Friday, November 30, 2012

Reflections on Batman: The Animated Series and Shirley Walker

Batman: The Animated Series premiered on FOX in September of 1992, when I was twelve years old. I don't remember precisely when I started watching (I don't think I was tuned in for the premiere) but it wasn't long before I was hooked. I had never really given much thought to the character of Batman before. I had seen the campy 1966 film on VHS, and the way had been somewhat prepared by exposure to, of all things, Darkwing Duck. My father had taken note of the darker direction the character was heading in comics and film, and didn't exactly approve. So in many ways, Batman: The Animated Series was my first exposure to the real Batman (with loving affection and all due respect to Adam West). It became my gateway to Tim Burton, Frank Miller, Denny O'Neil, Alan Moore and countless other artists who left their stamp on the legacy of the Bat.

The series was also my first exposure to the work of Shirley Walker, who supervised and led a team of composers to create the music for the show. Even at twelve, I was already a certified film and television music fan, so I was especially tuned in to the scores of my favorite programs. And I knew right off the bat (so to speak) that Batman: The Animated Series was something special ... something far more enthralling and interesting than the norm. I knew that most of the cartoons I watched used library music, because I would hear the same pieces again and again. Batman, by contrast, used the same themes for characters, but did so in the context of original underscore for every episode. And what themes and scores they were! Gothic, brooding, thrilling; as wild and colorful as the Dark Knight's gallery of rogues, and the perfect complement to the show's superlative writing, acting and directing.

You can imagine my surprise when I went to the local record shop (Harmony House, for those of you who remember) and discovered that there was no soundtrack CD available to buy. At the time, market realities meant nothing to me. Every soundtrack I had wanted, I'd been able to obtain in some shape or form. It had never occurred to me that music that was so good might not have an album to go along with it. I found some consolation in the soundtrack release for the 1993 theatrical movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, also by Shirley Walker and featuring several themes from the series. But it was all-too-short, and lacked so many of the enthralling melodies that I craved. The only other solo Shirley Walker score available at the time was Memoirs of an Invisible Man. I resigned myself to enjoying her music in the context of the show, while it lasted, and thereafter sang her praises to anyone who would listen to me. My appreciation for her incredible gifts as a composer and orchestrator only grew deeper over the years. Shirley became one of my artistic heroes, with her music playing a significant role in my imaginative life.

Fast-forward to 2006. I had begun to write about film and TV music for Film Score Monthly magazine in 2001. Although I wrote mainly reviews and articles, I had conducted one brief interview, with the widow of a relatively obscure composer whom I admired (Harlene Stein, wife of Ronald Stein). I had been knocking around the idea of approaching Shirley Walker for an interview for a while, but I lacked the wherewithal to actually go about it. Finally, my friend and colleague Doug Adams grew impatient with me and volunteered to set up the interview. He had interviewed her himself years prior, circa her 1999 re-score of Mystery Men. The only caution he gave me was to tread carefully if the subject of her family came up, because her beloved husband Don had tragically passed away earlier in the year. I nervously sent her an email, and was thrilled when she readily agreed. We spoke on the evening of September 8, 2006. I called an hour after our scheduled appointment (I had miscalculated the time difference between Michigan and California), but she graciously didn't mention it, and responded to all my questions about her work and career with detail and good humor. The conversation drifted pleasantly once my notes had been exhausted, and by the time I hung up the phone I felt on top of the world.

Over the coming weeks, I transcribed the interview and exchanged several more emails with Shirley. The piece was published in two parts under the title "A Woman of Many Capes" in the October 2006 and November 2006 issues of Film Score Monthly Online. Then, on the evening of November 30, while I was working at the library, I received a text message from Doug informing me that Shirley had passed away due to an aneurysm. The news left me devastated. I took my break immediately, sitting alone in the parking lot of a nearby Burger King, and I remember being numb for the remainder of my shift. That night, I sent a note of condolence to the Dynamic Music Partners (Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanis and Kristopher Carter), all former members of Shirley's team whom I had also interviewed for the magazine. We agreed to present their piece without alteration, save for a short memorial preface. The interview ran and life went on, although it was a long time before I could listen to Shirley's music without experiencing a lingering, bitter pang.

Almost one year later, at the beginning of November 2007, I started writing liner notes for the Intrada record label. A year after that, in December 2008, La-La Land Records announced a 2-CD world premiere release of scores from Batman: The Animated Series. Although hardly a complete representation (no single 2-CD set could have possibly done justice to the full scope and breadth of the series) it was a brilliant flame in what had hitherto been a dark void, and included music from many of my favorite episodes. I don't mind saying that I shed a few tears. A few months later, they released an expanded version of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which I viewed as equally important and essential. It was the beginning of a long-awaited renaissance. Superb releases of Shirley Walker's music for The Flash and Space: Above and Beyond would follow from LLL over the coming years. Meanwhile, I wrote about her supplementary music for The Black Stallion for Intrada (a gig that put me in touch with conductor and music editor Dan Carlin, Shirley's friend and co-conspirator) and began to write liner notes for La-La Land, including for Danny Elfman's Batman Returns and Elliot Goldenthal's Batman Forever.

In the Fall of 2011, I was asked to write the liner notes for the long-delayed second volume of music from Batman: The Animated Series. It would be 4-CDs, twice the length of volume one, and go a long way towards providing a more comprehensive overview of the show's music. Needless to say, I threw myself into the job with gusto. I contacted many of the show's composers for new interviews, and solicited further information from Shirley's colleague Bruce Broughton, and from Doug Frank, the Warners music executive who was responsible for hiring her. Batman: The Animated Series, Vol. 2 was released at Comic-Con San Diego in July of this year, just a few months prior to the show's 20th Anniversary. To date, nothing I have worked on has meant more to me on a personal level. I owe an incredible debt to the generous people who made it possible, in particular MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys of La-La Land Records, as well as Shirley's family of composers, all of whom were outstanding in their support of this project. I am so thrilled that this music, which I consider to be perhaps the best ever written for television, is finally getting out there for people to discover and enjoy. And it's not over yet! Future volumes of both Batman and Superman are in the works, and other treasures besides. If I could go back and show my twelve-year-old self what's been done, and what is being done even as I type this, it would blow his mind. I still don't quite believe it myself. But the evidence is right in front of me, on my CD shelf. I used to dream about holding such a release in my hands. It's not every day that a dream literally comes true.

Mission Galactica: Journey's End

The above graphic just about sums it up. For almost two years, I've been writing about this series and music for Intrada's landmark four-volume, 7-CD series. The third volume was released over the summer, and the fourth volume was finally released this past month (both with new cover artwork by Paul Shipper). At last, fans have ALL the surviving music (virtually everything) which Stu Phillips composed for the original Battlestar Galactica series and its associated film presentations, as well as some choice cuts from the spinoff Galactica 1980. It's been a very happy project for me, and thanks are once again due to Douglass and Regina Fake, Roger Feigelson, Joe Sikoryak, Mike Matessino, and especially maestro Phillips, who was always ready to lend an insightful word. Apologies if I've forgotten anyone. It's been a long journey, but Galactica has finally come home!

Release Roundup: Fall 2012

It's good to be busy, and Fall 2012 was the busiest quarter I can remember! Sadly, that means I allowed my blog updating to lapse (although I try to always keep the sidebar up to date with my latest doings). Here's a quick review of three liner notes projects from the last few months...

First up is Film Score Monthly's release of John Barry's King Kong. Barry fans may recall that FSM issued the original '76 album assembly of Kong back in 2005. This new Deluxe Edition 2-CD release includes that assembly, remastered, but it also includes the expanded film score and a large assortment of fascinating alternates. I've always loved this score—it's vintage Barry, suffused with his incomparable blend of melancholy and intensity—and the new presentation really shines like never before.

Next is Dennis McCarthy's Star Trek: Generations for GNP Crescendo. As with FSM and Kong, GNP previously released the original album presentation of this score (this was back in 1994, concurrent with the film's release). And as with Kong, this presentation includes the complete film score on disc one, and the original album plus bonus tracks on disc two. I did not actually pen the booklet notes for this release—that was done by Lukas Kendall and Jeff Bond. But I contributed a detailed track-by-track analysis, which can be read for free online at GNP's website.

Finally, we have Intrada's world premiere release of Henry Mancini's score for the 1981 superhero/spy spoof Condorman. The film is a live-action Disney picture from their experimental late-seventies/early-eighties period, and over the years it has both taken a critical beating and developed a significant cult following. It had no soundtrack release of any kind back in the day, making it one of the most-requested Mancini scores. The composer's fans will find it was worth the wait; it's big, romantic, and all kinds of fun.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Family Dramas and The Lost Child

Scoring family-oriented dramas strikes me as an often thankless task, particularly when the filmmakers are aiming for an "all ages" audience. There don't tend to be as many opportunities for big, attention-getting setpieces or larger-than-life character themes of the sort film music fans lap up, and the stories hew towards the gentle and uncontroversial. The music is expected to convey emotion, but within relatively "safe" boundaries, which seems (from my own non-composer point of view, at least) like a real challenge. There are no explosions or flashy special effects to hide behind; you can't bust out a jagged rhythm and a pumped-up horn line and call it a day. Your music is unusually exposed. And even if you have the aptitude for big, bold melodies, you have to be careful not to go too far in that direction lest your music overwhelm the intimacy of the drama. Step an inch over the line, and you get accused of being treacly or manipulative. It comes down to the ability to write a simple, beautiful melody that hits the sweet spot of not too circumspect and not overblown. That's a tough thing to do well.

One composer who can do this kind of "sweet spot" score well is Mark McKenzie. Mark has a gift for writing heartfelt melodies that convey grace and tranquility, making him a great fit for dramas with a strong family or religious theme. He's done splendid work as a composer in many other genres, of course; but he seems to have a special affinity for the warm and intimate, which can make for a nice change of pace from all the sturm and drang. Hallmark Hall of Fame has recently re-released just such a score: Mark's music for the 2000 film The Lost Child, performed by the Northwest Sinfonia. Previously available on CD and long out of print (secondhand copies are terribly expensive), it is now available as a digital download from Amazon, iTunes and CD Baby. I haven't seen the film, but the score is a lovely piece of work, with a tender main theme that gets a lot of play. The orchestrations are clear and warm in a way that is reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith, who often employed Mark's services as an orchestrator. If you're looking for something peaceful and gently uplifting, The Lost Child is definitely worth checking out.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Jawing About Jaws

Radio host extraordinaire Tim Burden was good enough to have me back on his Movie Magic program on the Q Radio Network this week. The subject of our conversation: Jaws and Jaws 2, both the films and the magnificent scores by John Williams. A newly restored print of Jaws is currently playing in UK theaters, and is coming to Blu-Ray later this year. Needless to say, exciting stuff!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

There Is No Comparison...

Earlier this month, La-La Land Records released a definitive 3-CD presentation of Jerry Goldsmith's score to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I met Jerry Goldsmith once, in 1998. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the first score I asked him to autograph. He signed it vertically (along the center of the rainbow) rather than utilizing the more obvious giant white space beneath the Enterprise; Goldsmith was never one to take the obvious path!

For the emotions connected with it, that CD remains one of my most cherished possessions. I won't be listening to the physical disc again, however. In truth, I haven't since Columbia/Legacy released their expanded edition back in 1999. And now, that second release has been superceded. La-La Land's new set is utterly perfect. It contains everything I could want ... everything I could imagine. Under the sure hand of Michael Matessino, who also co-wrote the liner notes with Jeff Bond, and the rest of the LLL team, nothing has been left off; no expense spared; no aspect of the remastering neglected. Even the art design by Jim Titus is superlative. This is one of the best scores of all time. It now takes its place as one of the best and most comprehensive soundtrack releases of all time.

As the film's tagline boasted, there is no comparison.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Jazzy Month with Komeda and Mancini

I've been honored to contribute liner notes to two landmark releases this month! The first, which arrived just in time for Mother's Day, is La-La Land Records' definitive release of Krzystof "Christopher" Komeda's score to Roman Polanski's film of Rosemary's Baby. It's an iconic horror film, with a stunning jazz-based score. This is the premiere release of the complete film tracks, in addition to the album re-recording and double-sided single. My colleague, the very knowledgeable Scott Bettencourt, wrote about the film production and gave a bio of Komeda, while I wrote about the score's historical importance and did the track-by-track analysis.

The second release, just out this week, is Intrada Records' world-premiere presentation of the original film tracks of Henry Mancini's score for Howard Hawks' Hatari!. If you aren't immediately familiar with the title, it's best remembered for giving us the iconic tune "Baby Elephant Walk." The 1962 album is an indisputable classic, but it's also a re-recording which emphasizes Mancini's easy listening contributions. As originally written, the score has significantly more depth and variety. This CD is also a milestone in another way: it's the 200th release in Intrada's Special Collection line, and I'm thrilled to have been involved!

So what do these two releases have in common, other than great music and the involvement of producer extraordinaire Lukas Kendall? Tonally, they couldn't be more different. Rosemary's Baby contains some light pieces, but skews dark and disturbing. Hatari! balances fun and whimsy with a more serious side, but in a mystical and reflective way. The two scores' main kinship is that they are works by prominent jazz musicians, applying their craft to film in innovative and unconventional ways. I can't recall anyone marrying original jazz and horror quite like Komeda; and Mancini's elegant mood-based approach represented a significant shift away from the traditional Hollywood sound for adventure pictures. (Hawks fired Dmitri Tiomkin from the film for that very reason!)

In summary: two very different scores, sharing a certain artistic significance, and both of them certified classics of their respective genres. It's truly been a great month for soundtrack fans! (Also be sure to check out Hatari's companion release from Intrada: Henry Mancini's dramatic score for Charade, also a world premiere of original film tracks!)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Happy First Contact Day!

On April 5, 2063, Zefram Cochrane is destined to break the warp barrier after which, he will make official first contact with an alien race when he greets Vulcan visitors to Earth. It therefore seems only fitting to use this date to post about GNP Crescendo's new limited-edition release of the complete score to Star Trek: First Contact by Jerry and Joel Goldsmith.

To quote from the official press release:  
GNP Crescendo Records, longtime home of new and classic Star Trek soundtracks, releases a long-sought limited-edition collector’s CD of Star Trek: First Contact (1996) featuring the complete score by Jerry Goldsmith (with additional music by Joel Goldsmith), newly remastered by recording engineer Bruce Botnick. [...]

The accompanying 16-page booklet includes informative notes by Jeff Bond and John Takis and is lavishly illustrated with film stills.
As a long-time Star Trek fan (and published Trek fiction author), I was absolutely thrilled to receive this assignment from Lukas Kendall and GNP Crescendo. I was equally excited for the opportunity to write about the music of Jerry Goldsmith, who has played such a prominent role in my love of film and television music over the decades. Star Trek: First Contact contains some of his finest themes, delivered with typical Goldsmith craftsmanship and panache.

It was my pleasure to work with the inimitable Jeff Bond, author of The Music of Star Trek, for this release. Jeff conducted new interviews and wrote the brunt of the booklet essay, while I contributed some thoughts about the film's music. I also wrote the track-by-track analysis (with valuable input from Jeff) which is available on GNP Crescendo's official website as a downloadable PDF. I hope that Trekkies (or Trekkers, if you prefer) and Goldsmith devotees alike will find it to be an interesting read.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Hook Talk

If you know me well, you know about my love of (obsession with?) John Williams' glorious musical score for Steven Spielberg's Hook. It was my pleasure to chat, in detail, about the film and score with voice over artist and radio presenter Tim Burden for his show Movie Magic on the Q Radio Network, based out of Belfast in the UK. The occasion is La-La Land Records' immanent release of an expanded version of the score, and if you take a listen to the downloadable online version of the show you'll also hear some comments from LLL's MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys. I come in about halfway through the hour. Tim was good enough to share some insights for my liner notes to Intrada's release of Sleuth (his father, the late John H. Burden, was a legendary horn player in the UK, and performed on that classic John Addison score) and I was more than happy to return the favor! (The image you see attached to this post, by the way, is an unused poster concept by the great John Alvin.)

Addendum: When you hear me mention "sul ponticello strings," please substitute "string harmonics!" (Ah, 7 a.m.!)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Getting up to Speed...

Hey, folks! It's been a long time between updates ... although if you've kept an eye on the sidebar, you'll have seen new projects added as they were announced. This post will serve as a recap.

First, on the creative writing front: my short story "Apitoxin" (an adventure of Sherlock Holmes) has been accepted for the second volume of the speculative fiction anthology Machine of Death, the brainchild of Dinosaur Comics creator Ryan North, writer and editor Matthew Bennardo, and Wondermark creator David Malki ! [sic]. The title of the book, which is taken from one of the stories, will be You Can't Shoot the Cancer Squad: Tales of the Infallible, Inscrutable, Inevitable Machine of Death. Each story will be illustrated for publication, and may be produced in audio form for the official website. More details will be forthcoming, but for now it suffices to observe that Machine of Death Vol. 1 was the bestselling title on Amazon the day of its release (much to the chagrin of Glenn Beck), and includes stories and artwork by dozens of incredibly talented individuals. It's an honor to be accepted into their company! For anyone who's curious, here's a video from a live event which included a conversation about the book and a public announcement of the anthology's contents. My story gets a shout-out during the Q&A segment (in the answer beginning at 58:12), and a list of titles and authors is revealed at 1:16:27.

Next, the latest issue of Film Score Monthly Online (Vol. 17, No. 2) includes a write-up I did for a "Score Restore" video feature which my friend and colleague Neil S. Bulk put together. The subject is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, whose score by Leonard Rosenman was released in expanded form last year by Intrada Records. (Membership is required to access the site.)

Moving on to CD liner notes, the first up is 21 Hours at Munich from Intrada, featuring music by the great Laurence Rosenthal. This is the eighth Rosenthal score it's been my pleasure to write about, and special thanks to the maestro once again for making himself available for a detailed interview. 21 Hours was a film from 1976 which told the story of the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Rosenthal's dramatically rich score incorporates German and Middle Eastern elements, painting a chilling musical portrait of terrorism and its human toll. The album is already out of print, but can probably be found through secondary retailers.

Next up, La-La Land Records' expanded 2-CD release of Elliot Goldenthal's powerhouse score to Batman Forever (1995). A student of Aaron Copland and John Corigliano, Goldenthal is one of the most important voices in film and concert music of his generation. I've been a big fan for ages, so the opportunity to write the notes for his first expanded album was a tremendous honor. Maestro Goldenthal himself produced this release, and despite his busy schedule found time to speak with me about it. His music for this film can be summed up in one word: HUGE! Big, sweeping, comic-book-inspired fun ... yet surprisingly sophisticated in its construction. I love every minute of it!

Returning to Intrada, this week sees the release of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by the renowned English composer Ron Goodwin. Although Goodwin is best-known for his scores to war pictures, he was fluent in many genres. In this case, he produced an engrossing fantasy score, shot through with action and romance, for the 1973 Stephen Weeks film version of the medieval legend. Although not yet released on home video, the film is of significant interest, and I recommend it to anyone who has an opportunity to view it. Interestingly, Goodwin's score replaced an earlier effort by then-novice composer Richard Harvey at the behest of the studio. I want to thank Mr. Weeks for being gracious enough to share this and other details with me.

Finally, La-La Land is on the verge of releasing their 200th CD: an expanded version of Mark Mancina's landmark score for the action blockbuster Speed. This is one of a handful of scores that has set the tone for action pictures since the mid-1990s. Its previous score release, while it contained many of the score's highlights, was incomplete and sequenced extremely out of film chronology. This new, remastered assembly by Mike Matessino is an entirely different listening experience, which all fans of the score should enjoy. Congratulations to La-La Land Records on hitting #200, and many thanks for giving me a seat on the bus!

That's it for now stay tuned for more news in the coming weeks and months! I'll try to be a bit more punctual with the updates!