Careful, He Might Hear You (Ray Cook)

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Australian cinema came into increasing worldwide prominence during the 1980s, with international hits like Gallipoli, The Road Warrior, Crocodile Dundee, and The Man From Snowy River all seeing significant success both down under and overseas. One of the lesser-known entrants in this renaissance was Careful, He Might Hear You by Hungarian-Australian director Carl Schultz. Based on a bestselling novel of the same name by Sumner Locke Elliott about an Australian orphan and his two aunts, one rich and one poor, dueling over his guardianship, the movie had been the subject of a number of failed adaptations (including an American one with Joshua Logan and Elizabeth Taylor attached) before Schultz’s 1983 release. The picture was a modest box office success in Australia and elsewhere but was a critical smash, winning a total of eight Australian Film Institute Awards, with Schultz taking home Best Director and Best Film.

Just as Australian actors and directors were gaining international prominence in the period, Australian film composers were seeing increased visibility as well, with Brian May (not to be confused with the rock star Brian May) and Peter Best (not to be confused with the rock star Pete Best) both seeing their names attached to international hits with soundtrack releases. For Careful, He Might Hear You, Carl Schultz engaged the services of another Australian composer, Ray Cook (seemingly the only Australian composer of the time not to share a name with a rock star), who had extensive musical experience working abroad as a music director in the West End of London during the creative explosion there beginning in the 1960s. With only one film credit to his name, the Australian TV movie Silent Reach, Careful, He Might Hear You was Cook’s first major solo score.

For a simple drama score, Cook’s music has more in common with the lush fantasy music that was de rigueur in the post Star Wars era. His main theme is beautifully orchestrated for two lines of strings which interact and play off of each other with resounding vibrato, with one taking up the main melody while the other flits about in an extended fantasia to support it. A full orchestra with woodwinds, brass, and percussion is present, but the strings and the main theme that they play remain dominant throughout, with the other instruments primarily used to add depth and a touch of magic (primarily through the consistent application of mallet percussion) that suffuses the music from beginning to end.

Cook never abandons his theme, making sure that the full theme or deconstructed portions thereof are a constant presence, and the score never loses the subtle fantasy sheen that the orchestral colors at work bring to it. Occasionally a light choir (“The Meeting”) is added to the mix to give the music an even more magical atmosphere, and the mallet percussion, woodwinds, and brass take a larger roles from time to time (particularly in the beautiful, wistful but troubles “Vanessa’s Mansion”). The atmosphere and music also turn troubled at times (“PS Says His Prayers,” “Railway Station”) with the same themes and instruments twisted to produce the appropriate levels of turmoil, but even these moments never abandon Cook’s lush style. The biggest departure in the album is “P.S.’ Piano Practice,” a piece of quasi-source music that incorporates a ticking metronome with a waltz time signature to delightful effect.

Sadly, Careful, He Might Hear You was Ray Cook’s first and last major film score. While he contributed to the 1985 Australian film Rebel alongside Best and Chris Neal (of TV’s Farscape), Cook would pass away in 1989 before he had the chance to compose another solo score to build on his impressive debut. Around the time of the film’s American release, Varèse Sarabande released Cook’s score on LP as part of their ongoing championing of emerging, lesser-known, and international film scoring talent. The label later put the LP’s contents on a limited edition CD as part of their CD Club in 2006 (after teasing with a cue on the now-rare Varèse Sarabande 25th Anniversary Vol. 2 set) with a strict limit of 1000 copies. Thankfully, due to its obscurity, copies can still be had for reasonable prices today and the main theme is available as a digital download. In any form from LP to CD to MP3, Careful, He Might Hear You remains a hidden gem, a lush and fantastic aural journey well worth taking from a musical voice silenced too soon.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Vibes (James Horner)

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One has to wonder what the producers of Vibes were thinking: a tale of two psychics, compete with a disembodied spirit guide, searching the Andes for a mystical pyramid that is the “source of all psychic energy” in the world? It sounds like Ghostbusters and Raiders of the Lost Ark were combined in a boardroom kitchen blender, and the results were about as palatable; even an affable cast headlined by Jeff Goldblum and Peter Falk couldn’t help. Ignored by 1988 moviegoers and trashed by 1988 critics, Vibes is notable today for only two reasons: it was the first of only a few scattered starring roles for 80s pop sensation Cyndi Lauper, and it featured an original score by rising Hollywood composer James Horner.

By 1988, James Horner was fast becoming an A-list composer in Hollywood, with an impressive succession of hits to his name. Following his breakout score to Star Trek II in 1982, he had successfully branched out across multiple genres, from cult drama hits like The Journey of Natty Gann to animations like An American Tail, with a strong foothold in science fiction in pictures like Aliens (nominated, along with Tail, for an Oscar in 1986). 1988 would prove to be one of his most fruitful years yet, with the animated Land Before Time, the fantasy adventure Willow, the sci-fi sequel Cocoon: The Return, and the gritty urban Red Heat. Almost lost among this impressive filmography is Vibes, which Horner was assigned largely on the strength of his existing relationship with Ron Howard, co-owner of the production company behind the ill-fated film.

Horner chose to tackle Vibes with a synthesizer score composed to picture, a Vangelis-like approach that he had adopted for a few films in the 1980s and one which he completely abandoned after Another 48 Hrs. in 1990. As a result, there are no grand themes or soaring melodies as in the best of the composer’s 1980s work; instead, his music is all about ambient New Age atmosphere. In some cases, as in “Andes Arrival” and “The Journey Begins,” Horner’s music is affable and lively, led by Andean panpipes in such a way that it’s almost indistinguishable from dozens of mood music CDs released around the same time for the same instrument.

To service the darker and more sinister aspects of Vibes, in “Opening the Pyramid” and “Sylvia’s Vision,” Horner creates a chaotic but even less melodic sound. It sounds like nothing Horner has written before or since, though it is perhaps closest to the kettle-drum parts of 48 Hrs. or Commando. One can argue about how effective it is in the film (provided you can find a copy!), but on album it is a dour experience, like a darkly inverted version of a New Age CD or perhaps one of Vangelis’s most troubled score cues.

Given the pervasive ambient atmosphere of the score, and the fact that its best parts are almost indistinguishable from cheap New Age panpipe albums, it’s hard to imagine that, for most of the 2000s, Vibes was the “holy grail” for collectors of James Horner’s music. This is wholly attributable to its scarcity on album: the movie’s dismal failure meant that no commercial album was forthcoming, so Varèse Sarabande issued it as part of their CD Club’s first iteration. Only 1000 copies were pressed, and only people who followed the invitation to write to the label included in some Varèse CD booklets even knew of the product’s existence; Cyndi Lauper fans were left out entirely, though her song contribution to the film was available as a single. So while Vibes was technically available for some time, only the most diehard collectors of the late 1980s and early 1990s even knew of the album’s existence.

None of the James Horner fans attracted by his later scores like Braveheart or Titanic had a chance to buy Vibes before it fell out of print, leaving a gaping hole in their collections. As a result, for some time, used copies of the score sold for astronomical prices as high as $500 and bootlegs of varying quality proliferated to help fill the gap. Varèse Sarabande eventually reissued the original 1988 album in 2013 as part of their “Varèse Encore” series, making an additional 2000 copies available and, at least temporarily, putting the album back in the $20 price range.

One should only seek out Vibes if building a complete James Horner collection or to hear a sound strikingly different from most of the composer’s other output–his best impression of cheap New Age panpipe CDs and Vangelis. To anyone else, the score is a curiosity, and a rare one at that–with only 3000 copies in existence, it is almost certainly cheaper to buy a genuine New Age panpipe CD and a Vangelis album.

Rating: starstar

Starship Troopers (Basil Poledouris)

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Dutch director Paul Verhoven’s 1997 film Starship Troopers, very loosely based on the Robert Heinlein novel of the same name, combined the director’s trademark satirical wit with a massive budget and marketing campaign, with mixed results. The tongue-in-cheek aspects of the movie flew over many theatergoers’ heads, leading them to mistake its overblown jingoism and ludicrous fascist overtones to be completely sincere,  and Starship Troopers had to settle for cult success, eventually spawning two low-budget direct-to-video sequels. For the film’s score, Verhoven reunited one last time with his perennial collaborator, the late Basil Poledouris, with whom he’d worked on 1985’s Flesh + Blood and 1987’s Robocop.

In general, rather than playing to Starship Troopers‘ sly humor, Poledouris chose to follow his own precedent from Robocop and play things straight, reserving openly parodic music for the periodic over-the-top propaganda broadcasts in the film (much as he had done for the satirical commercials in Robocop). The light parody from those broadcasts is represented on album with the overblown “Fed Net March” at the beginning of the disc and the Elfmanesque coda in “They Will Win.”

In fact, Poledouris was inspired to create his most massive and thematically complex score in over a decade. The centerpiece of the album and of the score is “Klendathu Drop,” a bold, brassy martial piece that’s truly electrifying. The Mobile Infantry theme introduced therein is the theme that Poledouris develops the most in the score, and highly satisfying reprises exist in “The Destruction Of The Roger Young” and “Brainbug.” A charming, optimistic theme for the character of Carmen is introduced in “Asteroid Grazing” and sadly absent from the rest of the score. Finally, the malevolent (or misunderstood) bugs get their own theme as well, a brutal, percussive ostinato that snakes through “Tango Urilla” and is given a full airing in “Bugs!!” Throughout the score, Poledouris weaves his themes into a robust action set pieces, with “Tango Urilla” as perhaps the outstanding example, weaving the bug theme together with layers of brass and strings for one of the most breathless and exciting action cues of the 1990s. It’s really a pity that the similar “Evacuation” cue was left off the Varése album.

The real tragedy of Starship Troopers is that the album release, by Varése Sarabande, is so pitifully short. Due to the labyrinthine studio music system in the late 1990’s before the AFM renegotiated its musical re-use fees, the only legitimate release for the music was one of Varése’s patented “thirty-minute specials,” with a pop song performed by Poledouris’ daughter Zoë tacked on the end (presumably, acquiring the rights to Zoë’s music was not difficult for her father). “Into It” is a dreadful end to the album—Zoë Poledouris’s composition doesn’t fit in with her father’s music at all, and would be better suited to a “music from and inspired by” compilation. A second pop song performed by the younger Poledouris, a cover of David Bowie’s “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town,” remains unreleased.

Thirty minutes is simply not enough for the full breadth of Basil Poledouris’ work. Themes that are woven throughout the score appear only once on album, making the entire effort seem less complex and more fragmented. The spectacular theme for Carmen, for example, is only given a brief cameo in “Asteroid Grazing,” and the motif for Razcek’s Roughnecks isn’t fully aired, appearing for only a few seconds in “Tango Urilla.” Thankfully, the DVD release of the film features a full isolated score with commentary from Poledouris (who doesn’t talk over the music), allowing the score to be heard in its entirety; this DVD, and the many score bootlegs it spawned, are reportedly the primary reason that Starship Troopers hasn’t been reissued as a deluxe limited edition, unlike many of Poledouris’s works.

Both the Varése Sarabande “thirty-minute special” and the DVD release of Starship Troopers are still widely available. Taken together, they comprise Basil Poledouris’ best work for Verhoven and some the most exhilarating sci-fi music ever composed. It’s a real shame that Poledouris never had the chance to write anything in a similar vein again, leaving Starship Troopers as his final magnum opus in the genre. A sequel album for the direct-to-video Starship Troopers 2 is also available from Varése, which includes references to some of Poledouris’ material and, in an ultimate irony, is twice the length of the original release despite having far less interesting material. Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, shot on a shoestring budget, was scored entirely with synths and make no allusions to Poledouris’s themes.

Still, if a thirty-minute sampler of highlights from Basil Poledouris’ most ambitious and thematically complex sci-fi score is enough to sate you, despite the vast number of excellent cues and thematic development missing from the release, the Varése product will suffice. Otherwise, buy the DVD and watch the score streamed to picture with Poledouris’s comments and feel a fresh pang of sadness at a talented musical voice silenced too soon,

In film: * * * * *
On album: * * *
Overall: * * * *

Being Julia (Mychael Danna)

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An obscure but well-received 2004 feature starring Annette Benning, Being Julia played out the tale of an aging actress during the golden age of cinema and nabbed its leading actress an Oscar nomination. Hungarian director István Szabó dabbled extensively in both European and Hollywood cinema before and after the film, and with the semi-retirement of Maurice Jarre, who gave the director’s previous English-language feature Sunshine one of his final (and finest) scores, Mychael Danna was hired for the project. One of a pair of stately period pieces (Vanity Fair being the other) the Canadian scored back-to back after the disappointment of his 2003 Hulk rejection, the talky picture had relatively little room for a traditional dramatic score.

Varèse Sarabande can’t be accused of holding anything back; Danna’s entire score is on the album down to the last track. It’s an incredibly short score, a mere 22:28 when stripped of the songs padding out the album, and with 22 score tracks that means that the average song is scarcely over a minute long. In fact, none of the score tops three minutes, 14 of the score tracks are less than a minute long (with three clocking in at under 30 seconds), and the shortest lasts a mere 13 seconds! It’s no wonder the album was padded a bit, as even with 13:34 of period songs it barely tops 36 minutes, nearly the exact length of Varèse’s “30-minute specials” from the 80s and 90s before the AFM musical re-use rule changes.

Ordinarily–at least when the artist is not Thomas Newman–the presence of so many short tracks means that the music will inevitably be highly fragmented, content to Mickey Mouse along with the action and little else. To his credit, Danna sidesteps this through the clever use of a wonderful theme. First heard in the opening track, “Curtain Up,” the theme is a delight, with sweeping neo-classical movements and a rapturous full-orchestral sound that is malleable enough to be adapted into forms both sprightly and dark. Hardly a track on the album goes by where Danna is not referencing his theme, whether in quirky pizzicato mode (“Birthday Presents”) or arranged for heartbreak and tragedy (“It Will Only End in Tears”). The score has only the one theme, and it is repeated early and often, but such is not always a problem–Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings certainly has 22 minutes of various themes kicking around all told.

The album is rather poorly produced, though: a recurring problem in period movies that use older songs to pad out the score CD (to bring up Thomas Newman again, his The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile are key examples of this). The songs break up the score, being completely different in tone and style, and they also suffer from muffled and archival sound which is inconsistent with not only the score but also each other. Nothing jars one out of experiencing Danna’s pristine new recording of variations on his theme than a song which was recorded on 1930s technology and sounds like is has spent the intervening 80 years in a hot barn surrounded by steel wool. A much more logical decision would have been to program Danna’s score as a whole, with the songs clustered at the beginning or end of the album.

While Being Julia remains a relatively obscure film on its own merits and in Mychael Danna’s filmography, the composer was able to transcend many limitations that hamstring short-tracked albums though the consistent application of his theme. While the music’s bittiness does remain a concern, and it’s too bad that the score was broken up by songs, the CD is well worth seeking out at the right price. One of the titles in Varèse Sarabande’s infamous “Family Dollar Housecleaning,” the album can often be found new for as little as $3 or $4 at the discount chain.

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