Film Music: Jazz and Animated DC

We’ve uploaded a quartet of catch-up reviews between posts:

- in the realm of jazz, the belated review of Colin Towns’ Guest House Paradiso (POV Records), as well as a three score suites by Ryan Shore, Numb (2007) / Kettle of Fish (2006) / Coney Island Baby (2003), available from MovieScore Media as a downloadable album and CD (limited to 500 copies).

- and from the latest animated DC Comics films from Warner Bros., reviews of two releases via La-La land Records: Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo, featuring music by Kristopher Carter, Michael McCuistion, and Lolita Ritmanis; and Batman: Gotham Knight (2008), with stirring scores by Christopher Drake, Robert J. Kral, and Kevin Manthei.

Coming right up: a review of La-La Land’s boxed set of Outer Limits music, composed by The Invaders’ Dominic Frontiere

And imminent: Peter Watkins' infamous BBC mockumentaries: The War Game, and Colloden (Project X/New Yorker Video); and a review of The Alchemists of Sound, the BBC's 2003 documentary on members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, including Delia Derbyshire.


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Two Masters of Horror

I’m still in withdrawal from The Invaders. I need to know how ARCHITECT David Vincent is able to further his quest to expose the alien invasion. Note to CBS and Paramount: please hurry up with Season 2.

Now then.

Two big surprises in Anchor Bay’s Masters of Horror Season 3 cranium are the potent episodes directed by Tobe Hooper, and Stuart Gordon. Both filmmakers made a huge splash with their feature film debuts – Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Re-Animator (1985), respectively – but have had extremely differing career paths thereafter.

Gordon’s theatrical background with Chicago’s Organic Theater includes a David Mamet play (Sexual Perversity in Chicago), and along with a literary interest in writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe, his film work has explored the obsessions of these classic writers in some bloody, bawdy films – not to mention a recent return to Mamet with Edmond (2005) and the crime drama Stuck (2007).

Hooper had some success with Hollywood – Salem’s Lot (1979) – but it was arguably his three-picture deal with Cannon that harpooned a chance to work among the majors: the expensive flop Lifeforce (1985), the gory Texas Chainsaw Massacre II (1986) that was heavily recut to appease the censors, and the dull Invaders from Mars (1986). The first was a Hammer film riff with a disintegrating plot commensurate with the production’s cash flow problems; the second should’ve been a sure-fire cash-in, and was an answer to producers who beckoned for a sequel to a cult favourite and home video hit; and the third seemed like a dream project made by a director who perhaps forgot a Red Menace parable was not so relevant in 1985.

Gordon’s output has been comparatively smaller, but with the exception of Space Truckers (made in 1996, and literally about space truckers, as if Sam Peckinpah’s nutbar Convoy failed to illustrate the banality of the trucker genre) and Castle Freak (weird story, emotionally baroque, and containing one or two sequences that are just so wrong even since 1995), his career hasn’t been full of the ups and downs affecting a far more prolific Hooper.

That’s why it’s refreshing to see Hooper in such good form with his MOH episode, The Damned Thing, based on the Ambrose Bierce short story, and even more rewarding to see Gordon and longtime writing partner Dennis Paoli craft a clever version of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat.

Both are strong series entries, and worth a peek.

And if you happen to be in Toronto this weekend, Hooper can be seen at Rue Morgue’s Festival of Fear Sunday August 23rd, where he will participate in a panel that may shed light on a set of subjects of interest to me, and maybe a few others:

a) Will there ever be a soundtrack release of the score/sound design for the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre?

b) Will there ever be a true director’s cut of Lifeforce to make it suck less?

Coming right up: a review of La-La Land’s boxed set of Outer Limits music, composed by The Invaders’ Dominic Frontiere

And imminent: Peter Watkins' infamous BBC mockumentaries: The War Game, and Colloden (Project X/New Yorker Video); and a review of The Alchemists of Sound, the BBC's 2003 documentary on members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, including the brilliantly inventive Delia Derbyshire.


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Invaders from Outer Space

Computers can see each other? Check. Uploads are doable? Check. Windows and networking are headaches unsolvable through Advil? Check-check.

Now then. Let's start with the week's pent-up backlog.

We’ve uploaded a DVD review of Larry Cohen’s The Invaders (CBS/Paramount), the cult series that ran in syndication for decades and snagged a devoted international following. I’ve never been a fan of Cohen, although my familiarity tends to be with his film work that revealed he’s a less than stellar director. (Watch God Told Me To, and count the bad film edits. They actually make you flinch.)

Cohen’s always been good in crafting a hook, and some of his early work in TV (where he got his start) is finally making its way to DVD. We’ll eventually get around to Branded (his sixties western that’s a discrete metaphor for the loathsome Hollywood Blacklist of the fifties and early sixties), but for now we have Season 1 of The Invaders, with Roy Thinnes starring as ARCHITECT David Vincent. (Watch the show’s opening credit roll, and you’ll understand why ARCHITECT is the funniest buzzword around.)

Way back in the eighties, Barrie’s Channel 3 (pre-CHUM acquisition, pre-The New VR/VR-land branding, pre-ugly orange theme branding) used to air classic 50s and 60s TV shows (Jack Lord in Stoney Burke!), and when my dad bought our first VCR (initially a top-loader RCA SelectaVision, replaced by a still-living JVC front-loader), it became the window through dead TV shows could be seen during the daytime. Most of Channel 3’s TV airings were past midnight, so the VCR was the mechanical gizmo through I could sit in the cool basement in the summertime and watch TV while munching on chocolate popsicles and such.

I never caught the full run of The Invaders – more like a few episodes – and it didn’t really impress me, but it was one of those series that tended to stay in the back of one’s mind, and the chance to catch them on DVD with fresh eyes proved to be a pretty rewarding experience. Dated? A bit. Hokey? Fore sure. But it’s fun B-movie intrigue nestled in the Quinn Martin format.

(Martin was a producer responsible for some of TV’s greatest successes, including The Untouchables, The Fugitive, and many other crime and suspense-medical themed shows of the 60s and 70s. You may never have heard of him, but if you've seen the original Police Squad! TV series, the use of chapters, guest credit announcements, bridge narration, and an epilogue were part of his standardized format.)

Series star Roy Thinnes never really enjoyed a full-blown film career, but his prolific work in TV was enjoyable, including a small role in the X-Files, and an appearance in Fox’ 1995 revisitation of The Invaders. The original series never went beyond two seasons, and it was cancelled by ABC without any further episode or special to resolve ARCHITECT David Vincent’s battle with pinky-challenged aliens.

The release of an incomplete series on DVD in this era means nothing to current audiences (think Rome, Carnival, Invasion), so as long as you’re good with the fact that you will never know how it all ended, The Invaders is worth it.

After Season 2, Thinnes also appeared in the feature film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (aka Doppelganger), which Universal has reissued to tie in with the Invaders set. Produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (Thunderbirds are GO, Space: 1999), it’s a surprisingly mature work that fixates on space training & travel procedural minutia, plus a fun comic book theory that a duplicate Earth is hidden on the other side of the sun. The finale is quite unusual and ballsy, and one figures the filmmakers probably wouldn’t have been able to get away with such a closer today.

Also uploaded: a review of Mark's Snow's The X-Files: I Want to Believe CD, from Decca.

Coming right up: reviews of two more Masters of Horror entries: Stuart Gordon's The Black Cat, and Tobe Hooper's The Damned Thing from Anchor Bay/Starz.

And imminent: a review of La-La Land’s boxed set of Outer Limits music, composed by The Invaders’ Dominic Frontiere, followed by Peter Watkins' infamous BBC mockumentary, The War Game, the follow-up Colloden (Project X/New Yorker Video), and a review of The Alchemists of Sound, the BBC's 2003 documentary on members of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, including Delia Derbyshire.


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Interim Post Between Hair Pulling

More than 12 hours have been spent this week setting up three computers with three different operating systems - Windows 98, Windows 2000, and Windows XP - on three aging computers so each Dodo can talk to each other via Microsoft's 'seamless' networking protocols. The eureka moment finally arrived close to 11pm, and then a new idiocy appeared: Adobe Acrobat Installer popping up and starting up whenever a folder like My Documents is opened, or even a program.


So, while the main machine is being scoured with anti-viral, anti-trojan, anti-rabbit rubbish software, I can at least point you to the uploads of late Friday, which include the first two DVD reviews of Anchor Bay's life-sized skull for Masters of Horror Season 2 - Valerie on the Stairs, and We All Scream for Ice Cream - and CD reviews for two great Joe Harnell soundtrack CDs: The Bionic Woman (original series), and The Incredible Hulk.

The Bionic Woman CD feature complete scores for "Kill Oscar" (Parts 1 & 2), and the Hulk CD beholds the series Pilot, plus "A Death in the Family." Many familiar cues that will easily rekindle favourite moments from the classic and cult TV series. Given they're in complete form, it's a fair bet the archives of the late composer may hold further scores, and reinforce his stature as an unsung scoring hero, although sci-fi fans likely know the composer from his fun orchestral scores for the first V mini-series.

Hopefully the server's buggery isn't severe (I'm dreading a needed reformatting and reinstall of XP in September already) and the next reviews will be up within 24 hours: Mark Snow's X-Files I Want to Believe, Dominic Frontiere's The Outer Limits, and CBS Video's DVD release of The Invaders, Season 1 (which Frontiere also scored).

The real tough part is getting used to closely bunched smooshie keys on the laptop (nevertheless, Bless you, MJD). The easy part is loathing Microsoft and pretty much most software manufacturers who've followed Vista's design and have embraced the idiocies of Bloatware

You know, if memory serves correct, Windows 386 was under 14 MB. Ugly, yes. But SMALL.


R.I.P. Isaac Hayes (1942-2008)

Presenting the late great Black MosesIsaac Hayes passed away today (August 10th), just 10 days shy of his 66th birthday, and although he’ll be best remembered by film fans as the man who wrote the famous Oscar-winning theme for Shaft, he was a multi-talented and highly charismatic person who knew he was an important cultural force.

As the first African American to win an Oscar for Best Song composition, he furthered the steps begun in 1968 when Quincy Jones’ theme for Banning and score for In Cold Blood (both 1968) earned Oscar nominations. Jazz had been around in film music for decades, but when Hayes won the bald gold statue in 1971, it was an acknowledgement that blues, jazz, soul, and the lyricism of African American music was a permanent force in the film industry.

The success of Shaft spawned a mass (and some would argue a mess) of increasingly cheap and derivative Blaxploitation films until the Hollywood studios gave up on a genre they created purely for money.

Shaft, as its director Gordon Parks stated in his autobiography, was an attempt to prove black talent was just as good as white, in front and behind the camera. Shaft was made out of a need by indie talent to survive in an industry dominated by studios still desperately trying to connect with younger audiences, and to prove black is beautiful; headed by Richard Roundtree and underscored by Hayes, it was a perfect match of virile rebelliousness set to a graceful, funky, score.

Hayes may be remembered by other fans for his reinvented career as Chef on Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park, but to really get a feel for the artist and his immense talent, you have to go back to his music, and virtually everything is in print.

The first time I saw Shaft, I was bored and found the movie technically rough, and its music dated. Years passed, and a friend (vowel brother MRI) kept going on about the music, so when I was still gobbling up vinyl from collectors and retailers, I snapped up the old two-platter Enterprise release to dub to CD as a birthday present, and you know, I heard something far different then.

Refreshingly melodic, rooted in blues, graced with silky orchestral arrangements, and wonderful percussion with a nice thick bass sound. Dammit. MRI was right!

Soon after, I had a flashback to the deleted LP floor at the now-dead Sam the Record Man, and all those Blaxploitation soundtracks with goofy covers I ignored because they were marked down to less than $3.

This was the sound I found silly?

The heck was I thinking?

The more I played the Shaft LPs (actually crisply re-recorded and expanded versions of the actual mono film soundtrack), the more I realized this was a style that deserved looking into, and to my delight Hayes actually scored two films soon after, even appearing in those films when producers realized Hayes was a striking presence (or maybe his ego felt he time to act had come).

It also may have come from his appearance in Mel Stewart’s Wattstax (1973) concert film, which featured a charismatic Hayes performing a great version of “Rolling Down a Mountainside” and the epic “Ain’t No Sunshine” (17:33), as well as the Bar-Kays performing their tribute tune “Son of Shaft.” Four LPs from that concert were released, along with two CDs featuring most of the LP cuts – all worth hunting down.

On his non-film albums, Hayes obsessively pioneered the ultimate epic songs that ran for 10, 15, or 20 minutes. The D-side of Shaft, brief theme recap excepted, is ONE SONG.

“Do Your Thing” (19:31) just builds into this massive thing with more textures and funky beats than anyone could imagine. Indulgent? Absolutely, but it must have been used by hot and bothered couples to underscore some epic sweaty foreplay, because the whole song is one big climax, coming to a needle-screeching halt.

Hayes’ song for the film, “Soulsville,” is a silky social criticism of drug addicted youths and ruined lives, and shows off some solid lyrics – elements that kind of went loopy ("A House Full of Girls") when he tried to recapture the sound of Shaft in lesser works like Tough Guys (1974) and Truck Turner (1974) – the two films in which he starred and showed off his impressive physique. The former was released on a short (and tin-sounding) LP, whereas the latter was given the deluxe treatment via 2 bass-friendly LPs and a cover shot of a topless Hayes firing a gun. (The instrumental intro from Truck Turner’s Main titles was also featured in Kill Bill Vol. 1, when Uma Thurman hurries in a wheelchair to reach Buck’s pickup truck.)

Hayes stepped away from film composing thereafter, and only had a few rare flings with the medium as composer, but he was a solid writer, a fine musicians, and had a beautifully resonant voice that made listeners stop and feel like something important or super-cool was about to be said, either in prose, or instrumentally.

Of his non-film works, I like some of the songs on some of his early seventies releases, but admit my tastes couldn’t get into his stylistic changes when shifts in pop, synths, and disco crept in and minimized the prior blues and jazz influences.

In the Shaft canon, Hayes had a song (“Type Thang”) featured in the sequel, Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), which Parks also directed and chose to score himself (having scored his own 1969 feature film debut, The Learning Tree). Shaft’s Big Score! is worth tracking down because it’s a great, cheeky mix of songs on the A-side, and a beautiful orchestral jazz montage of score cues on the B-side, with Freddie Hubbard screaming on trumpet.

That MGM LP is one that’s been deserving an expanded release on CD for decades, and one hopes perhaps Film Score Monthly might strike the same gold as they did in rescuing Oliver Nelson’s Zigzag (1970), another MGM release, from oblivion.

Shaft in Africa (1973) was scored by Johnny Pate, a veteran jazzman, and featured the incredible song “Are You Man Enough” by the Four Tops. The MCA Hip-O CD, The Best of Shaft, features all of the original LP cues except one instrumental, although apparently the full album was given a complete release in 2005. (The Hip-O compilation has some vocal cuts from the first and second Shaft albums, but lacks the bass oomph present on the vinyl discs.)

Pate also scored the short-lived Shaft TV series (1973-1974) that starred Roundtree, and has yet to be released on DVD. If MGM has any brains, they should replace the old budget DVDs of the first 3 films with proper special editions that place each in its historical context. The studio fumbled big time by sticking to virtual bare bones DVDs and lackluster transfers when Hayes and Parks were still around and undoubtedly could’ve provided some great material for a dream commentary that’s now an impossibility.

Various cover versions of Hayes’ Shaft theme were also recorded over the years, but the original is still the best. Like Nelson’s Zigzag, the LP featured re-recorded versions of the film themes, and it would be amazing to hear the original score recordings on CD, much in the way FSM presented Nelson’s complete music on a 2-CD set.

Hayes’ style was also heavily imitated in Italian crime films by Italy’s own (and still underrated) scoring giants – but locally, as part of the Blaxploitation genre (which Shaft really isn’t, but is credited with starting under the tutelage of major studios) some good music was written by some major talents.

To name just a few, Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man (1972) has a stunning, tragic main theme and a very innovative underscore that showed the gifted artist could’ve enjoyed a scoring career had Hollywood cared; Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s The Education of Sonny Carlson (1974) features a tragic title theme that’s oft-repeated, but beautifully orchestrated for large soul-orchestra; although Herbie Hancock came from a modern jazz background, his score for Death Wish (1974) is a classic, boasting a fine, brooding title theme, and some harsh electronic and jazz cues for the film’s assault and revenge scenes; and the great Curtis Mayfield scored Gordon Parks Jr.’s film debut, Superfly (1972).

Eventually Hollywood would've noticed African American composers (note the cluster crunch of titles packed between 1971 to 1974), but Hayes entered the scene with an unforgettable title cut, and a personal performance style that broke the mold of the composer as an older, quiet white dude. Hayes was beautiful, and if your exposure to his work is a song or two, or just South Park, go watch Shaft.



*** small postscript ***

Literally a few days after Hayes' passing, Film Score Monthly announced the September release of a boxed set featuring the original score recordings for Shaft, the complete score for Shaft's Big Score! and music from the short-lived Shaft TV series. The project was apparently a while in the works, and you can read further details HERE. Of course, we'll have a review of this delicious set when it arrives.

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Paul Jones' counterculture diptych

When Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones made the leap into acting, his chose two counterculture projects that eventually disappeared from distribution, and evolved into cult films.

In the case of Peter Watkins’ Privilege (1967), Jones’ feature film debut, as well as Oscar-winning director Watkins, the results were far more than Universal expected: a sharp and rather merciless satire on a fascist British government that saturates and exploits a singer’s massive popularity to distract the populace from serious political issues; keep the people dumb, and they’ll never know what’s really going on, and remain too daft to do anything about it.

Jones’ second film, The Committee (1968), was a short by director Peter Sykes and writer Max Steuer, both making their film debut with an abstract satire on conformity. Featuring an original score by Pink Floyd and an appearance by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (yes, that’s the band’s name), the exquisitely shot black & white film also disappeared and apparently was written off as lost until it resurfaced and was given its own DVD release in 2005.

Sykes later reunited with Jones on the Hammer thriller Demons of the Mind (1972), whereas Watkins went on to make more politically raw films, including Punishment Park (1971).

We’ve uploaded a lengthy review of Privilege, which is now available from Project X via New Yorker Video in the U.S. (and will eventually be released in Canada via Morningstar), plus The Committee from Eclectic DVD / MVD Visual.

While both films are time capsules of the era’s conflicts and attempts to make creative political statements against conformity and restrictive governmental control, they also show how not much has changed in the passing 40 years.

Watkins’ poke at the music industry is still very potent, and in his research for Privilege he drew heavily from the 1962 NFB short Lonely Boy (also on the Project X DVD), where Roman Kroiter and Wolf Koenig captured the ‘behind the floodlights’ world of teen sensation Paul Anka as the 19 year old singer/composer was making the transition from youth to more adult venues.

Over the coming weeks we’ll review the entire Project X catalogue of Watkins’ work, and we’ll have a detailed interview with the label’s founder, Oliver Groom, regarding his passionate interest in Watkins' films, and running an independent DVD label.

Coming next: soundtrack reviews of The Incredible Hulk, The Outer Limits, The Bionic Woman, and X-Files: I Want to Believe.

And imminent: Masters of Horror Season 2, and a spotlight on Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.


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Early Michael Powell

Prior to his long and creatively rich collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell cut his teeth directing a long string of quota films for several British firms, and while some of his early work from the early thirties has been available for some time in Britain, very few ever made it to North America.

Years ago, my friend's sister was studying physio-therapy in Britain, and before she left, I'd give her a list of new films released on VHS PAL that were wholly unavailable in Canada. That included the long versions of Le Grand Bleu, Betty Blue, and Bitter Moon, not to mention a trio of Free Cinema shorts, Roger Corman's The Intruder, and widescreen editions of Witchfinder General, Tora! Tora ! Tora!, and The Omega Man - all prior to their variable releases on laserdisc here.

Among the best gems were Powell and Pressburger's WWII propaganda film The Silver Fleet, and Red Ensign, one of several quota films Powell directed in 1934. With the release of MPI's Classic British Thrillers, Red Ensign finally makes its Region 1 debut, alongside Powell's The Phantom Light (1935).

MPI's DVD compresses the two Powells with a James Mason British noir, The Upturned Glass (1947), and while only the third film is truly a thriller, it's still a fun collection of B-flicks, ideal for late night viewing. There's been little publicity heralding the Powells, so we're starting our review of the MPI disc with Red Ensign and The Phantom Light. (Next week we'll have The Upturned Glass paired with Bigger Than Life, another film starring and produced by Mason.)

Coming next: Paul Jones on film – The Committee (from MVD Visual) and Peter Watkins’ Privilege (from Project X / New Yorker Films), plus more soundtracks.

And imminent: Masters of Horror Season 2, presented by Anchor Bay/Starz in a life-sized skull!


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