Saturday, December 18, 2010

Restoring the Final Frontier

The December 2010 issue of Film Score Monthly Online includes a short article I wrote to accompany a "Score Restore" feature on Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Through this feature, FSMO subscribers can view the film's prologue with its final production audio, and then watch the same clip with around three minutes of Jerry Goldsmith's magnificent music restored to the mix (courtesy producer/editor Neil S. Bulk). This was an exciting feature to be involved with, because (a) Goldsmith's Trek V is one of my favorite adventure scores (I also happen to think the film is severely underrated, warts and all), and (b) the music in question was not popularly known to have existed prior to a few weeks ago, when La-La Land Records released the complete score as a spectacular 2-disc limited edition one of my personal holy grails! This is kind of like buying a new printing of your favorite book, only to discover that the author had written an extra chapter that was censored in previous editions. In other words, both thrilling and immensely satisfying!

(Note: the artwork accompanying this entry is from a Vulcanology blog feature on Nilo Rodis, who worked as a costume designer and storyboard artist on the film.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Announcing: Clash of the Titans

Today sees the release of another very special project for me: Intrada's 2-CD definitive version of Laurence Rosenthal's awe-inspiring score for the 1981 Ray Harryhausen epic Clash of the Titans. This was the first Rosenthal score I ever heard, and remains among my favorite scores of the 1980s. It's simply brimming over with spectacular romance and adventure. To be able to contribute the liner notes for this mammoth production was a great pleasure, and a humbling honor. As always, thanks to Doug Fake and all the gang at Intrada for making it happen, and to maestro Rosenthal for speaking with me at length about the score. I also want to give a special shout-out to art director Joe Sikoryak, who pulled out all the stops ... this is a beautiful package, and I especially love the flippable cover that gives you the option of the classic Kraken art, or the Medusa version by the Bros. Hildebrandt. An amazing release of some of the most stunningly awesome music ever put to film!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Announcing: Batman Returns

I first saw Batman Returns on VHS in my parents' basement (my folks took the PG-13 rating seriously, so seeing it in theaters at the time of its release had been out of the question, and even the VHS screening was a "clandestine" operation). I was immediately hooked, instantly preferring it to Burton's original Batman. I also adored Danny Elfman's brilliant orchestral score. I sought and received the original soundtrack CD for Christmas that year (thanks, little bro!) and played it incessantly. To date, Batman Returns remains my personal favorite of the live-action Batman films. It is also my favorite score by Danny Elfman.

You can imagine my excitement, then, when I was approached to write the liner notes for La-La Land Records' new release of the complete score to Batman Returns. Not only was the title a dream project, but the scope was appropriately impressive: all of the score heard in the film, plus unused cues, plus amazing alternates, in dynamic sound. Add to that a generous word count for the booklet, which would truly allow me to dig deep and elaborate on what makes this score so special. I am, quite simply, over the moon for this music. It is rich, thrilling, moving, and emotionally and psychologically complex. The way Elfman constructs his main themes for the Bat, Cat and Penguin so that they all relate to and play off of each other is brilliant – up there with the best of what this art form has to offer. Batman Returns is also a score that benefits enormously from being heard at its full length; there is not one wasted note. The original album was well-loved, but La-La Land's new release is absolutely in a different class.

So here are the gory details: Batman Returns is a limited edition of 3500 copies, priced at $29.98 for two CDs running 140 min. You can get it direct from La-La Land, or from various online specialty retailers ... just don't wait too long! (While you're at it, their limited expanded releases of Elfman's iconic Batman, Shirley Walker's stupendous Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and Nelson Riddle's groovy Batman (1966) are still available!) Special thanks to producers Neil S. Bulk, Dan Goldwasser and MV Gerhard for bringing me on board. Working on this release was a truly amazing experience.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Announcing: A Raisin in the Sun / Requiem for a Heavyweight

Intrada releases a new double-header CD today, from composer Laurence Rosenthal: A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). It was my privilege to write the notes for this release. As Intrada's head honcho Douglass Fake observes in his tech talk for the liners, these two scores, together with The Miracle Worker (released previously by Intrada, and for which I also had the honor of doing the notes) form something of a loose trilogy of Americana from the composer, early in his distinguished career.

A Raisin in the Sun is the longer score, and headlines the disc (although it is programmed second). It's an outstanding display of Rosenthal's versatility, embracing everything from American jazz to native African rhythms. The heart of the score, however, is pure symphonic emotion. The themes are gorgeous, and beautifully developed -- I particularly enjoy the way Walter Younger's angular and agitated jazz motif surfaces in unexpected places, interrupting or shading the surrounding material.

If I had to pick favorites, however, Requiem for a Heavyweight -- ringing in at just over 16 minutes -- would take home the championship belt. The first time I heard it, that main title hit me like a blow to the head. (OK, no more boxing puns, I promise!) Everything you need to know about the main character -- his pride, his pain, his tragic honor -- is all there, crystallized in that amazing theme. Rosenthal's charming waltz melody is also wonderful, as is the twitchy New York jazz writing for the city's criminal underworld. I adore this score, through and through. (The film, incidentally, is startlingly good -- Anthony Quinn is sheer perfection, Mickey Rooney reminds you why he was one of the greatest actors of his generation, and Jackie Gleason is amazing in one of his most dramatic roles.)

So, another stunning release from Intrada and maestro Rosenthal! If my copies weren't already on the way, I'd be rushing to place an order -- which you can do here, while they last!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

A full review of Louise DiTullio's recent CD The Hollywood Flute will be appearing in an upcoming issue of Film Score Monthly. In the meantime, I want to spotlight a piece with particular meaning for me -- the world premiere recording of Laurence Rosenthal's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, a seven-minute piece for unaccompanied flute.

The work, which Rosenthal composed for his daughter on her sixteenth birthday, takes its inspiration from chapter seven of Kenneth Grahame's bucolic masterpiece The Wind in the Willows. This chapter is often left out of retellings of the story, yet it is the tale's spiritual heart -- deemed important enough to grace the cover of the book's first edition (pictured left). In it, Rat and Mole go in search of a missing baby otter on a lonely isle. Following the trail of a mysterious, half-heard music, they find the infant asleep and sheltered in the lap of the god Pan, styled as the divine patron and protector of animals. Grahame's prose in this chapter is at its most haunting and evocative, featuring one of the finest expressions of the numinous in all of English literature. Here is a sampling:

Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror— indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy— but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

'Rat!' he found breath to whisper, shaking. 'Are you afraid?'

'Afraid?' murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. 'Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet— and yet— O, Mole, I am afraid!' 

To capture something of the flavor of this scene was the challenge which Rosenthal set himself. The piece opens with a low, subdued line. In gentle rolls and slow-building trills, it conjures an atmosphere of mysticism and quiet beauty. Soon, the line begins to alternate with a higher and faster-paced piping, echoing Grahame's "populous bird-haunted" landscape. Eventually, the mood quiets and we are returned to the subdued atmosphere of the opening. The range has increased, however, rising into the high registers in unpredictable, fluttering runs. Finally, the music winds down with a haunting paraphrase of the opening gestures, then fades to silence...

To write for an unaccompanied instrument such as the flute poses a special challenge for a composer. The melodic line must stand alone, naked and unadorned. To do this well requires a deep understanding of technique and range, and a keen melodic sensibility. Happily, Rosenthal possesses these gifts in abundance. The other side of the coin, of course, is to pair the composition with a soloist who can (literally, in this case) breathe life into it. Few are well-suited to this task as Louise DiTullio, one of the world's most accomplished flautists and a fixture in Hollywood, having performed on more than 1,100 motion pictures. The Hollywood Flute contains gorgeous music from John Williams' Hook, John Barry's Dances with Wolves, Danny Elfman's Charlotte's Web, and Jerry Goldsmith's Sleeping with the Enemy and Rudy, in addition to several non-film pieces. But for me, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the indisputable treasure of the CD ... a work I've longed to hear since I learned of its existence, years ago. It has not disappointed.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films" by Doug Adams

As I write this, my good friend Doug Adams is in London to promote the publication of his new book, The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films: A Comprehensive Account of Howard Shore's Scores, alongside a live-to-picture performance of The Return of the King at Royal Albert Hall. The American release will take place in under two weeks, to roughly coincide with a similar performance of The Two Towers at New York City's Radio City Music Hall on October 8 & 9.

I've been lucky over the years to count Doug as a friend and cohort (we both got started in this field writing for Film Score Monthly). And as a fellow Mid-westerner, I've been especially privileged to spend time in Doug's studio, bearing witness to how he's labored over this book, the accompanying "Rarities Archive" CD, and associated projects like the Lord of the Rings: The Complete Recordings box sets. It's been a fascinating, intense, time-consuming, insanely detailed labor of love, and the final product -- even now reaching the hands of fans -- is incredible. If you are reading this blog, there's a better-than-average chance you are a fan of great film music, and of Howard Shore and The Lord of the Rings in particular. But even if you aren't, if you have even a passing interest in the music of the movies (or music writing in general), I urge you to check out this book. Nothing like it has ever been published before. Take a hefty dose of insight and analysis, deep enough to satisfy the academic mind, but accessible enough for the average reader and listener. Combine that with the subject matter: one of the greatest and most intricate works of film music of all time, written for one of the greatest tales of all time (I'm a Tolkien nut, as my bookcase devoted to him will attest). Combine THAT with a compelling narrative style that embraces the entirety of the creative journey. Add an accompanying CD of extraordinarily beautiful music that mirrors and illuminates said journey. Take in the brilliant production design by Gary Day-Ellison that incorporates a wealth of black-and-white artwork from fantasy masters John Howe and Alan Lee, as well as gorgeous film stills, copious printed music examples, original manuscript pages, and the complete choral texts. Then marvel at the amazingly reasonable price (around $40 at some online stores). Call me biased, if you will ... but I really don't see how you can go wrong here!

And if you happen to be in New York City during October 7-9, and plan on attending one of the concerts or related events, maybe I'll see you there! You can pop in on Doug's blog for all the details.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Retrospective: The Blue and the Gray

The Blue and the Gray (Bruce Broughton) was the first CD I had the privilege of writing liner notes for. It came about as the result of a phone call from Joe Sikoryak in late 2007. I'd known Joe professionally for years, as the layout guy and art director for Film Score Monthly magazine, as well as the FSM and Intrada labels. Intrada was about to ramp up their CD production slate, and was looking for new writers to help cover the workload. Naturally, I was excited about the opportunity. I was even more excited to discover that my "trial" assignment would be a Bruce Broughton score. Broughton had long been one of my favorite film composers (as a tubist, I also loved his tuba concerto), so I felt doubly lucky. I would also be given the opportunity to consult with the composer, which I have since learned is far from a given!

While I waited for the music to arrive, I familiarized myself with the film. The Blue and the Gray is an epic Civil War miniseries from 1982, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen. It's an impressively lengthy tale, spending much time dwelling on the fringes of the war, and the pace is measured but (in my opinion) rewarding. (If you have any interest in seeing it, I urge you to secure the original, uncut version, rather than the shorter "recut." I've seen it selling for less than $10 in major retail chains lately, so it's a good impulse buy.)

As might be expected, Broughton's music is spectacular, featuring an abundance of terrific melodies that grab you from the start and don't let go. There's lots of variety -- a good balance of drama, romance, action, and even a little horror; and in addition to full orchestra, Broughton makes terrific use of small instrumental groupings. There's plenty of great period color, both in the choice of instruments and in the melodies, which carry something of a Stephen Foster vibe. The score runs over two hours, but things don't get dull for an instant! It's vintage Americana, and vintage Broughton, and at only 2,000 copies I'm somewhat stunned it hasn't sold out yet! You can click here to help remedy that!

I want to close this entry with some special thanks to the folks at Intrada -- to Joe for thinking of me for the job; to Douglass Fake for hiring me, and bearing with me as I learned the ropes; and to the indispensable Roger Feigelson for his guidance and support. Finally, thanks to Bruce Broughton, who was generous with his time and insights. As an entrée into the world of liner notes-writing, I couldn't have wished for a better experience.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Into the Blogosphere...

Greetings, folks! Welcome to my new home on the Web! This blog will serve as "home base" for my various freelance writing gigs. I decided to launch it when I realized that Google wasn't doing the best job of providing a thorough overview of my professional work! So you can check-in here to read the latest news about my contributions to the magazine Film Score Monthly Online; my liner notes for specialty record labels like Intrada, La-La Land and FSM; book and film reviews; and anything else that happens to escape my keyboard. You'll also find a (mostly) comprehensive list of my published work in the sidebar to your left, with the most recent entries on top.

In case you're a friend who is unacquainted with my writing, it should be apparent from the links around you that the art of film and television music is what you might call a "consuming interest" of mine. It has been from a very young age, and my passion only intensified when I was old enough to start spending my money at record stores. Around the time I was graduating high school, I discovered the online film music community and became active in the "fandom" (posting under my real name -- hey, it was the '90s!). In 2000, I sent a letter to Lukas Kendall, the publisher of Film Score Monthly (still in its "print" phase). He surprised me by asking if I was interested in contributing to the magazine ... which, of course, I was!

For the next eight years, I cut my teeth writing reviews and articles for FSM, and conducting the occasional interview. In 2008, I began to work regularly for the Intrada record label, contributing liner notes to their outstanding soundtrack releases. Recently, I have begun accepting assignments from other prominent labels in the industry. It has been my immense privilege to work on CDs from such prominent composers as Les Baxter, Bruce Broughton, Jay Chattaway, Bill Conti, Carmine Coppola, Georges Delerue, Dominic Frontiere, Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal, James Horner, Maurice Jarre, Trevor Jones, Henry Mancini, Laurence Rosenthal, Lalo Schifrin, and (dear to my heart) the late Shirley Walker. Through it all, I have made friends and acquaintances who have enriched my life in ways too numerous to list here.

So here we are. As freelancing is a part-time occupation at the moment, the frequency of my posts will vary from month to month. I may also occasionally post something "just for the heck of it" -- I'm new to the whole "blog" thing, so we'll see how it all plays out! In the meantime, anyone who wishes to join in the conversation is more than welcome to do so!

 -- John Takis