that fissure? Fortunately, later scores were isolated, often with their stereo components intact, or their composers kept master tapes in their own collections, so many of the glories of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s can come to us more or less in full, sometimes with astounding aural freshness (Kritzerland’s release of the Les Baxter Black Sunday is a good example.)

In the case of an entity such as United Artists, however, home-from-home for so many gifted screenwriters, directors, actors and composers during that time, the elements were sometimes scattered to the four winds when not destroyed outright. (Often, the LP masters, which can differ markedly from what’s heard in the movies, are all that remains.) Varèse Sarabande just barely caught Elmer Bernstein’s magnificent Hawaii in time, after nearly giving up hope, and Quartet recently performed a miracle resuscitation on Burt Bacharach’s Casino Royale. Jose Luis Crespo has done a remarkable job with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and deserves the praise and thanks of so many who love Rózsa, and revere this movie, and its score. But the facts behind this release are intolerable. The London studio where the score was recorded in 1970 has since been demolished. Well, fair enough. These things happen. But much of its holdings were destroyed in the process. And that is damn near unforgivable. It’s very much akin to Warner Bros. in the ’60s quite literally bulldozing decades’ worth of its animation department’s irreplaceable history just to make more room for its publicity department.

Wilder and Diamond envisioned, and shot, Holmes as a three-hour “roadshow” presentation, with four distinct segments. By the time the picture was edited the Mirisch Brothers of U.A., leery of the shellacking Hollywood studios had been taking on so many big-budget flops, demanded Wilder cut the picture by an hour. Not that it mattered; the movie, a comic/melancholy exercise of rare beauty and rue, died anyway. Of the two trimmed episodes, one is extant only without sound while the other exists solely as soundtrack, the filmed footage having disappeared decades ago. If what exists were not, like Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons and Stroheim’s Greed, so exceptional, it might not hurt so much to know that the possibility of a true restoration is, in all likelihood, nothing more than a pretty but ultimately foolish dream. And so, the loss of Rózsa’s achingly beautiful score in its optimal presentation somehow just feels like the perfect capper to the entire, doomed project.

Wilder asked Rózsa to base the score on his alternately plaintive and exhilarating Violin Concerto, cannily equating both its moods and its primary instrument with Holmes. The result is one of the finest scores, not merely of the composer’s own impressive oeuvre, but in the annals of movie scoring. It should be said that Crespo & Co. have done wizard’s work, given what they had to work with, and that their sheer determination to present The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in anything like Rózsa original earns them a special seat in Paradise.

Still. The losses to music history, and to its future, are incalculable. So, if you’ll forgive me for it, and even if you won’t… I’m still angry.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

Post-Script
If you didn’t order this one fast, I’m afraid it’s already too late; as with so many limited edition soundtrack releases, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is already sold out. But you can at least sample some of the music on the Quartet website.

http://www.quartetrecords.com/the-private-life-of-sherlock-holmes.html