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Saturday, April 19, 2014

John WIlliams -- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

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When I was a kid, I had another name for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That name was "The One I Can't Watch." For some reason, my mom had a problem with a seven-year old viewing human sacrifice, ten year olds knife-fighting, and a guy ripping out another dude's heart with his bare hand. She would allow me to watch Indy and his allies' adventures until they made it to the antechamber before the titular Temple. As soon as the far off sound of chanting whispered through the TV speakers, the TV went off. She'd turn it on an hour later, just as Indy and his crew were bursting out of the temple caves to a sunny, precarious cliffside. I didn't see that middle chunk of the film until the eighth grade. By that point, I had nearly forgotten about Temple of Doom, despite the fact that I had seen its siblings many, many times. Instead, it was out of sight, out of mind, until a late-night cable airing. I noticed the movie was on, thought, oh yeah, I've never seen this whole thing, and watched it to my heart's content. I then immediately purchased it on VHS and watched it again and again and again to make up for lost time. I watched it so many times, I created a ritual where when I did, I turned off every light, except a desk-lamp that I made at 4-H camp out of a Pepsi can, which I placed on the floor next to me, underneath an inverted laundry basket. I was an exceptional child.
Anyway, while Temple of Doom is usually regarded as both the wildest and weakest of the original Indiana Jones trilogy, I tend to side closer to Roger Ebert's view of the film (though I wouldn't quite give it a four-star rating, as he does.) Spielberg and Lucas were both recovering from the end of long-term romantic relationships when they made the film, and their "I hate everybody right now, but I'm still at the top of my Saturday-serial game" attitudes are palpable. Every set piece is ingeniously and breathlessly executed, and this film contains a looooooot of set-pieces. Speaking of sets, the set-design is unmatched. On top of that, the special effects are superb, the villain is excellent, the settings are exotic and exciting, and Harrison Ford embodies the role of the globetrotting archaeologist as well as he ever has. Temple of Doom might not be as perfect as Raiders of the Lost Ark, as absolutely no action-adventure film is as perfect as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it is an incredibly fun and entertaining film, even if it has the mean streak of a crocodile-loaded river mile. It even edges out Raiders of the Lost Ark in one category: its John Williams composed film score.
Yes, I just said that Temple of Doom features a better soundtrack than Raiders of the Lost Ark. Get out the stones, I guess. Raiders of the Lost Ark's score is flawless, but Temple of Doom's score is not only flawless, but bigger and better than Raiders. While Spielberg and Lucas set out to not repeat the same film twice, Williams set out to write even better music. He begins with Indiana Jones' classic "Raiders March" as a foundation, then rolls out theme after memorable theme until the end credits roll.
Everything gets a theme in this film.
A wall of water featured in the film for under two minutes? You get your own distinct theme! British Soldiers who pop up to save the day for about 90-seconds of screen time? You get your own theme! None of this would matter if Williams music wasn't so magnificently evocative. He puts the listener in a 1930's Chinese Nightclub, on the seedy streets of Shanghai, in the air over the Himalayas, in the steamy jungles of India, in a luxurious but unnerving hilltop palace, in cramped, bug-infested caves, into the ninth circle of hell, though the mine-shaft out of it, to a rope bridge between life and death, to a sheer cliff side above the river Styx, to escape and freedom. Through these evocations, Williams creates three new major themes that are repeated with variation throughout the film (NUMBERS!!!): 1) An exotic, percussive, and lively theme for the titular temple, which brings to mind children rising up out of chains. 2) A swooning theme for Indy's love-interest, who is often criticized for being far less tough and often more terrified than Marion from the first Indiana Jones film. After showing the original Indiana Jones trilogy to my wife, I asked her which film was her favorite. She said Temple of Doom by a mile because "the girl in that one actually acted like a girl." My wife is not a fan of the outdoors. 3)An Asian-inspired, childlike, but adventurous theme for Indy's young sidekick "Short Round." (NUMBERS END :(). Around these major themes, Williams weaves loads of the equally memorable minor ones I referenced above. Anything on the screen for more than thirty seconds, and every one of the film's numerous action beats gets its own theme. Williams also uses more choral work to score Temple of Doom than perhaps any other soundtrack he has composed (excluding Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and to great effect. The resultant work is staggering. That Williams could create such an imaginative, expansive score for a film some regard as merely trifling is yet more proof of his creative genius. As it stands, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is one of the greatest film scores all time.

NOTE: This is a review of Concord Records' near complete 2008 re-release of Temple of Doom's score, NOT the 1984 release, which omits most of this music. Also, to nitpick something I gave a perfect score to, I can't understand why the percussive rope-bridge scene music has yet to be released. The few major cues left off of this 2008 release can be found on a bonus disc if one buy's Concord's box set of the entire trilogy score, but that particular cue is still missing. Make it happen, somebody!

1984/2008 Concord Records
1. Anything Goes (performed by Kate Capshaw) 2:51
2. Indy Negotiates 3:59
3. The Nightclub Brawl 2:32
4. Fast Streets of Shanghai 3:39
5. Map/Out of Fuel 3:22
6. Slalom on Mt. Humol 2:24
7. Short Round's Theme 2:29
8. The Scroll/To Pankot Palace 4:26
9. Nocturnal Activities 5:54
10. Bug Tunnel/Death Trap 3:31
11. Approaching the Stones* 2:39
12. Children in Chains 2:42
13. The Temple of Doom 2:58
14. Short Round Escapes 2:22
15. Saving Willie* 3:35
16. Slave Children's Crusade 3:23
17. Short Round Helps 4:49
18. The Mine Car Chase 3:41
19. Water! 1:55
20. The Sword Trick 1:05
21. The Broken Bridge/British Relief 4:47
22. End Credits 6:19

Thursday, April 17, 2014

John Williams -- Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack(Special Edition)

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I don't think I am being controversial when I say that Return of the Jedi is the weakest film in the original Star Wars trilogy.  The entire first act has nothing to do with the rest of the film. The first act itself is essentially the same scenario repeated three times--character visits Jabba's Palace to rescue Han Solo/character fails--until every character is captured, and Jabba is defeated. The final two-thirds of the film is essentially a big-budget re-make of the end of the first Star Wars film, with the addition of a ground battle. Return of the Jedi marks the moment George Lucas went to the dark side, traded profit for art, became cynical about his audience...but don't take my word for it, here's what the guy who is essentially responsible for 50% of the first two films says. Thankfully, even with these faults, Return of the Jedi is immensely enjoyable to watch, thanks to the direction, special effects, the Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader/Emperor storyline, the chemistry between the now well-established characters, and the once again classic musical score by John Williams.
While Return of the Jedi's soundtrack is excellent, it suffers a little in comparison to its predecessors because of the flaws inherent in the film it backs. Williams is forced to repeat himself a bit, as said above, the same thing happens in the first third of the film three times. This is also essentially book-ended by the same scene, as Williams has to score Darth Vader arriving at the Death Star, then the Emperor later arriving at the Death Star in a nearly identical scene. Thankfully, his theme for the Emperor is archetypeally terrifying. Williams' more sinister music in this film is some of his best work, as any time he announces a scene on the Death Star, he invokes feelings of infinite, oncoming darkness. By the same token, his new major theme here, "Luke and Leia," counters those feelings with great hope for the future--in fact, I'm willing to say the epic hope this theme conjures is at least partly responsible for the insanely expanded Expanded Star Wars Universe. Who would want to let go of it after hearing that?
Let's clear out all of the negatives now, though. Disc one includes "Jedi Rocks," a song written especially for the Special Edition of the film, and not something anyone will ever want to listen to. Disc two includes John Williams' new film-closing music "Victory Celebration," which I think is lovely, though most hold it in disdain. It takes the place of "Yub Nub," that goofy Ewok song that pretty much everyone liked, in spite of its silliness. I have to admit, this is one of the few "Special Edition" changes to the film I actually enjoy. I don't see how anyone could argue that "Yub Nub" is a better song than "Victory Celebration." This statement is blasphemy for some, and though I love the weirdness of "Yub Nub" as much as anyone, I'll stand behind it. Also, the soundtrack is a little overstuffed.
There, now that I got that out of the way...Return of the Jedi's soundtrack album has the couple positives I've listed above, and many, many more. Williams did a great job of culminating all the work he had done over the six year period in which the films were released. The changes in characters' themes are fitting and satisfying. The action beats are thrilling. The music, like all of Williams' best work, is timeless. Even the weird synthesizer he throws in near the beginning exists apart from the endless flow. One can also hear shades of where Williams would take the brass a few months later with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Overall, the whole here is deeper than I can measure. The water is just a little lukewarm.
This review is bipolar, and that Star Wars pun I just made was terrible.

1983,1997 Sony Classical
Disc One
1. 20th Century-Fox Fanfare 0:22
2. Main Title: Approaching the Death Star/Tatooine Rendezvous 9:21
3. The Droids Are Captured 1:17
4. Bounty for a Wookee 2:50
5. Han Solo Returns 4:01
6. Luke Confronts Jabba/Den of the Rancor/Sarlacc Sentence 8:51
7. The Pit of Carkoon/Sail Barge Assault 6:02
8. The Emperor Arrives/The Death of Yoda/Obi-Wan's Revelation 10:58
9. Alliance Assembly 2:13
10. Shuttle Tydirium Approaches Endor 4:09
11. Speeder Bike Chase/Land of the Ewoks 9:38
12. The Levitation/Threepio's Bedtime Story 2:46
13. Jabba's Baroque Recital 3:09
14. Jedi Rocks 2:42
15. Sail Barge Assault 5:04

Disc Two
1. Parade of the Ewoks 3:28
2. Luke and Leia 4:46
3. Brother and Sister/Father and Son/The Fleet Enters Hyperspace/Heroic Ewok 10:40
4. Emperor's Throne Room 3:26
5. The Battle of Endor I: Into the Trap/Forest Ambush/Scout Walker Scramble/The Prime Weapon Fires 11:50
6. The Lightsaber/The Ewok Battle 4:31
7. The Battle of Endor II: Leia Is Wounded/The Duel Begins/Overtaking The Bunker/The Dark Side Beckons/The Emperor's Death 10:03
8. The Battle of Endor III: Superstructure Chase/Darth Vader's Death/The Main Reactor 6:04
9. Leia's News/Light of the Force 3:24
10. Victory Celebration/End Title 8:34
11. Ewok Feast/Part of the Tribe 4:02
12. Forest Battle (Concert Suite) 4:05

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

John Williams -- Raiders of the Lost Ark (Expanded Edition Soundtrack)

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Like any kid born in the late 70's and early 80's, I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark approximately 500 times. During my 20's, I had the opportunity to see a midnight showing of Raiders of the Lost Ark in the theater, and I possibly enjoyed it then even more than I did when I was eight. Hearing John Williams score for the film pumping out of the theater's surround sound speakers may have been the biggest thrill of all. Williams' Raiders of the Lost Ark score came at a time where he could  do absolutely no wrong, immediately following, Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws II (Williams' score and Roy Scheider's PTSD-inspired performance almost make that film worth watching), Superman: The Movie, and The Empire Strikes Back. Raiders' soundtrack also directly precedes Williams' score for E.T. In other words, Williams' is either an alien, or the most talented composer who has ever lived (not slighting Bernard Herrmann, a fellow space alien). Raiders of the Lost Ark ranks among the multitude of Williams' best work.
Raiders' soundtrack is best known for being evocatively globetrotting, and for the distinctive nature of its themes (Indy's heroic "Raiders March," "The Medallion"'s mysterious energy, the lush, seductive "Marion's Theme," and the horrific majesty of "The Miracle of the Ark."). While all of that stuff is great, the skill with which Williams backs Raiders' cavalcade of action beats is the score's underrated treasure. My personal favorite is "Desert Chase," which highlights my favorite aspect of the Indiana Jones character: his vulnerability. In this scene, Jones goes from foot, to horseback, to truckback, to in the truck, to out the truck, to under the truck, to behind the truck, to on and in the truck again. In the meantime, he takes a beating and a bullet. Through it all, he seems to be in real danger, when he gets hurt, he seems to have really gotten hurt, and when he is victorious, he seems to have really earned it. While Harrison Ford's performance and Steven Spielberg's direction cannot at all be discounted(they are, as they should be, legendary), the scene would not be as thrilling, or hold quite the timeless power, without the music of John Williams.

NOTE: This is a review of the 1995 DCC Compact Classics release of Raiders of the Lost Ark's soundtrack. It was released again in 2008 by Concord Records. The 2008 release includes a few minutes of music not included in this 1995 edition, but it also trims "Desert Chase" by nearly a minute. As noted in the review, "Desert Chase" is my favorite cue in the film, and thus, the DCC release is my edition of choice, and the one reviewed here.

1981/1995 DCC Compact Classics, Inc.
1. The Raiders March 2:50
2. Main Title: South America, 1936 4:10
3. In the Idol's Temple 5:26
4. Flight from Peru 2:20
5. Journey to Nepal 2:11
6. The Medallion 2:55
7. To Cairo 1:29
8. The Basket Game 5:04
9. The Map Room: Dawn 3:52
10. Reunion and the Dig Begins 4:10
11. The Well of the Souls 5:28
12. Airplane Fight 4:37
13. Desert Chase 8:15
14. Marion's Theme 2:08
15. The German Sub/To the Nazi Hideout 4:32
16. Ark Trek 1:33
17. The Miracle of the Ark 6:05
18. The Warehouse 0:56
19. End Credits 5:20

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

John Williams -- Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack(Special Edition))

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The Empire Strikes Back, the second film in the Original Star Wars Trilogy, is deep and dark, more nuanced and sophisticated than its predecessor. Its soundtrack follows suit.
The music of The Empire Strikes Back is less bombastic and brassy than A New Hope's soundtrack, though it includes "The Imperial March" and "The Asteroid Field," two of the series' most aggressive tracks. These louder works are more percussive than the brass-driven rhythms of A New Hope, actually dating the album less (though as I mentioned in its review, A New Hope's datedness is timeless). The Empire Strikes Back's score is also more enveloping and atmospheric than victorious and swashbuckling. This is fitting for a film whose climax is a hair's breadth's escape, as opposed to a cathartic explosion.
Frankly, Williams score for The Empire Strikes Back does more world-building for the entire Star Wars universe than almost any element found in any of the six films. He invokes light and darkness so corporeally that The Empire Strikes Back would be just as effective as a silent film. I don't want to downplay the film's direction, set design, cinematography, special effects, script, and acting, but John Williams' work is irreplaceable. "Yoda's Theme" clearly draws the character's gentle whimsy and wisdom and personality traits. Darth Vader's "Imperial March" is even more menacing than the mask he wears. Luke's themes are just as heroic as his deeds. "Han Solo and the Princess"'s theme is just as satisfying a payoff to their cracking banter as their eventual kiss. Perhaps the most incredible mark of this all-time classic film score is Williams ability to keep the music constantly flowing, all the while changing in tone and emotion. The fifteen minute "The Battle of Hoth..." is as representative of the whole and as good an argument as any that Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is the greatest recorded film score of all time.

NOTE: This is a review of the 1997 re-issue, which contains of all the film's music, presented chronologically. Before this 1997 re-mastered edition, large portions of this music had never been released.

1980, 1997 Sony Classical
Disc One
1. 20th Century Fox Fanfare 0:22
2 Main Title/The Ice Planet Hoth 8:08
3 The Wampa's Lair/Vision of Obi-Wan/SnowSpeeders Take Flight 8:48
4 The Imperial Probe/Aboard the Executor 4:24
5 The Battle of Hoth: Ion Cannon/Imperial Walkers/Beneath the ... 14:48
6 The Asteroid Field 4:15
7 Arrival of Dagobah 4:52
8 Luke's Nocturnal Visitor 2:35
9 Han Solo and the Princess 3:26
10 Jedi Master Revealed/Mynock Cave 5:43
11 The Training of a Jedi Knight/The Magic Tree 5:15

Disc Two
1 The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme) 3:03
2 Yoda's Theme 3:29
3 Attacking a Star Destroyer a 3:04
4 Yoda and the Force 4:02
5 Imperial Starfleet Depyoed/City in the Clouds 6:03
6 Lando's Palace a 3:53
7 Betrayal at Bespin 3:46
8 Deal With the Dark Lord 2:36
9 Carbon Freeze/Darth Vader's Trap/Departure of Boba Fett 11:50
10 The Clash of Lightsabers 4:17
11 Rescue from Cloud City/Hyperspace 9:08
12 The Rebel Fleet/End Title 6:27

Monday, April 14, 2014

John Williams -- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

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Here comes a sentence heavy on prepositions. I first watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind alone at 3 am on TBS on a Friday night some time in high school. I didn't need sleep back then, and thanks to cable TV, I dosed heavily on the classics. As far as the current conversation, Close Encounters has been a bit of a forgotten masterpiece as of late, though it is easily one of the most magical films ever released (even if the director himself now finds the ending to be a bit irresponsible). As for John Williams' soundtrack, it is unique among his work. To describe why, I'll make this unique among my reviews, with an abstract, word association description: Primal fear, haunting, alien choirs, psychological, horrific, experimental, alien, terrifying, wonder, beauty, foreign, mysterious, sugar high, comforting, when you wish upon a star, hector berlioz, jaws, moving on to the next plane, the next step in humanity, images that can only be described with music, rapturous, the unmeasurably deep choirs of the universe.

1977 Arista
1. Main Title And Mountain Visions 3:22
2. Nocturnal Pursuit 2:34
3. The Abduction Of Barry 4:32
4. I Can't Believe It's Real 3:15
5. Climbing Devil's Tower 2:10
6. The Arrival Of Sky Harbor 4:31
7. Night Seige 6:22
8. The Conversation 2:21
9. The Appearance Of The Visitors 4:49
10. Resolution And End Title 6:50

Friday, April 11, 2014

John Williams -- Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (Orignal Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition Re-Issue)

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At the time of this writing, it has been two months since I have written a music review. That might alter the tone of this writing, but I'm not sure it matters here--I am reviewing music that has been in my head for over three decades.
At the start of 1997, when this soundtrack was re-issued, Star Wars was referred to by some as the "Holy Trilogy." Star Wars was a series of films beloved by hundreds of millions. Its universe had recently been expanded by an excellent trilogy of follow-up books by Timothy Zahn (among others), and fan goodwill was at an all-time high. Then, suddenly, Han didn't shoot first. Then the prequels disappointed. Then a CGI movie and ensuing mini-series clouded and overexposed the Star Wars world even more. The once-beloved franchise's fanbase, myself included, became ambivalent. None of any of that crap matters when one listens to Star Wars: A New Hope (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack).
If you want the magic back, just listen to the John Williams' Star Wars Soundtrack Re-Issues. They are the one thing about Star Wars that (with two minor exceptions) hasn't changed. These re-issues were lovingly compiled and feature a ton of music that, before 1997, had never been released. A New know what, screw that, this movie isn't called Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. When I was a kid, it was just called Star Wars. Anyway, Star Wars' soundtrack is brassier and a bit wilder than that of the films to follow. While it may lack the more sophisticated, deeper tones of The Empire Strikes Back's score, it is more fun(I didn't say "better." I said "more fun."). Star Wars' soundtrack is also more a product of its time than any of the other original films' soundtracks, but the late seventies vibes do nothing to detract from its timelessness. John Williams work evokes classic film music, the Saturday morning serials that inspired Star Wars in the first place, and yet creates an entirely new cinematic language.
So no more complaining about who shot first. On the soundtrack, Han always shoots first.

1977, 1997 Sony Classical
Disc One
1. 20th Century Fox Fanfare (Alfred Newman (1954)) 0:22
2. Main Title/Rebel Blockade Runner (Medley) 2:14
3. Imperial Attack 6:42
4. The Dune Sea of Tatooine/Jawa Sandcrawler (Medley) 5:01
5. The Moisture Farm 2:25
6. The Hologram/Binary Sunset (Medley) 4:08
7. Landspeeder Search/Attack of the Sand People (Medley) 3:20
8. Tales of a Jedi Knight/Learn About the Force (Medley) 4:28
9. Burning Homestead 2:50
10. Mos Eisley Spaceport 2:16
11. Cantina Band 2:46
12. Cantina Band #2 3:54
13. Binary Sunset (Medley) [Alternate Take](contains hidden track "Star Wars Main Title" (complete recording session version)) 16:59

Disc Two
1. Princess Leia's Theme 4:27
2. The Millennium Falcon/Imperial Cruiser Pursuit (Medley) 3:51
3. Destruction of Alderaan 1:32
4. The Death Star/The Stormtroopers (Medley) 3:35
5. Wookiee Prisoner/Detention Block Ambush (Medley) 4:01
6. Shootout in the Cell Bay/Dianoga (Medley) 3:48
7. The Trash Compactor 3:06
8. The Tractor Beam/Chasm Crossfire (Medley) 5:18
9. Ben Kenobi's Death/Tie Fighter Attack (Medley) 3:51
10. The Battle of Yavin 9:06
11. The Throne Room/End Title (Medley) 5:37

Thursday, April 10, 2014

John Williams -- Jaws: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

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For our first John Williams review, here is Jaws: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, which features one of the most recognizable movie themes of all time. Enough ink has been spilled and bytes consumed in the description of that two-note terror, so I'll talk about some of this soundtrack's other the scene's not involving the shark.
How about what I'll argue is the best scene in the film.
This is literally just a dude talking for four minutes, but it's the most terrifying four minutes of the film. Of course, Robert Shaw's incredible acting, the quality of the writing, the cinematographer's lighting, and Spielberg's staging all contribute to the scene's greatness. What would it be without John William's score, though, without the quiet creep of strings tingling up your spine? Just a dude talking for four minutes.
Or how about possibly the greatest jump scene of all time?

John Williams surely must have journeyed down to hell with a tape recorder to find the sound emanating from the speaker's when Ben Gardner's head comes tumbling out of that hole.
That's the awesome thing about this soundtrack. Even in the scenes where that Tuba isn't repeatedly pumping out those two jarring notes, Williams is building up so much suspense that you absolutely dread their return. In a counterpoint to that, jaunty scenes of townfolk ambling about are scored with what is essentially the soundtrack to NPR's "All Thing's Considered." This causes the more horrific nature of the film to standout all the more. Then there's the action-adventure, which Williams apparently approached as if he were scoring a pirate film.

The only reason this review doesn't say 10/10 at the top is that I'm reviewing the original CD version, which is quite quietly mixed and missing quite a bit of music--it is only about 35-minutes long. I've given more concise soundtracks a ten before, but this one does feel like it is missing just a little something--the final boat trip encompasses 3/4 of the tracklist. More of the film's early moments should be represented.
Jaws: Music from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is still near perfect, regardless.

1975 (1992 CD-Remastered Version) MCA
1. Main Title (Theme from Jaws) 2:20
2. Chrissie's Death 1:42
3. Promenade (Tourists on the Menu) 2:47
4. Out to Sea 2:29
5. The Indianapolis Story 2:26
6. Sea Attack Number One 5:26
7. One Barrel Chase 3:07
8. Preparing the Cage 3:28
9. Night Search 3:33
10. The Underwater Siege 2:34
11. Hand to Hand Combat 2:32
12. End Title 2:21