As Getintothis’ Del Pike settles down to enjoy Hitchcock’s Psycho with live accompaniment, he takes time to consider the importance of classic film scores in a new age of modern cinema-going and asks, is it worth it?
It wasn’t so long ago when it seemed that cinemas were pretty much doomed. After a decade of pure cinema heaven in the 70s, the 1980s heralded a major fall in box office sales with the advent of home video. It has taken an age for cinema to once again find its rightful place in the hearts and minds of film lovers.
Still in battle with curved screen, 4K and 3D home cinema systems, cinemas have gotten wise and hit back with IMAX, luxury seating, event nights and enormous multiplexes to replace the countless demolished picture palaces of old. Amongst all of this competitive mayhem exist a hard-core of enthusiasts who are more than willing to celebrate the true essence of cinema away from the techno-bluster that inherits the mainstream.
To determine what makes film so special in its own right, it is important to consider the elements; the screenplay, the actors, the narrative and the soundtrack. In some ways the soundtrack has emerged as the hero in the re-appraisal of classic cinema. Nothing brings back the magic of a favourite film more than an unexpected blast of a soundtrack. Think of the thrill of hearing John Williams‘ Star Wars Theme over the rolling scroll at the start of each chapter, the Monty Norman Bond Theme over the gun-barrel sequence at the start of each adventure or the opening bars of The Doors’ The End as Apocalypse Now unfolds. Whatever your taste in film, the power of music remains at the fore when making the hairs rise on the back of your arm in the cinema.
In recent years this fresh worship of film soundtracks has taken on something of a cult status and has ignited an interest in genres of film that were on the verge of becoming forgotten. In 2011, French duo Air released their own soundtrack to George Melies‘ 1902 silent classic A Trip to the Moon. The CD release included a DVD of a newly colourised version of the film with the new soundtrack. This was in no way a new idea, Georgio Moroder for example had similarly provided a new soundtrack to Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis back in 1984.
Air’s soundtrack release brought a new sense of cool to Melies‘ imagery and almost coincided with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, a Melies biopic of sorts of by way of a children’s adventure. As a film studies teacher myself, trying my damnedest to make early cinema exciting to teenagers, I was witness to a group of my students held spellbound by the new version, clearly attracted to Air’s soundtrack; not unlike the original bewitched audiences at the turn of the century.
Early cinema of course is incredibly cool anyway if you simply take the time to explore it, and Air may simply have been playing into the hands of 21st Century audiences who demand their films be dumbed down in order to enjoy them, although their re-imagining is far from dumb. The inventiveness and pioneering nature of those early filmmakers is breath-taking even by today’s standards and the creativity of Air in some way respectfully reflected that adventurous attitude.
Whereas Air and Moroder provided new scores, the appreciation of original soundtracks has become something of a revolution. As more of us are downloading music, the appeal of physical copy relies heavily on visuals and packaging to part us from our money and that seems to be what has driven Death Waltz’s Spencer Hickman to become a leading figure in soundtrack re-issues and idolisation. Launching the label in 2011, Hickman, who had until then had been a leading figure in Rough Trade’s retail division and co-organiser of Record Store Day, had an M.O. that was to re-introduce established soundtracks to fans, with a little extra.
Beautiful artifacts with coloured pressings and exclusive new artwork that went beyond the expected cardboard sleeve and black vinyl, these releases had it all and Hickman continues to astound. Amongst the vast back catalogue that Death Waltz has amassed there is a leaning towards horror, sci-fi and fantasy, the core of cult cinema, but the recurring favourite appears to be Italian Giallo, a genre defined by its fascination with slasher horror and elements of mystery, crime and the supernatural.
Titles from directors such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci have a strong hold on UK and American fans, largely due to their twisted, staccato scores. Italian prog-rockers Goblin, who are also well known for their soundtracks, are a staple of Argento’s work with grim funereal electronica that is unmistakably theirs. The band re-appear on Hickman’s Death Waltz releases. U.S horror genius and composer John Carpenter is another favourite of the label, who now looks forward himself to performing his classic soundtracks live at ATP in Iceland next year.
Not to labour the point, Hickman knows a good soundtrack when he hears one; releases have been selling out on pre-order time and again, demanding re-pressings to avoid disappointment.
An example of Hickman’s commitment to pleasing fans comes in the planned re-issues of the soundtracks of the Twin Peaks TV series and film, Fire Walk With Me to coincide with the show’s return in 2016. Copies include artwork approved by director David Lynch himself and vinyl presented in both coffee brown and cherry red. Peaks fans will get the references immediately.
Masterworks like Angelo Badalementi’s score for Twin Peaks are ripe for re-appraisal. Such is the cult of the show the audience is ever-responsive to any form of hagiology. Xiu Xiu’s recent tour, which included an appearance at the Kazimier, brought their own version of the Twin Peaks score to packed houses of devotees – proving you can’t keep a great soundtrack down.
Live versions of film soundtracks seem to be more popular than ever and are a recurring feature of Summer Proms. Huge events such as Murray Gold’s Doctor Who proms at the Albert Hall have been televised and attract enormous audiences made up of the expectant Whovians but also pull in fans of orchestral music.
I attended a breath-taking performance at the Barbican in 2012 of Mark Kermode’s band the Dodge Brothers, who played a live score to the silent Louise Brooks gem, Beggars of Life. The rockabilly style of the four-piece was a perfect accompaniment to the Western, with harmonicas and double basses providing the atmosphere for runaway trains and mountainside shoot-outs. It remains one of my most extraordinary cinematic experiences and it certainly brought new life to a film that may otherwise have remained relatively unseen.
While The Godfather plays to packed audiences alongside the Royal London Philharmonic Orchestra at The Albert Hall, the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra have also been doing their bit. They have been playing live scores to classic movies for some time now and a look at the current calendar of events shows films as diverse as the silent classic Piccadilly, Frank Capra’s Christmas favourite It’s A Wonderful Life, and the somewhat unlikely Home Alone. I decided to have a look myself at how the whole thing works by taking a trip to The Philharmonic Hall to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 gothic masterpiece, Psycho, with live orchestral accompaniment.
I was immediately struck by the fact that the 50-strong orchestra was entirely string-based with not a percussion or woodwind instrument in sight; obvious really, given the infamous, hair-raising score. The screen, suspended above the stage, posed an immediate issue before the film had even started: “Where do you look? Do you watch the film or the orchestra?”
Given the somewhat pricey tickets, simply watching the film didn’t seem the best way to get the most from my hard-earned money and once the pristine print appeared, it took a while to adjust to the new experience. Having watched the film many times before, the LPO’s note-perfect performance gave the impression that the audience were simply hearing the original Bernard Herrmann recording, but with more resonance. After a while I did almost forget that this was a live event, enjoying the film as usual for the umpteenth time.
The obvious highlight was always going to be the screaming violins during the famous shower scene; the LPO do not disappoint. The sheer volume of the slashing bows and frantically plucking fingers made the sequence as terrifying as it was originally. Over 50 years ago, my Dad had to walk two girls home after watching the film, as they were so petrified.
I brought Dad along to see this performance and he enjoyed the experience very much from a nostalgic point of view, as I imagine a large section of the audience did also. The sight of a girl on the row in front, hiding her face in her partner’s shoulder during the scary moments, hinted that perhaps not everyone was there for the movie. The shrieks from the stalls were not those of hardened horror film fans.
With such events becoming increasingly popular, a question: is it worth it? Does a live music event add anything to the existing soundtrack, when we have pin-sharp sound in our new cinemas, with much bigger screens than The Philharmonic Hall? I would say the answer is yes. The shared experience of appreciation, with a focus on the score, is undoubtedly special. The amount of times we overheard people say “It’s the soundtrack that really makes the film” on our way down from the circle proved that this was a night to celebrate the achievements of Herrmann, as much as those of Hitchcock.
I would like to think that this current bowing down to soundtracks is not a fad; they are, as the crowd in The Phil noted, an integral part of the cinematic experience. The construction of a score is so much more important than the sheer volume of visual tricks that new cinema focuses on. Putting the music in the spotlight thankfully raises our awareness of this fact. That an orchestra would deem a film score worthy of performing, when there is a wealth of ‘proper’ classical music out there, is testament to the brilliance that can be found in this rich tradition.
Death Waltz records continue to release cult soundtracks and The Liverpool Philharmonic Hall has a whole festive feast of live music/film events in store. Check here for further information.