Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Land of Hope and Glory*

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: John Williams, Star Wars. How much tunefulness can a film score bear? This revisit to an iconic record of my childhood makes me realize why I’ve since come to prefer Alex North’s glinting, tectonic dissonances and Bernard Herrmann’s tense, swollen fugues to the brash, foursquare tunesmithing of Williams. Don’t get me wrong--Williams has also proven to be a master of the savvy melodic minimalism that ideally suits the film medium, not only with Jaws but with some pulsating cues from JFK (“The Conspirators” is a particular favorite). And there is no denying the immediate and visceral appeal of the alternately soaring and swirling space-opera themes he generated here from spare parts of Holst, Korngold, and Stravinsky, among others, or with his churning, oceanic orchestrations; when all the cylinders are firing, this music epitomizes the ripe, earnest pop triumphalism that made these films explode in, and effectively redirect, the cultural bloodstream.

But the downside of the score's sugar highs is that all those big, 16-bar melodies jockey and crowd each other for dominance in too many of these tracks. All those catchy tunes are too catchy by far, and as such they resist the constant repurposing and reshuffling that is much of the work of a film score. The result is leitmotif overload: a smattering of the Force theme here, a little brush of Leia there, a stab of Luke's octave-leaping signature to top it--all stitched together with a surfeit of scare chords and melodramatic vamping. The tracks that tend to work best, by contrast, spin engaging textures from simpler, sturdier material, like the Rite-of-Spring-derived desert music linked above. There’s real wit and menace, and wonder and indeterminacy, room to imagine, in this stuff--the sweet spot of a good film score.

Next to a propensity for melody, Williams' other strength-to-a-fault is rhythmic propulsion; while much of this score is rightly seen as derivative in one way or another, the pulse-pounding punch of the "Tie Fighter Attack" music, for instance, sounds like a fresh contribution to the medium, hotwiring a swashbuckling orchestral assault to space-borne action in a way that may seem inevitable or old-hat now but was a breakthrough of a kind at the time.

But there's a reason that while I can listen to North's Spartacus soundtrack, or any of the Herrmann/Hitchcock big three (Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho) straight through, I long ago trimmed this record to a mix of a few indispensable tracks (including, of course, the sly, letter-perfect “Cantina Band” swing). While a film score’s effectiveness is most properly judged in tandem with the film it was written for, there’s evident pleasure in hearing film music by itself or there'd be no market for records like this. And all these years later, this record sounds to me like a white elephant. (I feel duty-bound to add that I’ve based these observations on a replay of the original 1977 double album, a notorious cut-and-paste job by Williams himself; the more recently remastered “New Hope” release does seem to be a more satisfying listening experience, based on a cursory sampling, than this collection’s exhausting kludge.)

*This is how Williams describes the "throne room" theme in the original liner notes.

Sean Williams This is fantastic. I was doing some animation for a Music Education publisher and my six-year-old was forced to listen to "Mars" about 800 times. When someone pulled up Angry Birds; Star Wars on their iPad, he said, "Hey dad, is that the piece you were animating?" I was able to play through the original piece with him, show him the time signature and the subtle movement changes and he really responded to it. I know the charges of theme-borrowing is a given at this point, but it's interesting to me *how much more interesting* the original is.
Douglas Green Wow, Rob - WOW! Your writing and depth is amazing. I guess I'd disagree with your general thesis here, I think because I'm old enough to have been a movie-geek teen when this little flick came out, and was charmed at the time by its simplicity and obviousness - the score fit perfectly with the dorky retro nature of the fun movie. It was only later that it became taken so seriously, and compared to Cinema Greats. Everything you say here is true, but to me it's like saying "The Little Mermaid" soundtrack is simplistic compared to "West Side Story." Of course it is - it's a kids' movie. Well once, a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, so was "Star Wars!" But still, I'll repeat... WOW!

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